Charles James Barton: vicar of this parish

My grandfather Charles Barton is a shadowy figure: someone I can’t really flesh out into a real person. Partly it’s because he died sixteen years before I was born. Partly it’s because my mother beatified him and painted an unrealistic picture of a man who was beyond criticism.

Charles was a second generation Londoner. His own father Joshua had been born in Suffolk in a village called Layham. So had all his relatives before him on his father’s side: I’ve plotted them back to the 1600s. Every single man had been an agricultural labourer.  Some of them had wonderful names like Shadrack or Meshack: but not, apparently Abednego.

Layham may not have been so idyllic when endless generations of Bartons lived here (Image from Country House magazine)

Joshua was born at a time when a series of bad harvests had made a tough country life even tougher. As a young man he took his chance, went to London and became – who knows how – a wine cooper. He married a local girl, Maria, and they had ten children.

The family was probably what Theresa May patronisingly calls Just About Managing. The children grew up to become gardeners, coachmen, clerks, seamstresses. All except Charles and Harry, sons numbers two and three. I’ll never know the story of how they got places at Saint Olave’s Grammar School and then won scholarships to Cambridge University.  I still have books that Charles won as prizes at school, and while studying at Magdalene College.  I wonder how two working class boys from a relatively poor background enjoyed their experiences in these privileged environments?

This is a prize from school: Sophocles, the Plays and Fragments. It’s in the original classical greek.
Magdalene College Cambridge (Wikimedia Commons)

Harry became a schoolmaster but Charles felt called to be a priest. He worked in a succession of grubby industrial or manufacturing Yorkshire parishes: Hanging Heaton, where he met and married my grandmother Annie; then mining village Sharlston where my mother was born.

St. Luke’s Sharlston. (geograph.org.uk)

Charles taught my mother Betty at home in his new parish in Roberttown until she was eight, and then when she started school pushed and pushed her to achieve academically.  Younger brother Arthur, who was less bright wasn’t given this hothouse treatment.

Charles acquired a reputation for injecting vigour into failing parishes. It was a full time calling.  No days off for him. Ever.  Yet parish magazines and local papers at the time give a picture of a lively parish life: plays, bazaars, meetings, fundraising schemes, discussion groups, clubs all flourished in St Peters Morley when he was rector there, and he was clearly liked and respected.

Then, in 1931, he fell ill, aged only 56. My mother was in the throes of applying for a place at Oxford University: still quite an unusual goal for a young woman in those days. He lived to know that she had been accepted. When he died my grandmother refused to let my mother take her place up. She was needed at home. My mother raged and stormed and so did her school. Annie stood firm. Or almost. Eventually, she agreed that if Leeds University would have her, Betty could be a day student there. And that is what happened.

My mother never forgave Annie. I didn’t ever meet my grandmother, who lived until I was about 14. In my mother’s eyes she was the sinner, Charles the saint.

Click on any image to view it full size.

31 thoughts on “Charles James Barton: vicar of this parish”

  1. Funny that my ancestors were living and working in Lavenham only 10 miles or so from your Layham ancestors. That would have been a fair distance in those days, but who knows, their paths might have crossed!

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    1. Me too. No criminals, no poor souls in the workhouse… and I even got us back to some blue blood in the 14th century or so, but I don’t really believe it. One slip as you work backwards and you’re in a different family altogether.

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  2. What a wonderful family history, Margaret. You come from a long line of strong characters! My paternal grandfather is the shadowy one in our family. He died when my father was 8 and very little is known of him. A number of us have tried to research him over the years – we can’t find a birth record for him which is very frustrating. He may have a history as fascinating as your grandfather’s. (Though he most certainly was not a saint!)

    (Hope all is well with you and the family. My energies have been focussed on my ailing parents for the past few months but I try to catch one of your posts when I can 🙂 )

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    1. Oh, Sandra, I wondered why you had gone silent. I miss your wonderful posts. Difficult times, I know. Look after yourself as well as them. And one day, when you’re ready, post about your family discoveries.

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    1. I hope so. Annie probably didn’t have a great time as a dutiful vicar’s wife. A priest’s stipend in those days was little above poverty levels, yet she would have had to keep up appearances and perform many parish duties. They had to be out of the vicarage within the month when Charles died.

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  3. Absolutely fascinating – Oh Margaret there’s a book in that.
    Better than my great grandmother who had 10 children, then an affair and ran off to Wales.
    Further coincidences – your mother was Elizabeth, my daughter is Elizabeth.

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  4. Oh, I’m sad for your mother–such an opportunity missed. What an interesting family–they were quite upstanding and educated! Someday, I’ll have to tell you about my great-great uncle who was almost hung for murder . . . until, at the 11th hour, the supposedly murdered guy showed up alive!

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  5. What a great story about your family. To have all those newspaper articles is wonderful. I love family history myself having done a little bit of research which began with a tale that my great great grandfather was a Kentish smuggler. He was lucky and given work (gardening) and a home on the land of the judge in his trial – his three boats were conviscated and his father, still living in London east end died of starvation according to his death certificate.

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    1. That’s a wonderful story, Selina. You really should write it up for us all. And that reminds me. I’d like to sign up to receive your blogposts: I really am hopeless on the WP reader. Have you considered getting a ‘sign up for emails’ widget?

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      1. I have all these plans for when I don’t have to work full time – I really don’t have time to go to work! Ohh and I will certainly look for that widget – thank you.

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    1. I guess I’m doing it as much as anything for my children. I wasn’t that interested at that stage of life, what with small children and all, and I left it too late to ask many questions. I’m trying to get down what I know before I fall off my perch too.

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      1. What a wonderful story you have told, and one that will forever give your children a look into the past that will help them better understood the family dynamics of the present. I am at the same place…trying to document as much as I can about as much as I know for those who will carry the stories on. I often think the kids have heard these stories before…until they tell me they have not. I am not sure if I did not tell them, or if they were not listening. I only know for sure that right now they want me to tell them everything!

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  6. Fascinating! I can understand a young woman of seventeen or eighteen being hurt and angry at being expected to stay at home and help mother when just a week or so earlier she was to go to Oxford encouraged by her father and her school. It is sad that she was never able to see things from her mother’s point of view and forgive her. Both were mourning a much-loved husband and father and life would never be the same again for both of them.

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