Sunday, 19 December 2010

Black Sheep Sunday - Rev Frederick Davis

Black sheep embarrass the family whilst they are alive but they make wonderful ancestors. Brushes with the law, financial peccadilloes and sex scandals are the lifeblood of newspapers. Ancestors who got into serious trouble usually got plenty of column inches and those old newspaper articles are gold dust for the family historian.
Serious Charge Against A Clergyman
My favourite black sheep ancestor is my 2x great-grandfather, Rev Frederick Davis. Not just a bad boy but a clergyman to boot - some years ago a cousin christened him "the pervy vicar" and I'm afraid the naughty nickname has stuck.
Frederick was born in Lambeth, Surrey, in 1821. One family story suggests that his father was wealthy but disowned him after an argument. Frederick was certainly well educated but struggled for the rest of his life to establish a financially secure career.
At first he worked as a warehouseman. In 1842 he married a schoolmistress, Charlotte Aves, and by 1848 Frederick had also become a schoolmaster, following teacher training at the Church of England National Society's Training Institution in Westminster.
Frederick and Charlotte worked as a husband and wife team in a succession of church schools in East London, Essex, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. By 1858 they were running the parish school in St Columb Major,  Cornwall, when tragedy struck. Charlotte died of tuberculosis, aged 40, leaving Frederick with eight children aged two to fifteen.
Charlotte Davis Memorial Inscription
Headstone on the grave of Charlotte Davis, Colan, Cornwall
With Charlotte's death the family lost stability. Frederick initially put his daughters into an orphanage run by Anglican nuns at Wymering, near Portsmouth. By 1862 he had moved to Torquay in Devon where, for the first time, he set up his own private school rather than being employed by the Church. On the recommendation of clerical friends, he was also ordained deacon by the Bishop of Exeter and appointed curate of St John's, Torquay.
This proved disastrous. The curacy was poorly paid but so busy as to prevent him running his school properly. He lost pupils, fell out with the vicar and, within six months found himself in precarious financial circumstances. Although supposed to remain in the diocese until he was ordained priest, Frederick petitioned the Bishop to allow him to leave his curacy and move to Northfleet in Kent, to take over a private preparatory school based in the old Manor House.
The Manor House, Northfleet, Kent
The Manor House, Northfleet, Kent
Frederick rebranded the school as Northfleet Grammar School, later the Collegiate School, and advertised his willingness to coach young men for entry to the Universities and the armed forces. Some pupils came (two of them later married two of his daughters) but the school struggled and Frederick supplemented his income by covering for clergy absences in various Kent parishes, not telling them that he was only in deacon's orders.
In 1874 the churchwarden of one of those parishes wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury about Frederick:
Having been prompted to make enquiry concerning his private character in consequence of his having most persistently and impudently attempted to extort more money (to the extent of 4 guineas) than he was entitled to according to my agreement with him, I have ascertained from a most reliable source that he is inhibited by the Bishop of Rochester from doing duty in his diocese.
... Dr Claughton would not have inhibited him, unless there were good and weighty reasons for so doing. I have heard what those reasons are, but would rather not commit them to writing as they are of a most serious and damaging nature. No doubt if Your Grace orders inquiry to be made in the neighbourhood in which he lives quite sufficient cause will be found, to induce Your Grace to take immediate steps to prevent the possibility of his ever performing the duty of a clergyman of the Church of England again.
Archbishop Archibald Campbell Tait
Archibald Campbell Tait, 1811-1882
Archbishop of Canterbury
The Bishop of Rochester added his own disapprobation:
I have not actually inhibited Mr Davis ... but I do not approve of him. He behaves extremely ill to the Clergyman of his Parish.
Thomas Legh Claughton
Thomas Legh Claughton, 1808-1892
Bishop of Rochester
By 1875 Frederick had given up his school in favour of running a home for six wealthy dipsomaniacs (alcoholics). Following complaints that a lady was being detained against her will, the Lunacy Commissioners paid a visit and discovered that one of his patients was mentally ill. In the summer of 1877 he was prosecuted for running an unlicensed lunatic asylum and fined £50.
The Archbishop had reluctantly allowed Frederick to continue officiating in neighbouring parishes. On Sunday 16 December 1877 he was returning from taking services when, on a train between Strood and Gravesend, he was alleged to have indecently assaulted a 17 year old servant girl called Rosina Webb. When the case came up for trial in January 1878 Frederick did not appear. Instead, one of his sons wrote a letter maintaining his father's innocence but saying that, as he feared his word would not be believed, he had gone abroad.
A warrant was issued for Frederick's arrest and an advertisement in the Police Gazette gives us a description of the man, for whom no known photograph exists:
Police Gazette, 4 February 1878
The Police Gazette, 4 February 1878
When Frederick fled abroad he left behind him a second wife. Her existence only came to light because her birth and death dates, minus a name, were recorded on a family gravestone in Northfleet churchyard. The gravestone was destroyed in the 1960s but, thankfully, it had been carefully transcribed by an antiquarian in the 1900s. The death date led to the discovery of the name Harriet Davis in the Northfleet burial registers. Her death certificate revealed that she was the wife of Frederick Davis and that she had died of apoplexy in October 1878, aged 60. No record of their marriage has yet been found.
Frederick went first to Bruges in Belgium before settling in Dinard on the coast of Brittany in France. Both places had substantial numbers of affluent English residents, so Frederick was probably able to earn a living as a tutor. There was an Anglican church at Dinard and the incumbent, Rev Anthony Francis Thomson, was the father of one of Frederick's old pupils, Anthony Standidge Thomson, later to be his son-in-law. Frederick lived in the pretty seaside resort -  no doubt helping out with services - until his death in 1883.
The Quay at Dinard by Ethel Carrick Fox
The Quay at Dinard, Ethel Carrick Fox


  1. I found this very entertaining. I too, have a couple of black sheep in my family which I must get around to mentioning on my blog.


  2. Thank you, Annie. I'm now following your very interesting blog.

  3. Thanks for this - I'm interested in St Bartholomew's and especially in the Rev Anthony Thomson. Interesting that he too had financial problems, which landed him in court and caused him to lose his job as headmaster of a small charity school. Was Davis buried in the graveyard at St Bartholomew's?

    1. He died in Dinard. On a brief trip there I visited St Bartholomew's and the town's Protestant cemetery but could find no grave for Frederick Davis. Nor was there any memorial to him inside the church. The family were perennially broke, so I doubt they could afford one.

  4. I've checked with the current chaplain at St Bartholomew's and there's no record of Davis having a funeral there - there were six in 1883 but his was not one of them. The current chaplain isn't aware of a Protestant cemetery though. I see that the town cemetery was inaugurated in 1882 - I think it has an English "corner" but this would be later. Is there another cemetery somewhere in the town? I suppose it's possible that Thmson could have conducted a funeral service for Davis but without passing through St Bartholomew's, with which by this time he had no connexion.

    1. I only had a short time available on my visit to Dinard, it was a very hot day and I had my elderly mother with me. So I was distracted and didn't make notes of my search as I should have done. Mea culpa! However, my memories of the cemetery and the narrow street down which we approached it are good. Thanks to the wonders of Google Street View, I have been able to identify it as the Saint-Enogat Cemetery in rue de l'Epave, which was Dinard's original cemetery. Obviously I was mistaken in remembering it as a Protestant cemetery. Perhaps there was a corner for the burial of the town's English residents? Anyway, I didn't find Frederick Davis there. Thank you and the current chaplain for the information that there is no record of a funeal for Frederick at St Bartholomew's. I must write to the Ille et Vilaine Archives to enquire about cemetery registers.

  5. I have recently discovered that in fact Anthony Thomson was, at the time of Davis's death, no longer Chaplain at St Bartholomew's Dinard, but at the other Anglican church in the town, which was known as St Peter's. This still exists, known now as the "Vieux Temple". It only existed as a church for a few years, and Thomson was probably the only Chaplain (he started there in 1877 and left in 1884, and I know it had closed down by 1889. I guess Davis's funeral would have been held there, rather than at St Bartholomew's. As far as I know, no records survive of the church...

  6. Thank you very much, Barry. This is important new information. There is some history and pictures of the building here: and here:

    1. Indeed the information (with a few inaccuracies) and especially the photos are interesting. I will try to get my contact in Dinard to go and have a look around in case there might just be any traces left of the building's service as a church (not I fear very likely after 130 years or so). I have written a short monograph (pretentious word!) about the Revd Anthony Thomson, and I'll send you a copy by email. What is a complete mystery is why Monteith shouyld have decided to build (and presumably finance) a second Anglican church in Dinard in the 1870s, when St Bartholomew's had only just opened. There can't have been that many English residents! And why did Thomson move from St Bartholomew's to St Peter's? It can't have been for the money - according to Crockford's, his salary at St Peter's was £50 a year!

    2. Indeed! The Archives at Lambeth Palace may hold a clue. It would presumably have had to be licensed by the Archbishop.

    3. PS Frederick Davis was very High Church indeed. Was Thomson also that way inclined? If so, the congregation at St Bartholomew's may have objected to 'ritualistic' practices.

  7. Living in France, I can't get to Lambeth Palace archives alas, but a very kind archivist there has looked and not found anything about Thomson which I didn't already know. As to his churchmanship, well I've always rather assumed that he was low-to-middle, but not on the basis of any real evidence. What's odd is that the historian of St Bartholomew's (Alan Charters - Anglicans in Brittany) didn't pick up on any of this from the church records, including the committee minutes.

  8. Just found this blog post. Remarkable. I have added Davis to my database. I have started a blog on the subject: