The Vicar Who Refused to Bury a Child

Contemporary accounts described 19th century East Garston as a quiet, poor, rural village, but an event occurred in the 1850’s that gave the village national prominence. It involved the Vicar of the parish, the Reverend Leveson Randolph. 

Appointed in 1854, the Randolph came with impeccable ecclesiastical connections. His Grandfather had been Bishop of London, his father the Rector of Much Haddam and his father-in-law, the Rev. Hon. John Boscawen, was Canon of Canterbury Cathedral (Leveson’s youngest son later became Dean of Salisbury.) In sharp contrast, Randolph achieved notoriety becoming widely known as “The Vicar who refused to bury a child.”

The problems began in 1859 when Elijah Bew, a much respected young farmer from Eastbury, requested that his five week old son, William, be buried in All Saints churchyard in East Garston. The Vicar agreed, even though he knew that Elijah was not a parishioner but later that day he withdrew his consent claiming that the child had not been baptised. 

Elijah Bew responded by saying that the child had been baptised by the Reverend Thomas Turner of the Wesleyan Church (which had begun as a reform within the Church of England, inspired by the teachings of John Welsey and his brothers, but was resented by some for creating a schism within the Church).

Bew had a certificate to prove it his child had been baptised and he also reminded the Vicar that he had recently buried another of his children in the churchyard, (Ernest, aged 4 months), and that members of his family had been buried near or in the family grave for nearly a century.

The Vicar replied that the child had not been baptised according to the due and prescribed order of the Church and therefore he could not conscientiously sanction the child’s burial in his churchyard although he found it painful to refuse. 

Elijah Bew, having taken advice, pointed out that at The Canterbury Arches ecclesiastical court held in 1826, it had been ruled by Sir John Nicholl that anyone baptised by water in the name of the Trilogy was entitled to burial in a churchyard irrespective of the status of the baptiser (who could even be a layman). To refuse a burial in such circumstances would be regarded by the Church as illegal and the offending minister would be liable to three months suspension by his Bishop.

In the absence of a reply from the Vicar, the Reverend Turner wrote on behalf of the Bew family, to the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, requesting his intervention in order that their anguish might be brought to an end. After a delay of several days he received a reply, not from the Bishop but from his chaplain, James Randuly, stating that the Bishop confirmed the right of the Vicar to refuse to bury a non-parishioner in his churchyard and that right was independent of whether the child had been baptised or not. The Bishop had no power to intervene. (In reality the bishop did not agree with the Vicar’s action, writing in his private diary that “I condemn him privately to himself. But shelter him.”).

Prompted by the delay of the Bishop’s reply to the Reverend Turner, Elijah Bew also wrote to the Bishop on March 30th requesting his help and pointing out that his child had been dead eight days. 

He received a reply which, although delayed, (it was written on April 4th) was at least penned by the Bishop himself. 

Unfortunately it simply reiterated the comments of the previous missive. At this point the incident reached the attention of the Press, not just locally but in all regions of the United Kingdom including the London dailies. 

Many were extremely scathing in their comments on the attitudes of both the Reverend Randolph and, more particularly, the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce who, as the son of William Wilberforce, was described by some as “a disgrace to the family name.” 

The nickname “Soapy Sam” was bestowed on the Bishop by Benjamin Disraeli because of the former’s habit of wringing his hands during sermons or when endeavouring to convey his views during discussions. 

One newspaper headlined the story “Clerical Tyranny”. Another pointed out that even in totally Catholic countries on the continent, space was provided in graveyards for the burial of those of different faiths.

The London Daily News was exceptionally critical of the Bishop’s attempt to glide away from the original reason for the non-burial, pointing to “the shifty and evasive way of dealing with an important and practical point.” The paper further commented that “The Bishop’s reply to Mr. Bew, of exquisite duplicity is, in its way, admirable and speaks the hand of a master in the craft of verbal cunning”. Perhaps stung by these remarks, the Reverend Randolph wrote to the paper explaining his position which largely revolved around the legalities of the case. 

He later wrote a second letter complaining that his views had not been correctly represented. He claimed that the paper’s assertion that he had refused to bury the child because it had been baptised by a Wesleyan was untrue. Neither he, nor the Bishop, nor the Vicar of Eastbury had any doubts about the validity of the Wesleyan baptism. The editor of the London Daily News reprinted the relevant sections of the Vicar’s original letter and concluded, somewhat tartly, that as the letter bore the heading “East Garston Vicarage” he assumed it had been written by the Vicar and therefore represented his opinion and, unless the words were disavowed, the paper was bound to adhere to its original statement.

The Editor had also received a letter from Elijah Bew which claimed that the Vicar’s letter to the paper had been inaccurate. He also included a damaging extract from a letter which the Vicar had written to him explaining that he did not dispute the validity of William’s baptism and sympathised with his sad loss but that he felt conscientiously bound to protest against the great evil of the under-valued sin of schism and for that purpose he used the power the law invested in him although it would have been far pleasanter to his own feelings to inter the child in East Garston’s churchyard. 

In other words, the refusal to bury the child was not influenced by the validity of his baptism nor his status as a non-parishioner but on the fact that his father worshipped at a dissenting church. Elijah Bew’s letter to the London Evening News also included details of his reply to the Vicar’s letter. Whilst acknowledging the Vicar’s expression of sympathy, being referred to as “schismatic” served only to add insult to injury.

He also questioned the Vicar’s statement that “he had been empowered by the law.” If legalities were to be considered , the brick-built grave in the churchyard belonged to the Bew family by right of purchase and therefore denial of access to it might be regarded as illegal. 

Although wronged, Bew did not feel bitter towards the Vicar but normal relations between them would only be restored the moment the Vicar repented for not burying his child and referring to him as “schismatic”.

Some form of rapprochement must have been reached, for the Parish records indicate that in 1862, Martha Bew, Elijah’s 6 month old daughter, was buried in All Saints churchyard… by the Reverend Leveson Randolph.


David Knight
Local Historian
East Garston



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