The Life and Times of a 19th Century Sudbury Clergyman September 27th

Reporter: Heather Coltman

THE REVEREND HENRY WATTS WILKINSON

The first meeting of the new season was introduced by Peter Mills who thanked Roger Green for kindly stepping in at short notice as Ashley Cooper, the advertised speaker, was unable to come because of his father’s recent death.

Roger is always a popular speaker and the evening was no exception.

The Reverend Wilkinson, served as clergyman in Sudbury at both St. Peter’s and St. Gregory’s churches for 41 years from 1807 to 1851. We were told that his father, who held church posts equivalent to that of assistant curate at three churches in London, founded a large dynasty of clergymen. Henry was the eldest of four sons, three of whom were in the clergy (all had similar variations on the various family names, making an historian’s life very frustrating), there were also five daughters.

Henry went to Worcester College, Oxford and became a non-resident Fellow. However, he got married, a state not allowed to Fellows, and ended up in Sudbury where he was soon involved in various reforms and improvements, to St. Peter’s in particular. He was also involved in the formation a Bible Society with the aim of taking the Bible to the poor.

His first wife bore him five children. The eldest lived to 14 years old; the following three sons all died in infancy – the final child, a daughter, survived but four months after giving birth his wife died, at the age of 35. All of which must have been a great tragedy. However, some time later he married again, to Sarah Walker; she had three children, a boy and two girls all of whom did survive.

Roger went on to tell us that Henry was given the Freedom of Sudbury Borough in 1825 and in 1831 became much involved in politics and the elections of that year. There seems to have been some interesting features to the election not perhaps unlike those described by Dickens in his ‘Pickwick Papers’.

The second part of Roger’s talk was devoted to the curious case of Henry’s eldest daughter Hannah (from his first marriage). She was deemed to be unable to conduct her own life and to have had a childlike attitude to all circumstances. Her grandmother’s Will left her a considerable sum of money. She was only 7 years old when the Will was made and maybe her mental state was not so obvious then. As she grew older she was eventually placed under the protection of four guardians (all men!). At some point an impecunious seafaring cousin (also a Watts Wilkinson) effectively kidnapped Hannah, bore her off to a City Church and ‘married’ her. When asked to say ‘I do’ she said ‘no’! Eventually, after endless legal wrangling the ‘marriage’ was annulled and her ‘husband’ unable to get his hands on her money went to sea again and ended up in the Americas. This, and much more was described in entertaining detail – the audience being encouraged to hiss every time ‘the villain’ was mentioned.

In 1845 Henry acquired another living, at Walton-cum-Felixstowe where he created a fine Rectory from a farm house. For the remainder of his life he divided his time between the two livings. It’s noticeable from Church records that winter was mainly spent in Sudbury and summer in Felixstowe!

The Reverend Henry Watts Wilkinson did much good work in Sudbury and was very popular. When he died in 1851 aged 69 he was buried in St. Peter’s and the parishioners put up a fine memorial to him (now unfortunately partly obscured by the organ frame) as ‘a tribute of affection to the memory of their faithful pastor’.

The enthusiastic applause at the end of the talk was a sign that once again Roger Green had given us a fascinating insight into one of Sudbury’s many interesting characters. As he said, the Curate seems to have been a good man who coped with the many vicissitudes of his life in a brave and stoical manner.

Committee member, Sue Ayres, proposed the vote of thanks. This was followed by refreshments and everyone went home a little wiser about a part of the history of our town.