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A schoolboy at Wimborne Minster

Keith Eldred describes what Sunday morning service was like for a young boy in the 1880s and 1890s

East Street in 1890

East Street in about 1890

Henry Stanley Joyce was born in 1883 in Rowlands Hill, Wimborne. His working life was spent with the National Provincial Bank, but he was also an accomplished naturalist and a published writer on the subject. Never published was his account of growing up in Wimborne (previous articles based on it have appeared in Dorset Life in July 2007 and April 2008), in one section of which he describes what church-going was like for a young boy in those formal, late Victorian days.

‘The Quarter Jack bells have just struck; come and get ready for church.’ It was their mother’s voice calling the Joyce children from the garden on Sunday morning. Everything and everybody in the town seemed to be ruled by those Quarter Jack bells. The notes were struck by a little image of a soldier fixed outside one of the towers of the old church, which itself formed the dominating feature of the old town. The order of striking was two notes for the first quarter after the hour, four for the half-hour, six for quarter to the hour and eight immediately before the striking of the full hour. The sound carried quite clearly to every part of the town and even to the Joyces’ house upon the slope of the hill above the town and half a mile away from the church itself.

The Quarter Jack

The Quarter Jack in Mr Edsall’s workshop awaiting re-painting

It was the Quarter Jack bells which warned the family when it was time to leave for the station on the rare occasions when they were going somewhere by train; and on Sundays it gave the first warning to get ready at the half-hour, then came the three-quarter-hour chime and the ringing of the ‘first bell’ which preceded the full peal; when they heard the latter start, Henry’s family knew it was time they were on the road if they were to avoid the disgrace of entering the building after the service had already started.

So the whole household would set off down the hill to the Minster. Everyone wore gloves and Henry would be wearing an Eton suit and a mortar-board on his head; without a tassel when first he went to school, but with one when he had won this distinction by reaching the Fourth Form and so becoming one of the seniors. His father always wore a top hat and in the summer a freshly laundered cotton waistcoat. His mother wore a satin dress, a veil and a neat little bonnet with a few artificial flowers in it, and in the summer she carried a parasol. She also always carried a gilt-edged, brass-clipped prayer book and a little bottle of smelling salts. Every lady always carried smelling salts to church if she was married or past the time when she might reasonably expect to be so. It was fashionable for those ladies to sit during part of the service and sniff their salts from time to time. This carefully rehearsed procedure was intended to indicate the degree of gentility of their breeding and their fragility, as too much robust health was not considered refined. The term ‘rude health’ was not felt to be quite decent when applied to the fair and supposedly frailer sex!

In the Minster the family always sat in pew number ten on the right-hand side of the centre aisle. Families could have their own pew for which they paid an annual rent. Strangers would be conducted by the robed verger to a seat which he knew would not be occupied.

It was most unlikely that a young boy would view attending Sunday morning service with great enthusiasm, but sometimes things happened to cause amusement and help pass the time. For example, the occupant of the pew in front of the Joyce family was a lady who always arrived at the last minute although she actually lived opposite the church. The lady made great use of her smelling salts throughout the service and apparently felt draughts very keenly, so could be relied on to squirm whenever a door was opened. The children always made a point of singing with all their might during the hymns so that they could watch her cringe as each shrill, vibrant note assaulted her ears!

TheWimborne Minster

The Minster before the north transept roof was restored to its former height in 1891. A knife grinder plies his trade in the middle of the road.

Another regular churchgoer was a rather pompous solicitor. He always swaggered down the aisle to take his place and looked around to make sure that everyone had noticed his arrival. He would then carefully place his top hat upside down on the grating over the heating pipes just outside the pew. Having taken his seat, he would then proceed to shoot his linen. This consisted of shooting out first his right arm to its fullest extent and carefully stroking the few hairs on that side of his rather bald head; he would then repeat the gesture with his left hand. This vigorous action enabled him to display his gleaming, rather over-sized gold cuff-links and the immaculately starched cuffs of his white shirt.

On one occasion a wasp alighted on the solicitor’s bald head and, feeling the creature’s feet tickling his cranium, he proceeded to wipe off the offending insect. His astonishment at being stung on the palm of his hand caused great merriment among the younger members of the Joyce family. On another occasion a swallow which had entered the church as they frequently did during the summer made a small deposit on the solicitor’s head during the sermon, and when he wiped off the deposit he was astounded to see just what his hand was smeared with! Once again there was great glee among the young Joyces!

East Street in 1890

The Minster with the north transept roof restored to its previous height: compare to above photograph. The delivery cart of Mr Gossling waits in the foreground.

Other sources of amusement and distraction for the younger members of the Joyce family included the retired general who for whatever reason one day did not place his top hat on the grating over the heating pipes at the end of the pew as he usually did. This positioning of the top hats was the custom of all the gentlemen in the reserved pews, but on this occasion the general put his hat on the seat of the pew and then, having gathered up the tails of his frock coat, sat on it. Realising what had happened, the general stood up, held the hat high up in front of him and banged his fist into it with great force. The hat returned to its former shape with a great crack and normal service was resumed.

Other sources of amusement included an old lady who suffered from visions. Perhaps inspired by her surroundings, she would fall to her knees and in a loud voice start praising the angels or whatever other heavenly beings had appeared to her. The regular congregation took no notice but visitors would be craning their necks to see what all the fuss was about. The young Joyces usually suffered a fit of the giggles and were severely reprimanded by the adults.

The Vicar of those days was well known for starting almost every paragraph of his sermon with the words, ‘My dear brethren’. Counting the number of times this phrase was used provided another source of distraction for young Henry, who would make a pencil mark in the back of his prayer book at each repetition – the record was just over forty!

The other main events to provide real enjoyment were the regular festivals and church parades. Christmas was a favourite time, the church decorated with evergreens and holly and the pillars wreathed in ivy. Henry recalls that it was at a Christmas Day service that the heard the shortest sermon ever. The Vicar gave as his text ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all men’. He then said, ‘May peace be with you all this Christmas and throughout the year to come, and goodwill be over all the earth. Now I expect you are as eager to get home to your Christmas dinner as I am, so in the name of the Father etc’ and that was it!

The interior of the Minster,

The interior of the Minster, looking towards the east window. The stone and marble pulpit replaced a wooden Jacobean one, which was moved in 1868 to the church at Holt.

Other festivals to which young Henry looked forward were Easter and Harvest Festival, also the church parades of the Friendly Societies and of the local riflemen who later became the Yeomanry and then the Territorials. These parades occasioned great excitement; the uniforms in bright colours, the insignia proudly worn and displayed and a packed church were all signs of great local pride and interest, especially if you knew one of the participants.

1. Photographs from the Priest’s House Museum, Wimborne

[We gratefully acknowledge the help of Barbara Willis and the Priest’s House Museum for their photographic research.]


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