An Edwardian Country Parson
Barbara Lewis Webb writes
My maternal grandfather, the Rev. Jonathan Marsden, was Vicar of Llanllwch,
Carmarthen, for a total of 53 years, from 1869 to 1922. To see other
articles by Barbara see Sir Thomas Picton and The First Picton Monument.
The Parish of Llanllwch was
originally part of the parish of St. Peter's Carmarthen. In 1843, the
parish of St. Peter's was divided into three districts - St. Peter's, St.
David's and Llanllwch; and in 1857 these were made into three separate
parishes. The tower of Llanllwch church is probably 15th century but the
remainder of the church fell into a ruinous state in the 18th century and
was largely rebuilt. It was later restored twice - in 1862 and 1865 -
before my grandfather became Vicar.(1)
My mother was born in 1890, the third of four children, and she had
fascinating memories of her childhood at Llanllwch. Her father's stipend
at the time was £300 a year, plus £100 for being chaplain to the Joint
Counties Asylum - and he had to pay his curate's salary out of his own
My mother's mother was a good deal younger than her father, but she and
her brothers and sisters never gave this much thought until one day when
they were playing in the churchyard they discovered the grave of their
father's first wife - no-one had ever told them that their father had been
Grandfather was a fluent Welsh speaker and took the services and preached
in Welsh, but my grandmother was English and never took the trouble to
learn the language. The children were supposed to be taught Welsh by the
maids, but naturally enough the maids found it much more convenient that
the children shouldn't be able to understand them, and my mother's Welsh
never got much beyond 'bara caws' and suchlike phrases.
As chaplain to the Asylum, Grandfather visited there frequently and he
often took mother with him. For a number of years the Carmarthen Journal
reported Quarterly Meetings of the Joint Counties Lunatic Asylum,
including Grandfather's annual reports. In 1894 he reported: 'I have much
pleasure in being able to say that the behaviour of the patients at Divine
Service has been very satisfactory. Very seldom has anything occurred to
cause the slightest unpleasantness . . .'
Patients in the wards of the main building, as well as those at Rhydygors
and Jacob's Well, are regularly visited and every such occasion is availed
of to converse with the patients with a view of administering instruction
and consolation; to comfort the sick and desponding, and generally to give
such spiritual advice as may seem necessary in each particular case.'(2)
The following year, he gave a rather touching account of his visits:
'. . . that the duties pertaining to his charge had been regularly and
carefully discharged during the year and he was sincerely glad to state
that many of the poor and afflicted inmates of the asylum had again and
again expressed their thankfulness for the many efforts to minister to
their spiritual need . . .'
During his frequent visits on the wards he had taken advantage of every
opportunity to help the patients to bear their burdens by playing and
singing to them, reading and translating their letters, reading verses and
sometimes playing draughts and other games with them; while the more
serious and important duties of his office had not been omitted.'(3)
As well as being Chaplain to the Asylum, Grandfather was Chaplain of St.
Peter's Lodge of Carmarthen Masons. For a dinner held at the Ivy Bush
hotel in December 1907, to celebrate the installation of F.J. Finglah as
Worshipful Master, the programme include photographs of my maternal
grandfather as Chaplain and my paternal grandfather, B.A. Lewis, as a Past
Harvest Festival was the great occasion of the year. It was held on a
weekday, not a Sunday, and there was one service in the morning and
another in the afternoon, with a special preacher at each. There was a
harvest lunch and a harvest supper, to which the local clergy and various
neighbouring notables and their families were invited. My mother and her
older brother would help by waiting on the visitors at the lunch and
Grandfather and his wife gave an annual treat for the Sunday School
children at the end of August or the beginning of September, mostly taking
the form of games and a tea in the Vicarage garden.
When my mother was ten, she joined her older brother and sister at school
in Carmarthen, and they had to walk two miles there, two miles back at
lunchtime and the same in the afternoon. Her father was very strict about
school attendance and they had to walk even if the rain was pouring down
in torrents. While she was at school my mother had a halfpenny a week
pocket money, while her older brother and sister had a little more. She
remembered her father putting the coins out on the sideboard for the four
of them every Saturday morning.
During my grandfather's ministry the disestablishment of the Church became
the burning issue of the day. The Anti-State-Church Association had been
formed in 1844, and in 1853 it was renamed the Liberation Society (the
Society for Liberating the Church from the State). Although this Society
deployed a considerable amount of its resources in Wales, its aim was the
disestablishment of the Church of England in its entirety.(4)
An impetus to this movement was given by the disestablishment and
disendowment of the Irish Church in 1869. Two bills for the
disestablishment of the Welsh Church were put before Parliament over the
next few years but both failed, though the second, in 1886, by only 12
votes. Resentment over the payment of tithes came to a head in the 'Tithe
War' of 1887, with unrest in the Tywi valley and violent protests in North
Wales. In 1891 the responsibility for the payment of tithes was
transferred from the tenant to the landlord, which helped to reduce the
resentment. But the argument for and against disestablishment rumbled on,
with the government attempting to defuse the situation by setting up a
royal commission to inquire into the provision of religion in Wales. It
took four years before the report was issued in 1910. Feeling ran
particularly high round Carmarthen, and my father (one of the ten sons of
B.A. Lewis of Carmarthen) used to tell the story of how, when the
disestablishment party was addressing a crowd from the balcony of the
Guildhall, a group of those opposed to disestablishment (including, he
said, some high dignitaries of the church) stormed the balcony and held
their own anti-disestablishment meeting instead.
In 1912 another Bill, removing established status from the Anglican Church
in Wales and two-thirds of its endowments, was introduced into Parliament,
and it eventually received the Royal Assent in September 1914. As World
War I had broken out in August, implementation of the Act was postponed
and it did not come into force until April 1st 1920.(5)
Up until that time, my mother recalled, many in my grandfather's rural
parish still paid their tithe dues in the form of chickens, geese and
The were no pensions for clergymen in those days, so my grandfather really
couldn't afford to retire, and he actually died in harness at 88 years
old. He was still very active in mind and body and he died quite suddenly
from pneumonia after catching a chill.
Among my mother's papers there was a letter of condolence from one of my
grandfather's former curates (then Rector of Brechfa). He wrote that in
his time at Llanllwch, the Rev. Jonathan Marsden was 'greatly beloved and
respected in the parish where peace, unity and concord reigned supreme'.
It is no wonder that my mother treasured those kindly words about her
father and kept the letter for the whole of her long life.
--(1) The Story of Carmarthen, Joyce and Victor Lodwick,
St. Peter's Press, 1994 p.394.
--(2) The Carmarthen Journal January 26th 1894.
--(3) The Carmarthen Journal February 8th 1895.
--(4) A History of Wales by John Davies, Allen Lane 1993.
--(5) A History of Wales as above.
Barbara Lewis Webb
Reproduced from THE FRIEND August 1999