Rectors and their times: John Richards Roberts (1814-19)

The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 2. Originally published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1921.

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'Rectors and their times: John Richards Roberts (1814-19)', in The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 2, (Oxford, 1921) pp. 368-373. British History Online [accessed 13 April 2024]

In this section


John Richards Roberts, B.D., Rector 1814–1819.

Before the death of Rector Edwardes, Lord Kensington, who at this time was selling his property at St. Bartholomew's, disposed of the advowson of the benefice to William Phillips, Esq., of Grosvenor Place, (fn. 1) whose intention was to present his young brother-in-law, John Abbiss, when duly qualified. As Abbiss was then only twenty-one years of age the arrangement already referred to (fn. 2) had to be made, and on the 23rd September 1814 John Richards Roberts was instituted to the rectory, as set out in the episcopal register, (fn. 3) 'by William (Howley) Bishop of London, vacant by the death of Owen Perrot Edwardes . . . on the presentation of Mr. William Phillips', and a mandate was issued for the Archdeacon of London for his induction.

J. R. Roberts was son of John Roberts of Barnstaple, gentleman. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, where he matriculated on the 8th December 1794, aged 19 (being therefore some 18 years older than Abbiss). He was a Fellow of the College until 1825. He graduated B.A. in 1798, M.A. in 1801; B.D. in 1810. After he had left St. Bartholomew's in 1819 (fn. 4) he became, in 1822, Vice-president of the College, and in 1823 Senior Bursar. Before coming to St. Bartholomew's he was, on the 11th October 1805, instituted to the rectory of Hornblottom, Somerset, which he held concurrently with St. Bartholomew's; in April 1821 he signed the preachers' book here as Rector of Hornblottom. In October 1824, after he had left St. Bartholomew's, he was presented with the Trinity College living of Rotherfield Greys, Oxon., which he held till his death on the 20th June 1843. (fn. 5) In November 1812 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Rector Roberts seems to have been a hard worker, for he took the majority of the christenings, weddings, and burials at St. Bartholomew's himself. He attended the first vestry meeting held after his institution, on the 11th October 1814, and was generally present at the meetings during the remainder of the years he was here. He was apparently popular in the parish from the first. The only records we have of Easter offerings being made to the clergy are contained in a small collector's book preserved in the belfry cupboard. (fn. 6) The earliest of these records is of the year 1814, when £25 was collected for Rector Edwardes; whilst in 1815 and 1816 £29 was collected each year for Mr. Roberts. The book for 1817 is missing but the collection in 1818 was £28 16s. 6d. The next record is not until 1860, when for ten years the collections for his successor varied from £2 17s. 6d. to £1 6s. 6d., but in the interval the upper middle-class residents had to a large extent migrated.

In 1817 the death of the young Princess Charlotte Augusta made a great impression in the country, which was fully shared at St. Bartholomew's. She was the only child of George IV, and died in childbirth whilst he was still the Prince of Wales. The people hoped she would bring a purer life into the Court when she became Queen. On the 18th November the vestry passed a resolution (fn. 7) in which they referred to ' the great national loss' and their own 'respect and affection for the memory of a princess whose virtues ornamented her illustrious position, and were calculated to raise the highest expectations when in the course of events she should occupy the dignified station in the British Empire which the nation fondly hoped she was destined to fulfil'. The vestry ordered the pulpit and reading desk to be hung with mourning and they requested the rector 'to appoint such public service in the church to-morrow, the 19th, the day of the interment, as he may deem to be suitable and proper'. They further ordered a minute bell to be tolled, and they sent round the parish a recommendation that all the houses and shops should be closed throughout the day.

At the next meeting of the vestry a vote of thanks was passed (fn. 8) 'for the handsome and satisfactory manner in which he (the Rector) complied with their request', 'also for the very appropriate sermon which he preached on that solemn occasion'.

By vote of the vestry the church was put into similar mourning on the occasion of the death of George III, (fn. 9) in 1820, and of William IV in 1837. (fn. 10) In 1822 the vestry passed a resolution of regret on the death of Queen Caroline. (fn. 11)

The vestry records again illustrate, in their own way, the disturbed condition of the country at the cessation of the war with France. After the battle of Waterloo many people were thrown out of employment, there was much distress, and many riots resulted. The principal riot in London occurred in December 1816, and is known as the Spafields riot. This explains the reason for the following acknowledgement being entered in the vestry minutes on the 30th March 1819. (fn. 12) 'Feby. 6th, 1819, Mr. Sexton, churchwarden of the precinct of Bartholomew the Great, has this day paid me ten pounds for the assessment raised to defray the expenses for damages, &c. occasioned by the riot in December 1816. W. Reeve.' It also accounts for the following resolution proposed by the rector at the vestry on the 11th December 1816: (fn. 13) 'That a subscription be immediately entered into for establishing a fund for the relief of the poor of this parish.'

The next year, 1817, matters became worse and more threatening, and the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended for a year. In 1819 there was more rioting, accompanied by a strong demand for universal suffrage and a large measure of Parliamentary reform. The vestry thereupon appointed a committee to act 'on behalf of the parish as circumstances may require in reference to the public meeting in Smithfield'. (fn. 14)

As regards the fabric of the church, heavy repairs and expenditure were again necessary. In June 1815 it was 'ordered (once more) that the church be repaired and beautified'; the whole of the vestrymen were appointed (fn. 15) a committee in the matter and inspected the church with Mr. Hardwick. (fn. 16) Tenders were this time invited, and one for £236 was accepted. In addition to this, £45 was expended on repairs to the organ, £120 on lining the pews, and £33 on furniture for the pulpit, reading desk and clerk's desk; (fn. 17) but some other large work must have been undertaken, for in the following March when the workmen's bills were presented by the churchwardens, they amounted to about £1,250. This large sum was met by borrowing £400 on a life annuity in addition to £700 already borrowed, (fn. 18) and the next month a committee was appointed to ascertain from the records whether the repairs of the chancel belonged to the rector or the parish. (fn. 19)

The result of this inquiry does not appear; but a similar inquiry had been held in 1737, and in the case then submitted for counsel's opinion (fn. 20) it was stated that the rector for the time being had always claimed and enjoyed a right to the chancel and of letting the pews and the ground there, and also that the rectors had been at the expense of the repairs. The opinion given was 'that the burden of the repairs of the chancel lyed upon the rector who was likewise entitled to the benefit of it'; but that opinion was apparently subject to proof being forthcoming that the repairs had usually been done by the rectors.

In 1821 the vestry again ordered that a committee, with Mr. Illidge, 'should take the opinion of some eminent civilian to ascertain who was liable to pay towards the repairs and expenses of the church' (fn. 21) A case was prepared for the opinion of Mr. Swabey, of Doctors' Commons, (fn. 22) on the points of the liability for repairs to the chancel, and to the paying of the church rate by the glebe houses, and other matters, in which it was set out that 'the churchwardens (had) time out of memory claimed and received all fees for breaking the ground, for laying down grave stones, for erecting monuments, tablets, &c., and for letting the seats in the body of the church; while the rectors (had) always claimed and received the fees for the same things in the chancel'.

The opinion given was that 'under all the circumstances stated', the rector was 'the person by whom the chancel of the church ought in this parish to be kept in repair', 'a burden which, by the custom of England, falls on the incumbents of benefices, unless in certain cases which are exceptions to the general rule of law, as in many of the parishes of the City of London': (he) 'would doubt, however, of the incumbents of those parishes having the benefit arising from the pews or the ground'. Assuming that the rector was obliged to repair the chancel, he was of opinion that the parish would be deprived of the power of rating him, or his tenants, for the 'glebe houses which were part of the endowment of the church'.

At the restoration of the church, in 1885, the patron, the Rev. Frederick Parr Phillips, by way of recognizing this obligation of the rector to repair the chancel—an obligation which by no means devolved upon the patron—contributed £650 for the reclaiming of that portion of the fringe factory that projected into the chancel and also £1,500 for its restoration.

A fortnight before Rector Roberts was instituted, it had been suggested 'that great benefit would accrue to the inhabitants, particularly to the working part of it, and it would be of great service to the watchmen by regulating their nocturnal duty, if the quarters were added to the new clock', and this was ordered to be done. (fn. 23) When completed in February, at a cost of £158, 'it was deemed necessary to have a larger bell for the clock to strike, so the former bell, weighing 104 lb., was exchanged—or rather recast—by Mears at the Whitechapel foundry (fn. 24) for a bell weighing 3 cwt. 2 qrs. 22 lb. at an additional cost of £31. (fn. 25) 'The clock and bell being for the use, not only of the present but also of the future inhabitants of the parish, it was ordered, as most equitable and proper, that the money received by the churchwarden from Sir William Rawlins', £180, for the small scrivener's shop at the south-west corner of the Smithfield gate (now a stationer's) 'should be appropriated to the payment of the accounts for the clock and bell'. (fn. 26) The purchase of this shop by Sir William Rawlins is dealt with under the year 1908, when the shop was bought back at a price far exceeding the value of the striking of the quarters by the clock. (fn. 27)

Unfortunately there is no record, either here or at the foundry, of the inscription on this bell. It is possible this light bell may have been a treble on the top of the present five bells, but it is more likely that it was an ancient Sanctus bell belonging to the church which, after the suppression, was made to serve the purposes of the clock. (fn. 28)

In 1819 the tenants of the houses facing the great churchyard had begun to use it as a place for drying clothes (unfortunately the poor had nowhere else to dry them); but the vestry very properly stopped this by threatening to cut down their lines and to block up their doors. (fn. 29)

In the same year there was another encroachment by a Mr. W. H. Smith, who had made a door into the passage leading to the Charity School. He was allowed to continue the use of the door on payment of 2s. a year, on condition that he blocked it up when called upon to do so. (fn. 30)

Also in 1819 the vestry had to consider what was best to be done in reference to the admission or rejection of iron coffins into the burial ground or church. (fn. 31) Three years later, in 1822, they petitioned against their use, mainly on the ground that as iron was not subject to decay, the graveyards would soon be filled. (fn. 32)

In 1816 the glebe house on the south side of the entrance to the Great Close having been pulled down, it was proposed, by an exchange of ground and the erection of iron instead of wooden gates, to improve the entrance. (fn. 33) After inspecting the site with Hardwick it was decided to let the wooden gates remain, as they were in good condition, and that the vestry could not consent to any alteration that would contract the passage; so Hardwick was requested to make a correct plan (fn. 34) showing the brick wall of the basement and to see that no encroachments were made on the public footway.

In the same year, on the election of a man again instead of a woman to the post of sexton, the duties of that office were fully set out (as detailed in the Appendix). (fn. 35)

The exact date of Rector Roberts' resignation is not recorded, but he preached on the 21st November 1819, and signed 'Rector', and again on the 28th when he did not add 'Rector' after his name, so his resignation probably took place between those two dates. (fn. 36) To show the esteem in which Mr. Roberts was held by the vestry, on the 2nd January following (1820), they passed a vote of thanks to him; (fn. 37) and on the 6th April they entered in extenso on their minutes a letter thanking them and accepting an invitation to a complimentary dinner.


  • 1. Above, p. 295.
  • 2. Ib., p. 296.
  • 3. Reg. Lond., Randolph, f. 41.
  • 4. Parish Safe, P.B. 6.
  • 5. Foster, Alumni Oxon., 1207.
  • 6. Drawer 9, Bks. of Easter offerings.
  • 7. V. M. Bk. iv, 385.
  • 8. Ib., 388.
  • 9. Ib., 426.
  • 10. Ib. vii, 176.
  • 11. Ib. iv, 466.
  • 12. V. M. Bk. iv, 403
  • 13. Ib., 373.
  • 14. Ib., 410.
  • 15. Ib., 349, 351.
  • 16. Ib., 352.
  • 17. Ib., 353.
  • 18. Ib., 364.
  • 19. Ib., 365.
  • 20. Belfry cupboard, drawer 18, bundle 1.
  • 21. V. M. Bk. iv, 453.
  • 22. Belfry cupboard, drawer 18, bundle 1.
  • 23. V. M. Bk. iv, 336.
  • 24. On the information of Mr. R. A. Daniell.
  • 25. V. M. Bk. iv, 344.
  • 26. Ib., 344.
  • 27. See below, p. 437.
  • 28. Mr. R. A. Daniell; for other notes on the bells see above, p. 112.
  • 29. V. M. Bk. iv, 418.
  • 30. Ib., 413.
  • 31. Ib., 406.
  • 32. Ib., 488.
  • 33. Ib., 368.
  • 34. Parish Safe, plan 8.
  • 35. V. M. Bk. iv, 372; App. II, p. 563.
  • 36. Parish Safe, P.B. 6.
  • 37. V. M. Bk. iv, 426.