Sunday, May 10, 2009

Impropriety in the pew

Poor John Skinner. His parishioners just wouldn’t stop messing about in church, something which made him very grumpy. One hundred and eighty years ago today, for example, he was complaining to his diary: ‘I said aloud that, as there had been great impropriety of behaviour in that pew, I requested there might be no repetition of it this evening. John Rossiter stood up in the pew and looked very insolently at me, but I took no notice.’ Skinner did have other reasons to be grumpy and he would, a few years later, do away with himself.

Skinner was born in Claverton, near Bath in 1772,  and educated first at Cheam School then at Trinity College, Cambridge. After reading for an MA he entered Lincoln’s Inn but soon decided on the church for a career, and was ordained priest in 1799. After a brief curacy at Brent Knoll in Somerset, he took over the living at Camerton, Somerset. He married and had five children, but his wife died young, and his eldest daughter, Laura also died. Thereafter, he seems to have been mostly unhappy, with no intellectual companionship and regular feuds with farmers. He took refuge in studying antiquities, and undertook many exceptions of ancient sites in the southwest. He committed suicide, in 1839, by shooting himself in a wood nearby his home.

Skinner is largely remembered, however, because he wrote a diary, nearly 100 volumes of which are stored in the British Library. An essay by Virginia Woolf on Skinner (made available thanks to Ms Spachman on a website devoted to Woolf) provides a little more biographical information, most of it culled, in fact, from the diaries. Wikipedia and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required) also have some further details.

These diaries were first edited by Howard Coombs and Rev Arthur N Bax and published by John Murray, London, in 1930 as Journal of a Somerset Rector. Bax says the diaries are filled with sketches and records of tours of little general interest. If he visited the British Museum, Bax explains, he would begin to catalogue its contents, and hundreds of pages are filled with archaeological detail and theory - ‘mostly dead stuff’. Nevertheless, he adds, Skinner’s observations about his parish do throw light on the life of a Somerset village at the beginning of the 19th century.

Bax also suggests that the Skinner’s diaries come to life after the death of his wife and daughter. Here is more from his introduction: ‘His wife and daughter died of consumption, the daughter was laid in the same grave as her mother, and when after her death he examined a cabinet he had given her for her collections of coins and shells, he found everything was arranged with the utmost neatness, and she had some years before begun to keep a Journal. This last blow came near to breaking his spirit, though he struggled gallantly to resist the tendency of his life to shrivel, and from this time the extracts of the Journal tell their own story.

Hitherto, the Journal had been little more than a record of his archaelogical explorations and of his tours; but now that his wife and Laura are both gone, it becomes his confidant. His books are ‘his friends and consoler’; he finds them ‘the same to-day, to-morrow, and the next day.’ In the Journal he records the daily happenings, his reflections on them, and the actors in them. It becomes the mirror of his feelings; in it he makes confession, and as he turns its back pages he judges himself.’

Thelma Wilcox has a piece about Skinner on her North Stoke blog, and picks out one or two diary entries. Here is one from 1820, a few months after the death of his daughter.

‘I could not help thinking how differently this morning was to be spent by myself, an obscure imdividual, on the desolate heights of Mendip, and the Queen of these realms in the midst of her judges in the most splendid metropolis in the world. Yet when half the number of years have rolled away which these tumuli have witnessed how will every memorial, every trace, be forgotten of the agitation which now fills every breast; all the busy heads and aching hearts will be as quiet as those of the savage chieftains which have so long occupied these hillocks.’

As the diary progresses, Skinner seems to get grumpier and grumpier, and there is much about quarrels with members of his own family. But he also seems to lose patience with his parishioners. Here is Skinner confiding in his diary exactly 180 years ago today.

10 May 1829
‘During the Prayers at Morning Service Cottle’s son was hawking so loud when I commenced the service I was obliged to look at him in order to check him from interrupting the service. The pew which Burfitt built without any authority from me or the Ordinary, has been more than once the scene of great impropriety of behaviour during Church time, for the sides being higher than the seatings, so that the congregation are not able to see the people who are sitting down, they talk and laugh and misbehave themselves greatly. This evening the pew was filled by two sons and a daughter of farmer Skuse, a son of Hicks, John Rossiter, and a female in mourning; the elder Skuse I saw talking and laughing with the person in black, and I said aloud that, as there had been great impropriety of behaviour in that pew, I requested there might be no repetition of it this evening. John Rossiter stood up in the pew and looked very insolently at me, but I took no notice.’

The Diary Junction

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