HENRY DAMPIER PHELPS
The Rev. Henry Dampier Phelps (1777-1865) was Rector of Snodland for sixty-one years between 1804 and his death in 1865. Born at Sherborne in Dorset, he was himself the son of a clergyman, Rev. Thomas Phelps (1740-1811), vicar of Haddenham , and of his wife Elizabeth Dampier (1739-1825). Henry went up to Hertford College in the University of Oxford on 18 May 1795, graduating four years later and achieving his M.A. in 1801. In 1799, the year of his graduation, he took Holy Orders and went to Haddenham as curate to his father. His uncle, Thomas Dampier, was already Dean of Rochester, but was elevated to Bishop of the See in 1802. As Dean he had been able to put his brother-in-law into the vicarage at Haddenham ; now, as Bishop, he appointed Henry to be Rector of Snodland , where the living was worth £300 a year. He was inducted on 3 July 1804. And here Henry stayed for the rest of his long life, unmarried, but with two nephews nearby playing their part in the cure of souls: Henry Dampier Phelps (1811-1864), Vicar of Birling , and Thomas Prankerd Phelps (1814-1903). The latter clergyman (and the family background) are the subject of a fine book by Gerald van Loo , A Victorian Parson: The Life and Times of Thomas Prankerd Phelps, Ridley, Kent. Rector, 1840-1893 (Upton-upon Severn, 1989).
Phelps spent a great deal of money in maintaining and beautifying the fabric of All Saints Church: a little book of expenses totals £1644. 5s. The east wall of the church was completely rebuilt at his expense and he also commissioned stained glass windows, some of which survive. The east window of 1846, portraying four christian martyrs, was destroyed in 1941. The old village market cross stood on steps outside the Red Lion, but by Phelps’s time a tree was growing where the cross had formerly been. In 1846 he caused the steps to be moved to the churchyard and had a large new cross erected on them there. It is said that he is buried close by but the ‘small square stone’ marking the place cannot now be traced.
Between 1812 and 1825 Phelps decided to add in the burial register some notes of the causes of death: ‘In order to ascertain what disorders are the most prevolent in the Village, I mark the disease of which each of the Parishioners die’. Thus we learn that IsaacWenman died after ‘ unskilful treatment of an abscess’. ‘ Thyphus Fever’, ‘Dropsy’, ‘Consumption’ and other diseases are recorded. Jane Hadlow , aged 96, and other elderly parishioners quite reasonably succumbed to ‘Decay of Nature’, but the Rector can hardly have endeared himself to the relatives of the couple buried after ‘the effects of debauchery throughout life’! One guesses that he was not on the best of terms with some of his flock and there was an attempt on his life, recounted by the curate who helped him during his last few years:
I must here relate one very odd story which he himself told me. He was a great foe to Smugglers, of whom in the old times there were many, and he had taken a somewhat leading part against them. Now Mr. Phelps was in the habit of walking one day in the week across the Medway via Wouldham to Rochester and back again – a walk of many miles. Very likely he may have been known to go to his Bankers on such a day, but at any rate he was a marked man, as the sequel will show. Fortunately for Mr. Phelps – unfortunately for another individual, a certain Tailor in Rochester, also a diminutive man of small physique – the latter took it into his head to walk towards Snodland through some woods where the path lay; and coming along unwittingly was pounced upon by one or more of the “Smuggler” party and cruelly murdered then and there – by mistake of course, but a very convenient one for Mr. Phelps, who had that day left Rochester somewhat later on his return walk to Snodland . Suspicion appears to have fallen upon the right party, and at the Coroner’s inquest on the Tailor which was held at Cuxton , Mr. Phelps was chosen foreman – his would-be murderer being also present under arrest, and the two facing one another. I recollect how the old gentleman related to me his own feelings at the time under such extraordinary circumstances, knowing well he was himself the “corpus” intended, over which the inquest was being held. It was satisfactory, however, that the murderer was so promptly brought to justice and in due course duly hanged.
I wonder if this was the Thomas Mills, aged 51, ‘Drowned in the Medway’ and buried on 21 March 1813. More than once Phelps notes ‘smuggler’ as the occupation given in the church registers, again hardly a friendly act! The curate, the Honorable and Reverend Edward Vesey Bligh, wished to marry the daughter of the Earl of Abergavenny – but his father-in-law insisted that she should marry a cleryman , so forcing Bligh to leave the Diplomatic Service for the Church. He spent a brief time at Snodland after his marriage in 1854, leaving us with a picture of old Phelps and an astonishing complaint that ‘The Lodge’ built by Thomas Waghorn was far too small to accommodate his own little family:
We, Father, Mother and Baby, took up our permanent quarters in a very tiny habitation near the Bull Inn and Old Turnpike at Snodland . A more undesirable locality could not well be: even worse now with 4000 people, but it was then in its babyhood, and I think the population – nearly all cement and lime burners – was little over 700. Quite flat, smoky, without a single real gentleman – much less a lady – the one redeeming point was the close neighbourhood of Birling Manor where at any rate was refuge for the Curate’s aristocratic wife. The old Rector of Snodland was a positive curiosity – quite an old fossil, an antique Bachelor, who lived in two small rooms of his Rectory tended by a beaming Housekeeper called ‘Kitty’. W. Phelps – that was his name – was nearly 80 years of age, a very short man, dressed always in a long tailcoat down nearly to the ankles, with an old-fashioned white choker round and round his neck and a ‘Mother Gamp ‘ large umbrella. On Sundays he wore his University gown, which he had had at Oxford or Cambridge 50 years ago, and which from black to brown had lapsed into a dingy floor colour : he always marched down the Village on his way to Church and back again in this manner. … On quarter days, when my stipend of £25 was due, the old gentleman would triumphantly march up the village to our house and put the money down in hard cash or otherwise, and good- naturely dispose of his debt for my humble services as if I was the biggest ‘dun‘ or ‘Old Clother ‘ London Jew craving for a prompt settlement! He also solemnly confused me when I first took up duty (no reflection of course on the services which I preached subsequently) as to the proper length for such discourses, using the phrase (as I well remember and also to my astonishment) “Twelve minutes is long enough for any Monkey to be talking to a lot of others”. Peculiar indeed and hardly encouraging exhortation to a newly ordained Deacon. Old Phelps was a character, and the oldest clergyman in the diocese. [ Esme Wingfield -Stratford: This was a Man (1949)].