19th Century Curate (The Reverend George Barrs)
Peter Barnsley from The Blackcountryman volume 1, issue 4
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.
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
in a state of common civilisation. The management of parochial
affairs was in every possible sense the most corrupt and profligate."
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.
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
vulture group which long to prey on the property of others,
and thirst for riot, rapine and blood."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
geology will stand when all that man has invented shall be
lost in the confusion and imagination from which it sprang."
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.
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.
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
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
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