The Eccentric Curate of West Tilbury

Posted in Local History at 12:10 am by henrysgauntlet

The eccentricities of Church of England clergymen have been and are one of the great glories of English history.   Vicars and Rectors over many centuries have advanced arguments and embraced causes, pronounced judgements and pursued projects that their contemporaries regarded as ridiculous.   They have added greatly to the gaiety of national life without doing any serious harm.

One of these clergymen was William Henry Henslowe, a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, who began his career as Curate of West Tilbury and chaplain to the garrison of Tilbury fort.   With remarkable tactlessness, he preached a sermon  in the mid-1830s to the officers and men of the garrison in which he criticised the practice of flogging miscreant soldiers.   Given the reliance of the British Army of the time on its disciplinary code, this was regarded as an outrage by the officers of the garrison who duly complained to the Bishop of London.   Henslowe refused to apologise and was stripped of his curacy.   He compounded his offence by going on to print his sermon. 

This was only the first of a series of  highly controversial episodes in which Henslowe, who  later secured a benefice in Norfolk, attracted the attention of his superiors in Church and State.   He achieved most notoriety, however, for his denunciation in 1847  of the “unnatural, irrational, unmanly, ungodly, and fatal fashion among Christians” of shaving. Citing copious examples of Biblical injunctions against the shaving of beards, he also appealed to the important physical advantages that came to men from growing moustaches, particularly in sheltering the lips and strengthening the teeth:  in the case of soldiers, in what may have been an echo of his experience at West Tilbury, he argued that, by forgoing shaving, “the teeth are rendered more serviceable for the biting of cartridges, and the use of the mustachio is also a great saving in time at the soldiers’ toilet.”

Henslowe’s Victorian contemporaries reacted as we do now – they laughed.   Ridiculous though his sentiments were, they assured him of a place in anthologies of nineteenth-century writing.   How many other former Curates of West Tilbury could claim as much?

Author  –  Christopher Thompson