INSIGHT into the LIFE and TIMES of SAMUEL RICKARDS,
Rector of St Georges Church, Stowlangtoft
Samuel Rickards, son of Thomas Rickards of Leicester, was born in 1796. He was educated at Oxford University and matriculated from Oriel College, Oxford in 1813, graduating B.A. in 1817 and M.A. in 1820.
His marriage in 1821 to Lucy-Maria Wilmot, the daughter of a Derbyshire Baronet, obliged Rickards to surrender his Oriel fellowship and seek a living and, from 1822 to 1832, he became curate in charge at Ulcombe, Kent.
In 1832 Samuel was presented with the position of rector covering the ministry of the Church of St George, Stowlangtoft, Suffolk which he accepted.
He was the author of several devotional books and poems and also published works relating to Christian matters during his ecclesiastical career.
Samuel Rickards spent the remainder of his life at Stowlangtoft remaining in position as rector until his death which occurred in 1865.
Comments recorded by various working associates, acquaintances and his many contacts, suggest that Samuel, throughout his life was a consistently popular and respected man. As a clergyman he was reputed to be a sound theologian of high character and many of his clerical brethren looked to him for counsel and guidance in the controversies in which this troubled period in history was heavily immersed.
Samuel Rickards was elected a fellowship at Oriel which he served from 1819 to 1822. Contemporaries included John Keble and John Henry Newman, whom he became friends with, and other notable leading lights in the developing Tractarian movement. This movement, often referred to as the ‘Oxford Movement,' kicked against the Reformation and proposed closer linkage with the Papacy. They conceived the Anglican Church as one of three branches of the Catholic Church.
He was instrumental in the publication of Keble's acclaimed ‘Christian Year.' A duplicate copy of the manuscript had been lent to him by Keble and when Keble's original copy was lost in Wales Samuel returned his own copy to him to enable printing.
Rickards initially supported the Oxford movement but in the latter stages of his time at Oriel Samuel grew disillusioned with the aims of the movement and, ultimately, parted company with it, becoming an opponent. His friendship with, members of the group consequently lapsed and he sent expostulatory and warning letters to both Keble and Newman.
Samuel was Newdigate prizeman, 1815, writing on the "Temple of Theseus." He also was English essayist, 1819, writing on "Characteristic Differences of Greek and Latin Poetry.”
Shortly after becoming a Fellow of Oriel, Samuel Rickards, and a college friend, resolved to produce an riginal essay within the subject ‘Inductive Philosophy.' They settled on the science of handwriting and collected some hundreds of specimens of handwriting that they knew. Then, first separately, then together, wrote down the characteristics both of the writings and the writer. When the same characteristic running through many of the handwritings was shown to go with some mental characteristic running through every writer this became a ‘law' and thus a system was arrived at. Rickards would never divulge this system for he felt that detecting a secret of character was open to misuse and therefore should not be widely available. In this respect Samuel was cautious in his own application of the system and refused to give an opinion on handwriting immediately, and then, only after obtaining a promise of confidentiality.
Rickards was almost infallible in his interpretations of handwriting. His system gave him access to the secrets of the heart and he frequently told the writer of matters which nobody but themselves knew and which they then for the first time recognised.
In some cases Samuel indicated mental faculties which had still to be shown in action: Of a well- known professor's handwriting that he had never seen before he said that the writer “was both a country gentleman and a university man” and that “ he combined two professions and wore heavy boots.” It transpired that the handwriting was from a man that lived at Oxford. He was a good scholar but was never happy except in country occupations. He had been a tutor before becoming a physician and he was remarkable for his heavy boots!
Rickards made mistakes and they had their significance: Of the Duke of Wellington's handwriting he said “This man will never marry” Certainly the married state was the least developed of that hero's many relations: The Duke of Wellington's marriage to Kitty Pakenham, in 1806, had been an unmitigated disaster. Initially he had desperately wanted to marry her but because of his lack of financial prospects, her family rejected him. Ten years later, the two still wished to marry, and this time the Duke had returned from India with a great deal of money; so, her family agreed to the marriage.
The two "lovers" had not seen each other in ten years. When he saw her just after the announced nuptials, he remarked to his brother, "She has grown ugly, by Jove!" But he was honour bound to marry her.
They married immediately, in 1806, and had their first son the following year and their second and last child the next. During the following years, they usually lived apart, and when they were together, they never shared a room. He apparently found her "intolerable" to be around!
Perhaps, in the circumstances, it might be considered that Samuel Rickards analysis of the Duke's handwriting had not been so far of the mark!
The magnificent medieval late 14th century Church of St George, with its lofty tower, was one of forty, built and served by the abbey of St. Edmund's. Robert Dacy de Ashfield, who was Lord of the Manor at the time the church was constructed, appears to have been the church's chief benefactor. Robert Dacy de Ashfield died in 1401 and it is said, that he asked to be buried in the chancel on his death.
The church chancel accommodates a compact organ with very pretty coloured painted pipes. This pipe organ, when new, is said to have originally been displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition. This was the first ever international exhibition of manufactured products held in the purpose made Crystal Palace at London's Hyde Park.
In 1832, the rectorate, or ‘the living' as it was known, fell vacant at Stowlangtoft. The re-allocation was in Henry Wilson's remit as Squire. He presented it at once to Samuel Rickards, a friend he had met in his university days when they were both studying together at Oxford. The offer was readily accepted and Samuel Rickards was appointed rector taking into his charge the ministry of the Church of St George, Stowlangtoft.
To provide accommodation for the new rector and his family Henry Wilson instructed the building of a handsome and capacious parsonage of white Suffolk brick on the glebe land adjacent to the churchyard.
Early on in his new appointment Samuel had temporarily stayed at Little Haugh House in the neighbouring village of Norton. Samuel, together with wife, moved into and , quite soon, were happily established in their newly built rectory home at Stowlangtoft.
Rickard's ministry at Stowlangtoft: 1832-1865
The church at Stowlangtoft was apparently in an appalling state of disrepair when the Rev. Samuel Rickards commenced his incumbency: The chancel was roofless and, for expediency, the nave was being used for conducting the services.
Rickards, with financial help from Henry Wilson who had become a very close friend, enthusiastically set about the task of restoring and returning the church to good order. During the course of the 1840s and 1850s he completely transformed the church to a very high standard. The remedial works included refurbishing, replicating where necessary, and completing the marvellous set of pew bench ends the work being carried out by the renowned Ipswich woodcarver, Henry Ringham. A replacement pulpit, loosely based on a medieval design, was made by William White and installed. This new fixture however was the target of criticism: A number of parishioners considered that the overall style of the stone pulpit was laughable and distasteful and, indeed, a number of specialists who have visited the church since agree with this assessment.
Other renovations undertaken during the refurbishment, which took place over many years, included the repair and overhaul of the church tower turret clock and this task was completed in 1835 by a local clockmaker based in the nearby village of Ixworth.
The Rev. Samuel Rickards was as relaxed in his church as he was in his own house and there he read and talked to his parish and indeed, to anyone privately, as if it was his own family. It was impossible not to attend, to be interested, and to learn. His style was wholly devoid of all stiff mannerisms that people normally exhibit when preaching. Samuel had absolutely no need for garniture or stilted expressions. The man himself, his voice, and manner, sent every word into his hearers, and when they thought of what he had said, the man, the voice, and the manner rose before them. The church, a large one for the parish, was always full, and full, too, of sincere listeners. People came from far and wide to join in such a service. Mr Bevan, a banker at Bury St Edmunds, came over for many years, lunching at the parsonage, till, as must happen at last to every clergyman, Rickards found he must reserve all his strength for his day's work, and had none to spare for even one congenial visitor.
Rickards spoke slowly, for he never spoke by rote, or ran out of words. There always seemed
an exact accord between heart, head, and tongue. It can scarcely be imagined that anybody, even the most died-in-the-wool rustic, failing to understand and feeling whatever he said. Although it is reported that Rickard's rebukes were known to have been solemn and rather awful, there would still be love in them for even the casual force of such a power can be terrible.
Not long after Rickards' arrival at Stowlangloft, he had a call from a neighbouring clergyman, of whom he knew nothing except his name. On his departure, Rickards offered to accompany him part of his way home. They talked of different people and finally of a person who had laid himself open to censure. It is the way of earnest talkers to come to a stand, and say face to face the weightiest thing they have to say. This is exactly what Rickards did. Turning round to the clergyman, and raising his hands and his head, he said solemnly with every word issuing like a gunshot: “But what can you expect from a man that married his cook?” Apparently, and of course quite unknown to Samuel, it transpired that this was exactly what the other clergyman himself had done! After Samuel had fired this pronouncement, perhaps not unexpectedly in the circumstances, the other gentleman turned around, and, without so much as a word, walked quickly away, never to cross Rickard's path again.
When Rickards entered his parsonage, he found a large kitchen garden, newly laid out and walled. There were also shrubberies, and he had particularly asked for an avenue of trees for meditation. But he also liked strawberries. There must be good beds of them, and the avenue must be lined with them. The crop the first year was truly magnificent. The school children
were requisitioned to bring large baskets to be filled and sent to neighbours in and out of the parish. The next year the produce was not so overpowering. The third year there was hardly any crop at all. Rickards had forgotten that the garden had been taken out of a wheat field in the best bearing condition and had now relapsed back into its natural state, which was that usually found on the chalk.
Having a keen interest in botany and agriculture, Rickards would occasionally try out some of the various discoveries announced in the country newspapers. Seeing one day a paragraph stating it as a simple fact that if you mixed up an equal quantity of salt, soot, and sulphur, and spread it over the growing surface, you would have wonderful crops of everything that you might choose to sow, he tried it with the greatest care, sowing garden as well as field seed. He waited for the result with much interest but regretfully not a green thing appeared and the treated land became a desert and remained so for some years.
The county was rural and primitive but the place had its charms. The church was known to be located on the site of a Roman camp by the large white snails surviving there. Lord Maidstone came for a visit and he stood on a mound in the churchyard, adjoining the parsonage grounds, and announced: “Now I am on top of the highest hill in all the county of Suffolk!”
Stowlangtoft Hall lay at the level of a small stream half a mile from the church. Very soon Rickards knew of everything living or growing in the parish. In a parasitical herb growing out of the roots of a tree in a roadside bank, Rickards recognised the only plant of Spanish
liquorice he had ever seen in a wild state, and proud was he to show it to those he could trust to keep the location secret.
Whatever could be moved was brought into the rectory garden, which became an interesting wilderness, in which one could roam about making discoveries every day. Among the plants was some rare sweet-scented valerian, grown from seeds enclosed in the cerements of a burial probably going as far back as King John.
Every creature had Rickards' sympathy and aid, ineffectual as it might sometimes be, for he could not bear to see anything in distress without an effort to relieve it. In the garden of Stowlangtoft Hall there was an artificial mount, the top of which was reached by a winding path. Arriving at the top one hot afternoon, he found a frog that must have wandered there from the fishpond at the foot of the mount. It had been some time out of its element, and could hardly crawl. Rickards stooped, secured it carefully between forefinger and thumb, and carrying it gently down the path, threw it into the pond. It had scarcely touched the water when a pike sprung at it and swallowed it. 'Poor froggy' was all Rickards could say!
Rickards believed in Bishop Berkeley's panacea of tar-water being of great benefit and decided he would give it a thorough trial. At one time there were jars of tar-water all over the Stowlangtoft rectory. Rickards himself drank, or sipped, it frequently: sometimes he felt confident it did him good. But he finally gave it up.
Troubles came as they come everywhere: The Rickards had two young daughters: Maria, sometimes referred to as Mary, and Lucy, or Minky and Lu, the nicknames that they were called, were a loving pair always learning and doing much to help. They caught a fever in 1839 believed to be during the haymaking in the damp meadows thereabouts. Maria, aged just 15 years, died. Lucy survived but suffered constitutional injuries which gave her continual trouble and pain throughout her life. Her life ended in 1839 at the comparatively young age of 41. It seems that Rickards, in his grief, partly blamed himself at the early demise of daughter Maria and fretted that the tragedy may not have occurred if he had not left Ulcombe, where he was doing a good work, and where he had many kind friends who then missed him much.
Rickards felt much sympathy towards the agricultural labourers, who during this period were in a very restless state and often wanting help. He thought that whatever he gave to help them ought to have come from the farmer or the landlord, not from him, and that the wages ought to be raised to meet the labourers' wants. The employers met this with the simple allegation that they could not afford to pay more. How was Rickards to learn the true state of the case, and be qualified to adjudicate between the labourer and the farmer? So he took the management of his glebe directly into his own hands. This meant he had to be out all day: early and late. He found he had to watch the labourers: to sit up all night with sick cows and sick calves: to suffer considerable losses and make some mistakes. He finally gave up what to him was an impossible task. The truth is he was not a farmer. In common, too, with nearly all people who are not farmers, he had failed to realise that farming and agriculture is a very precarious business and it is the farmer that has to absorb all its fluctuations and uncertainties. The labourer has his fixed wages, and the landlord his fixed rent, but the farmer has to take his chance of the weather, the markets, casualties of all kinds, and the many pests to which the cattle and the crops are liable.
Even as a priest of nature, Rickards had his sorrows. A lad in the local school showed an extraordinary aptitude for natural history, especially for the creatures of water, wood, or field. Rickards took much interest in him, and eventually secured employment for him at the London Zoological Gardens. He liked the reptile house, and was put there where he was responsible for feeding and cleaning out the creatures. He was often warned of his rashness, and growing complacency in ignoring the danger associated with his work. Unhappily, coming from the fresh country air to the reeking metropolis, he also acquired a love of drink. One morning, after imbibing too much alcohol, he had to deal with the cobras. One of them bit him. Given the constraints of the medical knowledge in these earlier times, the only remedy in which there was any faith at all was that he should be immediately stupefied with brandy. However this required that he should start out sober, and he was now in a stage of intoxication that did not allow stupefaction. Sadly and inevitably, the poor boy died.
There came a very serious trial of friendship: This occurred in 1837 when Henry Wilson who, for the preceding two years, was the Liberal party MP for Suffolk West, stood for re-election. The Conservatives, particularly the clergy, at once enquired whom Rickards was going to vote for as he had promised his vote for the Conservative candidate as did all the clergy. When Wilson subsequently lost the election it was universally believed that a major factor was his close friend, Samuel Rickards, voting against him. Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, it did not make the slightest difference however to their friendly relationship. The clergy of the neighbourhood were then providing amongst themselves an evening service at the chief church at Bury St Edmunds. Wilson continued to give Rickards the frequent use of his carriages, pulled by Henry's magnificent high stepping brougham horses, and their friendship carried on.
Lucy Rickards, suffering continually from neuralgia, and a very painful disorder of the gums, found relief in work, in painting and illumination. She gradually filled with painted glass many windows in her father's church. The windows are very large and very lofty, rising some thirty feet from the floor of the church. Lucy Rickards did everything - she made the designs, she cut the glass that had to be cut to form, she painted it, burnt in the colours, put the glass together, doing all the soldering herself, and finally she fixed the complete frame into the window, requiring no assistance whatever, except that a man had to be employed in the little scaffolding necessary. She had to pay daily visits for a long time to the British Museum to copy from the illuminated works.
Samuel Rickards died in 1865 aged 69, his wife Lucy Maria in 1883 aged 85, and their daughters: Maria (Mary), in 1839 aged 15 and Lucy in 1863 aged 41.
The family burial plot, marked by a low metal picket fence enclosure surrounding the four graves, is situated at the western boundary churchyard wall near to the interconnecting gate and pathway leading to the former rectory building.
© Mike Keeper, February 2014
Samuel Rickards wrote a number of devotional works and published several books relating to the Christian Church.
These include: The Christian Householder or Guide to Family Prayer, Poems, and Hymns for Private Devotion.
Several of these works may still be currently available as reprints or in electronic format