The English country parsonage

By Jon Stobart

Anyone with a passing familiarity with English villages has probably been struck by the frequent presence of a large, even grandiose, parsonage—now often styled the Old Rectory and seldom occupied by the local clergyman. Many of these houses were built in the first half of the nineteenth century during a remarkable phase of renovation and rebuilding and renovation, funded in large part by a body called Queen Anne’s Bounty (QAB).

QAB was originally set up in the early eighteenth century to create a fund which could augment the often woefully inadequate stipends received by curates and some incumbents. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, new legislation empowered the governors of QAB to lend money for building as well as repairing clergy houses. Coupled with a new requirement for incumbents to be resident in their parishes, this led to a building boom, not least because many existing parsonages were small or in poor condition.

The extended or newly built parsonages funded by QAB mortgages varied hugely in size and appearance. From the mid 1830s, there was a growing taste for a style which might be called Tudor-gothic (see Figure 1), but most parsonages before then were of neoclassical design (as at Woodford) or in a broad vernacular style (Maidwell) —see Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 1. Design for a parsonage from Peter Robinson, Rural Architecture (1836)
Figure 2. Rectory at Woodford, Northamptonshire (1818)
Figure 3. Rectory at Maidwell, Northamptonshire (1813)

A growing proportion of clergymen were the sons of gentlemen or even aristocrats (think of Jane Austen’s Edward Ferrar, Henry Tilney and Edmund Bertram—all from wealthy and landed families), so parsonages needed to reflect their social standing. At the same time, however, there was a sentiment repeated in many architectural treatises that parsonages should not be too showy. Peter Robinson, then vice-president of the Institute of British Architects, thus presented plans for a Gentleman’s residence upon a scale sufficiently large to acquire the ordinary conveniences, without allowing the building to assume too much importance’ (Rural Architecture, 1836)—see Figure 4.

Figure 4. Floor plan of a parsonage from Peter Robinson, Rural Architecture (1836), with dining room, drawing room and library.

The combination of these various factors created a plethora of substantial, and sometimes very large, villa-style parsonages in villages across the country. Due to the bureaucratic process of acquiring a mortgage from QAB, there is also a wealth of documentary evidence available. This often includes beautifully drawn plans that detail the layout and appearance of the houses (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Floor plan and elevation for the new rectory at Seaton, Rutlandshire (1822) – Northamptonshire Record Office, Box x4353.

From these designs, we can see the importance of a large drawing room and dining room for polite entertaining; but also a study or, in grander parsonages, a library in which the clergyman could work and house their collections of books. These were a characteristic feature of the clergy, and often ran to thousands of volumes, as was the case with the Reverend Thomas Speidell of Crick in Northamptonshire, who had over 3000 books and enjoyed a [size] library as well as a private study.

The social standing of men such as Speidell is apparent from the substantial provision made for servants. Housekeeper’s rooms, butler’s pantries and bedrooms for housemaids were found in many of these new parsonages; some also had servants’ halls in which the domestic staff ate communally, as in country houses (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Part of the floor plan for the new rectory at Crick, Northamptonshire (1829) – Northamptonshire Record Office, Box x4353. Note the servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room and separate wc for the servants

In many ways, the parsonages built with QAB mortgages were houses for the gentry, but gentry of a particular type. They were social yet learned; conscious of their status, but also their religious duties.

A few clergymen struggled with the practicalities of such large houses, not least the cost of mortgage payments and maintenance. The latter, of course, became unsustainable in many parishes in the later 20th century, a problem compounded by the incongruity of modern clergymen living in such grand surroundings. As a result, many were sold off. Yet many survive as private houses—a legacy of a particular episode in church and social history.

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