In his latest discovery from Croydon Minster, DAVID MORGAN has found in the vaults how one of the parish’s priests became a celebrated poet whose work might still be heard in a popular song of the last century
When the Reverend Francis Fawkes arrived in Croydon to take up a curacy at the Parish Church, what is now known as Croydon Minster, little did he know how his career was going to take off.
It was around the year 1750 when Fawkes arrived in Croydon, having previously been a curate at Bramham, near Wetherby, in Yorkshire. It was four years later that he came to the notice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Herring.
This was at the time when Herring was suffering ill-health and was staying in the Archbishop’s Palace, right next to the church – in what we know today as Old Palace School. Francis Fawkes decided that he would write an ode to celebrate the recovery of Archbishop Herring. This very much touched the elderly clergyman.
The verse that included Herring’s name went as follows;
Let Health, gay daughter of the skies
On Zephyr’s wings descend
And scatter pleasures as she flies
Where Surrey’s Downs extend.
There HERRING woes her friendly power
There may she all he roses shower
To heal that shepherd all her balms employ
So will she sooth our fears and give a nation joy.
Fawkes used the knowledge that when he was fit and well, Herring enjoyed riding.
In some of his letters to friends, Herring spoke often of riding across Banstead Downs. Whatever your opinion of the poetry, this Ode got Fawkes promotion and the following year, 1755, he was given his own church and became the vicar of Orpington.
Born in Yorkshire, the son of the Rev Jeremiah Fawkes, the Rector of Warmsworth, near Doncaster. Francis Fawkes was educated privately by Rev Cookson in Leeds before attending Bury Grammar School. He was a very bright pupil and went to Jesus College, Cambridge. After being awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1742 he went on to receive a Master of Arts in 1745, the same year he was ordained a deacon in Lincoln Cathedral.
His first curate’s post was the one in Bramham. What then, brought him down south to Croydon and eventual fame?
Francis Fawkes was always interested in literature and poetry and I think it was the chance to present his work to a different audience.
Fawkes enjoyed writing but he also had great skill as a translator. Many of his translations of Ancient Greek poems and texts were much admired and celebrated in academic circles. He had some minor successes of publishing when he was in Yorkshire but all his significant triumphs were to come after he journeyed south.
Once he had his poem publically acknowledged by the Archbishop his literary career took off, alongside his ecclesiastical one.
It was though, in a most unlikely way.
He rose to popular prominence with a poem entitled Brown Jug. The poem begins with the line “Dear Tom, this brown jug, that now foams with mild ale”, which is reckoned to be the first time in print where there is a reference to a Toby Jug.
The brown jug, Fawkes’s poem continues, “was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old soul”.
The poem relates the story of Toby, who enjoys a glass or two of ale. He dies, rather overweight and his buried body turns to clay, which is then dug up and used by the potter to make a brown jug which is called a Toby Jug, and the drinking cycle can begin all over again.
Our curate never lived to see the poem used in a comic opera performed at Covent Garden.
John O’Keefe included the song in The Poor Soldier, which opened had its premiere on November 4 1783. The opera, about returning soldiers from the American War of Independence, proved very popular and was performed in many theatres in this country as well as in America. It was said to be a favourite of George Washington.
Fawkes died in 1777. He had moved churches from his Orpington post, where he had been a popular figure, often touring his parish on horseback with his wife “Sweet Kate”. He was made a chaplain to the Dowager Prince of Wales.
After his death, Kate Fawkes was left with little money to live on and she had to sell off his library to help make ends meet. Yet long after his death, the Brown Jug song was to be found in many popular songbooks.
In this day and age, we are probably more aware of the song Little Brown Jug recorded by Glenn Miller in 1939 and made famous during the Second World War. If you hear it, you can now astound your friends and family by telling them where the original piece of writing came from: it was a Curate from Croydon!
- David Morgan is researching a new book on the Rectors of Croydon in 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.
- To read previous David Morgan articles on the history of Croydon Minster, click here
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