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The Reverend Henry Cresswell B.A. (Oxford) 1787 – 1849, by Loreen Chambers

Vicar Of Creech St Michael Church, Somerset, 1813 – 1849

Henry Cresswell was not only an interesting man but came from an interesting family which was related to many of the noble families of England. Henry was the fourth son of Escourt Cresswell DL JP MP for Wootton Bassett  of Pinkney ParkSidbury Hall & Bibury Court  (1745-1823)  and the beautiful Mary Gregory (d 1815) daughter of a Sherston farmer, though some say he was the Sherston blacksmith, who became Escourt Cresswell’s second wife.

Henry’s father Escourt Cresswell was an only child who inherited many estates but, by the time he died, agricultural depression and his own extravagance had seen his wealth much reduced.

Portrait of Henry Cresswell. Private collection

Escourt Cresswell appears, however, to have been able to secure livings for three of his eight sons, Sackville, Henry and John, although John the youngest of the three had to wait for Henry to die before he could hold his living at Creech St Michael.

The complicated and careful arrangements of inheritance, nonetheless, were further reduced when, in 1823, John challenged the will, and so began one of the most famous and long drawn-out legal cases in 19th century England.

The lawsuit went on for 40 years until all the brothers were dead and the wealth exhausted. The original amount of £80,000 dwindled to £4,000 and legal fees consumed the rest! Escourt Cresswell also had 2 daughters but they had been married off years before.

The family historian Gwladys Campbell vividly recounted the story in her 1965 history of the family, The Wheel of Fortune, and Charles Dickens himself was inspired by the case to use it in  Bleak House.

Henry Cresswell was born on 4th March 1787 and grew up at the magnificent Bibury Court (which still exists as an exclusive country hotel). 

On 6th December 1804, Henry matriculated from Wadham College at Oxford University and in 1809 attained a Bachelor of Arts and then took holy orders, the same year that his brother Sackville was installed at St Mary’s Bibury.  He was ordinated in 1810, and became a curate at Malmsbury not far from Sherston. In 1813, he moved to Thurloxton, in Somerset, as a curate for Creech St Michael and shortly afterwards became its vicar on 21st June 1813 an appointment Rev’d Henry then held for the remainder of his life.

Henry Cresswell seems to have been an almost larger than life vicar with strong interests in politics. He was clearly intelligent, forceful, argumentative, even riotous, and spoke out on issues that interested him such as rural poverty, the Corn Laws and the ‘one man one vote’ campaigns that eventually led to the Reform Act of the 1830s.

He was a member of the organising committee that welcomed the famous reformer and agitator ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt at Glastonbury after his release from Ilchester Prison in October 1822 where he had been imprisoned after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. On a silver salver presented to Henry Hunt the organising committee’s names appeared of Henry Creswell (sic) of Creech St Michael, and two fellow ministers the Rev’d Oliver Hayward of Mudford and the Rev’d Thomas Perrot of Middlezoy.

Interestingly, Henry performed a baptism on 17 April 1822 at Creech of a ‘natural son of one Frances Douglass’ who had been brought especially from Yeovil by its father Oliver Hayward of Mudforde (sic). The child was christened with the following names:  Thomas Perratt Jacobs Henry Hunt Cresswell. One wonders if the mother took any part in the naming of young Thomas!

On 2nd April 1823, Henry himself went on to baptize his second son Corbet Hayward Hunt. The name Corbet was an ancient family name but those names that followed bear testimony to the close-knit nature of these men.

According to William Naesmyth of Posso, who is the current Cresswell family historian, Henry went into debt to support his eldest brother Richard Escourt Cresswell, the Whig candidate for Taunton, in his unsuccessful campaign to gain election in 1826.

It is probably just as well that Henry had a curate, William George Royse M.A., who came in March 1816 and  whose stipend amounted to £70 per annum and surplice fees. He was allowed to reside out of the parish but no more than 2 ½ miles from Creech St Michael. (Henry’s stipend was closer to £463 pa, so considerably more).

We are not sure what sort of vicar Henry was but like many of the clergy he probably gave a sermon most Sundays, performed marriages and baptisms and officiated at funerals. He was also expected to keep the peace in the parish, although given his personality this may have been somewhat difficult for him! He was, however, certainly assiduous in his record keeping of the parish registers, and we learn something of parish life from these records.

Memorial to Henry Cresswell in Creech Church. Note the Cresswell crest at the base. Copyright J Chambers 2012

In Henry’s time, most of the families in the parish were labourers and yeomen, with some skilled men such as blacksmiths, carpenters, thatchers, boat men, navigators, millers and butchers.  He seems to have taken an almost scholarly view of his parish. For example, a note he wrote at the end of 1820 says: ‘The united ages of the last five persons who died in the Parish of Creech in the year 1820 amount to 356 years’.

It appears that 17 People died in Creech St Michael in 1819 and 1820. Their united ages amounted, according to him, to 1077. In 1821, Henry noted the following death: ‘Hugh Fowler aged 30. This man dropped dead in the field. This is curious,’ he said.

On the other hand, he was at times a heavy drinker (not uncommon in those days among his class) and was noted for his riotous and quarrelsome behaviour, both outside and inside his church.  He also got himself readily into debt, not just because of his involvement with his eldest brother’s political ambitions but because he may have been, like his father, an inveterate racing man and gambler. 

His older vicar brother, Rev’d  Sackville Cresswell at Bibury, was reputed to have regularly joined with local farmers who habitually ran sweepstakes of 50 guineas each to see which man and horse could run over the downs the quickest. Henry is recorded as lending his horse (no doubt a hunter) to a man by the name of Reed when he lost his horse in a fox hunt. In 1846-7 Henry, himself, was even suspended by his bishop for debt but he did avoid the debtors’ prison, unlike some of his relatives.

St Michael’s church is very ancient in parts and still has something of the rural setting that would have been known to Henry and his wife. The original vicarage has not survived and was probably demolished or modernised after his death but it may have been quite ancient in appearance.

What of his family life?  On 14th March 1815 Henry married Sophia (daughter of John Mackintosh Smith of Gibraltar) at St Mary’s, Taunton.  The vicarage must have been filled with children, including Sophia’s daughter from her first marriage, as she went on to have three daughters and five sons by Henry. Sophia’s life would have been largely absorbed by her maternal and her pastoral duties which would have included visiting the sick and the poor. To all intent, she seems to have been a devoted wife. 

The Parish Registers into which Henry recorded the births, deaths and marriages in his parish also bear witness to his growing family:

Mary Sophia (1816), Elizabeth (1818), Isabella (Isabel) Lefinca (Zeffinke) (1819), Henry Escourt (1821), Corbet Hayward Hunt (1823)

Corbet Hayward Hunt Cresswell is interesting as he married his cousin Emma Cresswell, the daughter of the Rev’d John Cresswell, later vicar and aggrieved contestant of his father’s will. Corbet was responsible for erecting gravestones in the church grounds to a number of family members and there is one to him.

Then, there was Michael Richard (born 1826) who only lived about 14 months, followed by Sackville George (1829) and finally Charles Hannaford or Hungerford (1830). Henry died suddenly on 2 Aug 1849 at Creech aged 62. A splendid memorial to Henry is to be found in the church where he is also buried. 

Henry’s younger brother, John, succeeded him as vicar for the next 2 years, before he in turn died. Sophia, of necessity, vacated the vicarage in 1849 and, with the support of rents from Cresswell land lived till 1873 both at Silverton and also at Notting Hill with her daughter Mary Sophia Daniel. She is recorded on her husband’s memorial. Her grave stone stands almost unnoticed by the church wall and is very much worn in appearance.  

Henry Cresswell was a lively, outspoken vicar who enjoyed the rough and tumble of political life. His living, though substantial, could not sustain him and his family. In all of this, Henry Cresswell might well have been a character out of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers which was, interestingly enough, written in 1857 less than a decade after Rev’d Henry died. As to which of Trollope’s characters he was, in the absence of a diary, we cannot be sure!

Henry’s sons in turn had to make their way in the world. One son, Corbet, was a successful London surveyor and left money in trust to the church which is still producing a small income and another went into the church. The youngest one, Charles, had to make his way to the Australian goldfields hoping to make enough money to return Home, but he ended his life as a farm worker on the Cocketgedong cattle property in NSW and died when he was struck by lightning while hobbling some horses.

He married Annie Upham, a farmer’s daughter from Silverton and had 5 children, two of them dying in the harsh conditions of a gold mining town called Bendigo. All this was a far cry from his grandfather’s life as squire of Bibury and Pinkney Park, and far away from the gentility of his father’s life at the vicarage of Creech St Michael.


Bibliography Rev’d Henry Cresswell

Campbell Gwladys,  The Web of Fortune, London: Neville  Spearman, 1965.

Clark, G. Kitson. Churchmen and the Condition of England 1832 – 1885: A study in the development of social ideas and practice from the Old Regime to the modern state. London: Methuen & Co.Ltd, 1973.

Ellman, Edward Boys Recollections of a Sussex Parson. With a Memoir by his Daughter Maude Walker. Hove: Combridges, 1925. Originally published by Messrs. Skeffington, 1912.

Naesmyth, William papers and notes. Also interview 2004 at Bibury. Major William Naesmyth of Posso is the chief Cresswell historian and lives in Devizes.  William has also had privately printed some of his research in a small publication called Cresswell Politics. 2005.

Verey, David.(Ed)  The Diary of a Cotswold Parson: Reverend F.E. Witts 1783-1854. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd. 1978. (Now in 8 volumes published by Amberley)

Webb, Adrian J. Creech St. Michael Parish Registers And Bishops’ Transcripts, 1606-1837. (Weymouth: Somerset & Dorset Family History Society, 1997) 


Note on author:

Loreen Chambers

Loreen is the wife of John Sydney Chambers, who is the great great great grand son of the Rev’d Henry Cresswell and it was his son, Charles, who began the Australian connection. Loreen and John are regular visitors to Creech St Michael and Somerset generally.

Loreen is a retired history teacher with a deep interest in English history and in Australian colonial history of the nineteenth century. Loreen can be contacted at lmc@jlchambers.com.au

 Author Loreen Chambers B A (Melb) B Ed (Monash) © 2013