Rectories: a story waiting to be told

Added about 5 months ago by Anthony Jennings

The Old Rectory GUEST BLOG: Anthony Jennings tells the story behind his “humdinging page-turner of a book” (The Spectator).

More than ten years ago now my wife waved a copy of the Historic Houses Association magazine at me, tapping a small advert for someone to take over as Director of Save Our Parsonages, a campaign group formed ten years earlier to support parishioners who were trying to stop their Church of England diocese from selling off their rectory or vicarage. “You like Victorian houses,” she said; “here's your chance to see some!”

I have never looked back. I have indeed seen some. Not just some—several hundreds. Medieval, Jacobean, Georgian, Victorian, you name it. And almost as soon as I embarked on this parsonage-spotting, I realised not only that English rectories and vicarages come in all shapes and sizes but that they are the most important and influential of all English houses.

Finding a parsonage is not without its difficulties, of course. If there is one sure way of identifying the traditional parsonage in a village, I quickly found it was the house that was almost totally camouflaged by an impenetrable wall of shrubbery, usually an ancient laurel hedge.

I started to learn about these houses, how they were designed, who designed them, how they evolved through the centuries, and their vital contribution to our architecture. Not only that, but the clergy who had lived in them, who else had lived in them, what sort of people now lived in them, and the huge contribution they had made to our culture.

The list of interesting people associated with rectories and vicarages was seemingly endless. People who had been eminent in so many fields: writers, poets, artists, gardeners, scientists, doctors, inventors, soldiers, sailors, botanists... Famous people like Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, the Brontë family, Coleridge, Darwin, Dryden, T. S. Eliot, Hobbes, M. R. James, Montgomery, Nelson, Baden Powell, Cecil Rhodes, Bernard Shaw, Tennyson, Trollope, Vaughan Williams and Wren, as well as modern “celebs” like Sir Laurence Olivier.

It was strange that there was no proper modern book on this unique and remarkable piece of our national patrimony. Now, thanks to Mr Jennings, there is.
Charles Moore (The Daily Telegraph)

Jennings has produced an excellently presented and beautifully illustrated story of the history of the English parsonage.
Historic House

As for the clergy: Sabine Baring Gould may not be a household name, but he collected West Country folk songs, wrote well over one thousand literary works, and inspired The Hound of the Baskervilles. And you could write a whole book about eccentrics like Hawker of Morwenstow, who visited his parishioners with his pet pig and sat in his little hut watching for shipwrecks; or Lewis Carroll (an ordained deacon); or the Rector of Stiffkey who died at the claws of a lion named Freddy in Skegness. Or even about the ghosts that had haunted their parsonages…

Then I discovered a strange thing: very little had been written about these important houses. There were enough books about churches to fill several libraries—there was even plenty of literature about lighthouses, follies, cinemas, tin tabernacles and even pill boxes—but there had only been two books entirely devoted to parsonages. They were both published in the same year, as far back as 1964, and even they were out of print, so in 2009 there came a new book on the subject, called The Old Rectory: The Story of the English Parsonage. In it I told some of the fascinating stories of these wonderful houses and their inhabitants, filling this gap in the market.

But that was 2009 and this is 2018, nearly a decade down the road. This new edition of my book tells the tale of these parsonages once again, with a number of updates, improvements, and a lot of new material! “A personal romp” around the country’s parsonages it may be (The Rectory Society Newsletter), but this is a book for anyone who may be interested in our country’s beautiful heritage—I hope you enjoy reading it very much.

The Old Rectory is out now—get your copy today!

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