Cleric who faced court at time of Pepys, plague and puritans

Public information in the 17th century – an early version of “Space, Face, Hands”

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: From the records of the old Parish Church and other accounts, DAVID MORGAN uncovers the history of a Croydon vicar who was hauled up in court at the Old Bailey on charges of kidnapping, was confronted by a highwayman, was defrocked after a case lasting 10 years, and all at the time of the Great Plague of London

The registers of Croydon Parish Church are very clear when it comes to numbering the fatalities of local plague outbreaks in the 17th Century.

Between July 1603 and April 1604, 158 died. In 1625, 76 died. In 1626, 24 died. In 1631, 74 died. Between July 27, 1665, and March 22, 1666, the number of deaths was 141.

To put the earliest outbreak of 1603 into context, the death figures for London as a whole from August 11-18 that year were 3,054, rising to 3,385 between August 25 and September 1. In 1665 to 1666, the Great Plague of London killed an estimated 100,000 people— almost a quarter of the city’s population in 18 month.

The plague was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which was usually transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea. The 1665 to 1666 epidemic was on a far smaller scale than the earlier Black Death. It has come to be remembered as the Great Plague mainly because it was the last widespread outbreak of bubonic plague in England during a 400-year pandemic.

In a note in the registers, there was a comment that “many people died in the highways, neare about the citie.” Grim times indeed. Not everywhere was affected though. Carshalton and Cheam had no deaths from plague at all in the corresponding period in 1665-1666, when Croydon had 141.

The basic figures show how the plague wasn’t a one-off event. Croydon, just like many other towns, was affected over a 50- or 60-year period. The bacteria that caused the plague never went away. When conditions were at their most favourable, the disease would flare up. This would usually coincide with periods of hot humid weather, whilst a hard frost would help to suppress the spread.

Samuel Pepys: ‘how empty the streets are, and melancholy’

John Shrewsbury’s book, The History of the Bubonic Plague in the British Isles provides further insight into the Croydon plague deaths. More than likely the first plague victim in the town was a fugitive from London who died in June 1665, although the first victim in the register to be marked “pestis” is dated July 27. The number of deaths that September was 39, compared to a monthly average of 10. One family contributed nine to that total. An “exceedingly hard frost” at the end of November brought the mortality rate much lower, although it wasn’t until March 1666 that the last plague death of that epidemic in Croydon was recorded.

There are many descriptive accounts of what life was like at that time. Samuel Pepys wrote on October 16 1665: “But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that.

“And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician, and but one apothecary left, all being dead-but there are great hopes of a great decrease this week. God send it.”

Just as today, people will share news, not necessarily face to face, but the talk goes on about the family who has lost someone to covid-19 or to the person who is still suffering months after first suffering from it.

Our great scientific hope lies with the vaccine. Back then, 350 years ago, science was no real help. Blood-letting with leeches was commonly prescribed. The air was thought to be “bad”, so efforts were made to cleanse the air with steam or smoke. Young children were encouraged to smoke to ward off bad air. Sniffing a sponge soaked in vinegar was another option.

Nearly a quarter of London’s population died during the Great Plague in 1665 to 1666

I wonder how long it might have been before there were grumbles from the people about not only the “cures” but also the rules and regulations that were brought in. Just as today’s government have scrambled to issue advice and put in place new laws, so did Parliament then. There are some interesting comparisons between the two.

Public gatherings were a source of concern. Gatherings for funerals have been severely restricted today. Back then there were to be no public funerals at all.

Drinking in pubs was a cause of alarm. The 17th Century decision stated that no more alehouses were to be licensed than were absolutely necessary in each city or town, “especially during the continuance of this present contagion”. I don’t suppose today’s Secretary of State for Health could get away with saying, “Only go for a glass of ale if absolutely necessary.”

Travel restrictions were brought in. In the plague year of 1665, no stranger was allowed to enter a town unless they had a certificate of health. Then, as now, people chose to break those regulations. Some travelled by night. Some just brazened it out with anyone who stopped them. Other examples of people breaking the rules by allowing individuals out of quarantined houses are documented in the National Archives.

The approach to shopping was very different. No shops were formally closed in 1665 but the lack of anyone to open them meant that many businesses just stopped. One of the orders from 1665 was that “no unwholesome meats, stinking fish, flesh, musty corn… be exposed to sale in any Shop or Market”.

Because it was thought that “bad air” was responsible for the spread of the plague, one order was particularly relevant to churches. It read that, “Fires in moveable pans, or otherwise, be made in all necessary public meetings in churches, etc, and convenient fumes to correct the air be burnt thereon.”

Once this order had been issued, we might imagine the churchwardens and vicar meeting to decide where to get the pans from, where they might stand in the church and who might be responsible for the lighting of them and the managing of the fumes. If it did, then plans would have been put in place despite, rather than because of the vicar of Croydon at that time. Unfortunately, the man holding the post in 1665 had the worst reputation of any vicar in the history of Croydon Parish Church.

The Rev William Clewer was appointed here in October 1660 by Archbishop Juxom at the recommendation of King Charles II. This, in itself, is quite strange as Clewer spent the years of the Commonwealth – when Oliver Cromwell ruled over England following the execution of Charles I – chiding and deriding members of the Royalist cause. Clewer was first given the vicar’s post at Ashton, Northamptonshire, in 1645, when just 18 years old and “of a very ill life and very troublesome to his neighbours”.

Following the death of Cromwell, Clewer made speedy representations to the Earl of Cleveden, asking him for a “good” parish.

Bring out your dead: Life in 17th Century England was never easy

We know only a little of Clewer’s earlier life. He is described as a Doctor of Divinity although the database of clergy does not state which university he attended. He was married to Elizabeth. She died and was buried on November 25, 1671, in Lady Scudamore’s grave, in the chancel of the church here in Croydon.

From evidence given in court, we can see that Clewer wasn’t a very conscientious clergyman. We know he did carry out some duties as a vicar. In our parish records it states that William, son of William Merredew, was baptised by Clewer in 1672. However, by that time, Clewer had already been taken to ecclesiastical court for neglect of duties, getting off with a “monishment”.

Two further court appearances, in 1681 and 1682, followed because of neglect of duties.

He received a suspension which was subsequently overturned and a further “monishment”. In 1684, he was finally deprived of his living and removed from his perpetual vicar’s post here.

The case, brought by the parishioners of Croydon, is a famous one. Because of Clewer’s appeals, the case dragged on and it took more than 10 years for the court to reach the decision which the parishioners wanted.

Clewer was accused of many things in his lifetime, including drunkenness and keeping a mistress. He was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey for stealing a silver cup. His punishment was to be burnt on the hand.

In December 1690, Clewer again appeared at the Old Bailey, accused with others of kidnapping and then forcibly marrying a young heiress to her “suitor”. The girl was Mary Wharton and she was 14 at the time. Clewer, in his defence, claimed he knew nothing about abductions and just performed a wedding ceremony in a guesthouse in Westminster where he was lodging. He was acquitted, although another man was found guilty of kidnap.

Mary Wharton was kidnapped from outside her home where she lived with her mother. She was forced to marry Captain James Campbell. The marriage was later annulled by an Act of Parliament. The Honourable James Campbell later went on to serve as a member of the House of Commons.

In the book The Lives of Highwaymen, there is a passage stating that Clewer was held up by a notorious highwayman, O’Brien, in Acton. Clewer, who allegedly knew the rogue, said his money was safe back home in Croydon. He produced a deck of cards and asked O’Brien to play a game of all-fours with his canonicals – his vicar’s clothing – as the prize, as he had no money with him. Clewer lost and walked home in his shirt.

There was no end to accusations against Clewer. In court, he was accused of reading out sermons published by other clerics and claiming them as his own – a kind of plague era plagiarism. Clewer died in 1702. The note in St Bride’s Church register in London calls him “parson of Croydon”. The people of Croydon would have had a very different view.

Read more: How Croydon’s pandemic priests survived the Black Death

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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