Untold lives blog

01 April 2014

The deliberately dangerous beard

In April 1843, the Right Reverend George Spencer, Lord Bishop of Madras, wrote to the Governor of Madras complaining of the conduct of the Chaplain of Quilon.  It had been brought to the Bishop’s attention in late 1842 that the Chaplain, the Rev. Robert Wells Whitford had ‘…been making himself ridiculous and was disgracing the Office of a Clergyman of the Church of England by wearing a long beard and moustaches in consequence as I was given to understand of some vow whereby his people were greatly scandalised’.  The Bishop wrote repeatedly to the Chaplain admonishing him over his facial hair, but was ignored.  This slight to the Bishop’s authority would ignite a fascinating row between the two, the papers of which are in a collection of correspondence in the India Office Records on the general question of the right of Bishops in India to nominate Chaplains.

Caricature of 5th Earl Spencer with a very long beard

Caricature of 5th Earl Spencer, Vanity Fair [P.P.5274.ha.4] Images Online  Noc

Hearing further that the Rev. Whitford was becoming an object of disgust to his congregation who were deserting his Church, the Bishop asked the Lord Bishop of Calcutta, who happened to be visiting Travancore in his capacity of Metropolitan of India, to intervene.  The Rev. Whitford then consented to shave of the offending whiskers, but grew them back the moment the Bishop of Calcutta had left, and presented himself to the Bishop of Madras as ‘…in appearance I might almost say, like a shocking Mountebank but certainly most unlike an English Clergyman.’ 

Further belligerent communications passed between the two, culminating on 9 April 1843 in an angry scene at the Church in Quilon during a Sunday service in front of the entire congregation!  An account of the incident by the Bishop’s Domestic Chaplain was sent to the Madras Government, which stung the Rev. Whitford into a furious defence of his position in which he portrayed himself the victim of slander and declared ‘Condemn me if you will, & law requires, I refuse not to incur the utmost penalty of guilt, but let it first be proved.’  Viewing the Rev Whitford as a ‘deliberately dangerous man’ Bishop Spencer recommended to the Court of Directors of the East India Company that he be removed from the Diocese.

St George's Cathedral, Madras
St George’s Cathedral, Madras [WD 4294]  Images Online  Noc

Robert Wells Whitford had been appointed a Chaplain by the East India Company in 1839, and had served with missionary spirit at Secunderabad, Mangalore, Quilon and Poonamallee, where he took an interest in the local mission at Kurnoul.  Bishop Spencer eventually succeeded in having him dismissed for insubordination in 1848, but he continued in the service of the Church in England, and as British Chaplain at Leipzig in 1869, before becoming Vicar of Lyminster in Sussex in 1877. He died in 1881 aged 77.

Despite Bishop Spencer’s low opinion of him, he seems to have been well liked and remembered in India, as Frank Penny in his history of the Madras Church points out “His dismissal might lead one to suppose that he did something unworthy of his calling; but this was not the case; he was only a little eccentric.”

John O’Brien
Post 1858 India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading:

Correspondence regarding the case of the Reverend R W Whitford, Chaplain of Quilon, December 1842 to June 1843 [IOR/F/4/2058/94305 pp.67-101]

Rev. Frank Penny, The Church in Madras: being the history of the ecclesiastical and missionary action of the East India Company in the Presidency of Madras in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 3 vols (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1904-22) [British Library reference: 4744.gg.22.]



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