William Morris Colles M.A. D.D. (1819-1899)
The Revd. William Morris Colles M.A. (later to become a Doctor of Divinity - D.D.) succeeded Reverend Carr as Curate of St Mary’s Melton Mowbray in 1849 when he inherited sole charge of the living which was at the time sequestrated (i.e. not entitled to Church Revenues) as a result of the misdeeds of the then incumbent, but almost permanently absent, Reverend Robert Fleetwood Croughton, B.A.. As the young pretender to the occupation of the Vicarage, Rev. Colles valiantly held the fort until eventually, in 1867 and on the eventual death of Croughton, he was finally presented with the glittering prize of the Vicarage of Melton Mowbray after having been the Curate-in-waiting for some 18 long years. William was an only son, born in May of 1819 at his family home of Wexford Castle in County Kildare, Ireland, the seat of his father, the late Lieutenant William Colles of Her Majesty’s 8th Regiment of Foot, possessor of considerable amounts of property and personal wealth. On the 5th December 1850 at St. Mark’s church in Marylebone, London, William was to marry Louisa Ann, eldest daughter of the late Rev. Henry Taylor, lately Rector of Stoke Rochford in Lincolnshire. in 1874 he gained the designation of ‘Doctor of Divinity - DD’ a title by which he later became more familiarly known.
The good doctor’s overall tenure at Melton Mowbray - an historic market town noted for its hunting and fine foods which lies to the north east of Leicestershire in the East Midlands of England - was to extend for 40 long years, i.e. 1849-1889, a career which is today looked upon today as having been of overall benefit to the town and its parishioners. Over such a long period of tenancy in overall charge, controversy was bound to arise from time to time , especially with the increasing arrival within his parish of non-believers, dissenters and nonconformists, but generally, the Curate who waited so many years to become vicar is widely and fondly remembered today far more for the many good things that he achieved for the town and the upkeep of his church, especially in relation to the maintenance and frequent renovation of the ancient church buildings and their environs, along with a dedicated interest in the education of the young and the general protection of his flock. Today his name is appropriately memorialised nearby with the continued existence of the Colles Hall in Burton Street - albeit now a modern pizza-parlour.
A part of the Curate's biography which has not always been recalled in the conversations of politer circles relates to events of the year 1850, which is not only to be remembered exclusively as the year of his earthly marriage to Louisa, but also to the summer of that year when the young incumbent was to court much unwanted controversy. Reportedly a little headstrong and occasionally outspoken in the earlier years of his new living, he was to provoke much serious public animus when, on the occasion of the passing of a well-known and loved local character against whom he seems to have adopted a certain hauteur, he steadfastly refused access to ‘his’ church of her unconsecrated remains. His alleged indiscreet and dismissive handling of a quite sensitive situation, was to create an indelicate incident which would anger not only his own local proletariat, but was to bring upon his head the censure of a national press, unwanted - some say unwarranted - exposure to the public gaze and a general discourse of religious morality within the country as a whole. As short-lived as this controversy proved to be during those late summer months, perhaps in hindsight, a storm in a teacup, it is an engaging story which is perhaps well worth repeating.
A Corpse Awaits at the Church Gates
During the second week of the month of August in the long-ago Victorian summer of 1850, Elizabeth Wainer, reportedly a colourful and popular character and matriarch of an extended and infamous local family, died peacefully and apparently naturally, at her little home in Chapel Street, Melton Mowbray. A celebrated character of the working classes, ‘Old Betty’ is said to have paid scant attention to her religious and civic duties during her 60 plus years on earth and apparently instead had played out a dissipated and often drunken life amongst the men-folk and lower levels of the townspeople who dwelt mainly in the tight little alleyways and small rented houses close to mediaeval walls of the old town centre, earning a wage occasionally in the employ of providing mainly menial services for the visiting gentry of the hunting fraternity. Matriarch Betty was, nevertheless, said to be dearly loved by her many family members and a large number of friends and colleagues who were liberally spread around the small population of about 3000 people then resident in the town. Unfortunately for the good Dr. Colles with only a short residence in the town thus far, his unhelpful and dismissive attitude both towards her actual death at this time, followed by the arrival of her body at the Church gates and finally, to her subsequent burial in consecrated ground, created his publicly reasoned objections to her admission to the house of God which he related to the grounds of her low social grouping and ‘risky’ reputation. His adamant refusal to accept the presence of her body within the bounds of the church building immediately engendered a great upheaval of public sympathy and general disapproval, not to mention a significant groundswell of general anger locally. This unfortunate incident and its related discordance was not to escape the attention of a scandal-seeking local press and amidst the furore of the family and their allies, support for the actions of the Curate was to come initially in the guise of a small piece, tucked away on page 3 of the Leicestershire Mercury of Saturday, 17th August 1850:
‘DIED, on Saturday last, aged 66, Elizabeth Wainer, better known as “Old Betty,” who had been for half-a-century the keeper of a brothel in this town. Great dissatisfaction was evinced by her relations and friends that the Rev. W. M. Coles, the curate, would not perform the burial-service over her body in the church, as the deceased had been duly baptised, (and, therefore, according to the Bishop of Exeter, “regenerated!”) christened, and confirmed, and had always paid church-rates. Some few other parties, we find, think the rev. gentleman acted inconsistently, seeing that he did read the service at the grave-side, in doing which he spoke of the deceased’s hope of a joyful resurrection, and afterwards demanded the customary fees. Now, we cannot coincide in this opinion. Mr. Colles was not bound to admit the corpse into the church, while, we believe, he was bound to read the service at the grave-side: as curate, he was also bound to ask for the fees - not for himself, but for the representatives of the non-resident vicar. Nor can we join in blaming a clergyman because he hesitates in the performance of a solid mockery. The less said on such an occasion the better.’
Fair comment perhaps, but being dismissive of the protests it was not to be not an opinion shared by another regional newspaper, a competitor, which was also to hit the news-stands that Saturday in August from the neighbouring county of Lincolnshire where ‘Correspondent‘ from the nearby Stamford Mercury, asserted to be ‘simply recording the facts as he was advised of them from a respectable source.’ He was to expound his alternative views beneath the one-line death announcement in the obituaries column, i.e.
‘At Melton Mowbray on the 11th, Mrs Eliz. Wainer, late Chapel Street.’
‘Refusing to Bury the Dead. – In our obituary of this day will be found a notice of the death of a noted character in Melton; and it proved to be an event when the domineering spirit of priestcraft had an opportunity of venting its full spleen, both before the spirit had gone to the God who gave it, and also when there was nothing left but an inanimate lump of clay. We shall simply record the facts as we are advised of them from a respectable source, and then leave all Christian people to judge of them. Mrs Wainer was a public character for many years in Melton, and pursued such a course of life as no man would vindicate; but as there are always two sides to a question, we may be permitted to add that, wherever disease or destitution made its appearance in her neighbourhood, her’s was the heart and the hand ever foremost to mitigate suffering. She was taken dangerously ill on Friday last, and wished for someone to pray by her; and, at her own request, the Curate of the parish was sent for. Upon his arrival, he commenced a tirade against her respecting her past life, and resolutely refused to comply with her wishes at all; and had it not been for the goods offices of some neighbours, she might have left this world without any spiritual consolation whatever. However, on Sunday morning she died; and on Tuesday her children were startled with the information that the clergyman would refuse the body admittance into the church, and would also refuse to read that part of the service at all. Great, therefore, was the general excitement when the corpse arrived at the church gates, and no minister made his appearance according to custom; and still greater when, for the first time within the memory of man, the church doors were found closed against the dead. After the mourners had waited for a sufficient time, they retired again with the corpse, amidst vehement cries of “shame” from the people, to the new Church of England burial ground, where ready stood the Rev. Wm. Coles, [sic] and he commenced reading the funeral service in his canonical dress. The relatives of the deceased, however, refused to listen to him, and after depositing the body in the ground, they left the clergyman continuing to read the usual service for the dead, over the body which he had refused to admit into the church. The event has caused great excitement in the town, and is calculated to rend wider the division which, owing to such uncharitable courses, has for some time existed.’
‘He Needs Too Greatly to be Taught’
Whether or not the embattled Curate did actually read the offending and personal critique of his controversial actions in ‘The Mercury’ - which was the nearest local newspaper of the day - is not recorded and there is no reply to be found in later editions of that particular publication, but this was not to be the case with the Leicestershire paper however with whom Mr Colles was soon to be taking up his pen. However, comment was soon to appear from a most unexpected source when The Times, the nation’s most read and respected - even revered - newspaper offered an even more vitriolic critique from the columns of its sister paper, The Examiner. Without pulling any punches in an overt and vituperative attack on the Curate, he produced the following piece:
‘SEEKING THE LOST.'
‘In the Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury for the 16th August, we find this narrative.
At Melton Mowbray, a Mrs Wainer, who had been compromised in character, but to the poor around her had been uniformly kind and liberal, was upon her death-bed; and the curate of the parish refused her own solicitation that he would come and pray with her. She died; and he refused admission of her body to the church, consenting only to so much of the burial service as was usually read upon the ground. The coffin and the mourners found the church doors closed. The people (the parishioners) yelled their disgust at this. The body was then carried to the cemetery, where the relatives and mourners left it; and the reverend gentleman performed as a soliloquy, so far as they were interested, what he considered to be the remainder of his duty.
We say nothing of shutting the church doors. The reverend gentleman might do with the body any unseemly things he pleased, or might think it decent to enact. But who is this, disguised among the ministers of Jesus, who dares refuse to pray beside a dying woman – because she was a sinner? Who is this? It is the Reverend William Coles, [sic] of Melton Mowbray.
The Pharisees, as Mr Coles might do, objected to Our Lord that he had too much care for sinners. Only the Pharisees could move Him to anger. Whether Mr Coles be a High Churchman, or a Low Churchman, we know not. But we know that he ought not to be teacher in the Church of Christ – he needs too greatly to be taught.’
Whenever and wherever it was that the Reverend Colles did subsequently read this damning public exposé of his worldly alleged ‘misdoings’, one can only imagine today the inner sense of outrage and despair which he must have endured on seeing such derogatory and embarrassing personal criticism, especially so in a national newspaper which was after all, far from a private circulation but one available and circulated for the whole world to read. But whatever the spur, his calculated response was a swift one as he once more wielded his pen as a sword to enter combat with the following response which was to appear in The Times dated Wednesday, 28th August 1850.’
I have just seen a paragraph from the ‘Examiner’ in your paper this day, which states, that Mrs Wainer, of Melton Mowbray, “was upon her deathbed, and the curate of the parish refused at her own solicitation that he would come and pray with her.” I beg to state that this is a malicious falsehood. As you have thought fit to bring this matter before your readers, I may add that Mrs Wainer has kept a brothel in this town for almost half a century (as I am credibly informed). She sent for me and I went to her house, accompanied by the Rev. G.B. Hill, assistant curate of Melton: I preached the Gospel to her, prayed for her and exhorted her in the kindest manner to repent of her sins, and look to the Saviour. I can prove this. The Examiner represents me as a Pharisee, says, “Probably he preaches Phillpotts,” and adds, “We know that he ought not to be a teacher in the church of Christ, he needs too greatly to be taught.”
I approve of the liberty of the press, as a safeguard for the liberty of the people, but I regret that your paper should be made the medium of circulating a false and malicious libel, followed by scoffing insinuations and assertions, under the semblance of zeal for the truth.
It is true that the body of Mrs Wainer was not brought into the church. She seldom darkened the church doors whilst living, and was not permitted to defile them when dead. With reference to the yells of the parishioners, the Examiner states, “the people yelled their disgust at this.” I defy the writer to produce a single respectable inhabitant of Melton Mowbray who joined in such yells, or sympathised with the mob. I read the service as required by the law (which the Examiner describes as a “soliloquy,” notwithstanding the number of persons assembled on the occasion); and, with reference to my preaching, I teach in the church of Christ according to the ability which God has given to me.
Hoping that you will insert this contradiction of the false statements which have appeared in your paper,
I am Sir, your obedient servant,
W.M. COLLES, Curate of Melton Mowbray.
The Vicarage, Melton Mowbray, Aug. 26.
The following week, The Examiner duly replied by return with the following:
‘The Times publishes a letter from the Reverend Mr Colles, the curate of Melton Mowbray, denying the material part of the charge which the Lincoln and Stamford Mercury had made against him, and which was copied into last weeks Examiner with a comment which the case quite justified.
“She sent for me and I went to her house, accompanied by the Rev. G.B. Hill, assistant-curate of Melton; I preached the Gospel to her, prayed for her, and exhorted her in the kindest manner to repent of her sins, and look to the Saviour. I can prove this. The Examiner represents me as a Pharisee, says, “Probably he preaches Phillpots,” and adds, “we know that he ought not to be a teacher in the church of Christ, he needs too, greatly to be taught.” I approve of the liberty of the press, as a safeguard for the liberty of the people, but I regret that your paper should be made the medium of circulating a false and malicious libel, followed by scoffing insinuations and assertions, under the semblance of zeal for the truth. It is true that the body of Mrs Wainer was not brought into the church. She seldom darkened the church doors whilst living, and was not permitted to defile them when dead. With reference to the yells of the parishioners, the ‘Examiner’ states, “the people yelled their disgust at this.” I defy the writer to produce a single respectable inhabitant of Melton Mowbray who joined in such yells, or sympathised with the mob. I read the service as required by the law (Which the Examiner describes as a “soliloquy,” notwithstanding the number of persons assembled on the occasion); and, with reference to my preaching, I teach in the church of Christ according to the ability which God has given to me.”
On reflection Mr Colles will doubtless transfer his answer to the journal which originated the charge against him. Meanwhile we are glad to find, by this letter, that the worse half of the case, and the only part on which we commented, can be denied distinctly. The denial is quite satisfactory. We cheerfully retract our comment.
Our readers will remember that we did not found our observation on that part of the case which Mr Colles recognises as correct – the shutting of the church doors upon the body, and the yelling of a mob in consequence. We did not, and we do not, comment upon this; because it has now, we regret to say, become so much a common practice, that it would not be fair, for this alone, to hold up individuals for censure. If malicious falsehood prompted the original mis-statement, Mr Colles may rather thank us, than be angry with us, as the means of bringing it into the light. We may note that in condensing our report of the case we did not state, as Mr Colles seems to think, that so much burial service as he gave was an absolute soliloquy. We said it was so, in as far as the relatives and mourners were concerned; they being stated to have left the ground, refusing to be present at it. Mr Colles was too angry very clearly to understand what he read. We wish, for his own sake, that his reply had been written temperately; but in temper in such a matter we are far from desiring to make unkind comment. The accusation made against Mr Colles justified a momentary anger, and required an instant refutation.’
At this point it seemed that, according to my research, the matter had reached its conclusion; but it was not to be as battle was to be rejoined with a defensive gesture against the ‘impertinent’ instigators of this personal printed and public defamation against a respected member of the church and for this purpose a gathering of many of his most loyal ‘soldiers’ was held in the town. In the Leicestershire Mercury of 7th September 1950, the following appeared:
’PUBLIC MEETING. - On Thursday evening, the 29th ult., a meeting of the inhabitants was held in the Church School-room, “to consider what steps should be taken in reference to the unwarrantable and false attack made in the Stamford Mercury upon the Rev. W. M. Colles, Curate of the Parish.” The attack alluded to appeared in the Stamford Mercury of the 16th Ult., and falsely charged the rev. gentleman with refusing the request of an aged female of notorious character to pray with her on her death-bed. The assistant-Curate, who accompanied him to her bedside, attested that her wishes were both kindly and fervently complied with. The Times and Examiner have also taken up and more widely propagated the calumnious falsehood, - making its complete refutation still more needful. At this meeting the speakers strongly condemned the conduct of the Stamford Mercury’s editor for putting forth this and many other falsehoods about our church, our ministers and our schools, which have latterly found a ready place in its columns. It was decided not to seek redress for this last gross calumny in a court of law, but to undeceive the public respecting it by means of an address to the Rev. W. M. Colles, to be signed by the inhabitants and inserted in the Times as well as the local newspapers, including the Stamford Mercury, and also to circulate it by handbills in the town and neighbourhood. A subscription to defray the consequent expenses was at once entered into by the meeting, which was most numerously and respectably attended. The address, with its numerous signatures, will be found among our advertisements.
The Examiner of last Saturday, refers to the letter sent by Mr Colles to the Times, in refutation of the charge referred against him by the correspondent of the Stamford Mercury, and copied into the Examiner with a “comment which the case quite justified.” Surely there are two very material words omitted from this sentence? it should read, “the case, as stated,” etc. The editor adds, after quoting the essential portion of Mr Colles’ letter, “On reflection, Mr Colles will doubtless transfer his anger to the journal which originated the charge against him. Meanwhile we are glad to find, by this letter, that the worst half of the case, and the only part on which we commented, can be denied distinctly. The denial is quite satisfactory. We cheerfully retract our comment. Our readers will remember that we d id not found our observation on that part of the case which Mr Colles recognises as correct - the shutting of the church doors upon the body, and the yelling of a mob in consequence. We did not know, and we do not comment on this; because it has now, we regret to say, become so much a common practice, that it would not be fair, for this alone, to hold up individuals for censure. If malicious falsehood prompted the original mis-statement, Mr Colles may rather thank us, than be angry with us, as the means of bringing it into the light.” So far well. We hope the matter will now be suffered to drop. Mr Colles was justly accused and condemned; he has cleared himself by a simple recital of facts - his fellow townsmen have affirmed his honourable acquittal in the most gratifying manner. (Editor L. M.)
So the editor of the Leicestershire paper seems to have weaselled his way out of the messy dispute with a form of apology - a little too oily in my opinion - but the curate’s approach of asking his parishioners for support this ‘acquittal’ in the form of a local referendum, paid for by the congregation, supported and signed in the form of a letter by at least one hundred names, he set about his demand for an apology by way of publicly advertising his anger at the allegations made. He was even to charge the sum of 6 pence for a printed copy of the letter, but it seems to have been a resounding success and this appeal won the day when an extensive and scathing letter was passed to the Editor of the Stamford Mercury by church members expressing their views. In the end, the very public matter was to eventually pass into the oblivion of the annals of time and William Morris Colles was to move onwards and upwards, to finally become the parish vicar and later, a Doctor of Divinity, whilst continuing to pursue his personal quest to improve the fabric of his place of work and to raise his own young family in the Parish, along with supporting the people of his flock.
Four Decades of Service and Dedication to the Parish
With the very public account in the Examiner, which seems to have drawn back on some of its initial, harsher criticism of Revd. Colles, a bottom line seemed to have been drawn under the Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Wainer affair, an unfortunate episode now seemingly forgotten and lost in the mists of time. There was indeed much more important work to be undertaken in a parish which to a great extent had become sorely neglected due to the prolonged absence and apparent disinterest of the incumbent Revd. Robert Croughton. The foregoing events - which today might seem to have been perhaps just a storm in a tea cup - appear to have caused little detriment to his professional and personal standing. He was to move forward with his head held high and to complete in all a grand total of 40 years distinguished service in all of which he displayed a genuine devotion to his chosen work. In total, he was to marry 644 hopeful young couples and to baptise some 2064 members of his flock across those years and these would include his own special contribution of three surviving children who were all born in the town; along with his son Morris, were included his two daughters Louisa Maria Ursula, who died at the age of 23 years in 1875 and Charlotte Ellen who would later assist her father with church matters, including dealing with much of the Parish’s administrative affairs during her father’s lifetime and incumbency as Vicar up to the time of his death. Charlotte died at Ealing in London in 1929 at the age of 75.
During his time in the market town of Melton Mowbray, Doctor Colles would frequently raise large amounts of money from his parish, often with more than generous donations from his own pocket and family purse for restoration work to the church superstructure and other grand related causes. It is known that the church was improved and renovated more during his living than at any other period. Significantly, he was a prime mover in the acquisition of many of the magnificent stained glass memorial windows which are still so impressive and regularly admired in St Mary’s church today. Sadly, like all good things that pass before us, his sojourn in our earthly midst was inevitably to come to an end; even the wonderful William Morris Colles was not to prove himself immortal! He was to outlive his beloved wife Louisa by six years, who passed away in the spring of 1884.
Afflicted by his own ever-increasing and unremitting ill-health over a period of several months, he finally succumbed to the debilitating disease of Nephritis - a severe and painful inflammation of the kidneys. He was to pass through from his mortal existence quietly in his Burton Street vicarage during the afternoon of Friday 1st February 1888 and was to be finally delivered up to the arms of his Lord just three months short of his 70th birthday, this being some 40 years after his arrival in the small town which he came to love and adopt as his very own.
In the manner of an epitaph and thus far, still standing as an established commemoration of Doctor Colles’ 40 years dedicated service to the town, a building was constructed on land opposite the Church. The Colles Hall in Burton Street, or to give it its formal designation, The Colles Hall Memorial Institute, was officially opened on Thursday 30th October 1890 by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough. Funded by public subscription in the Reverends’s name and memory, it raised initially £1068, leaving a debt of some £600 to defray the total cost, of which amount the Bishop said, “… there was such a good feeling in the parish which would not allow the remaining sum that was required, to be long unpaid.” The Hall stands adjacent to what was once the Vicarage -now known to local people as the Blakeney Institute - in which the Colles family would have once lived. I have wondered if our subject would be amused if he were to return to the town some time soon to discover that the Hall which carries his name had by now been transformed into a popular pizza parlour. I might opine that by now having discovered something of the persona of the man, I have a sneaky feeling that he is in fact still looking down on the old town and is probably well aware of the situation. In the context of life in the 21st century, he would perhaps grudgingly concede the situation as inevitable; some would say as inevitable as the removal of the carved hand pointing heavenwards which once adorned a small memorial stone located in the east precincts of the church of which he was once the vicar and which bears these few words:
‘William Morris Colles, M.A., D.D., rest in peace.’
(I have since been anonymously assured that the 'hand' was not in fact stolen, but lies stored safely today, within the church.)
There is a lot more to be told of within the seven decades of the useful and constructive life undertaken by the young man from Ireland who came to live amongst the people of Melton Mowbray in Victorian times, but having recollected merely a particular moment in his younger life, I will leave it here.
Reverend William Morris Colles M.A. D.D. 1819-1899. R.I.P.
William Morris Colles (1855-1926)
William was William and Louisa’s only son and it follows perhaps that the young man might well have taken his father’s full name at birth, though later in his life he was to be known generally as ‘Morris'. Leaving home at quite a young age to seek a future elsewhere in the world, I doubt that his parents would have ever dared to guess along what path his future life might travel. After reading law at Oxford and spending a short time as a trained Barrister, his attention and future life was to lie in the field of literacy and other arts. He married in 1880, Fanny Elizabeth Bird.
© John McQuaid 2013