Roundell Palmer's Memorials

Memorials. Part I. Family and Personal. 1766-1865. Roundell Palmer, Earl of Selborne. Volume 1. London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1896. Index



I RECKON it as one of the felicities of my life that I was enabled during my childhood and boyhood to acquire some knowledge of, and a strong interest in, the English agricultural poor; and to see what a centre of love, of practical wisdom, and of help in every kind of need, a good conscientious parish clergyman may be. I will try here to give some account of what my Father was as a parish clergy man, in those things which I could myself observe and understand. Much of his pastoral work, as a spiritual counsellor, was of course known only to himself and the souls to whom he ministered; but even of this, some conception may be formed from the manner in which (as has been already seen) he performed the same office for members of his own family.

So far as relates to the services of the church, he was always in advance of his time, as well in rubrical strictness (as he had learned, under the guidance of Bishop Horsley, to understand the rubrics) as in the reverence with which the duties of his office were performed. I do not think that the Holy Communion was ever celebrated in his churches less often than monthly, or that he ever omitted to baptize and catechise publicly during the afternoon service in the church. When the desire arose for more frequent Services and Communions, he was prompt in meeting it. His preaching was thoughtful, but not ambitious; explaining Scripture and inculcating practical duties in an uncontroversial way. He relied more on the direct power of the Divine word, than upon his own way of presenting it. From his reading of the Scriptures in church (I may mention particularly such chapters as those about the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, the histories of Joseph, Jonathan, David, Absalom, Elijah, and Elisha—many parts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel—the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son) I myself learnt more, and so must his hearers generally, than from many sermons. There was no thought of self; no aim at display. The combination of dignity and reverence in his reading—the way in which his hearers were enabled to realise what he read—were such as I have rarely known in anyone else.

If I were to disparage that part of a clergyman’s duty which is performed in church, I should not be following my Father’s precepts or his example. But a parish priest, if he realises the full nature of the pastoral duty and office, is not likely to place any thing, in point of importance, above his personal relations with the individual men, women, and children committed to his charge. I have heard some people speak as if the care of a few hundred souls were insufficient employment for the zeal and energy of a clergyman of mark. My Father did not think so. There was no position in the church which he could not (in my belief) have worthily filled, which he might not have ennobled and adorned. But what God had charged him with was the care of those five or six hundred poor people at Mixbury and Finmere, for whom there was no one else to care, among whom there was no praise to be won, no distinction to be attained, no ambition to be gratified. He was content with this, and sought for nothing more. These people he loved and willingly served, wisely also and discreetly, as a spiritual father and friend, who understood them, and was able to speak to them in a way which they could understand. There was not one, young or old, whom he did not personally know, or whose character and conduct he did not observe and study. He was not demonstrative, nor a man of many words; he kept his feelings, which were naturally warm and strong, quite under command. He knew what times were convenient, what were opportunities to be used, what manner of address would be acceptable and likely to make an impression. He watched over those who were in sickness, trouble, or any other need. He understood enough of medicine, and had sufficient store of drugs always at hand, to help them much in that way. He had always a kind and wholesome word, and an open hand, for those who wanted it. His temporal charities, distributed with discrimination and judgment, were so liberal, as to make churlish minds suppose that he must have been entrusted with funds especially devoted to that purpose. [1] His interest in individuals was not capricious or transitory, but patient and persevering. It was long before he despaired (if he ever did despair) even of those who went astray. And he had his reward in the effects of his ministry. There was not in his time a public house in Mixbury. Nor was there in either parish any congregation of Nonconformists, though the villages were sometimes visited by itinerant preachers, and there were always some to whom that style of preaching was attractive. In other respects, the conduct and reputation of his parishioners bore favourable comparison with most of their neighbours.

To the weak and the old, as long as they could work at all, he gave employment suitable to their strength, rather than alms; taking advantage, for this purpose, of his garden and glebe land. He respected them, and wished them to respect themselves. A farmer fell into the habits of intemperance, and was ruined; my Father reclaimed him, took him into his own service, comforted him in severe affliction, and was enabled to keep him straight to the end. A clever artificer was in a like case, and died; my Father so dealt with the family, that the children became examples of industry and good conduct, and rose in the world. These are but instances of the good done to many individuals by his discernment of character and constancy in kindness.

He felt strongly the evils attendant on the bad administration of the old Poor Law, and did all he could to mitigate them; but when that law was reformed, although greatly preferring the new system to the old, he thought the conditions on which relief was granted to the aged and infirm unnecessarily severe. The condition of the industrious agricultural poor was then far more depressed than it is now; the rate of wages was much lower, all necessaries of life dearer, and many comforts which they now enjoy were unknown. My Father encouraged and assisted a considerable number of his parishioners, whom he thought likely to do well in a new country, to emigrate to Canada and Tasmania, inquiring personally into the arrangements for their voyages, seeing and corresponding with the ship-owners and agents, and sometimes accompanying the emigrants themselves on board ship. Many of those emigrants prospered, and have left descendants who prosper still. [2] When they were gone, it was not with my Father, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’; he kept up a correspondence with most of them, and with some for years, following them still with his pastoral care and wise counsels, and finding out colonial clergymen and others to whom he recommended them for such good offices as he was no longer able to perform towards them himself, and not unfrequently sending out presents to them from this country.

In other relations of life he was the same man. By nature and inclination social and hospitable, he regarded prudence in the management of his means as essential to the performance of his duty. He kept, therefore, regular accounts and a strict watch over his expenditure, retaining the Mixbury glebe of about sixty acres in his own hands, and making it help out his housekeeping. He avoided all extravagance, and incurred no debts, living plainly and simply; keeping up old friendships, but seldom making new; entering into the society of a small circle of the neighbouring clergy and country gentlemen within distances of three or four miles from Mixbury, but not so much or so often as to interfere at any time with his proper duties.

He was a county magistrate. In those days the general (and, on the whole, advantageous) rule against placing beneficed clergymen on the bench did not exist; and it would hardly have been so well for Mixbury and its immediate neighbourhood if there had not been some magistrates who had that peculiar knowledge of, and sympathy with, the poor which is acquired by the discharge of pastoral duties. He attended diligently, for some years, to the duties of that office, and in that capacity he was quick in the detection of fraud and imposture, lenient towards such offences as might be due to the pressure of distress, or to ignorance or mere human infirmity, and vigilant to see justice done to all whom he thought in danger of suffering wrong.

Of his discretion and presence of mind I may mention an instance which occurred after I was grown up, during the terrible winter of (I think) 1831, when, from the combined operation of the abuses of the Poor Law and of political excitement, a sort of ‘Jacquerie’ [i] prevailed in the rural districts of that part of England, under a secret organisation designated by the name of ‘Captain Swing,’ which sometimes broke out in open riot and disturbance, but more generally manifested itself in incendiarism, particularly rick-burning at night. On one day in the Town Hall of Buckingham the magistrates assembled, with the Duke of Buckingham, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, in the chair, under circumstances of anxiety and general alarm. A mob was collected outside, clamorous for redress of grievances, and demanding admission. The magistrates consulted together as to what should be done, and my Father advised that the doors should be opened, and the leaders of the people outside invited to come in. The Duke and others gave him to understand that, if that were done, he must himself undertake the responsibility of managing the conference; to which he agreed. The doors were opened accordingly, and the malcontents entered, saying that they came ‘to demand their rights.’ My Father asked, ‘What rights?’ and whether they were such as it was within the power of the magistrates to grant? Upon this the leader made a speech, not clearly answering those questions, but declaring their loyalty and attachment to the throne. Taking him at his word, my Father at once declared that he was a fit and proper person to be sworn in as a special constable, which was forthwith done, the man offering no resistance; and the whole disturbance collapsed.

My brother William, from his infancy, displayed uncommon signs of ability, and a marked individuality of character. He was the favourite at Gledstone, and I at Nazing. We were brought up together at home; my brother Tom joining us in the schoolroom, when he was old enough. After we had mastered the first elements, my Father taught us himself, with great assiduity, and admirable regularity, patience, and judgment. We rose early, and began every day by reading with him the Psalms for that morning. We began Latin at five years old and Greek at six. We learnt the Latin accidence from Dr. Russell’s short Charterhouse Grammar, and then passed to Phaedrus’s Fables; and, by the time we were nine years old, we were fairly well grounded in Virgil and Horace, and not unpractised in verse and prose translation, and had begun the Greek Testament. Pope’s Homer and Dryden’s Virgil were familiar to us; and before we went to school we had made some progress in the original of Homer, and had read through the Prometheus of Aeschylus. Nor were we ignorant of Shakespeare, Milton, and some other English classics. My Father was not technically an exact scholar, but, in a practical sense, he was a good one. He had a manly, cultivated taste for the best works of the best poets and other writers—Greek, Latin, and English. The books in his library (some of which had belonged to Bishop Horsley) included not only a good store of classics and theology, and some scientific works, but also biographies, histories, voyages, travels, and a little lighter literature; and he encouraged us, with few exceptions, to read whatever we liked. In the elements of religious knowledge he carefully instructed us; and on Sunday afternoons we were often publicly examined by him in the Church Catechism, together with the children of his parishioners. I do not think we could have been better prepared for a public school by any teacher then living in England.

He often took us with him to see his parishioners, and in his rides and walks through the fields, or to neighbouring places; sometimes also on fishing excursions, in which art he was a proficient. He it was, I have no doubt, who first led us to find pleasure in the observation of nature; he had globes, and a telescope, through which he sometimes showed us the moon and the planets; he communicated to us his interest In the habits of birds and animals, and in chemistry and mineralogy, which he had to some extent studied; some sense also of natural beauty, of which he had a very keen perception.

He was not himself much of a botanist, or entomologist; but in one of those subjects we were helped by my aunt, Mary Anne Roundell; and in the other by Harris’s splendid work on British Lepidoptera, which my uncle Henry Roundell possessed, and which was an unfailing attraction to us at Fringford. The taste for those branches of natural history grew spontaneously during our rambles in the fields. There were not, indeed, any plants common at or very near Mixbury or Finmere, which were elsewhere rare; but several of the most beautiful English waterplants grew in the brook, such as the ‘Arrow-head’ (Sagittaria sagittifolia), and the ‘Flowering-rush’ (Butomus umbellatus); and the ‘Grass of Parnassus’ (Parnassia palustris) was found in the meadows near it. Of insects, though in most seasons there was nothing more remarkable than the privet and the humming-bird hawk-moths, we were visited occasionally by broods of the black-veined white and clouded yellow butterflies (Pieris cratcegi and Colias edusa), and in some years the large caterpillars and chrysalises of the Death’s-head Moth (Acherontia atropos) were found in the potato-fields at Brackley. We established for ourselves a botanical garden, and a ‘museum’ in our schoolroom, for insects, fossils, and other objects of natural history. Before we knew their true names or classification, we had our own nomenclature for all the more common butterflies and wild plants; and I remember surprising an old clergyman by giving him a name for everything, which he did not suppose to be of our own invention.

Roundell Palmer ætat. 8

As we grew, the faculty of imagination increased in power. It coloured all our childish pleasures; it accompanied us upon the ice and into the woods; it mixed dreams of the supernatural with the most ordinary things. Our resting-places when sliding over a frozen pool were the islands discovered by Columbus or Cook, in whose voyages we delighted. We carved out of cleft sticks what passed with us for images of humanity, and stuck them into the damp ground at night, hoping—almost believing, I am not sure that we did not pray—that we might find them endowed with life when we came to look for them in the morning. The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Baron Munchausen, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and all the fairy tales which we could get hold of, and the few novels (chiefly of the eighteenth century) to be found at Mixbury or Finmere were eagerly devoured. On one occasion, when I happened to be left alone for some days at Fringford, under the housekeeper’s charge, I found in a closet there some loose sheets of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Never was solitude less lonely; it was to me like the discovery of an inexhaustible mine of gold and precious stones.

My Grandmother Mrs. Palmer, and my Aunts Mary and Elizabeth, then lived together in London, at No. 110 Gloucester Place, Portman Square. My Grandfather had died in the summer of 1821, when I was between eight and nine years old. I had often been under their care before they left Nazing; and was left with them for weeks together in Gloucester Place; mainly, I think, for the sake of writing-lessons. For these, I and my brother William used to walk, either daily or several times in the week, to Kentish Town; passing along the line of those terraces which now face the Regent’s Park on the south and east sides, but which were then only half built. On every day that the British Museum was open to the public, I was permitted to go there having soon learnt the way, which indeed was easy enough, almost in a straight line eastward from my Grandmother’s house.

The old front of Montague House was then standing; and the only sculptures which I remember, as open at that time to the public, were the Egyptian. But my interest in the Museum centred in the Natural History department; in the minerals, shells, and birds, and the insects in one of the public rooms,—(of the existence of the larger and less public collection I was ignorant). Among these, I spent as many hours, on all those days, as the habits of Gloucester Place permitted. I always came away unwillingly, never tired.

My Grandmother also sometimes took me with her to the seaside, and I remember that it was first with her, at Southend, that I experienced the horrors of being dipped into salt water by a bathing woman, and also saw a melodrama of the story of Bluebeard, represented by a strolling company in a barn. I was by no means pleased at the burlesque rendering of what was to me a very dreadful tragedy.

The last time that I remember seeing that dear Grandmother was on the 27th of November 1822, my tenth birthday. The blessing which she then gave me, laying her hand upon my head, and praying that I might be a good—I think she also said a great—man, was the first spur to ambition which I received.

To William and me, childhood at home was then drawing to its end. On the 6th of March 1823, the first breach was made in our happy circle at Mixbury. My brother Tom had received some accidental hurt on the head, during some of our games. He was seized with the terrible malady called hydrocephalus, and in a few days, after suffering much pain, he died. The impression made upon me by seeing his earthly part in all the beauty and awfulness of death, so lately full of life and love—surrounded by snowdrops and hepatica flowers—has never faded away. The hearts of my Father and Mother were all but broken. My Mother’s cheerfulness did not return for years; my Father’s health suffered so much that in the following year (I did not know it at the time) he was very seriously ill.

The brother whom I had lost was a delicate engaging boy, with whose memory I do not associate a single fault. He was making good progress in Latin. As I write I have before me his last exercise, a translation into ten English verses of Horace’s Ode to Leuconoe, on which is this endorsement in my Aunt Mary’s handwriting:—’Dear Tom’s first and only attempt at translating one of the Odes of Horace; it was selected by himself a few days before he was taken ill.’ For a child of nine it is a remarkable performance, though not intrinsically excellent. The selection also, by a child whose days were then numbered, and who certainly had no presentiment (probably no conception of the meaning) of death, of a poem whose key-note is the uncertainty of life, and the wisdom of not reckoning upon time to come, adds to its interest.


Seek not (‘tis wrong) to know, Leuconoe,
What fate the Gods shall give to me and thee,
Nor to attempt the Babilonian strains.
To bear the times how better would it be,
Whether our age more circling years shall see
Or this the last, which now th’ Etrurian sea,
Dashes against the foamy rocks. be wise
Pour thou out wine nor think of what will come.
While we yet speak, perhaps we’ll speak no more,
Injoy what is, not caring what will come.

(Exact Copy.)                                  Hor. Od. I. xii.

My Father, on that occasion, wrote to my Grandmother, recalling the losses which she had in her time been called upon to bear.

I fear not (he said) to call to mind him, after whom I fondly named the child that we have lost, and presumed to hope he would remind us also of his worth in manhood… I know that we ought to look forward still, and that looking back is but too apt to fill our minds with fruitless regret, and to unnerve them for the business of the present. But these are early days; and, for once, I may be allowed to think upon the past. It is true that I have been wont to regard the child with more than ordinary warmth and quickness of feeling. In quickness of parts and strength of memory, he was certainly not equal to his elder brothers at the same age; and the greater pains that it was consequently necessary to bestow upon him no doubt contributed to render him an object of greater interest. And I must say for him that he was sensible of the pains taken, and on a late occasion justified himself to his brothers for his love of me on that score. His progress of late had been more considerable, and his work easier to himself, and he most diligent to apply. But, what is of more value still, his strict obedience to his Mother, and wish to do what might be agreeable to her, within these few weeks, became remarkable… Before, and at first in this last illness, he had always shown himself a bad patient; but on this occasion, from the time that I represented to him the necessity of medicine, he received the cup, and drank it at a word. When he was no longer able to repeat his own prayers, he answered ‘Amen,’ aloud, to my petition that I repeated by his side; and it was one of his last acts of lucid reason to remind me of the prayer. Poor child! he said to his Mama the same morning, ‘If I live—and I should like to live!’ And I now trust, my dearest Mother, that He ‘Who is wont to give more than either we desire or deserve,’ Who thought fit to take away from him the life on earth, has, by giving him an entrance to a better and eternal and spiritual life, given him even far more than he desired in that, which was then his natural and most earnest wish. God grant that in like manner we who remain may receive more than we deserve! This day we have committed his mortal remains to the earth, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Upon the simple gravestone, erected to record his name, birth, and death, under a sycamore tree opposite to the porch of Mixbury Church, and close to the gate by which the churchyard is entered from the Rectory,—the first of what is now a goodly group of family graves,—my Father engraved two verses, of which the motive is explained in that letter—

His natural wish was life; but God has given
More than his wish—eternal life in heaven.

Above them are emblems of mortality and immortality, suggested by our fondness for the study of insect life—the caterpillar, chrysalis, and perfect fly of the beautiful Ocellated Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellata). And the lower part of the same stone now serves as a cenotaph memorial of the brother next in age to him, the next to be taken from us.

October 1825.

[DEAR WILLY—I and Roundell caught too Commas on Michaelmas Day, and the day after we caught a Painted Lady. Roundell says he is sure you really wont beleve they are what they are, so he has drawn them at the end of this letter. Mister Pearce comes from Tinsick every day twice to teach Roundell and me to write and to sum. The other day he brought Roundell a catterpillow and it is a verry curious one. Friday has given us two Coos, but mine died of the dropsi and Roundell has joined his property with me and we are breding it up for you.

The Museum has been painted fresh and goes on verry w.ell, but as to the moths, I can’t say much for them, but we have put in a new moth a Bernished Brarse and Scarce Vapurer. That nasty, brown, soft, stinky stuff in the Museum that came from Gledstone is N aphthar or Asphaltus or bittumen or something, as Roundell calls it. The Bufticks are near turning Moth. As to the Privet and Attropas we expect them to turn before the end of this month.

I have done a great deal of the rules for the formasion of the tenses of the Greek Verb, and papa is gone to Malvern and Roundel hears my lessons now. I am in the first bok of Ovid’s Metamorphases. Papa has promised me and Roundel half a sovering if i have got through all six verbs, and am able to stand an examination in them by the time he culls back from Malvern.


P.S.—Dear Willy, these butterflies came to us quite by chance, and I have given you a very superficial drawing of them. I have drawn the Painted Lady too coarsely gaudy, and not simply beautiful and elegant as it really is. I have drawn the Comma with the same fault, namely, in by far too coarse and glaring colours. However, it is perfectly correct as to the angular shape of the wings. The Botany Garden, by my and Papa’s orders, has been dug and trimmed up, and I have added to our collection of plants the Dwarf Lychnis, the Vernal Meadowsweet, and the Butterfly Orchis. To earn my half sovering (as Henry calls it) I have to make an abstract of the whole of the Clio of Herodotus. Aunt Mary’s, Henry’s (for I see he has forgot this part of his letter), and my love to you, and I hope you are well.

I am, yours truly,
(ætat. nearly 13.)]

[1] My Grandfather and Uncle held the living of Mixbury for over eighty years, between them. The net income was £105 (in lieu of tithe) and sixty acres of glebe. After my Uncle left, during the incumbency of one of his successors, some of the benefits to which the parishioners had so long been accustomed were unavoidably discontinued. This caused, not unnaturally, considerable discontent, and an inquiry into the parochial accounts was demanded and, unfortunately, refused. A serious disturbance was the result, owing to the belief of the Mixbury people that they were being defrauded of bequests; and it was with difficulty that they were persuaded by my Father and Uncle that all they had formerly received had been from their rectors’ private purse.
In the course of the arbitration, the source of the idea was traced to a tradition well known in the village, but never before known to any of the Palmer family. In the words of one of the villagers, ‘It were to Madam Bathurst’s burying, I’ve heard grandfather tell it times. Madam Bathurst were the last of they Bathurstses, and the coaches and horses, and feathers and mourners was enough to make a stir in London, let alone Mixbury. There was folk who grudged the dead then as now, and some on them went on about the poor who was living, a-wanting the money more nor the rich dead. There was a pull up by the stocks as was standing in my time, not far from the church, to let the crowd settle. One of they as heard this grumblement, called out like a trumpet, ‘Cease your complainings, and show respect to your betters, corpses or walking; and for the matter of that, Madam has remembered you all, and your children after you, till Kingdom Come.’’
The date in the register of Madam Bathurst’s funeral is October 24, 1796, ninety years before the dispute referred to. She left no bequest whatever:—S. M. P.
[2] More than once in after years, sons and grandsons of these emigrants came to see my Father, and one, I remember, came immediately on his arrival in London, and said, ‘I gave my father my word, if ever I visited England, I would first find his old master’s sons and thank them for all we owe him.’ After my Father’s death in May 1895, letters came from Canada, Australia, and Tasmania, showing that the memory of the Palmers of Mixbury Rectory was still cherished in the homes of the writers.—S. M. P.

[i] Jaquerie: the revolt of peasants of northern France against the nobles in 1357–8. The ‘Swing Riots’ by agricultural workers began in east Kent in August 1830. There were more than 1,400 incidents in most counties south of Scotland. The protesters attacked threshing machines, burnt hayricks and demanded higher wages. The name comes from anonymous letters from protestors sent in the name of the mythical ‘Captain Swing.’

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