A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century References to Catholicism in Stroud
By Richard Barton (1990)
In February 1846 the Blessed Dominic Barberi wrote to his General, in Italy, with details of the proposed Passionist Mission at Woodchester. In this letter he describes the Stroud area in the following terms:
‘The country round about is thickly populated – somewhat like the region round Lucca – but there is no city near at hand. The nearest town is about three miles away (Stroud?), but it is not much more than a village. The House which it is planned to build for us would be very solitary, upon a slight eminence or hill, and overlooking a number of houses and distant villages containing a scattered population of about ten thousand inhabitants. We would be, as it were, in the centre of a circle with circumference of about a hundred miles, where there is not a single Catholic chapel. The population is entirely Protestant, but there are well-founded hopes that many would become Catholics with a little help and encouragement.’
Many have supposed that between the Reformation period and the nineteenth century revival, inspired by the Passionists and later the Dominicans, there was no Catholic activity in the Stroud area. However, closer examination will show that this was not entirely the case.
The List of Papists and Reputed Papists, compiled in about 1717 for the Quarter Sessions, refers to the following persons in the Stroud area:
Minchinhampton – Edward Biron
Painswick – Sir Francis Jerningham, Baronet
Stroud – The wife of William Ridler
Standish – Mary Rowse
Fifty years later we find the following details recorded in the Session Rolls of Papists in the Diocese of Gloucester:
STROUD: One male, aged 45 years approx., who worked as a shearman and was a native in the area.
MINCHINHAMPTON CUM RODBOROUGH: One male, aged 42 years, a peruke maker or barber resident for about 14 years in the area. Another male of the same occupation, aged 44 years, who has been resident in the area for 18 years. Also a staymaker’s wife, aged about 35 years, who had lived in the area for 15 years.
STONEHOUSE: The wife of a Protestant who was employed as the outrider to a clothier. She was aged about 40 years and had lived in the area about 6 months.
Bearing these 1767 returns in mind, it may seem odd that such a small number of Catholics should warrant visits, in 1782, by Father Andrew Weetman, a Franciscan priest from Perthyre, near Monmouth. These visits involved celebrating the Mass at Stroud on three or four occasions each year.
Correspondence which has survived, in the archives of the Vicars-Apostolic of the Western District, includes a letter referring to Catholic activity in Stroud. On 6th July 1804 Abbe Duchemin, a French priest who had shortly beforehand been appointed Missioner at Gloucester, wrote to Bishop Sharrock describing the state of Catholicism in the Stroud area. Although only recently appointed as Missioner, Abbe Duchemin had lived with the Catholic priests at Gloucester from the early 1790’s. He wrote:
‘Mr Greenway’s sister has spent several days there so I’m told. I’ll tell you what she told me. As far as the Catholics who were there, they are there no longer.
One to my knowledge is gone into service; the other, mother of two girls whom I never ever saw come to Gloucester, is dead. The father was violent, a Methodist, and will have turned them no doubt; after the pleas the mother made to me 10 years ago, I don’t think the girls were ever truly catholic.’
On the 20th February 1815, one Francis Vigurs registered with the Clerk to the Peace, a printing press and types for printing within premises at the rear of his dwelling house in the High Street, Stroud. Vigurs, a printer, stationer and bookseller, lived in Stroud until about 1821. Two of his children were baptised by Father John Augustine Birdsall O.S.B. in the Catholic Chapel at Cheltenham. Antony Francis, son of Francis and Victoria Vigurs, of Stroud, was baptised on the 20th October 1817 and his brother, Charles Smailes Vigurs, was baptised on 24th August 1819. The godmothers for both of these children were members of the family of George Williams, proprietor of the fashionable Williams Library of Cheltenham. This may well indicate a friendship between these two printing families.
Francis Vigurs is mentioned by Fisher, in his ‘Notes and Recollections of Stroud’, and various of Vigur’s publications are referred to in the text. These include a fortnightly journal, entitled ‘The Gloucestershire Repository, or Literary and Political Miscellany; comprising original communications in prose and verse, select extracts, etc.’ It was projected by a few young friends who, with casual contributors, supplied its original articles. The first number appeared on the 10th January 1817 and its twenty-sixth, and last, on the 26th December of the same year.
Stroud lay between Cheltenham and the Mass station at Horton, so it is not surprising that Father Birdsall should record in his personal diary, during the year 1819, a journey there ‘in Mr. Hebdin’s gig’. On that occasion he visited Stroud, Leighterton and Horton – all of which at that time contained Catholic families.
In about 1821 the Vigurs Family left Stroud and their business was continued by a Mr. G. Skey. Printing was also the occupation of members of the family of Benjamin Bucknall, a later Catholic convert and the architect of Woodchester Park Mansion. In 1824 one Benjamin Bucknall and, in 1848, another, Samuel George Bucknall, applied to register printing presses in Stroud.
Early in the 1840’s or 50’s a Catholic, the Honourable Mrs. Stapleton, mother of Father Paul Stapleton O.P., came to reside at the Grange, a house pleasantly situated a short distance from Stroud, near to Beeches Green. There was at that time no Catholic church nearer than Woodchester, so she had an altar prepared in one of the rooms in the house where Mass was said, and this is probably the first reference to regular Catholic activity in Stroud since the visits of Father Weetman in 1782.
This thread of references to Catholicism in the Stroud area perhaps raises more questions than it answers and, certainly, there is scope for deeper research. It seems appropriate to conclude where we started but, this time, with an extract from a letter written by Dr Brindle to Bishop Wiseman:
‘For a long time we have been very anxious to see a mission established at Stroud, feeling satisfied that in it and its populous neighbourhood, if a chance was given, religion would both be easily established and would flourish exceedingly. Want of means alone prevented the attempt.’ (5th February 1846)
Correspondence in the Bishop of Clifton’s Archives
Cheltenham R.C. Register 1809 – Glos Archives D4290/PP 1/1
Diary of Dom John Augustine Birdsall O.S.B. – Downside Abbey
List of Papists and Reputed Papists, 1767, Glos Archives Quarter Sessions
Returns of the Papists, 1767, Vol II, Ed. E.S. Worrall, 1989
Venerable Dominic Barberi in England, by Urban Young C.P.,1935
Life and Letters of the Venerable Dominic Barberi, Urban Young C.P., 1926
Notes and Recollections of Stroud, Paul Hawkins Fisher, 1871
Gloucestershire Directory, Gell & Bradshaw, 1820