A 19th Century Curate (The Reverend George Barrs)

by Peter Barnsley from The Blackcountryman volume 1, issue 4

One man whose local influence and importance have very much diminished in the 20th century is the parish priest. In 1800, when the Reverend George Barrs became curate of Rowley Regis, the clergyman's authority was much stronger and he could greatly influence the lives of his parishioners. Barrs was born in Caldecote, Warwickshire, in 1771, and, before he came to Rowley, had spent a year as a curate in Norfolk after being ordained in Ely Cathedral.

In 1801, Barrs married into the Haden family (who were then very important locally) and thus armed with influential relations and his "plain and powerful" preaching style, was well-equipped to tackle parochial problems, both lay and clerical. According to his son, Rowley Regis was then

"scarcely in a state of common civilisation. The management of parochial affairs was in every possible sense the most corrupt and profligate."

Barrs took into his own hands "the whole direction and control" of Parish affairs, stamping out all abuses, and reputedly gave Rowley an administration, which was the envy of neighbouring parishes.

George Barrs was energetic, purposeful, narrow-minded, humourless, blinkered and very brave. He was frequently insulted on the highway and even pelted with stones, cinders and dirt. On one occasion he dispersed a hostile mob, armed with bludgeons and bayonets on sticks, who had attacked a bakehouse. His physical courage on this occasion is commendable, but he seems not to have considered, even remotely, that there was anything wrong with a society which drove men to such desperate extremes of hunger. Indeed, in his journals, he complacently described England as a "free and enlightened" country. Those who in the early 1830s were clamouring for elementary civil rights, were seen by him as

"the vulture group which long to prey on the property of others, and thirst for riot, rapine and blood."

He was an avowed Conservative, but much of the opposition to him locally was not political. He was determined to build a new church and this was strenuously opposed in the parish, seemingly because many feared it would mean a rise in the rates. Rowley church had stood since the reign of King John, had an outer wall of Rowley rag, and in the curate's own words, was "a cold, damp, ruinous, gloomy, dilapidated dungeon." Its floor was bare earth and in wet weather the curate was over his ankles in mud when he walked down the aisle. The roof leaked like a sieve and the wooden pews were warped and crooked. Eventually, in 1840, only a few months before asthma killed him, he laid the foundation stone of the new church. At his death, its walls were only 3 feet high. Ironically, this church failed to see the century out; it became unsafe through mining subsidence and was pulled down.

His main preaching preoccupation - in sermons which never lasted less than an hour, and which, from 1805, were always extemporised - was to attack the Roman Catholic Church in terms far more colourful and explicit than would be used by any modern parson. " .... judgement must come on the mother of harlots ... but how many more kings and nations of the earth may first be drunk with the wine of her fornication, none can tell." The Catholic Emancipation bills, which were passed during these years, were strenuously opposed by him, and he foresaw a return to the days of burning at the stake if the Catholics gained political power.

He didn't think much of dissenters, either. "He was seduced among the Baptists," he wrote of one of his acquaintances, pursuing his apparent fondness for sexual metaphor. He was threatened with prosecution for attacking the "Baskerville Bible" from his pupit (it contained annotations of "the Unitarian stamp"), but such threats had no effect upon him.

In the journals which he left, Barrs gave glimpses of life in Rowley Regis in the early 19th century, which prompt the wish that he had written more.

He described the "disgusting yells" of a bull-baiting mob and reported an outbreak of cholera, which spread from West Bromwich, Tipton and Dudley in 1832. 52 people had died between July and September - nearly all young. In one 3-day period, 18 were buried; on several occasions people attending a funeral were brought back next day to be buried themselves. In his own immunity, the curate saw the hand of heaven, but if only 52 died out of an estimated population of about 8000, heaven's hand was evidently busier than Barrs thought. He also reported a visit with members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to the caverns in the limestone rock at Dudley Castle. "they were lighted up in a very spendid style, by direction of the trustees of the late Earl of Dudley." This must have been a rare relaxation as well as unusual company for Barrs, who noted that the biblical account of the formation of hills and rocks differed from "the notions of modern geologists," but was sure that

"Scriptural geology will stand when all that man has invented shall be lost in the confusion and imagination from which it sprang."

Barr's journals do not reveal him as a man with much sympathy for the suffering of his fellow human beings, although during his lifetime, spent almost in the heart of the Black Country, he must have been surrounded by such suffering. Those were the days of long hours, little pay and execrable working conditions, but he mentioned none of these things.

His attack on the Whigs' New Poor Law of 1834 was based rather on his realisation that it would involve raising the rates, than on his concern at the probable harshness of its operation. Under the old law they had managed to reduce the rates and this, for Barrs, was sufficient recommendation.

He performed his duties, lay and clerical, as long as he was able, frequently dragging himself to church when he was in no fit condition to go. He was unflagging in his zealous propagation of his Calvinist views but he lacked that basic human sympathy, which a minister should have. His essentially patrician instincts are implicit in his revealing aside on his daughter-in-law, whom he praises for her "kindness to her domestics, without verging towards undue familiarity." And on the death of Princess Charlotte of Wales in November, 1817, he caused the funeral bell to be tolled each minute throughout the day, with a muffled peal following at 10 o'clock at night. He was learned; he read Greek and Hebrew (he thought the latter was essential to anyone who wished to understand the bible), but his reading was limited to the Bible and biblical commentaries.

His portrait hangs in the vestry of the present (4th) Rowley church. It shows a high-browed countenance with long sideboards and aprominent nose. But the most significant feature is the mouth: with its thin lips pressed tight in a cruel line. It is a mouth which is as rigid and uncompromising as the Reverend Barrs undoubtedly was himself.


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