Back to the future: the Church Commissioners’ first computer

The mid-1960s saw huge developments in computing, as technology moved on from vacuum tubes and discrete transistors to the integrated circuit, allowing the development of what became known as mainframe computers. Combined with ‘Moore’s law’ – the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles around every two years – these developments meant that the capabilities and possible applications of computers exploded from this time onwards. It was in this environment in 1966 that the Church Commissioners decided to purchase a computer, the process of which is recorded in the meeting papers of the General Purposes Committee recently added to the online archives catalogue.

Tenders were received from International Computers and Tabulators (I.C.T.) and National Cash Register Company for a suitable system, with the I.C.T. tender proposing the implementation of work being carried out on the computer proceeding in three phases, starting with payroll before progressing to estates and then fund accounting. A British I.C.T. 1901 model was ordered from International Computers Ltd (I.C.L.) and installed on 1st January 1968, at a cost of £64,900 (equivalent to £875,000 in 2022).[1] An introductory guide for staff describes how the computer consisted of five units: a Paper Tape Reader (speed 300 characters/second), a Central Processor (16,000 words of core storage; ‘consists of transistors and a very large number of wires’), a Four-tape Magnetic Tape Unit (speed 20,800 characters/second), a Line Printer (speed 300 lines/minute), and a Typewriter Console. The first four of these units were each 5’ high and 5’ long, and as can be seen in the photographs (these are currently accession number C-2014-18), early third-generation computers filled a whole room.[2]

The British I.C.T. 1901 computer in operation

Despite this, the guide describes the computer as ‘a comparatively small installation, but nevertheless highly efficient and capable of carrying out all the accounting and statistical work that we have. It will affect our work in varying degrees, largely by eliminating much that is routine and tedious …  How does it work? Basically, in exactly the same way as we do, except that it works very much faster, uses binary code, very rarely makes a mistake and never gets tired.’

There were five elements to the computing activities:

  1. Input – reading punched paper tape and converting it to magnetic impulses using binary code.
  2. Processing – taking the converted data and performing defined processes.
  3. Storage – on magnetic tapes, each 2,400’ in length and holding 16 million characters; one reel held the equivalent of 25 novels and could be read and recorded by the Magnetic Tape Unit in 12.5 minutes; it was anticipated 100 reels would be needed.
  4. Output – the Line Printer.
  5. Control – a master program Executive occupied 2,000 words of core storage on the Central Processor and allocated memory and peripherals as needed.

To operate the new computer the Church Commissioners were aware of the need to recruit new staff and retrain others. To be recruited were a Systems analyst, to get down on paper in complete detail and correctly in sequence every stage of the operation, and a Programmer, to write out the instructions for the computer to carry out its operations using the COBOL (common business-oriented language) programming language. Staff being reassigned to computer work were to undergo training courses lasting up to four weeks to provide another Systems Analyst, two more Programmers, and two or three Computer Room Operators, as well as Punch Operators and Verifiers required to convert figures and information onto paper tape, and a Clerical Section for checking, editing, and control of documents to be fed into computer.

The records show that by December 1971 the computer was already being used for a wide range of functions, but the General Purposes Committee was asked to approve the purchase of discs (considered more flexible and offering faster processing and access to information, as well as access to new programs), a fast printer (the existing printer was said to be ‘extremely slow’ and insufficient for future needs, while a new printer would eliminate the need for shift work), and a more powerful central processor.[3]  These upgrades were estimated to cost £75,000 in 1971 – equivalent to £835,000 in 2022.

However, a July 1975 report notes increasing trouble with the computer’s central processor and the magnetic tape units, and given that ‘most of the financial and statistical work of the office is now handled by the computer and it is no exaggeration to say that this aspect of the work of the Commissioners, particularly the work connected with clergy stipends and pensions, could not be undertaken without the help of a computer’, it was considered necessary to seek a major upgrade.  This was to include using discs rather than magnetic tape to allow ready access, and the possible introduction of Visual Display Units (VDUs) to show information contained on these discs.  The report recommends upgrading to a 1901T system (60,000 words core storage), a three-disc unit (capacity of 180m characters), a two-magnetic tape unit (80,000 characters/second), VDUs and a printer, and a new input system to replace the hole punching paper tape system.[4]  The cost of this major upgrade in 1976 was said to be £270,000 – equivalent to a staggering £1,603,000 in 2022.

Magnetic tape reels being arranged for use in the computer

By 1980, the list of work handled by the computer was impressive:

  • Clergy and Staff pay, involving PAYE and National Insurance contributions.
  • Register of clergy incomes from all sources.
  • Clergy and Clergy Widows’ pension payments.
  • Church property and investment mortgages.
  • Parsonage building and improvement funds.
  • Corn Rents.
  • Records relating to each of the Commissioners’ c.17,000 properties.
  • Clergy Register.
  • Diocesan stipends funds.
  • Preparation and recording of cheques issued and cashed (c.200 per day).
  • Renting use of computer to Investment Office.

However, following a 12-month review, a report concluded the computer was reaching the end of its useful economic life: it was no longer able to handle the workload (due to age and lack of processing power), new computers offered better access and editing functions via VDUs (known as an ‘on-line system’), heads of department viewed a new ‘on-line system’ as offering savings in manpower and stationery costs, and the systems originally designed were out of date and needed to be re-written.[5]

Rather than upgrade the existing computer, the decision was made to purchase one of the new, more advanced models from the varied range offered by ICL by this time. It was thought that this would limit the need for error-prone batch processing of data, allow immediate access to information via VDUs and make it possible to have VDUs in multiple buildings, lead to improved job satisfaction as the perceived control of data resides with the user rather than the computer, and, since data would be easier to update, eliminate reliance on out-of-date information. This would cost £346,000 in 1980 – equivalent to £1,308,000 in 2022.

The Church Commissioners commitment to information technology at an early date is admirable, even if the sums being spent seem outlandish today.  In a modern office, where everyone works on a laptop accessing shared drives and connected to the internet, it’s easy to forget how far computing technology has come and to take for granted the ubiquity of computers now.

[1] Equivalent prices throughout have been calculated using: [Accessed 14/02/2023].

[2] CC/GPC(68)MTG2.

[3] CC/GPC(71)MTG8.

[4] CC/GPC(75)MTG7.

[5] CC/GPC(80)MTG6.

Partners at the Palace: the story of the wives of the Archbishops of Canterbury

The first Archbishop of Canterbury who lived at Lambeth with his wife was Matthew Parker. Historically, members of the clergy had not been permitted to marry, until the Clergy Marriage Act of 1548. There is evidence that Archbishop Cranmer was married, but his wife did not live with him at Lambeth as far as we know. It was not until the dust began to settle after the Restoration following the English Civil War that marriage of clergy at the level of the Archbishop began to be more socially acceptable. Archbishop Sheldon was the subject of rumours that he had “wenches” according to Samuel Pepys’ cousin Roger.[1] Sheldon never married, and Pepys expressed some surprise at the suggestion of the Archbishop being as promiscuous as his cousin claimed.

Engraving of Matthew Parker
Engraving of Matthew Parker by Remigius Hogenberg, 1573, pasted into the LPL copy of De antiquitate Britannicae ecclesiae… (1572)[2]

From the 1750s onwards, the majority of Archbishops were married prior to their appointment to the role. One of the few exceptions was Cosmo Gordon Lang, who never married, and it has been speculated that he was homosexual. However, evidence for this is scant, and it is more likely that he believed in clergy celibacy. The notion of clergy celibacy was the cause of much debate from the break with Rome onwards. One of the most vocal advocates in favour of clergy marriage was Matthew Parker, who accepted deprivation of his offices in order to remain married to his wife Margaret during the reign of Queen Mary. When Elizabeth I took the throne, some restrictions on clergy marriage remained in place and clergymen were not permitted to live with their wives in cathedral or college premises, although parish clergy were often married and lived with their wives and families. Parker built a house on the Lambeth Palace Estate for Margaret so that they were close but not breaking the rules. Margaret was keenly involved in the hospitality associated with the role of the Archbishop and receiving guests. Margaret seems to have been popular among her husband’s circle, seen as a supportive partner. Indeed, she is described as being “a person accomplished in all good endowments of body and mind, and towards him of great tenderness.”[3] She was however, less popular with the Queen who is alleged to have departed an event at Lambeth Palace with the words “And you, madam I may not call you; mistress I am ashamed to call you: so I know not what to call you, but yet I do thank you.”[4]

All of the Archbishops’ wives had individual personalities, interests and projects, some of which overlapped with the work of the Archbishop. The majority of Archbishops had previously been Bishops elsewhere, so moving with their family into Lambeth Palace must have been both an adventure and an upheaval. Mary Benson, wife of Archbishop Edward White Benson, had moved their growing family from Lincoln to Truro before arriving at Lambeth with their younger children, the London fog a complete world away from the rolling fields and open space of Cornwall. Mary took an interest in some of the collections in the Palace, including the remains of Archbishop Laud’s pet tortoise, which was discovered in the back of a cupboard. She wrote to the Natural History Museum, and there is correspondence about the tortoise between her and William Flower who was the curator at the time, along with some labels from where the shell had been displayed. A sense of mystery remains as to how old the tortoise was when it came into Laud’s care, and how old it was when it died.[5] In later years, Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, moved in with the Benson family at Lambeth. When Archbishop Benson died in 1896, Mary Benson and Lucy Tait set up home together in Sussex.[6]

Mary Benson and Friends
Mary Benson and Friends at Tremans (later spelled Treemans) in Horsted Keynes[7]

Frances, wife of Archbishop William Temple, incumbent during the height of the Second World War, remained at Lambeth during the conflict and wrote detailed accounts of the war at a local level, including bomb damage sustained at Lambeth Palace and fighting fires in the Canterbury Precincts[8] as well as her plans to restore and refurbish the Palace when she and the Archbishop moved in to use it as the official residence. Her accounts detail spending time together in bomb shelters and observing the damage the following morning, both at Lambeth and in Canterbury. Following the death of her husband in 1944, she wrote a biography of his life and work.

Frances Temple's account of an air raid

Rosamund Fisher was Central President of the Mothers Union, a role which complemented that of her husband. Subsequent spouses have maintained the connection with the Mothers Union and continued the charitable work of the organisation. As well as charitable work, Lady Fisher undertook a central role in the repair and restoration of Lambeth Palace after the Second World War. Her account also details a brief visit from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip before they were married, on the occasion of Prince Philip’s induction into the Church of England. He quipped about getting married there and then, given that the Archbishop was present.[9]

Rosamund Fisher's account of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip

In more recent years, Rosalind “Lindy” Runcie was a keen gardener and was instrumental in bringing the garden up to date after a period of neglect. It is thanks to her that Lambeth Palace garden looks the way it does today, her careful planning and the continued upkeep by the gardening team has allowed the garden to mature into a beautiful tranquil space .

Archbishop Runcie and Lady Runcie in the garden
Archbishop Runcie and Lady Runcie in the garden on their 25th wedding anniversary[10]

Lady Runcie’s plans included clearing and replanting the rose garden and creating a kitchen garden to grow fruit and vegetables for use in the Palace kitchens. Her work was continued by Mrs Carey, who oversaw the Garden Committee. Lambeth Palace continues to hold garden open days during the summer months when members of the public are welcome to visit and look around. More information about this can be found on the Palace website. Current and recent wives of Archbishops, as well as maintaining their own individual identities, have undertaken roles which support that of the Archbishop and the Church. This includes charity work both in the UK and overseas, academic theological research and organising sessions for the spouses of Bishops at the Lambeth Conference.

Archbishop Justin and Caroline Welby
Archbishop Justin and Caroline Welby at the 2022 Lambeth Conference[11]

[1] [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[2] MS 959, f. 337r

[3] Frere, Catherine Frances (ed.), A proper newe booke of cokerye (1913). Within the Wellcome online collection [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[4] Bent, S.A., Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men: with historical and explanatory notes (1882)

[5] MS 3407, ff. 27-36

[6] [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[7]Image taken from:,_Archbishop_Davidson_(Archbishop_of_Canterbury),_Mrs._Davidson,_Mrs._Benson,_A.C._Benson,_Mrs._Cooper,_1911.jpg [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[8] Fisher 5, ff. 250-74

[9] MS 1726, ff. 64-78

[10] Runcie/PHOTO/335

[11] Image taken from: [Accessed 01/02/2023]

From ‘Not Fit for Production’ to Reading Room ready

A volume of three related pamphlets from 1723 in Sion College Library was severely mould damaged and flagged for conservation treatment. They are about the trial of Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, who was charged with treason for his involvement in a Jacobite plot [Sion Main Quarto D34.1/At8]. The paper lost sizing and fused into a block. Previous attempts to open the book had resulted in numerous tears and losses. In many places the paper was very pulpy and weak. The title page of the first pamphlet was adhered to the inside front cover and the last page was adhered to the inside back cover. The boards of the covers were so degraded that it was crumbling and falling away in chunks.

Inside of front cover showing title page adhered to front endpapers and pastedown.

The covers and pages displayed all the colours and textures of mould I have seen on books across my years as a conservator. It was pink, green, black, and grey. It was powdery, granular and imbedded in the paper fibres. During washing, some of the mould was very slimy and slippery.

Thankfully, the central pages were less severely damaged (i.e. less tears rather than no tears, slightly stronger paper rather than incredibly weak and damaged paper). This shows the protective nature of bindings to the text block. Despite the severe damage, this could, with an intense conservation treatment, be saved.

Degraded state of binding and textblock before treatment. Pages are mould damaged and fused together; cover has many large losses.

The covers were removed and the spine was cleaned with xantham gum. The text block was separated along natural breaks into front, middle and back sections. These three sections could then be treated in successive but separate treatments which would help to retain the order of the pages. Due to the damage, it was not possible to check the collation or note any printing errors before treatment, so it was more essential to be diligent about the order of steps undertaken.

The pages were washed in warm water with a small amount of propanol added to aid wetting. A small fan brush, a thin Teflon folder, and fingertips were all that was used to separate the pages. Creating waves of water around the small openings that were initially available allowed the gentle but strong power of water to do much of the work. My fingerprints were the most abrasive tool to interact with the wet pages. In many places the mould was too firmly embedded in the paper and could not be removed without causing damage. Pristine pages were not the end goal. Instead, the intended result was pages that could be turned and a document that could be issued to readers.

Conservator washing pages. Note acidity being released into the water.

After washing, the pages were resized and further treated for mould with a sizing agent in solvent. The methylcellulose size supported the weakened paper fibres and the solvent helped to mitigate any remaining mould spores. Next, the pages were lined with a 5gsm machine-made Japanese tissue adhered with cooked wheat starch paste. The condition of the pages considerably improved after lining. They could now be easily and safely handled. They were arranged into sections and infills applied as needed. Where possible, detached pieces of the original text were repositioned.

After treatment; pages have been washed, lined, repaired and bound into a simple new structure.

With the paper repairs complete, the pages were sewn on linen thread and bound into a pamphlet binding structure devised by the V&A Museum for one of their pamphlet collections. This structure is clean, modern, and non-adhesive. It is slim and lightweight allowing the three pamphlets to be stored in one box which reduces the amount of shelf space needed while still protecting the items. Additionally, this structure more closely resembles the original nature of these items as three related but distinct texts. This item is now safe to handle and can be accessed in the reading room.

Talitha Wachtelborn, Sion College Collection Conservator

“A most exciting and perfectly wholesome tale”: children’s books from the National Society

In a collection that boasts a wide array of works owned by prelates, prime ministers, and monarchs, it is refreshing to come across items that bear witness to the lives of ordinary people. Nowhere is this quite as charming as the collection of National Society children’s books, recently added to the printed books catalogue.

The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (known simply as the National Society) was founded in 1811 to provide popular religious instruction in line with the teachings of the Church of England. It originally aimed to teach children the Bible, Prayer Book, and Catechism, and the 3 ’R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) by providing grants to rent schoolrooms in parishes.[1] The Archbishop of Canterbury was president of the Society, with numerous other bishops as vice-presidents.

The National Society would go on to become the largest single provider of popular education in England until the late 19th century.[2] Its earliest supporters were Anglican, and the Society was founded on the principle that national education should be founded on the national religion.

In 1845, the Society opened its own ‘Depository’, or publishing house to provide materials for students and trainee teachers in the Society’s new teacher training colleges.[3] This included a wide variety of children’s stories.

All of the storybooks in the collection at Lambeth were written by women, many of whom were intimately connected to the National Society’s aims to promote religious education in schools supported by the Church. One of them, Christabel Rose Coleridge, was even born in St Mark’s College in Chelsea, the first teacher training college, where her father, Derwent Coleridge, was principal. (Her grandfather was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

C.R. Coleridge, Reuben Everett [1888] (NS/10/8/1/13)

She wrote numerous stories for both the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the National Society, and was also responsible for editing and publishing the correspondence of her friend, distant cousin, and fellow author of religious storybooks: Charlotte Mary Yonge.[4]

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Cook and the Captive (c. 1894) (NS/10/8/1/52)

Charlotte Yonge was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, with over 200 works to her name, and was an important lay voice in the Tractarian movement. She was a close friend of the priest and poet John Keble, who regularly edited her manuscripts and encouraged subtlety in her religious fiction, so as to avoid them becoming crude polemical texts. Even so, her stories frequently dwell on the Christian themes of self-sacrificial love, humility, and obedience. Yonge was also passionate about overseas mission, with the proceeds from her children’s stories going towards missionary efforts in Oceania and South Africa.[5]

A prominent female voice in Victorian religious life she may have been, but Yonge was naturally conservative in temperament and her promotion of girls’ education did not stem from modern notions of gender equality: ‘That there is this inequality there is no reasonable doubt,” she wrote in 1876. “A woman of the highest faculties is of course superior to a man of the lowest; but she never attains to anything like the powers of a man of the highest ability.”[6]

Each story is a fable that teaches children a particular Christian value. The moral of the story was made clear in the publisher’s catalogues, perhaps so that parents, Sunday School teachers, and other discerning adults could pick the book most suitable for the child. Other advertisements were wary of causing children unnecessary distress and promised that the stories had happy endings.

Many of these stories are works of historical fiction, reflecting the Society’s aim to provide not just religious education, but education more broadly. The two are taken hand in hand, such as in The Slaves of Sabinus, which is based on Tacitus’ account of Sabinus and Epponina’s rebellion against Vespasian. Their story is interweaved with the fictional story of two of their Jewish slaves, Edras and Edna, who eventually embrace the Christian faith.

Charlotte Yonge in particular was known for her historical works. In an address at Winchester High School for Girls in 1899 celebrating the foundation of the Charlotte Yonge Scholarship, the Bishop of Winchester (and later Archbishop of Canterbury), Randall Davidson, remarked that she succeeded in making readers “live again in the past”, and in so doing was “a unique blessing to the English people”.[7]

Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Slaves of Sabinus (c. 1890) is one of many National Society stories incorporating historical events. (NS/10/8/1/57)

The National Society also advertised special ‘Prize Books’ to be awarded to children for good behaviour. Not all of the books in the collection at Lambeth were from this special series, but many were still given as prizes. Decorative bookplates (many of which were specially printed by the National Society) show that many of these books were given as prizes by Sunday Schools, often for good attendance or knowledge of Scripture.

This highly decorative bookplate was printed by the National Society Depository, demonstrating their aim that their books should be given as prizes. This book was ‘awarded to Fred Messenger for Regularity and Punctuality, June 1900’. (NS/10/8/1/11)

Sunday Schools had developed alongside small, endowed charity schools to cater for the significant proportion of poor children who worked, teaching them to read and write, and the basic tenets of faith along denominational lines. After 1870, when the Education Act created a national framework for education, Sunday Schools focused more exclusively on religious instruction, and continued to attract high numbers of children.[8] A poll conducted in 1957 found that 90% of participants had attended Sunday School as a child, and 73% had attended regularly.[9] Purchasing prize books was no trivial expense: when Rev. A. Lawley took over at St. John’s Church, Hackney, he complained that prize books were little more than bribes, and the church was £3000 in debt from spending so much on treats and prizes for the Sunday School.[10]

In other cases, the books were given as Christmas presents. With handwritten inscriptions on their front endpapers, these two books offer small glimpses of their owners’ home lives.

Faith’s First Christmas, a short story anthology by Mary H. Debenham, was an ideal festive gift for a young child. Inscription reads: ‘Jane, from Father, Christmas 1906’. (NS/10/8/1/27)
Inscription reads: ‘Nellie Robinson. Xmas 1906. With love from Governess’. (NS/10/8/1/52)

These inscriptions also give clues about how long these books remained in circulation. This copy of Christabel Coleridge’s Reuben Everett was gifted to a boy named John by his uncle in 1938, a full fifty years after it was first published.

Inscription reads: ‘To my dear John, from Uncle Bill, 1938”. C.R. Coleridge’s Reuben Everett was gifted fifty years after it was first published in 1888. (NS/10/8/1/13)

As well as the entertainment and instruction offered by their contents, another important reason why these books made such good gifts/prizes was their highly decorative publisher’s bindings. Each volume has a unique cloth binding with colourful illustrations on the front cover and spine, often with added gilt text and decoration.

Mary Bramston, The Cat and the Cake (c. 1896) (NS/10/8/1/4)

The same illustrators were also responsible for producing full-page lithographic illustrations, usually between two and five per book. Two of the most regular illustrators in the collection were Charles Joseph Staniland – a prolific painter and illustrator who also illustrated works by Hans Christian Andersen and Walter Scott – and Walter S. Stacey, who among other things produced the illustrations for The Voice of Silence, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s first short story published in The Strand magazine.[11]

An engraved illustration by C.J. Staniland from Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Slaves of Sabinus (NS/10/8/1/57). ‘Really the book would be much better without the illustrations,’ wrote one unimpressed critic. ‘Such an effort as “Eponina appeals to Vespasian,” is really beyond all limits of tolerance.’[12]

So, did the children appreciate these gifts? The fact that this collection is in relatively good condition might suggest that these books rarely left the shelf. A few volumes do contain evidence that they were used by children, but not necessarily read. For example, NS/10/8/1/42, a copy of Frances M. Peard’s The Abbot’s Bridge (c. 1891), still has a flower pressed between its pages.

A flower – possibly a buttercup – pressed between the pages of The Abbot’s Bridge. (NS/10/8/1/42)

National Society books could also be used to store other keepsakes. This copy of Mary H. Debenham’s The Waterloo Lass contains a loose newspaper cutting from the Daily Mail from 1919 about the arrival of a baby King Penguin at Edinburgh Zoo.

Photo caption reads: “An unusual baby – The first baby King Penguin known to have been hatched in captivity taking a stroll with its mother at the Zoological Park, Edinburgh”. The facing plate is an illustration by Walter S. Stacey. (NS/10/8/1/19)

Whether these books were avidly read or not, they reveal a different side to the National Society’s operations away from its schools, and they offer colourful insights into late Victorian and Edwardian religious education.

[1] W.M. Jacob, Religious vitality in Victorian London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), p.263.

[2] Akira Iwashita, ‘Politics, state and Church: forming the National Society 1805-c.1818’, History of Education 47:1 (2018), p.1.

[3] Gordon Huelin, ‘Innovation: the National Society 1811-1934’ in Faith for the Future: essays on the Church in Education to mark 175 years of the National Society, ed. Graham Leonard and Joanna Yates (London: National Society; Church House Publishing, 1986), p.21.

[4] Cherry Durrant, ‘Coleridge, Derwent (1800-1883)’, ODNB (, accessed 14/12/2022)

[5] Elisabeth Jay, ‘Yonge, Charlotte, Mary (1823-1901)’, ODNB (, accessed 14/12/2022)

[6] Charlotte Mary Yonge, Womankind (New York: Macmillan, 1877), p.2.

[7] Lambeth Palace Library, Davidson 746, f.168.

[8] Jacob, Religious vitality in London, p.281.

[9] Clive Field, Secularization in the Long 1960s: numerating religion in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p.86.

[10] Caitriona McCartney, ‘British Sunday Schools: an educational arm of the churches’ in Churches and education, ed. Morwenna Ludlow, Charlotte Methuen, and Andrew Spicer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p.573.

[11] The Arthur Conan-Doyle Encyclopedia, ‘The Voice of Silence’ (, accessed 20/12/2022)

[12] ‘Miss Yonge’s “Slaves of Sabinus”, The Spectator, 15 November 1890, p.42.

Court of Arches: Act Books 1677-1682

The current project to catalogue the Act Books of the Court of Arches from 1677 to 1682 (Arches A 13-15) is well advanced and on course for completion by the end of 2022.

The diverse business of the Court during these years included suits concerning the dilapidation of parsonage houses and bishops’ palaces. The deaths of successive Bishops of Worcester, for instance, led to suits concerning the state of the palace at Worcester and Hartlebury Castle. The death of John Hacket, Bishop of Lichfield, whose efforts saved Lichfield Cathedral from ruin caused by the civil war, also led to a lengthy suit; his successor Thomas Wood, complained that Hacket had not lavished equal concern on his palace. The deeds and misdeeds of the clergy were also exposed in court, as in the case of Thomas Turner, Vicar of Milton-next-Sittingbourne (now Milton Regis, Kent), whose drinking and playing at cards and dice at the Three Hats, the Red Lion, the Crown, the White Hart and the Queen’s Head often ended in the gutter with the revelation ‘I am damned drunk’.

Suits concerning marriage and divorce were also to the fore. Lady Elizabeth Percy, the greatest heiress of her day, widowed at the age of thirteen, secretly married Thomas Thynne, known (on account of his wealth) as ‘Tom of Ten Thousand’. A suit followed, whereupon Thynne was murdered in 1682. Elizabeth then made a third marriage, at the age of 15, to the Duke of Somerset. Less fortunate was the life of Posthuma Bullocke, forced by her husband to wear a chastity belt, ‘an engine commonly called an Italian padlock’ for almost two years. No less remarkable were the marriages of Anne Pierrepont, daughter of the Marquess of Dorchester. Her marriage to Lord Roos, afterwards Duke of Rutland, was ended by a legal separation in the Court of Arches and then by a parliamentary divorce, the first in England. Anne went on to marry Henry Vaughan, only to return to the Arches in 1681 seeking yet another divorce on account of his cruelty. Marriage contracts were also disputed in court, as in the engagement of Donough O’Brien, Lord Ibrackan, to a daughter of Thomas Osborne, afterwards Duke of Leeds. In this instance the Dean of the Arches allowed himself a moment of candour, urging a speedy marriage to avoid ‘the distast and exasperation which judicial proceedings may begett’.

Other cases ranged from the violation of churchyards, the impersonation of the Vicar General at a visitation, and penances for adultery, to more mundane disputes over tithes, rates, institutions to benefices and rights to pews. Time and again the records reveal the unexpected. The elegant white marble monument to George and Judith Ayliffe in the church at Foxley, Wiltshire, celebrates their lives and five children. Few would guess the reality revealed in court, that Judith left her husband after having been cruelly beaten.

Ayliffe memorial, Foxley Church, Wiltshire. Photo: Sheona Beaumont, 2022.

Variations in the spelling of names in the seventeenth century present challenges to cataloguers. It was pleasing to rescue the poet John Dryden from the obscurity of ‘John Draydon’ and to identify ‘John Eveling’ as the virtuoso John Evelyn. Both were protagonists in Arches cases, as was another diarist, Samuel Pepys.

Richard Palmer