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‘Whitehead is a scamp.’

Tom Hughes tells the bitter tale of the Sydling St Nicholas ‘mustard and cress’ libel

Few men knew as much about Dorset as Frederick Darton, so he must be afforded some credit when he tipped Sydling St Nicholas to be one of the half-dozen most beautiful villages in the county – or perhaps all England. Darton’s The Soul of Dorset was in the bookshops nearly a century ago but his assessment remains true today. Though perhaps not as isolated as when Darton nosed about, the village is still quite remote. Set in a verdant fold of the downs and watered by bubbling streams, Sydling boasts a very pleasant high street, an old market cross and the church that gives the place its name. It seems rather an unlikely venue for one of the more curious clerical spats in the Victorian Church of England.

Sydling is an attractive village with clear running streams where watercress is still grown

Sydling is an attractive village with clear running streams where watercress is still grown

Rev. Thomas Brown had been the vicar at Sydling for thirty years until his death in 1874. During Brown’s long final illness, his locum tenens was Rev. George Whitehead. When the old vicar eventually died, the selection of his replacement would be in the hands of the Warden and Fellows of Winchester College. This arrangement went back to the 10th century and no-one saw fit to quarrel with the wishes of old King Athelstan. After all, the rustic living was worth only £180 a year. Still, an open vicarage would be closely contested with numerous clerical applicants. Mr Whitehead, who had become popular in the parish, certainly had his hopes – though the money was barely enough to support his wife and child. Prior to his coming to Sydling in 1874, Whitehead had been the typical nomadic curate: two years somewhere and then moving on. So he put his name forward for the now vacant vicarage in Sydling. Alas, whatever his apparent popularity with the villagers, Whitehead had an otherwise unimpressive CV. He had taken his degree at St Bees Theological College – a Cumbrian institution that lasted only from 1816 to 1895 and had the reputation of accepting those would-be clergymen who didn’t quite have the A levels for Oxford or Cambridge. Irish-born and with an American wife, Whitehead was not likely to find much kinship amongst the Warden and Fellows of an historic English college. And thus word came from Winchester that the vicarage of Sydling St Nicholas was to be presented to Rev. William James Vernon BA, of St John’s College, Cambridge.

The announcement of Rev. Vernon’s appointment appeared in the Ecclesiastical Gazette in January of 1875. The new vicar was not a local man; he was from Lancashire. He was forty years old and unmarried. Sydling was his first parish and things did not go well. In fact, within the year he was writing letters to Archbishop Tait about an alleged ‘conspiracy’ against him. He put the blame on his predecessor, Whitehead. The latter had left Sydling, moving on to another curacy, this time in Atherington in North Devon. But everywhere Mr Vernon turned, he saw Whitehead partisans. He thought it all intolerable.

The church of St Nicholas gave its name to the village and, for different periods, a living to the object and author of the libel

The church of St Nicholas gave its name to the village and, for different periods, a living to the object and author of the libel

His complaints to Lambeth Palace failing to produce the support and succour he sought, Vernon took the ultimately unwise step to attack Whitehead in print. He produced a pamphlet charging the erstwhile curate with stealing from the tithes and, more personally damaging, accused him of having been – prior to taking holy orders – a policeman forced to resign for drunkenness. All this was unseemly, of course, but there was a singular twist to this little Dorset squabble that proved greatly fascinating for the national papers. In his vicarage garden, where all the churchgoers would see it on their way into St Nicholas on the Sabbath day, Vernon planted mustard and cress in such a way that, when it sprouted, the vegetation spelled out ‘WHITEHEAD IS A SCAMP.’

When the word ‘scamp’ was coined in the 18th century, it had a rather darker meaning than that currently used – ‘highwayman’ or ‘robber’. Although the more modern usage was current in parts of England by the 19th century, it may easily not have been the case in rural Dorset. Given Vernon’s pamphlet claims, it seems altogether unlikely that he was referring to his predecessor as a ‘lively, tricky fellow’.

Tom Amery, managing director of the Watercress Company at Waddock Cross – an expert in this horticultural matter – reveals that Vernon’s seeds would have started sprouting overnight and that the greenery would be both robust and readable in a week.

The lane up to the church. On the left is the vicarage garden’s bank, the likely location of the mustard and cress planting and visible to all those attending the Sunday service

The lane up to the church. On the left is the vicarage garden’s bank, the likely location of the mustard and cress planting and visible to all those attending the Sunday service

Truth, the London-based weekly that delighted in all clerical scandals, enjoyed this one immensely: ‘The last new thing in libel is decidedly quaint and beats chalking on the walls hollow…. The vicar of Sydling, among other things, ingeniously contrived a salad to suit his hungry dislike of a brother clergyman.’

It was all, well, food for the press but Whitehead could not allow these attacks to go unanswered. On 20 June 1877, he brought charges and Vernon was summoned before the magistrates at Cerne Abbas on a charge of ‘publishing defamatory libels’. Rev. Vernon was defiant, claiming that he was keen to prove that all his statements were true. He was committed to attend the upcoming assizes and, until then, released on the rather hefty surety of £350.

Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Duke Coleridge said that he had never read ‘a more malignant libel’ than Vernon’s defamation of Whitehead

Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Duke Coleridge said that he had never read ‘a more malignant libel’ than Vernon’s defamation of Whitehead

The assizes were held in Dorchester at Shire Hall on 11 July. So curious was this herbaceous libel that the Lord Chief Justice of England – Sir John Duke Coleridge – was on the bench. The libellous pamphlet was produced. Some of Rev. Vernon’s defamatory marginalia jotted in a parish schoolbook were also placed in evidence. But the issue that held everyone’s attention was the malicious mustard and cress. According to the law, any injurious writing is libellous and not limited to the printed word. Writing includes ‘every means of symbolizing language by alphabetic characters with every kind of implement, with any kind of pigment, on any kind of substance.’ That would encompass the vicar’s scurrilous Sydling seedlings.

Although Vernon had earlier vowed to prove his charges to be true, on the advice of his counsel, he was now determined to plead guilty. The Lord Chief Justice declared that to be a wise decision, for ‘a more malignant libel [he had] never read’. He must have been referring to the pamphlet. He sentenced Rev. Vernon to two months in jail, although his Lordship directed that the clergyman be treated as a ‘first-class misdemeanant’. During the proceedings, Rev. Vernon was seen to be crying in the dock and ‘seemed to feel his position acutely’.

According to FJ Harvey Darton, Sydling St Nicholas is ‘one of the most half-dozen most beautiful villages in the county – or perhaps all England’

According to FJ Harvey Darton, Sydling St Nicholas is ‘one of the most half-dozen most beautiful villages in the county – or perhaps all England’

Vernon served his sentence; he remained the vicar of Sydling for many more years but so unpopular was he that he employed a curate-in-charge for most of that tenure. The so-called vegetable libel would be his legacy. The Gardener’s Chronicle, beloved by all tillers of the English soil, had no time for Rev. William James Vernon: ‘This man may have been a clergyman, but he was no Christian; he may have had a garden, but he was no gardener. Our clerical gardeners – and they are not a few – are as a rule kindly, genial gentlemen, who would scorn to tarnish the reputations of their gardens by such wretched exhibitions of malice as this. “Mustard and Cress” may be slightly pungent, but it is neither sour nor bitter, and in being made the instrument of libel has itself been grievously libelled.’

4.            © National Portrait Gallery, London

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