On this day, 19th January, in 1873, now 143 years ago, the congregation assembled as usual to worship at Upminster’s St Laurence Church and to hear the sermon of their Rector, the Reverend Philip Melancthon Holden, whose “fire & brimstone” orations were rarely dull. His sonorous voice and eloquent speech were a marked contrast to his predecessor, his aged uncle John Rose Holden, who had died 11 years before. But when Mr Holden entered the pulpit about 50 of the more influential members of the congregation abruptly arose and left the church. What on earth had prompted this public protest against their clergyman?
In 1907, just a few years after Holden’s death Upminster’s historian Thomas Lewis Wilson wrote:
“Mr Holden’s 42 years term of office as Rector of Upminster was certainly a very chequered and remarkable one. Living all the time as I have done within a hundred yards of him, having had hundreds of interviews and business transactions with him, and having for more than a quarter of a century collected and carefully preserved many newspaper cuttings respecting him besides other documentary matter it would be comparatively easy to fill many pages .”
Wilson’s 500 word account goes on to describe some key points about Holden’s “very chequered and remarkable” term of office. What is surprising is that little more has been written since about this amazing character, who must have been nothing short of notorious in his own lifetime, not just in Upminster and the local area but nationally. This article tells the story of the Rev Philip Melancthon Holden and his colourful life and times, and explains what led to his congregation’s revolt.
Philip Melancthon Holden was born in Daventry, Northamptonshire in 1823 into wealth and privilege and (again quoting Wilson) was “blessed with many natural endowments”. His parents were the Rev Henry Augustus Holden and his wife Mary Willetts Holden.
The Holden connections with Upminster predated the birth in Bloomsbury in 1784 of Henry Augustus, whose father John Rose Holden the elder became Rector of Upminster in 1780, appointed to the living by his own father William Holden, a Birmingham merchant, who had earlier bought the advowson (right to appoint the Rector) of the parish. John Rose Holden the elder resigned the living in 1799 and his son of the same name (the older brother of Henry Augustus) succeeded him. In a close-knit family such as the Holdens, Henry Augustus would undoubtedly have kept in touch with his older brother in Upminster. These contacts probably became more frequent after Henry Augustus moved to Bloomsbury in the 1830s and his eldest son the Rev Henry Holden (1814-1909) was appointed his uncle’s curate at Upminster in 1840, staying five years. Another son, the eminent surgeon, Luther Holden married Frances Sterry of Hill Place, Upminster in July 1851 and was another frequent visitor to Upminster.
Philip Holden was not originally destined for a career in the church. He entered King’s College London aged 15 in 1838 obtaining a degree in the Faculty of Mining & Civil Engineering in 1840. He was appointed AKC – Associate of King’s College the next year – this had required him attending courses in divinity as part of his degree.
Henry Augustus Holden and family moved to 46 Addison Road, Kensington in around 1850 and this house was later said to have been “the resort of many persons well known” and that the Holden children were “brought up amidst divines and wits”. Philip is shown there as a Civil Engineer in the 1851 census but he must evidently soon afterwards have decided on a career change as he was ordained into the church at Worcester in March 1854 and appointed as curate at St Helen’s in that town, where a branch of the Holden family lived. He was later curate at Hammersmith and Minister at St Paul, Great Portland Street, London.
Philip Holden succeeded his 89 year old uncle Rev John Rose Holden at Upminster after his death in January 1862. He made an instant impression locally: over six feet tall “his hirsute appendages were such as no one else in the neighbourhood possessed” and “he was also the happy owner of a powerful and resonant voice”. His church soon became crowded, people came from several surrounding parishes and he preached for neighbouring clergymen on special occasions. His public recitations at the Corn Exchange, Romford and the British School, Upminster also attracted large and appreciative audiences.
He was a flamboyant character who in his early years drove a white pony in a white carriage, with white harness and whip & attired in a white dress and hat. On one occasion he was mistaken for the forerunner of a circus pageant that was due in a few hours!
But Wilson records that this popularity was “of short duration for complaint, dissension and disputes arose in the parish, eventually becoming so serious that personal assaults and other illegal actions were resorted to”. It’s not clear what these actions were but it may be no coincidence that the Rectory stables, carriages and horses were burnt in an arson attack in April 1872 and that six months later the Rectory was broken into.
Wilson records that “towards the end of 1871 Mr Holden formed an acquaintance with Miss Margaret Wilson who with her mother resided in Mavisbank, opposite the Rectory.” The 1871 census for Upminster records Sarah M Wilson aged 24, born East Indies Bengal, with her widowed mother Sarah S Wilson, aged 45, a landed proprietor, and James Wilson aged 15 born Otley, Yorkshire. Sarah Margaret Wilson (known as Margaret) was born on 5 February 1847 and baptised 11 March that year at Dinapore, West Bengal, India to James and Sarah Susan Wilson. James Wilson, who was an indigo planter, married Sarah Susan Brown in Bengal in 1846, and India Office returns show Sarah Susan Brown’s birth in Agra in 1825. So when Philip Holden met Margaret Wilson in 1871 he was 48 – twice the age of Margaret Wilson and two years older than her mother.
It was on the day after the marriage on the 18th January 1873 of Philip Holden and Margaret Wilson at St Martin in the Fields Church, Trafalgar Square that the walk-out at St Laurence Church recorded by Wilson took place. Wilson’s account does not spell out what he described as “these unsavoury details” but went on to say that “the result of the agitation in the parish and the many complaints to the Bishop was a sentence of two years deprivation” – that is, the Rev. Holden was suspended.
I can now reveal some of these “unsavoury details”. The Upminster census 1881-1901 shows that the couple had a daughter Sibyl Clare Holden, born around 1872-3. No birth appears either under Holden or Wilson in the birth indexes around then but on 8 December 1872, around six weeks before the couple married, a Sibyl Clare Holden Wilson was baptised at Holy Trinity, Paddington to Margaret Sutherland Wilson, with no father named. Despite the slight discrepancy in the mother’s Christian names this is undoubtedly the evidence for the Rector’s child who had therefore been scandalously born out of wedlock to a woman half his age!
During Holden’s two year suspension, he, Margaret and baby Sibyl went to live at Cornwall Mansions, Alsop Place, near Regent’s Park where an extraordinary incident took place late at night on Friday 5th June 1874. John Irving, aged 29, a “gentleman” of 18 Cromwell Road West, South Kensington, threw stones at the Holden’s bedroom window, one of them injuring Mrs Holden. Rev Holden called for the police and a constable soon arrived but Irving got away from him and hit the Rev Holden several times before being taken in custody. At the case before Marylebone Police Court later Irving admitted to striking Holden and said he had thrashed him twice before and cut off part of his beard. He said he had known the Rev Holden for some time but they had been “bad friends” for 18 months (i.e. around the time Holden’s daughter was born). Irving’s father said in mitigation that his son had been subjected to “very cruel treatment” by Holden who had obtained some of his documents and used them “to injure him” but the magistrate sentenced John Irving to two months imprisonment and fines totalling £8 5s. However, he lodged an appeal and seems to have avoided a prison term.
Who then was John Irving? I’m now pretty certain that he was the John Irving, described in the 1871 census as a “Colonial & East Indian Merchant” living at High House, Upminster opposite the church with his wife Caroline, two young children, his wife’s sister and four servants. John Irving was born into a prosperous family in Carlisle, Cumberland and he had married Caroline Oliphant Carter in 1868 in London. He later became a wholesale stationer, successful enough to have retired by the age of 45, but the trail runs cold after the 1891 census. Does anyone know what became of him or his family?
Philip Holden’s ability to attract attention did not stop after he resumed his living at Upminster in 1875. By 1881 he was the subject of a series of press articles about the exorbitant burial fees he charged, and the following January 1882 he again appeared in court, summonsed before the Brentwood Petty Sessions on a charge of employing two servants when he had only a licence for one. After being found guilty on that charge, and fined £5 plus costs, another charge was levied against him for only having a licence for one dog, not the two he owned. During this case Holden insulted the Revenue Officer – saying “one must not expect civility from tax gatherers” – with whom he had a lengthy argument. The Leader in the Essex Weekly News about this case also reports that Holden had only a few weeks before been fined for having a tumbril cart without a licence so we have three cases against him in a short period.
Perhaps we should feel some sympathy for the Rector? Shortly after these cases his wife Margaret died on 17th February 1884 at Buckhurst Hill aged just 37 – the cause of death being “cirrhosis of liver – some time” – a tragic end to their eleven years of marriage after their illicit liaison. But not long after Margaret’s death the newly widowed Rector was to attract more notoriety – and yet another court appearance. In November 1884 Henry Day, the popular publican of Upminster’s Bell Inn, sought to recover from the Rev Holden the cost of £13 12s 6d for the supply of 59 bottles of brandy and two bottles of sherry supplied to Mrs Holden in the six months between July 1883 and January 1884 (an average of over two bottles each week!). The Romford County Court was told that Mrs Holden, a permanent invalid who was in the doctor’s hands, had been sending her servants and even her young daughter Sybil, over to the Bell for spirits, wines and beers for several years. The bills had previously been quietly settled, usually by her servant Bone. On this occasion the Rector found out and promised to send a cheque over but it didn’t arrive. The Days left what might be thought to be a respectable delay after Mrs Holden’s death before submitting their bill but the Rector refused to pay it and said the publican should take him to court, claiming that the goods were supplied to his wife without this knowledge.
The Days’ solicitor sought to question Holden’s integrity and reputation by referring to his earlier suspension from office but such an attack on a “gentleman” from a tradesman could never succeed in those days. The court ruling was a wonderful indictment of Victorian attitudes: the Judge ruled that the Days had to prove that every bottle had in fact been delivered to Mrs Holden and he dismissed the case without even calling the Rector to give evidence. The leading article in the Essex Herald concluded that it would be “an iniquitous thing if a husband were to be made liable for goods, and especially for large quantities of spirits, supplied behind his back to his wife, and the bill for which was withheld till the death of that wife”. Interestingly, Mrs Day wrote to the Herald in support of their case and in this letter mentioned that “Miss Wilson” was one of those who collected the drink. Did this description deliberately draw attention to Sibyl Holden’s illegitimacy?
While the Rector won the day there can be no doubt that it further increased his lack of popularity locally and it’s reasonable to assume that there was sympathy for the Days – Henry Day himself was an invalid who died just months later – who were left so much out of pocket by the Rector’s actions. Perhaps it was by way of amends that Holden personally conducted Henry Day’s funeral service?
It’s possible that the Rev Holden mellowed in his later years, or at least no similar instances of major indiscretions have come to light, although there are some minor examples of an unhelpful attitude such as dismissing out of hand a distinguished researcher’s request for access to the church’s historic plate.
The Rector continued to carry out his parish duties past his 80th birthday until ill health forced him into semi-retirement. He died at the Rectory on 6th June 1904 aged 81 and was buried in the churchyard a few days later when “the Church bells were tolled and the tradesmen and residents in the town drew down their blinds as mark of respect.” His obituaries were generally sympathetic. One said that “there are not a few homes in Upminster in which will be mourned the loss of a friend whose private generosity had helped them, unknown to others”. Another said that “his fine figure and cheery smile will be sadly missed in the parish, especially by the deserving poor” while a third mentioned the loss of a “grand old country clergyman whose genuine sympathy and quiet unostentatious benevolence have been a comfort of many a poor but deserving parishioner”. Maybe his private actions had consciously sought to redress his earlier public unpopularity?
He was succeeded by his distant cousin the Rev Hyla Henry Holden who went on to modernise parochial life at St Laurence’s Church and to make the church a more welcoming place for the growing population of the Upminster Garden Suburb. Two months later PM Holden’s furniture and effects were put up to auction by his executors and the following year his “devoted” daughter Sibyl Clare married Sidney Henry Van Notten Wedlake, son of the Hornchurch iron implement maker and engineer Thomas William Wedlake of North Street. The couple stayed in the local area before moving to Worthing in the late 1920s, where they died in 1940 (Sibyl) and 1962 (Sidney) respectively.
I’d be very grateful to hear from anyone who has any information about Sidney and Sibyl Wedlake or about the Rev Holden.
This is a revised version of my article which appeared in “Cockney Ancestor” (Journal of the East of London Family History Society” No.129 (Winter 2011)
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