Gilpin, a Clergyman of many parts

In the space allotted I can do more that allude to some aspects of the life of The Revd William Gilpin (1724-1804) who was to prove to be one of the most influential figures ever to reside in our local area and, as recorded in the previous ‘Reflections,’ his name is perpetuated to the present day in primary school at Pilley. His arrival at Boldre in 1777 at the age of 53 seems in many ways to have been quite fortuitous. Following his education at Queen’s College, Oxford and subsequent ordination he was appointed principal assistant of Cheam School, Surrey in 1752 and, in the following year, became headmaster and proprietor of that school. On his retirement in 1777 a former pupil, William Mitford, owner of Exbury House and patron of Boldre Church, offered Gilpin the living at Boldre.

Portrait of William Gilpin by Henry Walton (NPG)

A note on the jurisdiction of Boldre church

In the middle ages Baldwin de Redvers, lord of swathes of land in this whole area including Lymington, gave the church of Boldre together with the chapels of Brockenhurst and Lymington into the jurisdiction of the Augustinian Canons of Christchurch Priory. It was that priory that subsequently appointed priests to Boldre until the Reformation (the Priory community was dissolved in 1539). This meant that the vicars of Boldre were entirely responsible for Lymington until in the reign of Queen Victoria: in 1869 when it was declared an independent vicarage. So by virtue of Gilpin’s appointment to the vicarage of Boldre he also by default was vicar of Lymington which church and parish was served by curates; when he arrived the Rev. Thomas Bargus and afterwards, from 1784, by the Rev. Ellis Jones who was still in office when Gilpin died in 1804.

Painting of Vicarage (1829)

Gilpin’s reputation

Gilpin’s wider celebrity, at first, rested on his very successful series of books on the observations of various tracts of landscape commencing with the beautiful Wye valley. These books were illustrated by drawings made by the author in what was called the ‘picturesque’ style. The picturesque was based on the theory that the landscape, both in paintings and in actuality, could be improved by exaggerating certain features that, in the eyes of the advocates, it would produce more pleasing visual effects. This reached its zenith in garden design, exemplified in places such as Stourhead or Stowe. Gilpin was probably the leading exponent in applying such principles to works of landscape art. His books, under the general title of ‘Observations’, were aimed at encouraging people to embrace this principle for a fuller and more satisfying appreciation and enjoyment of the locality they were visiting. Locally, this was achieved in his last major book on such themes simply entitled Forest Scenery (in two volumes), first published in 1791. It comprises astonishingly informed and thoughtful observations in which ‘beautiful’ tracts and views are contrasted with, for example, his comment on the Avon Valley, south of Ringwood, ‘There is little beauty in this part.’ Yet, I feel this work may have had a substantial influence in encouraging the well-to-do to find their homes in the area. But one cannot help but compare, or perhaps contrast, this with the third Lord Bute’s observation when visiting Highcliff for the first time, which so entranced him that he thought it would be an ideal place for a house commanding ‘the fairest outlook in England.’ As far as I am concerned this still holds true.

Impact on the parish of Boldre and its inhabitants

Moving to consider the effect Gilpin was going to have on a rural community which was described by one of his curates as “utterly neglected by their former pastor, and exposed to every temptation of pillage and robbery…these people were little better than a horde of banditti, and without the opportunity of the humblest education, the means of religious instruction, or the benefit of a decent example, presented a picture of savage life, which, perhaps, was hardly paralleled in a civilized country.”

It is to the enduring credit of Gilpin that he almost immediately set about challenging the social task in the parish of which he became pastor. First he had to learn the geography of this large parish, with its network of winding roads and tracks, which stretched from Mead End in the west over to the Beaulieu Manor and Parish in the east, a distant of over six miles, and from the coast at South Baddesley on the Solent to Lady Cross Lodge and Pennerley in the north, well over five miles. All to be covered by walking or on horseback; quite a daunting task, I would have thought, for a man then in his mid-fifties.

The large population of poor families drew his attention and he attended the parish meeting of the Poor Law officers and became aware of how important was the workhouse which Gilpin himself described as a “wretched place, and managed without any economy at a great expense.” And in 1792 the Boldre vestry (the name of the parish meeting Poor Law officials and some parishioners) it was decided to erect a new poorhouse and “put in a respectable master and mistress, and to give the overlooking of it to a monthly committee of the gentlemen and farmers of the parish.” The provision of poor (or work) houses had been permitted as one of the conditions of Gilbert’s Act of 1782; so Boldre responded pretty rapidly. Milton was only three years later (1795) but by contrast Hordle had to wait until 1814.

Those too poor to be maintained by Poor Law payments in their own homes, perhaps through illness or infirmity, were housed in the poorhouse and provided with clothing and so that every individual had a new suit for Sunday, “generally spun and woven in the house.” Decent regular meals were provided including meat at least four days a week with vegetables and bread: the left-overs were served up on Saturdays and any “deficiency is made up with bread and cheese.”

The economies that Gilpin hoped for were realised and the cost of aiding the poor in the parish at large fell from about £8 or £9 monthly to £1 12s. [quotes above from William Gilpin’s ‘Account of the Boldre Poor House’, published in the Hampshire Repository, vol. 2 (1800), 116-128.]

The establishment of Gilpin’s Charity School in 1791 for 20 poor boys and 20 poor girls of farm labourers I spoke about in the last ‘Reflections’ and will not need to repeat it here.

Although not founded by Gilpin the Society for the Benefit of Distressed Families was founded by Mrs Pierce of Lymington and was particularly directed for helping the wives of mariners: it was strongly supported by Gilpin. It was founded on 5 April 1790 and it was particularly intended for lying-in women, but was extended to cater for all kinds of sickness. The entrance or joining fee was a modest 6d. followed by a weekly payment of 1½d. Relief was payable after payments had been made for a full year. The woman in need then received 3s. a week for 13 weeks and after that period the weekly sum was 1s. a week. Every year a sermon in support of the charity was preached and usually raised an additional £10 to £12 in collections. This was an early example locally of a friendly society but my investigations have not shown that it functioned for not more than about a decade.

Sarah Plowden’s trial and confession

An episode in dealing with recalcitrant parishioners is fully recorded (HRO 21M65 C9/337] when Sarah Plowden was arraigned in the ecclesiastical court for blatant immoral behaviour. Gilpin applied his full ecclesiastical authority to make Sarah and three witnesses attend the Consistory Court of Winchester held in the cathedral on 12 April 1781. At the court Sarah was required to admit she had committed the heinous crime of adultery, fornication and incontinency by having a bastard born of her body. Gilpin presented the witnesses, namely, John Plowden, Stephen King and Jane Chace, a midwife. Each gave sworn testimony in which Stephen King, for example, stated that it was ‘common fame and report’ in the parish that Sarah had lived incontinently with Joseph Keeping and had borne four children since her husband’s death. While Jane Chace, the midwife, testified that she had delivered four children stating that Sarah never disclosed who the father or fathers were. The court concluded that the case was proven and that Sarah should be bound to attend her parish church and there stand on a penitential stool and declare before the congregation that, “I, Sarah Plowden, do here to my great shame hereby acknowledge and express that not having the Fear of God before my Eyes but seduced by the temptations of the Devil and my own Carnal Lust to have committed the heinous Sin of Fornication and have had a Bastard born of my Body…” She begs forgiveness for her sins and promises, “by God’s Grace never to offend in the like Kind again.”

At the conclusion of her statement her confession was confirmed by William Gilpin and the two churchwardens, Robert Drover and Richard Linney. The odd thing is that nearly two years elapsed before Sarah’s confession was promulgated in St John’s church, namely on 2 February 1783.

But it was not only females who were attainted because Gilpin went through a very similar case on 1 May 1791, involving James Gale of Brockenhurst who fathered a child by Elizabeth Pitt of the same parish. James Gale had married Rachel Twentyman in St Nicholas’s church on the 17 January 1788.

A note on William Gilpin’s social life

Being a well-known author not only of travel books but also of theological publications and collections of his sermons, it would be expected that he was much visited in his small mansion home of Vicars Hill. Amongst his regular notable visitors was Sir Harry Neale from nearby Walhampton; although there was a forty year gap in their ages it is evident from Neale’s letters to Gilpin that he held him the highest regard – and looked up to him, I think almost as a mentor. I have copies of most of these letters now deposited in the Bodleian Library (MS.Eng.misc, c.392, 1892-1830) and very kindly photographed for me by Richard Reeves. Another famous visitor was the artist and caricaturist, Thomas Rowlandson, who has left us a drawing, made during his tour in 1784, of Gilpin bidding farewell to his companion, Henry Wigstead at the garden gate at Vicars Hill (courtesy of the Huntingdon Library, San Marino, California).

Henry Wigstead bidding farewell to Gilpin in 1784, drawing by Thomas Rowlandson

One may conjecture it had been an entertaining, perhaps even a challenging visit, for Rowlandson ridiculed the picturesque and later gave substance to his view in drawings in Combe’s satirical book, The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.

However, perhaps we may conclude with a snippet from the  eulogy published in the Hampshire Repository of 1799, prior to Gilpin’s death, “And conclude with our ready admission of his great merits in all his occupations… as an author eminent, as a theoretical and practical Divine, pre-eminent: as a charitable Patron of the Poor, Super-eminent.”

Gilpin Tomb
Memorial Plaque to William Gilpin in Boldre Church

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 23 Dec 2016