John Owen Parr (1798-1877), the vicar of Preston for 37 years from 1840 until his death, led a seemingly conventional life as a Victorian Church of England minister: he instructed his parish clergy to ensure their congregations voted Tory at every election, he was a virulent opponent of Catholics, both Roman and Anglo-, and he routinely set the bailiffs on anyone of whatever faith who objected to paying him his tithes and Easter dues.
The above represents his public life, for which see: The public face of John Owen Parr. This article is solely concerned with his private life, for behind the closed doors of the vicarage he was hiding what was for Victorian Preston a shameful secret that when revealed created a major scandal in the town and laid bare the hypocrisy that he had presumably hoped to keep hidden. The Preston Chronicle hinted at the scandal in its notice of his death.
The Rev. John Owen Parr, vicar of Preston, is dead, and, yesterday, all that was mortal of him went down to the grave. We do not purpose giving any analysis of his character, and yet, out of respect for that somewhat dubious saying – De mortuis nil nisi bonum – we will just observe that he was a man of rare parts, brilliant in company, smart in debate, and cultivated in intellect. 1
But if the paper was reluctant to speak ill of the dead, its editor Anthony Hewitson showed no such reluctance to speak ill of the living five years earlier when, in an early example of investigative journalism, he uncovered Parr’s secret marriage to a woman more than 30 years his junior, who he had been passing off as a servant in his household. Hewitson discovered that the now middle-aged Mrs Parr had been carrying on for a year with a youth in the town. I’ve transcribed the full newspaper report and put it online.
What Hewitson does not seem to have been aware of was that this was possibly Parr’s second ‘clandestine’ marriage, and that he took as his previous wife a young woman who had been a servant in his household at the time of his first wife’s death (see below).
The following documents lay bare Parr’s attempts to ensure Preston society was unaware of his third marriage, which followed on closely the death of his second wife:
The above certificate reveals that the couple travelled to London to marry at St James’s Church, Westminster, in 1858, possibly to hide the match from his Preston parishioners; his description of himself as ‘gentleman’ rather than ‘reverend’ is perhaps another attempt at concealment; and the status of the bride’s father has been inflated, rather than being a liquor merchant, he would be more properly described as a travelling salesman. At the 1861 census he was described as a commercial traveller in ale and porter. 2
Concealment continued three years later when Parr had to complete his household census return. He is shown as a 61-year-old widower and his wife as a 29-year-old unmarried house servant in the above return. 3
The pretence is continued at the time of the 1871 census. In the above return, Parr, now aged 70, is still described as a widower, and his wife, now aged 38, is again a servant, described as a ‘ladies maid’, presumably to his three now adult daughters. 4
Mrs Parr outlived her husband by 26 years, dying at Torquay at the age of 80. As the above cutting shows, her funeral was at Preston parish church.
The marriage raises so many now unanswerable questions. Before it became public knowledge courtesy of the Preston Chronicle, who knew of the existence of the third Mrs Parr? What did he tell his family, which included one son who was a himself a vicar, a son-in-law who was also a vicar, and another son who was a prison governor? Did the third Mrs Parr worship at the parish church, and which pew did she occupy?
None of these questions was addressed by the town’s historians, who did not even acknowledge the third marriage. Thus Henry Fishwick writes of Parr in his The History of the Parish of Preston, ‘He was twice married, first to Maria Elizabeth, daughter of William Wright of London, who died 20th February, 1841; and secondly to Miss Proctor.’ 5 And Tom Smith, in his Records of the Parish Church of Amounderness, writes:
By his first wife, Maria Elizabeth, eldest daughter of William Wright, Esq., of London, Mr. Parr had issue (1) Rev. John Owen Parr, M.A., Worthing, Sussex; (2) Wm. Chase Parr, Alton, Hants; (3) Harrington W. Parr, Governor of H.M. Prison, Warwick; (4) W. Manisty Parr, died in 1857; (5) Edward Parr, died young; and a daughter, wife of the late Rev. John Wilson, M.A., incumbent of St. James’s, Preston. Mrs. Parr died 20th Feb., 1841. He married, secondly, Miss Proctor, by whom he had a son, Arthur, who died young. 6
Hewitson in his own history of the town published in 1883 makes no mention of Parr’s family, neither does Clemesha in his later history. All the historians were writing years after the third marriage became public knowledge, so why did they ignore it? The third Mrs Parr was still alive when the books appeared. And why did Tom Smith, after giving the full name and antecedents of the first Mrs Parr, dismiss the second wife as simply a ‘Miss Proctor’ and fail to mention the three surviving daughters of the marriage? Why did Fishwick and Smith write Alice Parr out of history?
Incidentally, notice how Smith numbers and names the sons of the first marriage, including one who died young, but leaves nameless ‘a daughter’, while naming her husband. And he names the second Mrs Parr’s son, who died young, but omits the still surviving daughters.
The answer to the second question could be that with the second marriage, as with the third, the vicar of Preston had reasons for seeking a certain anonymity:
Again, Parr has taken himself off to London for his marriage, this time at St George’s, Hanover Square. And again he is described as ‘gentleman’ and not ‘Reverend’. The bride’s father is a carrier, a very plebeian occupation for the father-in-law of the vicar of Preston, who was also a county magistrate. The groom would have been aged about 47, the bride about 24. In the 1851 census return below she is named Janet. 7
Parr’s first wife, Maria Elizabeth, had died in March 1841, at the age of 43, the same age as her husband. 8 On the census return of that year above, completed after Maria’s death, a Jane Proctor is listed as a 20-year-old servant in the vicar’s household. 9 Was this the future Mrs Parr? The coincidences are strong: name and age fit with the Mrs Jane Parr of the later marriage certificate and 1851 census return, and circumstances mirror those of his third marriage.
By contrast, Parr first marriage appears to have been utterly conventional. When the couple were married in the parish church of St Pancras in London in 1821, the 23-year-old Parr was a newly-ordained priest of the Church of England, and signs himself as such. No ‘gentleman’ designation here. In fact, he had been ordained only the day before, and special dispensation had had to be sought because he was under the official age for ordination. 10
1 Preston Chronicle P5, 17 February 1877, British Library Newspapers, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/Y3207486390/BNCN?sid=bookmark-BNCN&xid=35a264a1.
2 ‘RG9/2631 f.90’, n.d., https://www.ancestry.co.uk/imageviewer/collections/8767/images/CHSRG9_2629_2634-0710?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&queryId=be2637b4d05aa4936e23dffa868a8aa5&usePUB=true&_phsrc=eTA125&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&pId=22838913.
5 Henry Fishwick, The History of the Parish of Preston (Rochdale: The Aldine Press, 1900), 191–92.
8 ‘Lancashire OnLine Parish Clerk Project’, accessed 10 April 2022, https://www.lan-opc.org.uk/Preston/Preston/stjohn/burials_1841.html#1318.
9 HO107/498/12 f.18, n.d., https://www.ancestry.co.uk/imageviewer/collections/8978/images/LANHO107_497_498-0492?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&queryId=a68a1d6b59aad075f656dd152d04b35e&usePUB=true&_phsrc=eTA96&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&pId=4681903.
10 ‘CCED: Search’, n.d., https://theclergydatabase.org.uk/jsp/search/index.jsp.