Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Revd Francis Blackburne (1748-1816) of Rudby-in-Cleveland

In late March 1774, a new vicar came to Hutton Rudby.  He was the Revd Francis Blackburne, an unmarried man of twenty-six and the son of the Revd Francis Blackburne, Archdeacon of Cleveland and Rector of Richmond – which can only have helped young Francis in obtaining the living from the Hon. General Cary.

Young Francis Blackburn must have looked a most inviting prospect to the young ladies of the neighbourhood on his arrival in the parish. 

He was born in 1748, educated at Richmond School and Peterhouse, Cambridge and was a Fellow of Catherine Hall (later St Catherine's College), Cambridge.

Archdeacon Francis Blackburne (1705-87)

Archdeacon Blackburne
Francis's father, Archdeacon Francis Blackburne (1705-87), was a noted scholar who had written, hidden away in Richmond, controversial and influential works on religious freedom for Protestants – though not for Roman Catholics.  He had continued to be a clergyman of the Church of England, but it's clear that his contemporaries kept expecting him to leave – he was invited to become pastor of the congregation of the Old Jewry meeting house.  (For a learned account of the Archdeacon's position in this great movement of the age, see, eg., here).

The Blackburne family had long roots in Richmondshire.

Archdeacon Blackburne's grandfather, also called Francis Blackburne, was the younger son of a gentleman with a large family and a poor grasp of finances who had, accordingly, lost the family their estates, which had included Marrick Priory in Swaledale.  So the Archdeacon's grandfather had gone into the stocking trade in Richmond and there had made a great deal of money.  He married Mrs Jane Inman of Bewerley, near Ripon, and became a wealthy and respectable figure, an Alderman of Richmond.  

Their son Francis, the Archdeacon's father, died at the age of 29 (from "a gross habit of body brought on by the excesses of the bottle" in his grandson's words), leaving his widow with three young children.

The Archdeacon's mother was Alice Comber, and through her he gained a very respectable lineage – and through his stepfather, a very good education at schools in Kendal, Pennington, Hawkshead and Sedbergh.

Alice Comber was the daughter of Thomas Comber (Dean of Durham) (1645-99) and his wife Alice Thornton.  Her maternal grandparents were William Thornton of East Newton & Alice, daughter of Sir Christopher Wandesford of Kirklington.  Mrs Alice Thornton (1626-1707) is remembered nowadays for her autobiography – her account of the Civil Wars in North Yorkshire is really fascinating and can be read online here.  (Printed versions are also available)

The Archdeacon was deeply affected, at the age of about 17, by the death of his brother Thomas from smallpox, and this had interrupted his education at Cambridge.  On his return to his college, he expected to be made a Fellow, but the majority of the Fellows were "high royalists on the principle of hereditary right" [The Works, etc of Francis Blackburne, Vol I, from which this account of his life is taken] while he had been reading Locke and talking to "liberal minded friends".  He spoke too freely in public about ecclesiastical and civil liberty and the Fellows took against him and rejected him as a candidate.  He left for East Newton to live with his uncle Comber and he stayed there for some years.

During this time, he was so depressed that he could not work at his books and could find relief only in strong exercise, particularly fox-hunting – though being very careful, when "engaged in parties of dissipation" in York not to fall into the habits of drink that had brought about his father's early death.

At this crucial point in the future Archdeacon's life he came across some old Puritan books in the lumber-room of his uncle Comber's house.  The books had belonged to his great-grandfather William Thornton of East Newton, and it was the deep impression that the old Puritan divines made upon his mind that set the course of his life and determined his life's studies.

He had, meanwhile, been waiting in hopes of the living of Richmond, where the incumbent was married to his aunt.  At last, his uncle died and family friends exerted their influence with the patron of the living, the Lord Chancellor, and Blackburne, at the rather late age of 34, became Rector of Richmond.

He married Mrs Hannah Elsworth (born Hotham).  She was the mother of three children from her marriage with Mr Elsworth; Hannah, the only surviving daughter, married the Revd Theophilus Lindsey, vicar of Catterick and a close friend and associate of the Archdeacon.  (Lindsey left the
Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808)
Church of England in 1773 and set up the first avowedly Unitarian chapel in the country).

Francis and Hannah had five children together:  Francis; Thomas, a physician; Jane, who married John Disney (1746-1816), an Anglican clergyman and friend of Theophilus Lindsey, who joined Lindsey as a Unitarian in 1782; Sarah, who married the Revd John Hall; and William, a London physician.  

The Archdeacon was much grieved by the death of Thomas, "a favourite son", who died at the age of 33 in 1782, when the Archdeacon was 77.  It was a bad blow for the old man, and in addition his eyesight was failing.  A conscientious young schoolboy was employed to help, who went on to be well-known locally as the Revd Mr Tate, Master of Richmond School and, from 1830, vicar of Stanhope.

Perhaps the Archdeacon's son Francis was not his favourite, but he was entirely devoted to the memory of his father and his father's great works. 

Francis Blackburne in Hutton Rudby

Francis Blackburne spent only six years in Hutton Rudby, but he found his first wife while in the parish.  

In 1776 he married Ann Rowntree, daughter of Christopher Rowntree of Middleton-on-Leven, in the chapel at Middleton.  I wonder if the Christopher Rowntree, the well-known foxhunter (see this blogpost), was her brother?

In 1780 Francis left Hutton Rudby – Jeremiah Grice would be his successor – for Brignall, four miles south-east of Barnard Castle, on the Yorkshire side of the River Tees, near Greta Bridge.  He was to be vicar there for the rest of his life, the next 35 years.


Brignall has two notable claims to fame, and both of them came about in Francis Blackburne's time.  

Sir Walter Scott mentions Brignall in his poem Rokeby (1813) – Scott was a friend of the antiquary John Bacon Sawrey Morritt,of Rokeby Park and had visited the area:-

O, Brignall banks are wild and fair,  
And Greta woods are green,  
And you may gather garlands there,  
Would grace a summer queen: 

And Brignall is still remembered for the strange story of the Curse Tablets.  The earliest account that I have come across is in Whitaker's History of Richmondshire (1823).

Two leaden plates were discovered on Gatherley Moor, south of Melsonby, in the late 18th century.  They had been carefully concealed under a heap of stones – some sources say it was a tumulus – and they were inscribed with astrological symbols, rows of figures, and these words:
I doe make this, that the father James Phillip, John Phillip, Arthur Phillip and all the issue of them shall come presently to utter beggary and nothing joy or prosper with them in Richmondshire. J. Phillip 
According to an account in The Teesdale Mercury of 8 September 1886, the rows of figures "if summed up diagonally, horizontally, or perpendicularly, made up the mystic number 369."  (I haven't checked).

In 1789, an account of the tablets was sent to the College of Arms and an answer was returned, providing details of the Phillips family of Brignall.  

Henry Phillips of Brignall had two sons.  The elder was called Charles, who in turn had two sons: John and Cuthbert.  The younger was called James and he was the father of five sons:  John, Arthur*, Henry, Christopher and Thomas.  In 1575, it was James Phillips who was living at Brignall.  

According to Bulmer's Directory of 1890, James was steward to Henry, Lord Scrope of Bolton and was notorious for his litigious, quarrelsome and vindictive nature.  Whitaker in 1823 conjectured that James had cheated his brother's family of their inheritance and that John Phillips had resorted to witchcraft in the hope of getting his revenge.

As to whether the curse had succeeded – all that is known is that 200 years later the family (in the male line, I presume) had long ago disappeared.

*Whitaker has "Richard", but the Victoria County History has it as "Arthur" and specifies that John E. Brooke who provided the information

Francis Blackburne at Brignall

Brignall was a tiny hamlet even in the time of Whitaker's History of Richmondshire (1823)
Village indeed there is scarcely any at Brignall, where there are only a very few families, but not one of these is within half a mile of the church.  
About halfway on the slope of the hill between both stands the vicarage-house, one of the most pleasing retirements I have ever seen, with the woody brows and white rocks of the Greta in front, and a sweep of rich sloping land in the immediate foreground.
The church of St Mary stood by the banks of the River Greta – little remains of it today.  It was replaced by a new church in 1834, the great man of the parish, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt, bearing much of the cost.

It sounds an idyllic setting for Francis Blackburne and his young family, and surely a fraction of the workload compared to Hutton Rudby.  Within thirteen years of their marriage (I have not found the date) Francis's wife Ann Rowntree died.  On 12 May 1789 he married Miss Elizabeth Peacock, daughter of the Revd John Peacock of York.  

And in this quiet rural spot, Francis could spend his life in preparing his father's manuscripts for publication, carrying out his various charitable works and engaging with the political issues of the day.

Francis was a great friend of Christopher Wyvill (1740-1822), the clergyman and reformer, who
Christopher Wyvill (1740-1822)
owned the Constable Burton estates near Leyburn and lived at Burton Hall near Bedale.

Francis, in the words of his obituary in The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature
was the intimate friend of Mr Wyvill, and co-operated with him in all those measures, whose object was the amelioration of the representation in parliament, and extension of religious liberty to all classes of his Majesty's subjects, being firmly convinced that wherever the truth lay it was to be maintained in the spirit of brotherly love, and not by pains or penalties, or restrictions of any kind.
The Archdeacon had left his manuscripts to Francis jointly with Christopher Wyvill and Francis's brother-in-law, the Unitarian John Disney, which was perhaps not a resounding vote of confidence in his son.  But it was Francis who devoted years of his life to editing the works and getting them published.  They can be read online – The Works, Theological and Miscellaneous of Francis Blackburne.  Volume I (1804) can be found here.

"Increasing infirmities", in the words of Francis's obituarist, "compelled him to retire to Richmond" where he owned family property.  I expect it meant that he was within easy reach of his physician, but anyway who could blame him for seeking the delights of Georgian Richmond?  Why, they are still recreating them now!  (Keep an eye on this website for a date for the Georgefest in 2018)

He must have left a curate in charge of his flock, but he "in every year paid frequent visits to his parishioners, by whom he was universally beloved".  

His obituarist does not say when his failing health prompted the move to Richmond, but he died there on Sunday 21 January 1816, aged about 68; his father had lived to the age of 82.  He was buried at his express request in the churchyard at Brignall on 24 January.  He left a widow, two sons and a daughter, who had married in 1808 the reformer and writer William Frend (1757-1841), who had originally been a clergyman of the Church of England but by the time of their marriage had become a Unitarian.

Francis's obituarist describes him as distinguished by his "Good Temper" and states that his devotion to his father's opinions meant that he "asserted [them] on all proper occasions, with that calmness and dignity which was peculiar to his character".

(I wonder when the proper occasions were?  Can the writer be hinting, ever so delicately, that on the subject of his father the dear vicar of Brignall was a little bit of a bore?)