The Ullenhall Controversy

The incident involves the Rev. William Frederick Pelton, Vicar of Ullenhall; Hannah Crookes, Headmistress of Ullenhall School; Miss Furnival, school teacher and church organist; and Mr Arthur Cotterell Coldicott, private secretary and confidential agent to H.G. Newton of Barrells Park, and vicar’s warden. (Mr H.G. Newton had been vicar’s warden but he and Rev. Pelton had a disagreement in 1903 and Mr Newton resigned).

At the end of 1904 an epidemic of influenza broke out at the school, and in January 1905 the postmaster, whose daughter had been ill, apparently complained to Rev. Pelton about Miss Furnival, the infant teacher. As a result Rev Pelton made investigations into how influenza had come into the village and he is alleged to have accused Miss Furnival of introducing the epidemic into the school when she returned from home after the Christmas holidays. He also said that the person responsible for bringing influenza into the parish ought to be prosecuted.

On Sunday 29th January 1905, Rev. Pelton, apparently of the belief that the whole parish was aware of the threat to prosecute Miss Furnival, took the opportunity, whilst in the pulpit, of denying it saying that if the idea of prosecuting over the influenza had entered his head it had left half an hour later. This led to correspondence in the Stratford Herald from February through to April. This correspondence where the ‘parochial dirty linen’ was washed in the press was primarily between Miss Crookes and Rev. Pelton, although the Editor of the Herald did write, “We have received so much correspondence on this question, some of it being so strongly worded, that it would be quite unsafe to publish it”.

Hannah Crookes’s original contention was that Rev. Pelton was inaccurate when, from the pulpit, he claimed that the idea of prosecuting had left his head half an hour later, as she was aware that he had pursued his inquiries for at least two further days. The ensuing exchanges argue about various matters including what actually happened and who was responsible for the current situation. They prompted the editor of the Herald to write, “This unpleasantness has really gone far enough. Let now a spirit of conciliation be exhibited”, although he continued to publish a further five letters. Finally, in April, Miss Furnival’s father wrote a letter of ‘explanation’ to the Herald criticising the vicar for the way he had treated his daughter and writing, “If Miss Crookes has suffered similar annoyance and persecution, one cannot be surprised that a bitter feeling has been engendered. My advice to my daughter is to leave the village, and seek a place where a more Christian feeling dominates the shepherd of the flock”. In response Rev. Pelton wrote that he agreed that Miss Furnival should leave the village as “I feel convinced that it will be an unmixed blessing to her to be permanently dissociated from companionship which, taking advantage of an oversensitive temperament, has filled her mind with miserable suspicions, alike unworthy of her better nature and absolutely intolerable to her vicar”.

Along with this there was conflict regarding Miss Furnival’s position as church organist, for which she received a salary of £10 a year. Miss Crookes and Miss Furnival lived together at the School House and in December 1904 they had a conversation with Mrs Pelton who said that she was looking for a musical governess for her children and that this governess would be able to play the church organ. This gave them the idea that there would be no need for Miss Furnival to play the organ. This annoyed Miss Furnival and she refused to fetch the list of hymns from the vicarage on Saturdays, which was one of her duties as organist, saying that she was too busy. Incidentally, the vicarage was virtually next door to the School House. As a result Rev. Pelton wrote to Mr Coldicott (the vicar’s warden) suggesting that Miss Furnival be given notice to resign. The vicar then received a letter from Miss Furnival’s father complaining of his action towards her. As a result of this letter Rev. Pelton suggested that the churchwardens should agree to him dismissing Miss Furnival from her post as organist. However Mr Coldicott did not agree to this and the matter was referred to the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon spoke with Mr Coldicott and suggested that Mr Coldicott should try to persuade Miss Furnival to dissociate herself from her father’s letter to the vicar. However when they had eventually persuaded Miss Furnival to write a letter of apology, Rev. Pelton refused to accept it as said he had waited too long for it.

Although Mr Coldicott and the people’s warden, Mr Wingfield, did not agree with Mr Pelton about dismissing Miss Furnival, eventually, as peace could not be made, they agreed to give Miss Furnival her notice, but to register their regret by resigning their offices which they did in Easter 1905.

This led to correspondence between the vicar and Mr Coldicott which continued until 1907. In his letter of January 31st 1907 to Mr Coldicott, Rev. Pelton wrote, “I beg to enclose 10s, which was your contribution sent to me privately to the Easter offering of 1905. I do so because from what I have heard lately I am convinced that you have been playing a double game pretty well the whole time I have been in the parish, the object of which no doubt has been to ingratiate yourself in your employer’s favour, and that in spite of your frequently denouncing them as unchristian. I have already pleaded guilty at having committed some errors of judgment, amongst chief of which I now reckon that of miscalling you for a man of honour. While posing as my confidential friend and accepting office from me to protect my interests you have played the role, which no doubt is perfectly natural and congenial to you, of the spy and informer, and I now see the futility of having looked to you for protection against slander and misrepresentation, when you were secretly doing all you could, directly and indirectly, to stimulate it. I have expressed these views to others, and shall do so again if occasion occurs, and under certain conditions would furnish you with particulars”. A letter from Mr Coldicott to Rev. Pelton read, “You have done me a very serious wrong, and I am altogether at a loss to understand how you could have brought yourself to write two such letters to me. You know perfectly well that I have never on any occasion said one single word to you which I should not be willing to repeat in the presence of Mr. Newton or any member of his family, and I repudiate with the utmost scorn your charge that ‘I have played a double game,’ or acted in any way as ‘a spy or informer’”.

All this strife had led to problems in the parish and difficulties for Rev. Pelton with several parishioners leaving the church. At the Easter vestry meeting in 1908 Rev. Pelton produced some papers which he did not show those at the meeting but said he intended to circulate copies in the parish. This he did, sending copies to people within the parish, such as the mother’s help at Mr Coldicott’s house, and also some outside the parish, including to the vicar of the parish near Dorking, to which Miss Furnival had gone. Rev. Pelton contended that the purpose of the pamphlet was to clear the atmosphere and create peace. He wanted to put his side before people whom he thought had heard the other side, to stop the rumours and remove a prejudice which had grown up about him in the parish.

We do not have a copy of this pamphlet but in it Rev. Pelton alleged that Mr Coldicott was the author of the letters signed by Miss Crookes, which had appeared in the Stratford Herald in 1905. He also said that Mr Coldicott had frequently made offensive remarks about his late employers Mr and Mrs T.H.G Newton (T.H.G. Newton died in 1907), the parents of Mr H.G. Newton (Mr Coldicott’s employer at that time). These included that the squire did not like anyone to get a halfpenny piece out of him. He would come back from London with a fur coat costing 30 guineas and would grind the last 6d out of a tenant. He was also alleged to have said that Mrs Newton was a woman of no Christian principles, and that she had been currying favour with her husband insincerely, in order that she might invite some poor relations of hers down. The pamphlet continued, “Mr Coldicott, though undeniably a most efficient and trustworthy man of business, has nevertheless the unenviable notoriety of being a tyrant not only towards his subordinates at Barrells, but also in some degree towards others of higher position whom in virtue of the entirely free hand allowed him he has had as completely in his power as if they were his own employees or tenants. . . . In addition to this any underhand espionage appears to be peculiarly congenial to his (Coldicott’s) nature. It has furnished him . . . with material for backbiting those with whom he is even now, so they themselves evidently imagine, on terms of intimate friendship, and in my own case, no doubt, it has had the further tempting advantage of advancing his material interests with his employers”.

These allegations were much too serious an attack on Mr Coldicott’s honour and resulted in a libel action against Rev. Pelton being heard at Birmingham Assizes in December 1908. During the hearing the vicar admitted saying, in June 1903, that the characteristics of the inhabitants of Ullenhall were niggardliness and deceit. It was also stated that Rev. Pelton and Mr Coldicott had originally apparently been on friendly terms, Rev. Pelton had even asked Mr Coldicott to be godparent to one of his children. When this was revealed to the court it was reported that Rev. Pelton “completely broke down, and holding his hands to his face, leaned on the desk behind, and wept for several minutes, his body shaking convulsively”.

After a three day hearing the jury concluded that there was no basis for Rev. Pelton’s allegations and awarded Mr Coldicott £200 in damages. Rev. Pelton was not pleased with the way in which his defence team had conducted themselves, and his difficulties continued. (Coldicott v Pelton – With the Defendant’s Compliments).

Miss Furnival left the village in August 1906, and in 1908 was at a parish near Dorking. H.G. Newton decided to move, and began to put his property up for sale in 1919. He died in 1924, the same year in which Miss Hannah Crookes retired. Mr Coldicott moved to Henley-in-Arden around 1914. Rev. Pelton continued as vicar of the parish until he retired in 1932.

[Sources: Stratford-upon-Avon Herald 4th December 1908; 11th December 1908].

The Ullenhall Controversy letters

Coldicott v Pelton