Michael Augustus Gathercole (c. 1802 - 1886 ) Controversial Anglican Cleric

Michael Augustus Gathercole was an unusual Anglican clergyman. A Nonconformist by birth, he was combative, ambitious and financially irresponsible. 


Michael Augustus Gathercole was born at East Dereham in Norfolk, sometime between 1802 and 1807.[1] The 1841 census, the earliest for which household records survive, report a Gathercole family of farmers at East Dereham, which was a large parish comprising several thousand acres of agricultural land as well as a market town. His family were Nonconformists, and he later claimed that his Congregationalist upbringing had made a major impact upon him. In adult life, he became active in local meeting-houses himself, animated by a deeply imbibed belief in the iniquity of the Church of England. However, he explained that he became disillusioned with Nonconformity, especially with the hypocrisies that he alleged were practised by its prominent members. A chance encounter with an Anglican clergyman led him to question the beliefs in which he had been reared, and he swung to the opposite extreme, bringing to the Church of England not simply the zeal of the convert but also a massive consignment of malice against his former associates. Gathercole was an intelligent man who amassed a great deal of knowledge. "In early life he had by great assiduity attained to great learning, and, though born and educated a Dissenter, had at the age of 25 embraced the doctrines of the established church." He is not known to have received any formal education, but he was sufficiently well-taught to obtain ordination in the Anglican Church. He was ordained deacon in 1832 by Bishop Ryder of Lichfield, who was a rare and indeed pioneer example of an Evangelical on the episcopal bench and also unusual in his easy-going times for being an active diocesan administrator. The following year, Gathercole took the next step and received ordination into the priesthood from Edward Harcourt, Archbishop of York, who was also an active Church reformer. To have gained the approval of these two prelates, Gathercole must have been well-prepared for his projected career. From 1833 to 1836, the young clergyman served as curate at Burnsall in Wharfedale before moving to Cleasby near Darlington.[2]

In 1833, soon after his ordination, Gathercole published a large and argumentative book, Letters to a Dissenting Minister, which upheld the claims of the Church of England in uncompromising terms.[3] Its opening section contained an autobiographical sketch of his own spiritual odyssey, which contains a measure of self-criticism that seems to guarantee its honesty. He began by explaining that "my parents were rigid Dissenters of the Congregational Independent Denomination [who] brought me up strictly in the principles and sentiments of that sect". When he became an adult and "free from parental guidance", Gathercole of his own volition continued to be "a zealous and warm-hearted ─ a conscientious and rigid" member of a Congregational church, believing Dissent to be "synonymous with the Redeemer's Kingdom." It was an article of faith among Dissenters that the Church of England was "full of ceremony, superstition, and idolatry, and neither more nor less than a slightly modified system of Popery." Gradually, however, it dawned on him that Nonconformist groups were less pure than they portrayed themselves. In his local congregation, church meetings degenerated into "such scenes of confusion and uproar as would scarcely have been tolerated in a decent public-house." A handful of wealthy members imposed their will in the face of opposition from the majority, and the Minister, "knowing from whom the greater part of his salary proceeded," dutifully complied with their wishes. Dissenting Ministers encouraged "slanderous backbitings, and the most illiberal and uncharitable judgings" among their congregations. In one case, members of a church were "actuated by such mutual enmity as to meet at the Meeting-house, and pass without even noticing each other."

Moving to another district, Gathercole encountered problems in another congregation. "The Minister was a stripling from one of the Dissenting Academies, and being puffed up with the idea of his being a person of some consequence, he carried himself with a degree of pride and arrogance that was as little warranted by his attainments as it was inconsistent with his situation in life." We may suspect some bruising clash between Gathercole, an obsessive autodidact in his early twenties, and a young preacher who had enjoyed the privilege of a formal education. Gathercole took refuge at another Meeting House close by, "but here also matters were quite as bad, if not worse." Disgusted by the discovery of "so much wickedness amongst Dissenters ... all slyly committed under the graceful garb of religion and piety," he decided to become "a Dissenter at large," sampling a range of congregations but attached to none in particular, "but as to going to the Established Church, no such a thought ever once occurred to my mind."

It was at that point that Fate ─ or, as Gathercole saw it, "Divine Providence" ─ took a hand. A chance business meeting with an Anglican clergyman led to a friendly argument "upon the merits and demerits of the Church and Dissent," in which Gathercole strenuously argued the Nonconformist case. They disagreed over the interpretation of a passage in the Anglican burial service. "He contended it that I had not quoted it correctly; I insisted that I had." Accordingly, Gathercole's interlocutor suggested they could resolve the issue by consulting the Prayer Book, to which reasonable suggestion "with feelings not very pleasant to myself, I was obliged to confess that we neither had one in the house, nor ever had." The following day, "ashamed and mortified," Gathercole acquired the Church of England Prayer Book. Although determined to give it "a full and fair examination," he recalled that he "did not expect to find the least thing of which I could approve."

It was an uphill journey, anything but an instant conversion. He began, naturally enough, with the Thirty-Nine Articles, the theological prospectus of the Church of England, where his reading went "pretty smoothly" although he could not overcome his Dissenting hostility to episcopacy. Not only was he "much struck with the inimitable simplicity, richness, fervour and chasteness" of the liturgy, but he was quickly persuaded of the superiority of set prayer over the Nonconformist practice of extempore exhortation of the Almighty. "Everything in the shape of that familiarity, so common, so disgusting, and so truly shocking among Dissenters, is all throughout very carefully and wisely avoided." However, even though he was attracted by the majesty of Anglican prayer, he still doubted whether it could be "right that the Minister should be confined to the constant repetition of it, to the exclusion of all other." The obvious way of assessing the matter was to sample a service, "but scarcely having been within a Church, I felt no small degree of reluctance at the thought of it." Eventually, one Sunday morning, "I summoned up the courage and went," to find that he enjoyed the experience "better than I had anticipated." While he found the set prayers "long and tiresome," Gathercole was impressed "that so much of the Holy Scriptures were introduced in the course of the service, as much indeed as is read in some Dissenting Meeting-houses in three months." (This is a curious comment: his experience of Nonconformity had been spread over several congregations and it seems highly unlikely that they were anything other than Bible-centred.) But Gathercole still had some way to travel. He felt that "many prejudices which I had previously entertained towards the Established Church had vanished" and, with patronising magnanimity, he was even beginning "to think that a man might be a Churchman, and yet a Christian." He reflected too that the Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century, much admired by Dissenters, had been "strictly Churchmen," although in this case he probably failed to appreciate that they had little alternative. If the martyrs had gained eternal salvation through the Anglican Church, "why could we not do the same? How could our schism be justified?"

Gathercole now went back to the New Testament, to be "astonished that my pre-conceived sentiments had so blinded me" to the now-obvious fact "that Episcopacy was the only form of Church Government revealed in the Word of God, and observed by the Apostles and their successors". He had already cynically concluded that "if great profession and great talking constitute sterling godliness, [Dissenters] are certainly the most pious people on the face of the whole earth." He was now persuaded that the Congregationalist opposition to bishops had not "the slightest shadow of a foundation in the sacred Scriptures." By now he was attending services in both branches of the Protestant tradition but, in a further step away from his roots, he arranged to be baptised in the Church of England. His Nonconformist friends were becoming alarmed at his trajectory, but their attempts at dissuasion seem to have been neither tactful nor effective. "I was very liberally and charitably accused of ignorance and inconsistency ... and other means of annoyance were also resorted to". The only argument that struck home was "the alleged 'immoral conduct of the Clergy,' which was now perpetually rung in my ears."

Whatever Gathercole's employment in the early eighteen-twenties, his work seems to have kept him on the move. Wherever he went, he asked Dissenters about the local Anglican clergy. Invariably he was given generalised denunciations of their immoral behaviour, but "upon the names of the surrounding Clergy being called over, the result was always attended with shame and confusion to the parties laying the charge". He concluded that the 'immorality' slur was "nothing but the most wilful and malicious falsehood" aimed at discrediting those clergymen who most effectively criticised the beliefs of Nonconformists. "For only let a Clergyman expose some of their false doctrine and extravagance in his sermon on the Sunday, and as sure as possible some gross crime ─ some heinous offence will be attributed to him by those pious people before the week is out." In any case, Gathercole was beginning to appreciate that Anglican orders were qualitatively different from the Congregational ministry: "it is in virtue of his office, and not in virtue of his moral character, that a Minister [of the Church of England] performs his Ministerial functions". Without using what he would have recognised to be a contested term, Gathercole had come to accept the concept of priesthood as something that distinguished the Anglican clergyman from the Nonconformist preacher. "I hate the conduct of a fox-hunting Parson as much as any person can do; but allow me to say, that I hate the conduct of a gossiping, tattling, backbiting, lying, and slandering Dissenting Teacher a great deal more."

Given his developing mindset, Gathercole's next and final step was hardly surprising. "My mind having now become comfortably settled with regard to all matters of importance concerning the Church, I entirely left the Dissenters and became a regular Churchman, in practice, as I already was in principle." Yet, although logical, his conversion was also "a very up-hill piece of business" since his "relatives, friends, and connexions" were all Dissenters, most of whom "turned very shy" towards him. Many insinuated that his motive was "temporal advantage," but Gathercole insisted that conforming to the Church of England had been to the disadvantage of his material interests. At subsequent crises in his life, he would make a point of emphasising his personal poverty.

Published at a time when Nonconformist anger against Anglican privilege was "wrought up to intense excitement by a sense of wrong from grievances unredressed,"[4] the abusive tone of Gathercole's book caused considerable offence among Nonconformists. (Gathercole anthologised the following descriptions of himself from reviews of his book: "evil minded scandalous libeller ... lying slandering enemy ─ bully ─ coward ... buffoon ─ turncoat ... madman ... poisonous scribbler ... an apostate and railing curate ─ renegade ... filled up with worse than brutal malignity ... a base and wicked man who can look for nothing but the judgments of the Almighty ─ a contemptible scoundrel ─ toad ─ viper ─ envenomed reptile ─ blackguard ─ fool ─ damnable apostate." The omissions mainly indicate repetition.[5])

Matters were made worse when the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, commended the book to his clergy as "containing a great deal of useful information and sound reasoning," although Blomfield had to admit that it contained "a little too much warmth of invective".[6] Even this disclaimer was too much for the liberal Anglican MP, Charles Lushington, who argued that Nonconformists should be regarded as allies of a Church that could no longer by itself meet the spiritual demands of a growing population.[7] Gathercole retaliated with a venomous assault upon Lushington.[8] Letters to a Dissenting Minister was originally published anonymously, Gathercole explaining that this was done to spare the feelings of the former Nonconformist allies whose ethics and behaviour he so roundly denounced. However, its notoriety challenged him to reveal himself, and his name appeared on the title page of at least three of the four further editions that appeared between 1834 and 1836.[9]

For all its soul-baring openness, Gathercole's account may not be entirely revealing. Although he may well have been the first member of his family to tread the path to Anglican conformity, he was definitely not the last. A younger brother, Edward Gathercole, born sometime around 1821, followed him into the Anglican ministry. Edward was living with his elder brother at the time of the 1841 and 1851 censuses, is recorded as a "visitor" in 1861, and was back under his brother's roof in 1881. As will become apparent, Edward Gathercole engaged in some highly suspect financial manoeuvres. It seems somehow characteristic of brother Edward that his path to ordination involved exploitation of one of the most bizarre anomalies of Cambridge University, a category of student known as the "ten-year man". Edward Gathercole entered Corpus Christi College, which had a record of admitting poorer students, in 1845. Three years later, he transferred his allegiance to Emmanuel College as a ten-year man. Ten-year men were mature students who were supposedly studying theology in order to enter the Church. Since there were only minimal residence requirements, it was a form of distance learning, but unfortunately without any provision for the learning, and the resulting examinations were a farce.[10] Edward Gathercole does not seem to have found even these slight obligations burdensome, for he quickly succeeded in obtaining ordination in the diocese of Worcester (as deacon in 1849 and priest in 1850), and there is no record that he ever attempted to take a degree. For a short time, he worked as a curate in the city of Worcester, but from 1850 until 1868 he seems to have held no regular post in the Church at all: the 1861 census, one of several that show him living at Chatteris, described him as a "priest of the Church of England without cure of souls". It was not until 1868 that he branched out to become a curate once again, first in Norfolk and later in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and finally back to the diocese of Worcester. Michael Gathercole's sons had just started university in 1868, and it may be that he could no longer afford to support brother Edward. Even so, the 1881 census found Edward living at Chatteris, despite the fact that he was then officially employed in Derbyshire.

There was, almost certainly, a third brother who followed a similar path. John Cyrus A. Gathercole was recruited to Newfoundland in 1846, initially as a scripture reader, a kind of lay missionary. Newfoundland was a very primitive society, and J.C.A. Gathercole was ordained by the island's Anglican bishop, Edward Feild, who was impressed by "the man with many names but of single purpose". He was posted to Burin, an outport district where he faced "a very difficult and disheartening work," covering one hundred miles of coastline, with no other clergyman within fifty miles. In 1858 he was accused of various misdemeanours, probably maliciously, but he left the island the following year. J.C.A. Gathercole is recorded as having been born at East Dereham in 1822. He is probably the John Gathercole listed as part of the farming family in the 1841 census although his reported occupation, which seems to be decipherable as "station master," represented status inflation for a young man who claimed to be 20 years of age ─ and is all the more mysterious given that railways had not yet reached that part of Norfolk. He was originally recommended to Newfoundland by the vicar of St George's-in-the-East, a London church located in a working-class district, and so had presumably moved to London by 1846.[11] These two Gathercoles, one definitely a younger brother and the other probably a close relative, would have been too young to have shared the religious trajectory described by Michael Gathercole in his Letters to a Dissenting Minister as completed by 1833, but presumably they fell under his sway soon afterwards. The 1841 census records Mary Gathercole, aged 60, as head of the Dereham farming family, and it is possible that Michael took charge of his younger brothers after she was widowed.

Census information, combined with the probability that there were three Gathercole brothers in Holy Orders, prompts a further speculation, that Michael Gathercole elaborated his forenames in support of his pretensions to Augustan gravitas. In the first half of the nineteenth century, it was still unusual for people outside the social elite to have more than one forename: hence J.C.A. Gathercole's profusion drew a wry comment from his bishop. Gathercole published as "Michael Augustus" as early as 1834, but was not so recorded in the census until 1861. John Cyrus seems never to have revealed the meaning of the "A." in his initials, while the other brother was "Edward Wm. A." in 1851 and "Edward W.A." in 1861, although Cambridge University records specify that the initial represented Augustus. This may simply mean that all three were given an additional name in honour of a grandparent or family benefactor. Equally, the name might have been adopted by Gathercole, and transmitted to the younger siblings, who were perhaps less flamboyantly enthusiastic about its use. Gathercole, of course, would have regarded his first name as his Christian name, and that adjective would have had a very precise and valued meaning for him. Almost certainly, he would have regarded his baptism into the Anglican Church as a form of spiritual rebirth, and he might well have saluted the occasion by taking an additional name. If so, "Augustus" possibly represented a tribute to the clergyman who accepted his conversion, for he would hardly have signalled what we might now call born-again Christian status by adopting the name of a pagan Roman emperor who was worshipped as a god. Gathercole's middle name is a matter for speculation: the most that can be said is that so magnificent an appellation hardly seems to "fit" the son of a Norfolk farmer.


If Nonconformists represented a threat to the Anglican Church on its left wing, Catholicism seemed to Gathercole a far more shocking challenge from its right. Two communities of nuns had provoked his wrath by settling in the Darlington area, and in 1837 the by-now fluent controversialist denounced the two convents as "brothels for the priests of the Popish religion" which "ought to be burnt to the ground" (although, with commendable moderation, he did favour rescuing the inmates first). At that period, English Catholics were conscious of their minority position in an aggressively Protestant country and generally kept their heads down. However, there are some affronts that even a weak community had to rebut, and they organised a subscription of several hundred pounds in order to fund the prosecution of Gathercole for criminal libel. (Their initiative gave Gathercole a highly convenient crown of martyrdom in the eyes of his supporters.) When the case came for trial in November 1838, counsel for the defence pleaded that Gathercole's article was "an attack upon the system of the Romish Church generally" while the lawyer representing the nuns insisted that it was "a gross and abominable libel on these respectable ladies". In summing up, the judge did little more than quote from the offending diatribe, in which Gathercole had asked: "how many priests enter the nunneries at Scorton and Darlington each week, and how many infants are born in them each year, and what becomes of them ─ whether the holy fathers bring them up or not, or whether the innocents are murdered out of hand or not?" This did undoubtedly come across as something more than an abstract critique of Catholic practices, and the judge expressed his regret that "a clergyman of the Church of England should be so totally deficient in the brightest jewel of Christianity ─ Christian charity." Even so, the accused was treated with some indulgence. Accepting that Gathercole was too poor to pay a fine, the judge also obligingly noted "that a long imprisonment would be injurious to you" and sentenced him to three months in London's Marshalsea prison, where he would be one of the last inmates before this notorious gaol was demolished.[12]

Gathercole, "that indefatigable and highly talented gentleman", had left Cleasby soon after the start of the criminal libel proceedings against him. In taking leave of his parishioners, he preached "a most impressive sermon" which included "his most unqualified contradiction" of a report that the Bishop of Ripon had deprived him of his curacy. "The Rev. gentleman, it is said, is engaged to superintend the ecclesiastical department of a newspaper."[13] After his release from prison, he settled at Ilford in Essex: the 1841 census recorded him under Barking in Essex, a huge parish which included modern-day Ilford, where Gathercole was recorded as living in 1842.[14] As a recent jailbird, Gathercole was not a good bet for an ecclesiastical appointment, but it is likely that he combined ecclesiastical journalism with "doing duty", taking services for regular clergy when they were absent from their parishes ─ the clerical equivalent of supply teaching. This may explain how, in 1843, he came to marry Frances Dorothea Garrett, daughter of the landlord of the Stag Inn at Hatfield Heath, about twenty miles north of Ilford (and, it seems, an undoubted possessor of two very feminine forenames). The Garrett family hailed from Lichfield in Staffordshire, and Gathercole may have known them from the time he was preparing for ordination with Bishop Ryder a decade earlier. The Staffordshire links were still strong, for the marriage took place at Shenstone near Lichfield.[15] Aged about twenty, Frances was some years younger than her husband. The couple would have three sons and two daughters. Frances died probably in childbirth in 1857, giving birth to another little girl who did not survive.

In the early eighteen-forties, Gathercole was the editor of an ecclesiastical magazine, the Church Intelligencer. Although the publication claimed to be "the largest church newspaper and the fullest record of all ecclesiastical matters in existence," it does not seem to have exercised great influence in Anglican circles.[16] However, it did bring Gathercole to the attention of William Palin, rector of the small south Essex village of Stifford, a similarly outspoken personality who shared his distaste for Nonconformists. Unfortunately for Palin, Dissenters were strong enough in his parish to elect one of their number, local farmer and miller John Noakes, as a churchwarden. In 1843, Palin raised money ─ thereby evading the divisive issue of a church rate ─ to install additional free seating in the church, thus responding to the justified criticism that the poor were too often excluded from participation in the established Church by pew rents. Noakes did not oppose the addition of seats for farm servants, but a dispute arose between the two men over an apparently minor issue. Palin objected to parishioners dozing off in church, and insisted that the new seating should be in full view of the parson. Whether mindful that the church was cold or reluctant to submit the slumbers of his own employees to clerical control, Noakes insisted on enclosing the additional benches with curtains.

Gathercole became involved when, at the height of the dispute, William Palin was obliged to leave his parish for a few weeks after his children fell ill and had to be taken to the seaside for convalescence. Palin engaged Gathercole "to perform his ministerial duties in his absence," encouraged no doubt by the locum's reputation as a scourge of Dissenters. Two intolerant and headstrong clerics, Gathercole and Palin whipped up each other's fury until Gathercole boiled over into print, with "a most violent" denunciation of Noakes, who sued for defamation. Gathercole's lawyers advised him that defending the action would cost him £300. They also assured him that he would lose the case, and recommended that he apologise to Noakes. Although apology was not Gathercole's preferred course of action, he struck his colours as graciously as he could, but even surrender cost him £60 in legal fees. Since keeping the case out of court had prevented the naming of Palin as the source of his allegations ─ a revelation that Noakes had pressed for without success ─ Gathercole asked the Rector of Stifford to pay half the costs. Palin's response did not send Gathercole on his way rejoicing. Arguing that Gathercole had recently acquired a wealthy bride and had as a result become "a man of considerable property," Palin "refused to pay one single farthing".

By this time, Palin's position in his small and divided parish was becoming untenable. Although he denied from the pulpit that he was the source of Gathercole's strictures on the character of John Noakes, he could not clear himself of suspicion. For his part, Gathercole claimed to have been "so disgusted as to contemplate throwing our pen, ink, and paper at the back of the fire, and never to write another line on public matters". But that, of course, was not Gathercole's style, and it was not long before he unburdened himself of a diatribe against his unfaithful ally: "if we cannot depend upon the good faith and good feeling of a brother clergyman, upon whom are we to depend?" It was now Palin's turn to sue for defamation, and a messy and embarrassing hearing ended with a technical victory for the rector: forty shillings damages and a gagging order. Gathercole spun out the agony by contesting the latter and refusing to return letters Palin had written to him.[17] Palin's career seems to have been permanently damaged by the episode. Although a very able man, a fluent writer and determined organiser, he never managed to move on from the obscure and tiny parish of Stifford. Michael Augustus Gathercole, on the other hand, was on the verge of securing one of the best-paid jobs in the Church of England.

Those readers of The Times who remembered the affair of the Darlington nuns and the uproar over the Stifford Dissenters might have been puzzled to read, in the summer of 1845, that the Reverend M.A. Gathercole had been instituted to the vicarage of Chatteris, a Fenland town with a valuable living worth £1,720 a year. The Nonconformist, weekly newspaper of the advanced Dissenters, was definitely not impressed by the appointment of a man whom it damned as an "apostate" and a "twice-convicted libeller". Revealing an unexpectedly sensitive dual standard in his attitude to invective, Gathercole sued for defamation, indignantly pointing out that he had only one conviction for libel. (The slur had reflected continuing Nonconformist resentment against the generalised denigration contained in his book.) The editor of the Nonconformist, Edward Miall, was a Dissenting minister turned radical politician, and Gathercole had for once managed to attack somebody who was even less popular than himself in respectable circles. He won damages of £200, but only at the cost of giving further publicity to the spirit which infused his ministry.[18] It was the only major legal action in which he was ever victorious.

With about 4,000 people, Chatteris (like most East Anglican towns) contained a strong Nonconformist element: there were at least six congregations representing different brands of Dissent, and at the religious census of 1851, they jointly claimed over 1,300 members, a sizeable slice of the adult population.[19] Divided Chatteris did not need a clerical firebrand, but Gathercole barely bothered to take the pulse of his new parish before flinging himself into confrontation. The Protestant ladies of the town co-operated in running a non-denominational charitable society to provide clothing for the poor. Within a few weeks of his arrival, the new vicar gate-crashed a committee meeting, delivered a "most furious and insulting" tirade against Dissenters and announced that the organisation was dissolved. In its place, he set up a purely Anglican society, whose rules stated that benefits could only be extended to "members of Christ's most holy church resident in Chatteris" (by which the vicar meant the Church of England), and that members would be expelled "if known to be guilty of drunkenness, theft, schism, or any other deadly sin, or of habitually taking opium, or laudanum". (The ague-ridden Fens had an endemic drugs problem.) Nonconformists like Edward Miall were less than pleased to be classed alongside adulterers and drunkards.[20] The resentments of outsiders could perhaps be discounted. Unfortunately, Gathercole's zeal also proved divisive within the Chatteris branch of Christ's most holy church.

Thomas Fryer was one of the most prominent of Gathercole's parishioners, a man who was called "the squire of the parish" and "the king of Chatteris". That did not mean that the vicar was obliged to defer to him: indeed, circumstances might arise where it would be the incumbent's duty to defend to uphold the right and defend the weak against the strong. Equally, there was little point in needlessly alienating a local brewer who was also a magistrate and had served as high sheriff of the neighbouring county of Huntingdonshire. Fryer was an example of a not-uncommon phenomenon, a businessman born a Dissenter but who had adhered to the Church of England as part of his badge of success. He was uneasy about the tone of Gathercole's attacks on Nonconformity, and his concern was widely shared among churchgoers. "A great many of the congregation are friends and relations to Dissenters," one of them commented. Few could be pressed to quote the vicar's language verbatim, but one fragment, that Quakers were "lewd, unclean, and unchaste," was clearly absurd and disproportionate. Fryer's unease over Gathercole's choice of language led to a formal correspondence between them. The brewer warned that "many of the best Churchmen in the parish were contemplating secession from the church." The vicar replied that "it was of no consequence to him whether the church was full or no, preferring a congregation of 50 devout followers of the church of England to a crowded congregation of lukewarm Churchmen or arrogant Dissenters." Gathercole did not always get his way, but in this case he seemed set fair towards achieving his objective. By 1849, the congregation was reported to about 250, and that "it has been fuller than it usually is now."

A principled dispute over the propriety of the language of the pulpit became entangled with a superficial and silly issue. Fryer, it was said, "was of a plethoric habit ... and easily fell asleep". Indeed, he was "afflicted at times with the most invincible somnolency," even when he was attending church. Sleeping through Gathercole's expressive sermons was something of an achievement, and the vicar did not relish the affront to his preaching. He took to directing remarks at the dozing brewer, on one occasion pointedly amending a text referring to "the pleasures of sin" to "the pleasures of sleep". Fryer made the tactical mistake of taking offence at the personalia when his real objection to Gathercole seems to have been the vicar's obsessive hatred for Nonconformists. Whatever the ultimate provocation, Fryer and his sons took to walking out of the church each Sunday as the vicar mounted the pulpit to preach Gathercole reacted with a pamphlet denouncing Fryer as a Sabbath-breaker who had dishonoured the church. Three hundred copies were printed and energetically distributed. Treading the well-worn path to the courts, Fryer sued for libel.

As the judge commented, the trial gave rise to "certain gleams of merriment" as learned counsel debated whether a clergyman was entitled to demand wakefulness from his flock. Had not a court preacher of the reign of Charles II reproved the Earl of Rochester, warning his lordship that his snoring might wake the king? The judge could not see anything defamatory in the pamphlet and was inclined to regard Gathercole as guilty of nothing more than "over-zeal," but the jury marginally sympathised with Fryer and awarded the plaintiff forty shillings in notional damages.[21]

Gathercole's critics now took the war into his own territory. In April 1850, a clerical commission of enquiry sat to examine a complaint against the vicar of Chatteris, "that the ecclesiastical duties of the parish are inadequately performed."[22] Gathercole survived the attack. It was now thirteen years since he had traduced the sexual morality of the Darlington nuns. In that time, he had survived four court cases, each of them arising out of his own combative language. Unfortunately for the Reverend Michael Augustus Gathercole, the legal system had started to enquire into another aspect of his life, not his opinions but his finances.


Five turbulent years into his incumbency, it might have seemed reasonable to wonder just how Gathercole had managed to get himself made Vicar of Chatteris. While it was not one of Anglicanism's prestige positions, it was a very well-paid job and in a location where an unsuitable appointment had the potential to create a great deal of harm. The answer lay in the appointment system of the Church of England, by which in most parishes the right to select the vicar or rector was a piece of private patronage that belonged to the owner of what was called the "advowson". Gathercole had no need to persuade the owner of the advowson of Chatteris that he was a fit person to occupy the living. He simply short-circuited the process by purchasing the advowson and appointing himself. It was for that reason that in 1846 the Nonconformist charged him with simony, the sin of buying ecclesiastical preferment. Five years later, with Gathercole back in court once again, the transaction was revealed to have been even more bizarre. In order to purchase the right to appoint himself, Gathercole had borrowed money on a massive scale. This was simony on the never-never.

In fact, the bankruptcy proceedings of 1850 were not the first time Michael Augustus Gathercole had appeared in court over a financial irregularity. In 1847, he and his brother Edward had been prosecuted by a man called Henry Grover for an alleged fraud. Edward's attitude to money may have been casual: he had lost a legal action over a bill of exchange the previous year. The case against the brothers was that they had themselves been defrauded by standing security for an unnamed man who had defaulted on his obligations, so leaving them in the lurch. That much was no more than bad luck and bad judgement. Less pure and worthy was the decision by the Gathercoles to take their own revenge upon Grover. Suspecting him of involvement in the fraud, "by a stratagem they induced him to advance a large sum of money." However, by the time the case came to court, the brothers had realised that Grover was innocent of all involvement in their misfortune, and they had returned his cash. Accordingly, the prosecution advanced no evidence and the judge directed the jury to acquit them. The Reverend Michael Augustus Gathercole formally left the court without a stain upon his character, but tricking a victim into handing over a large sum of money as an act of revenge did seem a startling and unusual course of action for a man of the cloth, even if he did have second thoughts about the deception.[23]

The Gathercole brothers may have been sufficiently adept to entrap Henry Grover, but in the matter of the Hawkins mortgage the vicar of Chatteris proved himself to be reckless and irresponsible. The story came out through a series of court cases between 1850 and 1855, and it emerged in a manner that could only have added to the humiliation of the cleric who so thunderously denounced the notorious respectable Nonconformist population. In 1845, Michael Gathercole had borrowed £24,500 from a man called Hawkins, mortgaging the advowson of Chatteris as his security. The bizarre and deeply dangerous aspect of the arrangement was that it was a double-or-quits arrangement, a form of mortgage that, mercifully, even modern banks do not attempt to impose. As a condition of borrowing the £24,500, Gathercole agreed to be liable for a debt of £49,000 should he default on the repayments. By the standards of the time, £24,500 was a very large sum of money. To go into debt on such a scale order to purchase the right to a position with an annual value of £1,720 was risky in the extreme. In fact, it is hard to calculate any likely schedule for paying interest and redeeming capital that could have left Gathercole with even a vestige of his clerical income, for the value of the living would have been a gross figure, subject to deductions for taxes and rates, church expenses (each incumbent was legally responsible for the upkeep of his chancel), not to mention ordinary living costs.

To some extent, Gathercole may have been unlucky. An unusual, and no doubt attractive, feature of the post of Vicar of Chatteris was the size of the glebe, farmland attached to the church for the support of the incumbent. At Chatteris, it was a massive 334 acres. Nearby Doddington was for long reputed to be the richest living in England, but its rector had only 61 acres of glebe. At Mepal, where the Anglican living was worth only about one third of Chatteris, the incumbent benefited from 47 acres. His brother clergyman at Wimblington pocketed an eye-watering annual income of over £2,000, but his glebe only extended to five acres.[24] To the son of a Norfolk farmer, a job that carried with it over half a square mile of farmland might well have seemed an attractive proposition in 1845. Unfortunately, the very next year the government of Sir Robert Peel announced the repeal of the Corn Laws, legislation which imposed prohibitive duties to keep foreign-grown wheat out of the British domestic market. The United Kingdom of those days included Ireland, which was in 1846 gripped by the Great Famine. It was morally impossible to tax food imports during such a crisis, and so Prime Minister Peel used the crisis as an excuse to scrap a policy that he probably wanted to ditch anyway. In fact the repeal of the Corn Laws did little to help the Irish masses, who depended on potatoes rather than breadstuffs, but it was bad news for farmers across East Anglia. The dismantling of these protective tariffs was carried out over a three-year period, leading to a sense of crisis in grain-growing areas of the English countryside. The sudden demise of the Corn Laws may help to explain why Gathercole optimistically entered into such a risky bargain in 1845, apparently persuading not only himself but the mortgage-lender Hawkins that the investment was a sure-fire proposition. The subsequent slide in the price of home-produced grain crops would also explain why the vicar of Chatteris was finding difficult to keep up his repayments by harvest time in 1849.

Even if he had made an unlucky investment, it has to be conceded that Gathercole seems to have been living on a lavish scale. The 1851 listed no fewer than eighteen people living under the vicarage roof at 15 High Street. Michael Augustus and Frances Dorothea now had four children under the age of six, three of them born at Chatteris, a brood sufficiently large to require the services of a seventeen year-old governess. Brother Edward was part of the household but, even though Gathercole could presumably call upon his services ─ for at this time the Reverend Edward Gathercole had no Church post of his own ─ there was also a 24 year-old curate listed as a lodger, probably receiving his board as part of the miserable payment in kind doled out to such lowly ecclesiastics. Two unexplained middle-aged women from Scotland were listed as "visitors," one of them apparently related to a young brother and sister, aged 6 and 9, who were each entered as "scholar at home". It was not unusual for clergymen to take in resident pupils, although possession of a University degree was normally the qualification for such informal teaching. The cook was a 45 year-old widow who came from Cleasby, perhaps evidence that Gathercole was capable of inspiring staff loyalty. A housemaid, a kitchen maid and a lad of 17 working as a general servant rounded off the establishment. By the time of the 1851 census, Gathercole was about eighteen months into legal proceedings to force him to meet the terms of his mortgage. It does not seem that domestic retrenchment had figured large in his containment strategy.

In 1854, the exasperated Hawkins alleged that Gathercole and his solicitor, a lawyer called Dodd, had "represented the advowson to be of greater value than it really was, and thereby induced the plaintiff to lend his money on insufficient security," and a judge discerned the brotherly hand of Edward Gathercole in the collusion. However, if Hawkins had been misled, the real victim of the transaction was Gathercole himself, whose conduct even his own counsel had to admit was "thoughtless and imprudent".[25] Gathercole had fallen into arrears as early as September 1849, when Hawkins began legal action to secure repayment. He was not the only unsatisfied creditor.[26] By November 1849, it was clear that Gathercole could not satisfy his creditors, and more cumbrous proceedings began their way through the courts. Beneficed clergymen did not usually face bankruptcy proceedings, and points of law had to be resolved regarding the emoluments of a living: was the income the private possession of the incumbent, or did the profits reside with the Church? In November 1850, a receiver was appointed, and the courts determined that the Gathercole's diocesan, the Bishop of Ely, should formally sequester all income attached to the living of Chatteris, and so act as the channel through which Hawkins could pursue his claims. This required the bishop to affix a formal notice of sequestration to the door of the parish church, a public gesture (even though carried out by the bishop's agent and not by the right reverend gentleman in person) that could hardly fail to be noticed by the local population. Hawkins v. Gathercole became a landmark case that would be cited in subsequent legal actions, but it could hardly be the kind of immortality that the fiery cleric could have coveted.[27]

Financially, Gathercole had created for himself a mountain that he could not climb. In 1855, he still owed £47,387, eighteen shillings and tenpence, plus interest.[28] His only hope of survival was to be allowed to stay on in the vicarage and "be allowed to perform the duty on the same terms as a curate". This was a humiliating setback since curates were notoriously underpaid and, in career terms, it effectively took him back to the starting position he had occupied at Burnsall and Cleasby twenty years earlier. Gathercole asked to be given £300 a year and was awarded £150, the Vice-Chancellors' Court recognising that "the income was of great consequence to the petitioner."[29] This echo of his plea in the 1838 criminal libel case against the nuns, and of his attempt to offload half his legal costs on to Palin in 1843 suggests that Gathercole habitually made a parade of his own poverty even if he was unthinkingly lavish in the spending of other people's.


Bankruptcy seems to have clipped Gathercole's wings for, whatever controversies he may have caused at local level, he disappeared from the national scene. In February 1857, Frances Dorothea, his "beloved and affectionate wife", died at Chatteris.[30] Two years later, he remarried, his second wife being a widow whose name was variously given as Mrs Boulton and Sarah Blackburn. In contrast to his first marriage, the second Mrs Gathercole was thirteen years his senior. She died in 1863, at Mildenhall in Suffolk.[31] It is possible that Gathercole published a further book in 1863 but, if so, it does not seem to have made any impact.[32] He remained vicar of Chatteris until 1877. It may be worth noting that Chatteris parish church escaped Victorian restoration, but by 1910 it required "a drastic reconstruction". The previous year, the advowson had passed to the institutional control of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and the rebuilding was funded by a legacy from a former parishioner who had emigrated to America where he had grown rich. It does not seem that Gathercole's congregation had been either numerous or wealthy enough to tackle the work in earlier decades, and it may well be that he achieved his aim of creating a small cohort of purified followers. By contrast, the various Nonconformist groups in the town continued to build.[33]

Even though his potential for generating controversy was muted, Gathercole still managed to generate one bizarre legalistic tailpiece. In 1871, legislation was passed enabling beneficed clergy to retire on a pension which, in the absence of any funded schemes, was to be paid by the incumbent's successor in the living. This innovation probably encouraged the Reverend Sidney Anderson Smith to take over ownership of what was left of the still-unredeemed Hawkins mortgage in 1873, and with it control of the advowson.[34] With Gathercole by now into his seventies, even the need to pay him off would have appeared only a short-term burden. In February 1877, when he was reportedly "about 77 years of age," he duly resigned "after negotiations and communications" with Smith, who then appointed himself to the living. At some point in the previous twenty years, Gathercole had succeeded in having his curate-equivalent stipend raised from £150 a year to £250.[35] However, the Bishop of Ely decided, presumably upon legal advice, that Gathercole's pension had to be calculated against the value of the benefice, not in relation to the money he was actually receiving: the 1871 legislation had evidently failed to cater for the contingency of clerical bankruptcy. Gathercole thus found himself, in theory at least, in the happy position of retiring on a pension of £450 a year, £200 more than he had received for doing his job. Unfortunately, Smith refused to pay, arguing that the amount was unjustified, and that he was in any case entitled to deduct what was still owed to him as the mortgagor. The two reverend gentlemen spent much of the next four years suing one another, until the judges of the Court of Appeal ruled, by two-to-one, in April 1881 that Gathercole's pension "was inalienable and that no effect could be given to the defence of set-off".[36]

Notwithstanding his financial tribulations and his habit of pleading poverty, Gathercole seems to have lived comfortably enough in his last years. The weddings of two of his children took place in 1881, and his address was given as the Manor House, Chatteris.[37] It is likely that his own marriages had brought him some capital, which he may have been able to manipulate so as to shield him from the effects of his mortgage debt. He was able to put two of his sons through Cambridge, at a time when a university education cost around £100 a year. His eldest son and namesake entered Sidney Sussex College in 1869, after apparently having spent two years at St Edmund Hall in Oxford. He graduated in 1872 and entered the Church. A younger brother, Charles William Augustus, trod a similar path, with two years at Oxford before entering St John's College, Cambridge in 1870. He did not graduate until 1877, when he too was ordained to become a country curate and eventually a Devon rector.[38]

Michael Augustus Gathercole died in December 1886 and was buried in the churchyard at Chatteris.[39] His age at death was reported to be 84.

One of the arguments in defences of an endowed and established Church was that it placed "a gentleman in every parish," somebody with education and polish who was capable of exercising a civilized influence over the poor and untutored. This does not seem to have applied in either social or behavioural terms in the case of Michael Augustus Gathercole. However, simply to attribute the ferocity of his opinions to his lack of formal education would be a form of intellectual snobbery[40]: the Cambridge graduate, William Palin, his ally in Stifford, was every bit as intolerant towards Dissenters. Indeed, it is not necessary to share his point of view to accept that if Gathercole's basic position in regard to the Church of England was coherent, as well as sincerely held, he was at least logically entitled to censure those who had broken away from it, even if posterity might join with those evidently numerous contemporaries who regretted the vitriolic expression of his opinions. His determined acquisition of knowledge commands respect. Gathercole's weakness lay in a lack of judgement that led him to employ language that crossed the line into the realm of the utterly indefensible, as in the case of the ludicrously traduced nuns of Scorton and Darlington. A similar recklessness trapped him in a financial manoeuvre to raise money in order to purchase the advowson of Chatteris that involved terms he was unlikely to meet through a transaction that did nothing to sustain his pretensions to unsullied ethical superiority. There is almost certainly more to be gleaned from his various publications about Gathercole's views on religious issues. The East Anglican press may reveal more about his 41 years in Chatteris, 32 of them spent in charge of the town's Anglican church, for it is hard to believe that he lapsed so totally into silence under the humiliation of financial disgrace as the national record suggests.[41] The nineteenth-century Church of England comprehended many strange, colourful and sometimes misfit personalities. It was an organisation built around life-long tenure of benefices, within a career structure bizarrely controlled by private ownership of the right of appointment. Personal decisions and individual choices made in the eighteen-twenties, as in Gathercole's case, could still shape the working of the institution at local level half a century later. The practical fate of the State-sanctioned form of worship in a country town could depend for decades on the selection of a clergyman made not through merit or appropriateness to the local cultural environment, but thanks to a squalidly manipulated financial transaction. Michael Augustus Gathercole merits his niche in the history of the Church of England. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Victorian Church and the combative cleric deserved each other. The Anglican parishioners of Chatteris, on the other hand, might have been better served by a more tactful and loving pastor.        


[1]Unless otherwise indicated, I owe all information from the census and birth, marriages and deaths records to Gail Wood of Newport Pagnell, whose generous help I gratefully acknowledge. Gathercole's age was variously given as 35 (1841), 44 (1851), 58 (1861), 77 (1877; The Times, 14 March, 12 April 1881), 78 (1881) and 84 (1886, at death). Census enumerators did not always transcribe accurately, and in days before official registration of births people could be forgiven for some vagueness on the matter. Between 1851 and 1881, the census was taken within a narrow range of dates from 30 March to 7 April, but the 1841 census was held on 7 June. Gathercole died in December 1886. This suggests that in his later years he believed he had been born in 1802.

[2] The Times, 18 March 1846. Gathercole referred to his curacy at Burnsall on p. 72 of his Letter to Lushington (see note 8, below), in a manner that suggests that his time there was not entirely quiet. Information from Crockford's Clerical Directory of 1856 kindly supplied by Terry A. Barringer of Cambridge.

[3] Letters to a Dissenting Minister of the Congregational Independent Denomination, Containing Remarks upon the Principles of that Sect, and the author's reasons for Leaving It, and Conforming to the Church of England . The first edition (London, 1833) gave the author as 'L.S.E.', but at least three of the four subsequent editions to 1836 attributed the work to "The Rev. M.A. Gathercole". The 4th ed. of 1835 is digitised as:


W.E. Gladstone, then a fervent champion of the Church, kept a detailed diary record of all the books he read, and does not seem to have consulted it. The section that follows is based on pp. 1-15.

[4] The Times, 9 December 1834.

[5] Quoted in his Letter to Lushington (see note 8, below), pp. 67-8.

[6] The Times, 9 December 1834.

[7] The Times, 9 December 1834.

[8] A Letter to Charles Lushington, In Reply to a Remonstrance Addressed by Him to the Bishop of London (London, 1835). Digitised by Google Books.

[9] In his Letter to Lushington, p. 43, Gathercole claimed that the printer was urging a second edition as early as May 1834, two months before Bishop Blomfield's endorsement.

[10] D.A. Winstanley, Early Victorian Cambridge (Cambridge, 1955), pp. 153-4, 166-7, 245-6, 337. The category of ten-year men was abolished in 1859.

[11] Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, II 9184), p. 489); John Gathercole's work at Burin was described, and praised, by Feild in 1848: http://anglicanhistory.org/canada/nf/spg21.html. Information from the Rev. Dr Frederick Jones.

[12] The Times, 1 June 1837, 19 March, 26 November 1838, 17 July 1840. See also Manchester Guardian, 7 June 1837, 18 July, 28 November 1838; Observer, 15 July 1838.

[13] Observer, 27 September 1837.

[14] In 1842, Gathercole was living at "Great Ilford, Essex". Observer, 15 August 1842. Great Ilford is modern-day Ilford. The adjoining parish of Little Ilford was effectively renamed Manor Park by the advance of suburbia. The Eastern Counties Railway reached Ilford in 1840, and Gathercole was probably an early commuter.

[15] Gathercole married Frances Dorothea Garratt of Shenstone in Staffordshire in June 1843. A son was born in 1847. Observer, 25 June 1843; The Times, 15 December 1847.

[16] The Times, 18 January 1843. Gathercole also sought to mobilise working-class support for the Church. In 1837, he was apparently active in promoting an Operatives' Conservative organisation in Darlington. In August 1842 he presided at the founding meeting of the Tradesmen and Operatives' Church Aid Association, which aimed "to show the people of the country, and particularly the working classes, the true and real principles of the Established Church". In 1844, he formed part of a welcoming committee which greeted the Tory factory-

reformer, Richard Oastler, on his release from debtors' prison. M.A. Gathercole, Dedicated to the Working People of England. An Address to the Darlington Operative Conservative Association (1837); Observer, 15 August 1842; Manchester Guardian, 14 February 1844.  

[17] The Times, 9, 10 August, 21 December 1844.

[18] The Times, 16 March 1846

[19] Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, vol. 4, pp. 103-9 (consulted on line via www.british-history.ac.uk). Notably, by 1851 one Baptist congregation had increased from 58 to 140 since 1845, the year of Gathercole's arrival. The Times, 19 March 1849. By 1888, after Gathercole's time, seven Nonconformist chapels in Chatteris were reported to provide 3,300 "sittings". With most congregations offering two Sunday services, the town of 4,712 people (in 1881) must be regarded as a Nonconformist stronghold. The Wesleyan Methodists had enlarged their chapel to hold 600 people in 1855. Kelly's Directory of Cambridgeshire (1888), p. 56.

[20] The Times, 16 March 1846. Gathercole was reported to have started a second action against Miall arising out of "some passages in a speech delivered by the defendant at a dinner given to him." This case does not seem to have been pursued, but is further evidence of Gathercole's proclivity for litigation. Manchester Guardian, 8July 1846.

[21] The Times, 19 March 1849.

[22] Observer, 19 April 1850.

[23] The Times, 8 February 1847. Edward Gathercole's previous court appearance had been for fraud. The Times, 7 December 1846.

[24] The figures are taken from Kelly's Directory of Cambridgeshire, 1887, but it is unlikely that there had been many changes in preceding decades. (Four acres of Doddington glebe had been transferred to the incumbent of St Wendreda's church at March when it became separate parish (legislation of 1847 coming into effect in 1868). The parish of Chatteris was very large, covering over 20 square miles.

[25] The Times, 7, 22 March 1854.

[26] A man called Carrack unluckily found himself prosecuted for contempt of court for independently attempting to recoup money owed to him. The Times, 3 July 1852.

[27] Hawkins v. Gathercole was reported in The Times, 21 November 1850, 28 May 1852, 7, 23 March, 25, 27 November 1854 and 20 January 1855.

[28] The Times, 12 April 1881.

[29] The Times, 6 August 1852.

[30] The Times, 26 February 1857.

[31] Strangely enough, the second marriage (26 April 1859) was reported in a newspaper in Newfoundland (Weekly Express, 28 June 1859). This may suggest that the bride was a connection of Henry John Boulton, controversial chief justice of the island, 1833-38. (Judge Boulton himself was still alive.) J.C.A. Gathercole, the Burin clergyman, might have inserted the notice, although it would be hard to understand why he would have thought anybody in Newfoundland would be interested.

[32] The British Library catalogue notes The Church of Christ. What Is It? And How May We Know It?, published in London in 1863 by 'L.S.E.', the initials Gathercole had used for the first edition of his Letters to a Dissenting Minister. Cambridge University Library does not hold a copy.

[33] Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, vol. 4, pp. 103-9 (consulted on line via www.british-history.ac.uk). A visitor in the 1880s described "windows, concealed by giant nettles. ... inside - atmosphere of the earth. ... Dust was in evidence. ... the most depressing church." 


The draft survey on Chatteris in The Historic Towns of Cambridgeshire series (Cambridgeshire County Council, 2001), at p. 17 mentions the Chatteris Labyrinth, tombs adjoining the churchyard believed to have been built by Gathercole after a non-denominational cemetery was opened in 1850. (http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/AE692FF2-3178-4C4E-AF17-F84157F9DF56/0/EUSFenlandChatteris.pdf)

[34] Venn's Alumni Cantabrigensis, consulted on line as http://venn.csi.cam.ac.uk. Smith entered Corpus Christi College Cambridge in 1866 and graduated in 1871. He was already married with at least one child. Between 1871 and 1877, he held three curacies in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The source of his capital has not been traced.

[35] The increase, of £100 a year, may have been granted to assist Gathercole in sending two of his sons to Cambridge, where a university education cost about £100 annually.

[36] The Times, 14 March, 12 April 1881. The actions had begun on 18 September 1877.

[37] The 1881 census gave his address as Park House, Chatteris.

[38] Information from Venn's Alumni Cantabrigensis, http://venn.csi.cam.ac.uk.

[39] Observer, 19 December 1886, which gave his age as 84. Photograph of the tomb by J. Sharpe, http://www.chatterislinks.co.uk/memorials/MAGathercole.html.

[40] "Talk of Oxford and Cambridge, I have never seen either of them," he wrote in his Letters to a Dissenting Minister, p. 383.

[41] It is hard to believe that he did not enjoy the discomfiture of the Reverend Mr Briggs, minister of the Independent Chapel at Chatteris, who was sued for breach of promise in 1866. The 55 year-old widower made a spectacle of himself by first writing passionate love letters to a farmer's daughter from Over in Cambridgeshire and then coldly informing her that the marriage was off. She collected £130 in damages. The Times, 31 July 1866.