John Owen Parr — vicar (part 2)

John Owen Parr — vicar (part 1)

A different evangelising side to Parr was shown at the beginning of 1849 when he was planning a reordering of the parish church, the aims of which he set out in a letter to the Preston Chronicle. One of those aims was to remedy ‘the absence of any adequate accommodation for the Poor both adult and infant … It is surely as undesirable as it is unusual that the Poor should be almost entirely absent from the Parish Church [emphasis in original], and more especially that Sunday Schools connected with it … should have no place provided in it for them’. He proposed a new south aisle to accommodate ‘300 Adult Poor’, with room found for 500 children in the west gallery.

He wrote:

That part of the town, the spiritual charge of which belongs to the Parish Church, contains a large body of poor who have no place within it. It is only a mockery for the Ministers of it to invite the poor to attend upon its ordinances. And yet unless they can and do attend upon them, all other religious influences must in great measure fail.

Lest the present pew holders should worry about sharing space with ‘the Poor’, Parr was at pains to reassure them, ‘By the proposed design the poor will really have their aisle within the Church, and the schools their appropriate position. Rich and poor, young and old will be united without being confounded in the house of their God and Saviour’. 1 It is unclear whether Parr’s reordering project was carried out, for not long after the church was rebuilt, assuming its present form. Sue Latimer got in touch to say that some years ago when she was involved in the Last Battle on English Soil project she spent some time in Lancashire Archives examining plans of the parish church and found no trace of a south aisle.

This concern with unministered souls had accounted for the spate of church building in the town earlier in the century, which continued during Parr’s ministry. And it probably accounted for the establishment of the church of St Michael’s at Grimsargh in 1716 by the Whig vicar of Preston Samuel Peploe, who was much concerned to purge his parish of papists. Parr continued the work to protect Grimsargh from Catholics, both within and without the church, when he made use of his right in 1850 to appoint the village’s perpetual curate, who it can be assumed would be a person sharing his views. 2

For an account of Parr’s private life and the shame and scandal that marred the end of his life and career:
The many wives of the Rev John Owen Parr

Somewhat surprisingly then, the Grimsargh minister’s name is absent from a memorial addressed to the Bishop of Manchester later that year signed by Parr and the ministers of all the other Anglican churches in the parish, accusing the Pope of seeking to undermine the authority of the Protestant church by reintroducing the Catholic hierarchy in England. 3 This was the first indication of the town’s clergy taking a position on what became known as the ‘Papal Aggression Controversy’, and which is the subject of the separate article in preparation mentioned above.

The following year Parr was presenting another memorial, this time to the mayor and magistrates at the annual licensing session (Parr was himself sitting on the bench) on behalf of the Preston Temperance Society, opposing the granting of new licences because it was felt:

That the number of places already licensed for the sale of intoxicating drinks is too great, there being no less than 166 public-houses and 198 beer-shops – together, 364, or one for every 187 inhabitants. … That the great portion of the working classes, instead of cultivating habits of forethought and economy, waste their money and their time in these places, and when trade becomes depressed or the slightest casualty occurs, themselves and their families are immediately thrown on the parish for support. 4

Parr displayed his political sympathies quite clearly at the time of the impending general election in 1852. The favoured Tory candidate, the former MP Robert Townley Parker, was showing himself reluctant to contest the seat again, not least because he feared his name would be tarnished by association with his supporters in the previous election who had left the town’s tradesmen, especially the publicans, in considerable debt by neglecting to pay the election expenses incurred in the failed campaign. The desperate search for a candidate provided the Preston Chronicle with much scope for ridicule:

Our readers are aware that for some time past the Tories of Preston have been ‘hard up’ for a candidate. Those whom they had bidden to the election feast refused to come; Mr. Townley Parker will not ally himself to those who have associated his honourable name with repudiation, and bad faith, and unpaid election bills; Mr. Birchall cannot be drawn out; so they have sent into the highways and byeways for ‘the halt, the lame, and the blind,’ and have stumbled upon a Mr. Raikes, a genuine Tory of the old school, one whose sincerity in defending abuses and monopolies and sinecures may be judged from the fact that he himself profits by one of the grossest abuses in the country.

Mr Raikes was Henry Raikes, registrar of the diocese of Chester, a post that was generally regarded as a gross sinecure that rewarded him with £7,000 a year and which engaged him for six months of the year. Parr felt called upon to defend Raikes, arguing that his office was no sinecure but ‘one of constant and responsible employment … and so far as his income from it goes, he is paid only for work and labour done’. No matter, the barb had clearly gone home, for Parr declared that Raikes would not be the candidate ‘though every way worthy of such a position’. 5 A few years later Parr protested against a Government initiative that would have paid the pupil teachers in Preston’s Church of England schools a salary of £15 a year, because the the town’s churches could not possibly afford it (see below).

For a wider political and religious context:
Nigel Morgan’s Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60
Jack Hepworth’s Anglo-Irish relations in mid-nineteenth-century Presto

Shortly after, Townley Parker was prevailed upon to accept the candidacy, and Parr mobilised his clergy to ensure they supported him. Parr began by joining a small group of friends of Townley Parker set up to manage the Tory campaign. 6 This was followed up by a letter to the Preston Chronicle, signed by Parr and fourteen of the town’s Anglican clergy, which urged electors to vote for the candidates supporting the Church of England establishment (Parker Conservative and Grenfell Liberal), and not for the other Liberal candidate, Sir George Strickland, who they saw as currying favour with the town’s Catholics. Religion trumped party politics:

As clergymen, we should, perhaps, shrink from mere political controversy; but, convinced that the main question of our times is not so much worldly politics as the great principle of Christian truth; and, believing it to be our bounden duty to assert and maintain that truth, we feel that we cannot allow the solemn occasion of the Election to pass over without elevating the Protestant standard, and inviting you very earnestly to gather around it. The events of the last two years prove, unquestionably, that the Roman Catholic power is bent upon the re-subjugation of Britain to her despotic rule. In the House of Commons, a small body of Roman Catholic members has seriously impeded the councils of the nation; and, by her public organs, the Roman Catholic church has proclaimed her intention of frustrating the measures of every government unfriendly to Rome, until she compels Britain to leave open to her the high road by which she may regain her long-coveted supremacy. Under such circumstances as these, the preservation of our civil and religious liberties, appears, under God, mainly to depend upon the wisdom and enlightened knowledge of our legislators. If men are sent to Parliament who see no evil in Popery, no danger in her aggressions, then the fearful result must be hastened; it can only be averted by the return of such members as are alive to the existing danger, and determined to do all they can to stop its progress. Yes! the great question of the day is the maintaining our Protestant constitution. Its most formidable foe is Rome.

Protestant Electors of Preston – you value your religious privileges; you value your civil rights – your national blessings. You are thankful for the temporal prosperity which a gracious God vouchsafes you. Combine, then, in an effort to preserve these blessings; that effort must now be, to uphold Protestant Truth and Liberty in contradistinction to Romish Superstition and Tyranny. Vote, then, for those candidates upon whose principles you have reason to rely. And who are these candidates? Parker and Grenfell. It is notorious that the Roman Catholics of Preston have deserted Mr. Grenfell because of his Protestant principles and votes; it is equally notorious that Sir George Strickland has by his votes on Romish questions secured their favour.

… Vote therefore, we exhort you, as you value the blessings you possess, – vote for PARKER and GRENFELL. You endanger nothing by thus voting. Whatever may be your political opinions, those opinions, be they Liberal or be they Conservative, will be represented by one or other of these gentlemen, and thus politically you do not damage the policy you may most approve; whilst by voting for the two candidates who uphold Protestant principles you may secure their return, and send those men to parliament whose conduct will assist in preserving that civil and religious liberty, to which Rome, despite her protestations, is a deadly foe; and upon the maintenance of which in all its integrity and power, as embodied in the British constitution, the very existence of our national prosperity, peace, and happiness depends. Fellow Protestants, we would encourage you in this plain course of Christian duty; we earnestly entreat you to vote for those men who will secure to you and to your children an open Bible, Protestant liberty, and Scriptural truth; and then, having done your duty as fully as circumstances admit, you may, in prayer, leave the result to Almighty God, and may His blessing rest upon our sacred cause.

At the end of the letter, the clergymen recall, a little hollowly, that they are Christians, in spite of the forgoing:

We address these words to you in no spirit of intolerance to our Roman Catholic countrymen; and we earnestly exhort all Protestants to abstain from any expression of ill-will towards their Roman Catholic neighbours, and to exercise Christian charity and forbearance in the approaching contest. 7

The perennial problem of resistance to the vicar’s Easter dues was being aired in court the following year:

EASTER DUES. — Several persons were summoned for non-payment of Easter dues, alleged to be due to the Rev. J. Owen Parr, namely, the sum of 6½d. each. Ellen Dewhurst being called upon to state the reason why she refused to pay the sum, replied: I did not think it right; I do not know that I owe the vicar … anything. (Applause in court.) Mr. Ainsworth: We can’t inquire into the propriety of the law; all we have to do is to administer it while it remains in force. Mrs Dewhurst: I will not pay it. Mr. Ainsworth: You had better pay it, as it will cost you a good deal if we have to make an order. … Ellen Chambers, a decrepit female aged 70 years, was next arraigned. She replied: I am a widow, 70 years of age. I’ve been a widow 20 years, and I have never had a halfpenny out of the town; but I’ve got nothing to pay with unless I borrow it. Mr. Ainsworth: You had better borrow it. Old Woman. Well, it’s very hard. 8

A strange case involving two Preston girls allegedly abducted from the town and placed in a Catholic nunnery at the other end of the country by their Catholic father caused a great stir and led to a full-blown House of Commons debate, reported at length in the Times. Much of the evidence was supplied by Parr in a letter to the MP who raised the matter in the Commons. In his letter, Parr maintained that the girls and their mother had been baptised as Protestants, and their future employment had been arranged by one of the town’s Protestant clergymen, to which the father had raised no objection. But afterwards the father had ‘used fraud and force to frustrate this design for his children’, by taking them to the nunnery. Parr wrote, ‘No doubt the sole object of placing them in the nunnery at St Leonard’s was to compel them to adopt the Roman Catholic faith’. 9

The opposition to Easter dues that was to prove a recurring issue for Parr now took the form of ridicule by journalists that provoked Parr to resort to the courts. The article in question included the following paragraph:

… such men as Parr, of Preston, are striking, though they know it not, at the very root of belief, and are spreading infidelity throughout the length and breadth of this land. Can the poor and suffering look for consolation from a church, or listen to the lessons that fall from the preacher’s lips, when such men as these fill the pulpit – when the tax-collector shrouds himself in the cassock of the priest, and the pastor hands his flock over to the tender mercies of the auctioneer? ‘Let us prey,’ said the fox from the pulpit, and his greedy eye numbered the fluttering geese.

The vicar sued the owners of the journal that published the offending article, and the Preston Chronicle that reprinted it. I do not know the outcome of the case. 10

Parr himself was in trouble shortly after when the toll collector at Penwortham bridge stopped the vicar’s carriage to ask for the toll payment. Parr refused to pay, apparently maintaining that if detained all day he still would not pay. He successfully avoided payment, as he did again a few days later. This raised serious complications for the bridge trustees, who had never previously been faced with such a bold refusal to pay. Other bridge users questioned why they should have to pay if the vicar was exempt. The trustees instructed their lawyer to serve a distress warrant on Parr. 11 The tolls were waived shortly after, so presumably the action against the vicar was not pursued.

In 1861 Parr penned a letter to the Preston Chronicle setting out his objections to a Government initiative to improve the numbers and salaries of pupil teachers in schools. The town’s churches just could not afford it, he maintained. The proposed scheme for Preston would pay pupil teachers in Church of England schools £15 a year:

Pupil teacher salaries in Preston in 1861
Proposed pupil teacher salaries, published in the Preston Chronicle p3 25 September 1861,

More trouble came for Parr with the formation of an Anti-Easter Due Association, members of which pledged not to pay the dues and to raise funds to compensate those members who were prosecuted. The opposition was being led by the town’s Nonconformist ministers and laymen. One of those prosecuted wrote to the vicar setting out his objections to the imposition:

When the support of any establishment involves oppression and persecution; when the maintenance of any religious organisation necessitates that which all enlightened and liberal-minded men condemn and deplore – I mean force and the violation of conscientious freedom – then, I think, it is time to reform its constitution or entirely abrogate its operations. The natural action of all despotic bodies – whether political or religious – always tends to damage the welfare of society and arrest the true progress of man. The Church of England – if the policy of its chief exponents and defenders residing in Preston is any criterion – seems to depend for a portion of its existence upon tyranny, upon the coerced support of those who do not believe in its ritual, and who have no faith in its general ecclesiastical government. I do not believe in its doctrines and I regret its despotism. 12

A correspondent in the Preston Chronicle, drew the parallel between the vicar’s refusal to pay bridge tolls mentioned above and the refusal to pay him his Easter dues:

I am surprised that none of the speakers at the great Anti-Easter due meeting referred to a matter which attracted public attention a few years ago, and which is not yet forgotten. In the summer of 1858 a toll was levied, under the authority of an act of parliament, on the persons who crossed Penwortham Bridge; the toll was paid by all the passengers except one. A gentleman going to, or returning from, a dinner party at Penwortham refused to pay; the words he is said to have used were, ‘I shan’t pay; it is an imposition.’ He was detained for awhile, but ultimately he was allowed to pass. It could not have been that be was ignorant of the fact that the toll was in force, for it had been levied during the whole summer, and it was at the end of August that he denounced it as an imposition. …

Who was the gentleman that thus refused to pay a lawful demand? It was the Rev. John Owen Parr, M.A., Vicar of Preston. He had doubtless conscientious objections to the toll, and therefore he did not pay it. It was the law, but he disregarded it. About the legality of the demand there was no question, but he stood out against it. And yet he levies church-rates and Easter-dues on persons who have far higher ground for objecting to pay than he had in the matter of the Penwortham toll; for they say that for Catholics and Nonconformists to pay Easter-dues is not only against conscience, but against law. The Vicar has himself set an example of sturdy opposition to a certain demand; the people of Preston are but treading in the Vicar’s steps when they refuse to pay Easter-dues. 13

Despite such unrelenting opposition, Parr was not without supporters, and it was one of these who suggested in 1870 that Gladstone should promote the vicar of Preston to the bishopric of Manchester. The suggestion was greeted with gleeful ridicule, it being pointed out that the arch Tory Parr would hardly find favour with the leader of the Liberals, who he had accused of receiving a bribe to influence his policy, who he had labelled a rat and who he would apparently have liked to have seen hanged. 14 Should Gladstone have seriously considered the suggestion and acted on it, he would soon have had cause to regret the appointment. For just two years later the biggest scandal of Parr’s career was exposed in the pages of the Preston Chronicle. The paper revealed that Parr, who had taken himself to Nice for the good of his health, was not the widower he professed to be, but was secretly married to a woman more than 30 years his junior, who he had been passing off as a servant in the vicarage. His reputation shredded, he soldiered on for another four years until his death in February 1877.

1 Preston Chronicle P8, January 27, 1849, British Library Newspapers,

2 Preston Chronicle P4, March 16, 1850, British Library Newspapers,

3 Preston Chronicle P4, November 16, 1850, British Library Newspapers,

4 Preston Chronicle P5, August 30, 1851, British Library Newspapers,

5 Preston Chronicle P4, April 17, 1852, British Library Newspapers,

6 Preston Chronicle P4, June 5, 1852, British Library Newspapers,

7 Preston Chronicle P4, July 3, 1852, British Library Newspapers,

8 Preston Chronicle P5, July 16, 1853, British Library Newspapers,

9 The Times P7, March 1, 1854, The Times Digital Archive.

10 Preston Chronicle P5, November 18, 1854, British Library Newspapers,

11 Preston Chronicle P5, September 4, 1858, British Library Newspapers,

12 Preston Chronicle P4, February 11, 1865, British Library Newspapers,

13 Preston Chronicle P6, March 4, 1865, British Library Newspapers,

14 Preston Chronicle P6, January 8, 1870, British Library Newspapers,

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