Archive of the Month
The Last Established Church Clergyman: Tracing the Life of William Somerville Large
By Dr Miriam Moffitt & Prof. Alan Ford
What is this? It’s one of the many entries from the list of all the clergy who have served in the dioceses of Meath and Kildare of Dublin. The Church of Ireland is lucky: it has a set of such lists covering all its dioceses. The clerical succession lists are where you start when trying to trace the life of a Church of Ireland minister. Many of them were originally produced in typescript format by Canon James B. Leslie and associates during the early 20th century, whilst the dedicated revision work of Dr Ronnie Wallace who edited this volume, and Canon David Crooks, has made all but one diocesan list available in printed format. It is of course true that the entry can hardly be described as exciting. It is terse and factual: when born, how educated, who married, which benefices held, daughters, sons, when died. But it provides us with the bare bones on which we can begin to fill in more details.
What, then, can we say about William Somerville–Large from this? Well, the most obvious thing is when he lived and died in interesting times. He saw the upheavals of the Land Acts, lived through the Boer War, World War I and the 1916 Rising, and he watched as southern Ireland made the momentous change from being part of the United Kingdom to an independent country. And, of course, he was a member of the Church of Ireland when it too became independent, following disestablishment in 1870, seeing it survive the upheavals of partition as a united Irish church. Beyond the simple fact of when he was ordained is another significant piece of information: he was one of the final ministers to be ordained in the established church, and when he died in 1939 he was in fact the only surviving pre–Disestablishment clergyman – the last of his kind.
But these are but the bare bones of a life: how can we put flesh on them? A deeper exploration of the records of the Church of Ireland, many of them housed in the RCB Library, is the obvious place to start. After a 17–year long apprenticeship – three curacies, including St John’s Sandymount – the rest of his career was spent as Rector of Carnalway, near to the Curragh in County Kildare.
This was a medium–sized parish, with Sunday morning congregations of 50–60, and an average of 3–4 baptisms, four confirmation candidates and one marriage a year. There is no doubt that he was an active minister: soon after he arrived, he set about expanding and ‘beautifying’ the church and, with the help of a wealthy benefactor and parishioner, Mrs Wakefield, the new church was consecrated on 22 December 1892.
This entailed considerable remodelling of the church, which seems to not have been universally welcomed by his parishioners. The original church which had been remodelled in 1856 was in the early 1890s. (click here for plans of 1856 renovations). The new church, erected under the direction of the Revd Somerville–Large, was much more elaborate, as can be seen in the ornate marble arch erected at the crossing (click here for image).
The Revd Somerville–Large looked after the Sunday school and the one–teacher parish school, and further busied himself with a plethora of organisations at parish, diocesan and national level. Notices in the Gazette reveal that he played an active role in the Church of Ireland Temperance Society, the Kildare Temperance Committee, the Dublin Clerical Association, the North Kildare Clerical Society, and regularly attended diocesan functions such as choral festivals, and meetings of the local groups of the Girls’ Friendly Society. He greatly promoted mission work and had a special interest in missions to the east. He was secretary of the Jerusalem and East Mission Fund from May 1894 until his death almost 40 years later, and he regularly gave lectures on the fund throughout the area. His magic lantern lectures were much in demand and not just as missionary fundraisers: when Timolin parish celebrated Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in July 1897, the festivities included a summer party, games, fireworks, and Somerville–Large’s magic lantern show.
It wasn’t all garden parties and fetes, though: he remained intellectually active, contributing to the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette (the forerunner of the Church of Ireland Gazette) on 18 and 25 March 1898 a couple of articles on confession and absolution which took the brave approach (in a fiercely anti–Catholic church) of trying to minimise the differences between Catholic and Protestant approaches.
Official records, of course, do not reveal an enormous amount about the inner life and attitudes of William Somerville–Large, except for one thing. There is a strong hint towards the end of his career that relations between him and his parishioners had broken down. In 1917, he took a six–month leave of absence which he spent with his wife’s family outside Schull in County Cork from where asked the RCB to retire on a pension. Having explained how he was by then 70 years old and that his wife’s health was not good, he went on to reveal:
I am disheartened by decreasing congregations and parochial difficulties which a younger and fresher man would easily overcome
But he did not go out quietly: in his farewell contribution to the Kildare Diocesan Magazine in December 1917, after he had announced his retirement and asked for prayers for his successor, he added:
… if you all made it your duty to pray for your Rector you would not have to complain so much about his inefficiency, nor would he be so conscious of failure. A faithful man must, if it be possible, resign his parish when he realises that too many in it, while they possibly value him as a gentleman, a kindly neighbour, or a friend, do not value him as a minister of Christ. He is really driven away by the people, who do not seek his help in common or private prayer, or in instruction or exhortation – and this is all the more when they appear to him to be people who love God, who wish to know and do His Will
This poignant farewell is rather frustrating – for it brings us to an end of that we can extract from the official records about Somerville–Large. But here we are fortunate that as a result of the generosity of William Somerville–Large’s grandson, the writer and traveller Peter Somerville–Large, arrangements were made to temporarily transfer to the custody of the RCB Library a cache of family papers which sheds considerable further light on the bare bones we have outlined above and enable us to see William through his own eyes. They include a typewritten copy of his autobiography, written for his children, and a whole family archive, with reminiscences, genealogies, and personal papers that bring the Somerville–Larges to life.
The autobiography brings home to us the family tragedies: both his sister and his brother died young of TB; his first wife, Alice (nee Maunsell) perished whilst giving birth to his daughter, who was, unsurprisingly, also called Alice.
But sorrow was matched by joy: on a trip to the Holy Land, the widower met Elizabeth Townsend, and instantly fell in love. In his own memoir, An Irish Childhood, Peter Somerville–Large, tells how his grandfather and his soon–to–be second wife brought back water from the Jordan with which to baptise their future children – and, indeed, they were blessed with three boys, Philip Townsend, Lionel Becher and William Collis (father of Peter).
Canon Somerville–Large’s unpublished autobiography contains hints about why relations with his parishioners might have been fraught. It is already evident that he had strong high–church traditions – his association with St John’s Sandymount, his reference to ‘beautifying’ Carnalway church, and his efforts in the Ecclesiastical Gazette to minimise differences between Protestant and Catholic, all point in this direction. It hardly needs saying that ‘ritualists’ such as Somerville–Large were viewed with horror by Protestant evangelicals who saw them as leading the Church of Ireland to Rome.
And William reveals in his autobiography that, when nominated to Carnalway in 1887, one of the prominent local evangelicals from the La Touche banking family attempted to block his appointment there, and got his agent to urge the church wardens to lock the new Rector out of his church, whilst a fellow minister sent a letter round the parish denouncing Somerville–Large’s opinions. Though he overcame this opposition, he ran into serious trouble when he began to rebuild the church.
The workmen, in digging new foundations disturbed several graves and desecrated the remains, prompting Somerville–Large to write to Mr Samuels in the Representative Church Body, to request he forward the Faculty which Somerville–Large had secured to rebuild the church, and asking whether it protected the select Vestry from prosecution in the church court.
In his memoir, Somerville–Large recalled the volatility of the situation:
A mob assembled in the Churchyard, with Mr La Touche’s agent as the chief speaker. Wild things were said and finally a subscription was made to cover the cost of prosecuting me… the matter was brought before the Naas Petty Sessions, where the judge fully acquitted me. If guilty, the penalty would have been imprisonment!
Though the matter was smoothed over, as we can see from his parting shot on retirement, there were still differences between him and his parishioners which might well have been related to their reluctance to seek help from a minister they saw as too high church.
The extensive genealogical material included in the cache of family papers record how extensively the Somerville–Larges were connected with Irish Protestant society, in particular with a network of families into which they had married and inter–married – the Warrens, Baldwins, Townsends, Kingstons, Flemings, and Lindsays. William reckoned that his ‘kith and kin’ easily numbered a hundred. The family trees, tracing their lineage back through the centuries, also show how, at one and the same time, they saw themselves as rooted in Ireland – William’s ‘beloved country’; but also proud of their ultimately English origins. In other words, the classic Anglo–Irish conflict between loyalty to crown and country.
This tension, accentuated by partition and the creation of an independent southern state, was posed in a particularly concrete way for Somerville–Large by the execution of Kevin Barry during the War of Independence. The 20–year–old Barry had been involved in an ambush which had killed three British soldiers. Sentenced to death by court–martial he was hanged on 1 November 1920. In a letter to the Irish Times just five days later, Somerville–Large (then aged 73) showed a remarkable capacity to stand back and take a balanced view of the tragic situation. He started by expressing his ‘whole–hearted loyalty to the Empire’. He respected ‘its right – nay its duty – to meet force with force’. So far, so unexceptional, simply reflecting the views of the vast majority of the clergy and members of the Church of Ireland.
But he then went on to condemn:
the barbarous way in which the contest is fought out now on both sides – on the weaker side, the murder of unarmed civilians and the use of expanding bullets… on the stronger side, the politically stupid and morally iniquitous treatment of captured ‘Republican soldiers’… The conscience of nine–tenths of the Irish Celtic nation – one of the most sincerely religious of nations – protests against these men being dealt with as common murderers, and maintains that they should be regarded as prisoners of war, and not confined in common prisons, sentenced to hard labour – still less, shot or hanged – unless when proved to have been spies or murderers of unarmed civilians or users of dum–dum bullets… If they must fight it out, let us beg them to do so as humane soldiers and gentlemen.
Reflecting on the fight for Irish independence in his autobiography, Somerville–Large argued from what was still clearly a Protestant, but nevertheless also a sympathetic point of view:
foolish Ireland was sufficiently grown up to have a right to claim separation from England, if she really desired it, and… England was not justified in refusing that claim… England ultimately came round to this view but was I think to be blamed for being so long about it, against her own democratic ideals, and especially to be blamed for treating as criminals “rebels” who fell into her hands.
In September 1939, William Somerville–Large died at the age of 92 having straddled a remarkable period in the history of his country and his church. Thanks to the records of the RCB, and with the crucial addition of the family papers loaned by his grandson, we can not only trace the bare outlines of his life, but also gain real insight into how one Protestant Irishman responded to the tumultuous events through which he lived.
With the death of the Revd Somerville–Large, the system of paying clerical annuities which had been put in place at disestablishment, was brought to an end. The Irish Church Act made it possible for all archbishops, bishops and permanent parish clergy to ‘commute’ – that is receive a lump sum based on their life expectancy.
As the recently–published APCK information leaflet entitled ‘Disestablishment’ reveals: ‘the vast majority opted to do so, and in an extraordinary act of faith and generosity had their ‘commuted’ sums (totalling £7.5 million) transferred to the RCB’. This provided a large endowment called the Commutation Fund which secured the stipends of their successors. The Journal of the General Synod for 1940 outlined the complex operations of the Commutation Fund and noted that, with the death William Somerville–Large, this Fund would be wound up. It had functioned for almost 70 years. The last link with the disestablishment process was now broken.
The RCB Library is indebted to Peter Somerville–Large for his generous co–operation with this project, by making available the memoirs, photographs and related papers of his grandfather Canon William Somerville–Large. The Library also acknowledges the input of his cousins Bill Somerville–Large, and Faith Frankland.