Denham's History Man
Updated: Sep 24, 2021
Who was Robert Lathbury ?
Though there are many people in Denham who have not heard his name, there are few, if any more significant figures in the community history of Denham in the last 150 years than Robert Lathbury. His day job, if such it can be called, was as Rector of St. Mary's Parish Church in which he served for 35 years from 1879 until his death in 1915. But Robert Lathbury's ministry and influence extended far beyond the church walls.
Robert Henry Lathbury was born in 1845 in Stony Stratford on the Buckinghamshire side of the border with Northamptonshire. He was the second of two children born to schoolmaster John Lathbury and his schoolmistress wife Catherine, nee Woodin.
Robert's maternal grandmother, Letitia who married Robert Woodin in 1810, was born Letitia Pinckard. It was a curious and unusual surname traceable back to 1066 when a member of the nobility of Normandy named Pinckard fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The Pinckard family line would prove to be significant in Robert Lathbury's career and in the history of the Denham village community.
The Woodins and the Pinckards were both farming families on neighbouring Northamptonshire farms. When Catherine Woodin married John Lathbury in January 1843, she moved out of her family's farming community into the world of education but clearly, as proprietors of the school in which they taught, John and Catherine Lathbury were people of some means. The home on Royal Terrace in Northampton into which baby Letitia (named for her grandmother) was born later in 1843 and into which young Robert was born in July 1845, was no country manor, but nonetheless a town property of some measure in its time - one of those "attractive Georgian terraces, once the proud homes of Northampton's 'stout and wealthy' citizens" as it has recently been described in a local conservation area appraisal
Certainly the Lathburys had sufficient means to send young Robert to the prestigious Oakham School founded in 1584 and bearing the motto ‘Et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt’ (And, like runners, they pass on the torch of life"). Oakham School was then under the headship of William Spicer Wood who in his retirement would esteem himself as a writer of works such as "Problems in the New Testament: Critical Essays" and a history of The Galatians a Celtic people settled in modern day Turkey who the recipients of one of St. Paul's Christianising epistles in the first century CE. The probability that Wood was an important influence on young Lathbury will become apparent.
Upon completing his secondary education Robert Lathbury was awarded an "exhibition" to Emmanuel College Cambridge. Cambridge Exhibitioners are the winners of awards recognising their examination successes with an annual honorarium less than that of a "Scholar" but nonetheless worth something when compared with the resource available to an ordinary undergraduate. Emmanuel College offered a number of "Choral Exhibitions" which entitled the beneficiary to singing lessons in addition to the honorarium but it is not known whether Robert Lathbury's singing voice offered promise in this respect. Lathbury left Cambridge with a B.A. Classical Tripos in Greek and Latin in 1867 and upon Lathbury's satisfactory discharge of the due fee and on his having a sufficient record of good and reputable conduct, this was converted without further examination into a Master of Arts (Cantab.) degree in 1878.
Ordained and appointed
Robert Lathbury was ordained in 1868, and from then until 1870 acted as curate at Hillmorton in Warwickshire, the curate being usually a young man recently ordained who assisted or on occasions performed the duties of a clergyman. By the time of the 1871 census he had moved to Lopham in Norfolk where he held a curacy for three years. He was then appointed curate at the parish church in the village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex and after twelve months he became vicar there and served in that role for five years.
The Anglican Church has its own set of laws. Together they are called ecclesiastical law. It's not a subject widely thought about, studied or discussed, but it governs the way the Church of England is run. Who actually owns the churches, and the churchyards, what rules apply to appointments to offices in the church, are there courts to enforce it and resolve disputes about how it should be applied ? Ecclesiastical law answers these questions
Ecclesiastical law deals with a concept known as "advowson". This is the right or power to nominate someone suitably ordained to hold office in the church, for example as vicar or rector. The owner of the advowson is known as the patron of the nominee.
Advowson has existed in ecclesiastical law and its predecessor laws of the Catholic church in England for around 900 years. The right is actually a form of property and until legislation to reform the system was enacted in the late 19th century, the right was a valuable one which was owned and could be bought, sold and inherited. The ownership of the advowson stood alongside the ownership of a "living", the name given to the priest's role and rights in a community. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest shares in livings. Others were owned by university colleges or the Crown.
Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal. The lord of the manor who owned the living would usually insist on the right to select the individual who would act as religious leader for the church community, a way for the patron to exert moral influence on the parishioners. This practice was originally established as a reward to the lord of the manor for building the church and donating land along with it, incurring expense without a chance for income.
The patron then also took responsibility for providing housing for the clergy. Landowners might improve the rectory in the hope of attracting an incumbent of education and breeding, fit to dine at his patron’s table, someone like the Rev. Robert Henry Lathbury. Until parish government was secularised in the second half of the 19th century, the vicar or rector held a lot of authority in local government business and a great deal more of that business was dealt with in the parish than is now the case. The power to choose the vicar or rector was effectively a power to decide how the local parish should be run. That could be a sound investment and the money received by the lord of the manor would help to meet the costs of managing a large house and estate.
Lords of the Manor
"Lord of the Manor" is a title which goes back over 1000 years with origins in a feudal agricultural economy. Notionally all the land in Britain belongs to The Crown. Freehold is the right to use land and take the benefits of its produce free of interference from anyone else including the king or queen. The "manor" is an area of land, an estate the freehold of which belongs to someone styled as its lord. The lord of the manor could give lesser and more restricted rights to use his (always his) land by granting time limited leases and tenancies in exchange for money or a share in the produce.
Of course in the 20th and 2lst centuries most large freehold estates have been broken up and sold as plots so that the modern freehold is generally limited to a dwelling house and garden. Nonetheless the title lord of the manor still exists and in some rural communities still has some meaning. It certainly had meaning in Denham in 1879 when Robert Henry Lathbury was appointed Rector of St. Mary's Church.
The Lords of the Manor of Denham from 1757 were, and indeed still are, members of the Way family who inherited the manor through a female line from the family of Sir Roger Hill. It was this Roger Hill who commissioned the building of Denham Place as we know it now and who also gave his name to Hills House in which he lived whilst Denham Place was being built.
It should have been expected then that Lord of the Manor Benjamin Henry Walpole Way should have made the nomination of the new Rector when the post fell vacant in 1879.
Unexpected Patrons - the Pinckard mystery
But he did not. Robert Lathbury's patrons were named in the local press as John Coles and none other than John Henry Pinckard. Benjamin Way had, it seems, sold or in some way licensed, the advowson.
The forename "John" in this record seems to have been a journalistic error for although there was a "John Henry" amongst the Northamptonshire Pinckards, it is unlikely that he could have been the owner of an advowson in Denham. Rather it seems Lathbury's patron was George Henry Pinckard, a man of influence and wealth, close associate of stockbroker John Coles, uncle to Robert Lathbury's wife Clare and Robert Lathbury's benefactor.
The Pinckards were evidently very much part of Lathbury's wider family. His own grandmother was born a Pinckard and Robert's sister Letitia chose Pinckard as the second forename of her firstborn son Henry. Robert himself was to do likewise for when his son was born in 1883, he was given the forenames George Pinckard.
On 10th January 1877 Robert Henry Lathbury married Clara Jane Lermitte in Brighton. Clara was a descendant through her father's line from a French Huguenot family who had established themselves in Jersey. Her mother was Jane, another Pinckard.
Clara had a sister Amelia, three years her senior. On 28th April 1863 Amelia married. Her husband was the same John Coles, member of the London Stock Exchange, prominent Actuary, Justice of the Peace for the City of London freeman of the borough of Tiverton, Devon and the second patron who, in 1879, nominated Robert Lathbury to have charge of the living of St. Mary's Denham as its Rector. Once installed he was there for life, with a lifetime income and a home included. No one less than the bishop could remove him.
In short, the appointment of Robert Lathbury to the Rectorship of Denham St. Mary’s was secured by his wealthy and influential family members. Were all that to happen in 2021 no doubt accusations of malpractice and conflict of interest would have disturbed the parish but we now live in more censorious times when the purchase of preferment is rightly frowned upon. In Victorian England the purchase of authority to manage affairs for the preservation of the social order was of little or no concern.
Nor should viewing the events of 1879 from a modern viewpoint, however correct that viewpoint now, cast a shadow over Robert Lathbury's achievements during the 36 years he spent as Rector in Denham.
The Rector's authority
When he was appointed Rector in 1879 Lathbury took clerical responsibility for some 1250 souls and the number of recorded residents of the parish remained at that level for most of his tenure. However Lathbury's time in office was one of declining authority and influence in the status of rector.
In the church of the middle ages, the rector was the priest in charge of a parish. The title of rector applied to the parish under his management and in which he lived. The rector may also have had responsibilities for other parishes managed in practice by the rector's agent or "vicar. The rector or vicar of an Anglican Parish Church derived his income as a "tithe" that is a tenth part of the produce from lands and stock farmed in the parish. A rector was entitled to the "greater tithe" and the "lesser tithe" i.e. 10% of the whole produce from his own parish whereas the vicar was only entitled to the lesser tithe leaving out the value of hay, corn and wool in the parish under the vicar's management.
However by Lathbury's time all this was long gone history. By then the titles of Rector or Vicar signified no more than the tradition of a particular parish or village. The responsibilities were the same and the tithe payable in kind had been replaced by a charge of money on the local parishioners without differentiation as between vicars and rectors.
Similarly the role of the rector or vicar in the management of the social and "political" affairs of the parishes had diminished through the 19th century. The major shift from an agricultural and rural economy to an urban industrial economy accompanied by the growth of different religious denominations necessitated a secularisation of local government. The centuries old system of "vestries", councils of parishioners presided over by the local priest to run parish business gave way to lay bodies until, in the middle of Robert Lathbury's tenure, the Local Government Act 1894 transformed the system with the creation of elected district and parish councils.
However the Reverend Lathbury was not one to have his role reduced by someone else's choice. Denham had actually acquired its lay parish council six years previously under the Local Government Act of 1888. Its chairman of course could be none other than Robert Lathbury, an office which he retained almost unbroken until his death in 1915.
When Lathbury was appointed in 1879 his church had been refreshed when its interior was extensively renovated in 1861 and it suffered few further building disturbances during Lathbury's lifetime. He also had the benefit of a relatively new Rectory, with stables, built in 1867 (replacing earlier buildings dating back at least to 1375) on Rectory Lane at a cost of £3892, 10 shillings and 4 pence - over £250,000 in today's values.
The local press reported that it was not unusual for the Rev. Lathbury to deliver two sermons on Sundays: one in the morning and another again in the evening. He could often be seen riding to church from his home in the Rectory on Rectory Lane, though he could if he chose rely on Mr. Goodchild his coach and donkey driver who lived opposite the Rectory. Lathbury's diligent participation in marriage ceremonies was noted in the social pages of the newspapers as were baptisms and funeral services in the public notices’ sections. Social events such as garden parties, flower shows, and musical events often included attendance and participation by him, and his wife and family also.
The Reverend Lathbury accepted and took seriously his role as shepherd of his flock in the community of Denham and beyond, and he was clearly acknowledged at every level in the village hierarchy. Beyond his clerical responsibilities, the rector played an active role in the social life of the neighbourhood and in its civil administration, carrying out such duties as the registration of births, deaths and marriages, sitting on the magistrates’ bench and so on. Whenever there was an "event" taking place in the village Robert Lathbury was there, whether it be in Denham Place, or at Denham Court or if his ministry was needed in one of the farmworker's cottages.
Newspaper articles of his times recorded a few of the many groups he served and the leadership roles he provided. In 1904 for example Lathbury was reported as presiding at the anniversary dinner of the Denham Foresters held at the Swan. This was a meeting of a branch of the Ancient Order of Foresters (Foresters Friendly Society) founded in 1834 to provide financial and social support to members who “sometimes needed help as they walked through the forests of life.” As they proposed toasts to the success of their Court, the group agreed to "slightly raise the subscription to meet the needs of their members when a breadwinner fell ill, could not work and received no wages.”
Lathbury also took much interest in the local shooting competitions and often supplied prizes for them, besides supporting the various clubs in the parish. He was also chairman of the Denham Parish School Managers and much else. His interest is archaeology was very great and manifested by the fact that he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He seems to have been a man of tireless energy and commitment.
He was also very much a member of the community gentry in close friendship with the leading dignitaries in the community, as is evidenced by the gift of a poem made to him in 1901 by the lord of the manor Benjamin Way lauding the Oak Tree in the Rectory Garden. It was a gift to which Lathbury mischievously responded by translating the poem into Latin.
The value of his personal and professional contributions is summed up in this tribute by a member of the King’s Royal Regiment following the death of Rev. Lathbury in 1915:
"He has proved a good friend, ever ready to help, and anxious to serve the men in any way possible. His church has been used every Sunday for parade services, and more than once he spoke words of fatherly counsel and wisdom. Of strong convictions and outspoken and fearless in his criticisms, the late Rector had a big and kind heart, and a nature frank and generous. He will be greatly missed at Denham, where he had laboured for the long period at 35 years.”
The eulogy continued: “The reverend gentleman took a fairly wide interest in local affairs, and in addition to being the Chairman of the Parish Council, practically since its formation on the passing of the Local Government Act in 1888, he had represented the parish of Denham on the Eton Board of Guardians and the Eton Rural District Council, for many years, and was vice-chairman of the former body. As to his general policy on these bodies, he was of the old stern economist type, and insisted on keeping the rates low.
A country gentle man
Though evidently a man of great Christian compassion, Lathbury was no grassroots reformer. He had personal wealth which after 1892 included 40 acres of farm land and hereditaments at Cramhurst Witley in Surrey left to him in the will of his wife's uncle George Henry Pinckard. Clara Lathbury also benefited personally from her late uncle's estate with legacies and a life share in his principal properties in Surrey known as the "Combe Court Mansion and Pleasure Grounds".
Included in George Pinckard's beneficiaries was his co-patron of Robert Lathbury's appointment to the rectorship of Denham, John Coles who, like it or not, found himself the owner by bequest of all of the "jewels, wearing apparel, articles of personal use and also all the wines spirits and liquors" which at the time of George's death were at Combe Court Mansion and Pleasure Grounds.
The Will also has a curious clause which explains the appearance of the name Pinckard as a second forename in Robert Lathbury's family and in the families of others amongst his relatives. It insisted that any of George's beneficiaries (other than a peer or peeress) who might otherwise lose the name by reason of marriage must either retain the name as their official surname or lose the benefit of the very valuable life interests in the trusts created by the Will. Though this clause post-dated in its effectiveness the naming of children born before the death of George Pinckard including the Lathburys' own firstborn, it is indicative of an obsession to retain the family name amongst the gentry of England. It is beyond the scope of this story to discover how successful or otherwise was George's instruction, but perhaps George would at least have been gratified to know that a cul-de-sac now on a small part of his estate in Chiddingfold, Godalming bears the name simply "Pinckards".
Lathbury's political disposition was also that of a 19th century Tory gentleman - not for him the radical reformist Liberals who perhaps seemed to him to spend much of their time amongst the down-and-outs of St. Giles in London - though as his attendance at a Primrose League event in Denham in August 1988 suggests, he rather favoured Benjamin Disraeli's one-nation Conservatism with its appeal to the recently enfranchised ordinary working man.
Lathbury the author
It is as an author that Robert Lathbury made his longest lasting contribution. Inspired, as we would like to suppose by the example of his old headmaster at the Oakham School, Robert Lathbury filled what little time he had spare by writing. Some of his works were no less obscure than those of his illustrious tutor. In 1888 for example he published his "Few Thoughts on the First Six Books of the Æneid of Virgil" and close to the end of his life in 1914 he was still exploring his "Thoughts upon the Iliad of Homer". It was however in 1904 that Lathbury completed and published his "History of Denham Bucks".
It is an extraordinary piece of work. In a hardback cover over 13 inches by 10 inches and spread over 487 pages, Lathbury traced the history of Denham Village from its earliest days as a Saxon settlement subsequently mentioned in William the Conqueror's Domesday Book of 1086 through to the late 19th century. His work accompanies the Latin texts from archaic documents with full translations and explanations and introduces figures from long ago whose names have echoed through centuries and are still in evidence in the village today - for example Walter the Abbot of Westminster, The Bowyers of Denham Court, John de Fayrestede and Sir Roger Hill once occupant of Hills House.
The book is also a product of academic study and modest about the author himself and his contribution to the village's history in the last quarter of the 19th century. With the exception of his comments in the Preface to The History of Denham Bucks, the Reverend Lathbury, makes no reference to himself or to his personal experiences as the long-serving Rector of St. Mary’s Church.
The book's reviewer John Parker writing in the Records of the Bucks Archaological Society described it: "In a large and handsome volume, it gives detailed accounts of the Manors, the Church, maps, photos, and parish documents, from original sources, manuscripts, charters, rolls, etc." and John Parker added: "a most interesting and exhaustive work, a veritable monument of patient research and study".
A slightly cautious but ultimately glowing review appeared in the West Middlesex Gazette on 7th May 1904.
“This is something like a topographical history. How far may we extend congratulation to the author, the Rev. R. H. Lathbury, Rector of the parish whose history is related? Very far and very warmly indeed.
One feels on a casual skimming one knows on leisured reading—that Mr. Lathbury as historian, took stock accurately of the task he had set himself, and having realised its height and depth, length and breadth, pursued it to faithful completion. From the strict art point of view, however, many will say, that the author has now and again obtruded his own religious and political personality a little too much upon the reader. That a Rector of Denham of a quarter-of-a century's continuance was ideally placed for the work, and that he made use of his position with all its advantages, does not detract from our praise, but rather accentuates it.
For one thing, it argues that Mr. Lathbury attempted nothing for which he was not well equipped; and a consideration of the quality and extent of his equipment should serve to show how highly he has rated the office of parish historian. In this there is a valuable lesson; for we have been at times afraid that there are those who think that it only needs one to say, "Go to, I will write a history of this parish or that" and the thing is done! In the first place, let us look at that fact that Mr. Lathbury has been nearly 25 years a resident of Denham, and that for all that time he has had full command of its old parish church and churchyard. If within such a period the genius loci has not fallen upon him, who could ever hope to receive it!
Moreover, how could he have been more suitably situated for exploring church and parish in every nook and cranny; for thoroughly inspecting known landmarks and re-discovering such as had almost fallen out of knowledge; for tracing and deciphering to the last minutia of accuracy every tombstone and every brass, every "storied urn and monumental bust "; for shaping out and following with utmost care and without the temptation to the haste which is in such a case the worst waste of time, the plan most effective for the building of a thoroughly worthy superstructure!
In the second place, we would emphasize the point that during his long period of residence he has been Rector where he resided, and therefore has been naturally on such terms with the neighbourhood that he was always within ready access of the beat and most nearly original sources of information of every kind that he might require: museum collections, University MSS., Church and State records, family archives, were available to him in such a way that he was enabled to stamp the 487 pages of his book through and through with the hallmark of first hand research.”
In his own words
But then there is no better description of the book than Robert Lathbury's own. In his preface he writes:
"The following pages are the contribution of my leisure hours towards the elucidation of the bygone history of the parish of Denham. They are put forth in the hope that they will awaken in the minds of a few who shall be content to read them a greater interest in this old Angle settlement. No one, I venture to think, with a taste for archaeological pursuits, could have lived as it has been my privilege to live, for now well-nigh a quarter of a century, amidst surroundings which bear on all sides the stamp of age,—where houses, some few at least, still remain which were built before the art of brickmaking was recovered in England —where still survive names both of persons and fields that have come down to us from a long-distant past — where stands the church which was erected years before parliaments were known,—where the Manor has a history from days anterior to the Conquest,—without having some little desire to know what all these surroundings would say of their passage through the centuries, could they but take a voice and speak."
Robert Henry Lathbury took his manuscript down the road to Uxbridge where Messrs Lucy and Birch privately printed just 100 copies for him. Each one of the 100 printed copies of The History of Denham is numbered. An internet search reveals a supposition that there are just three left - but we know of at least seven and at least one currently for sale by online auction. One of them remained in the ownership of Jay Ashbrook at Wrango. Whatever its true market value Jay himself greatly valued the book for when in 1995 he loaned his copy to Rothmans International Services at Denham Place, he reminded the borrowers that this “book is ninety years old and must be handled with great care.” The same direction applies to all who have one.
With the exception of his comments in The Preface to The History of Denham, Bucks, the Rev. Robert Henry Lathbury, makes very few references to himself or to his personal experiences as the long-serving Rector of St. Mary’s Parish Church though he is gracious in thanking other for the assistance given to him. Among those whom Lathbury thanked for help during his compilation of his History of Denham were his two patrons, George Henry Pinckard and John Coles along with 30 other individuals and several organisations.
Sadly tragedy followed hard on the heels of Robert Lathbury's achievement. Robert Lathbury had married Clara Jane Lermitte in 1877. In August 1905 his great work on the history of Denham completed, Robert and Clara journeyed to Pontresina in Switzerland for a holiday with two of their daughters. There Clara passed away after what was described as a very brief illness. She was just 57 years old.
Robert Lathbury had married Clara Jane Lermitte in 1887.Together they had eight children: six girls Eva, Mary, Mabel, Norah and Brenda and Dorothy and two boys, George and Ernest. Sadly Ernest and Dorothy, died in infancy. Their eldest son George bore the name Pinckard and, following his education at Charterhouse School in the footsteps of John Wesley and William Makepeace Thackeray, went on to become a Captain in the Royal Navy serving in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.
Robert Lathbury survived his wife by 11 years. He passed away at his Rectory after an illness that had lasted about a month. He was in his 70th year. He had been rector of Denham for thirty-five years. By one of his last acts, he revealed that he was not unfaulted by what today would be considered an intolerant and backward looking prejudice for in leaving his estate to his surviving children he decreed that their legacies should fall if any of them should embrace the Catholic faith. His grave is to be found in Denham churchyard.
Robert Lathbury's book is currently prized in the research library for this project. It is used carefully, regularly and often to document our investigations of the history of Denham.
Accepting a challenge
The lasting legacy left to all of us by the Reverend Robert Henry Lathbury is certainly The History of Denham Bucks published in 1904 – all 100 copies. In the Preface to his book, Lathbury wrote:
Although it has been mainly the wish to gratify [my own] desire which has led me to search out and compile these pages, yet they will be acceptable, I trust, as an inducement to others (someone, it is hoped, in every parish) to contribute by a similar effort towards a more complete and detailed history of the County than at present exists.
We have presumed to take up this challenge, not of course by extending Lathbury's work across the County of Buckinghamshire, but rather by revisiting Robert Lathbury's work using media that he could never have imagined. We hope respectfully to do justice to his memory.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge - Wikimedia images
Images of Denham Place, Denham Rectory and Lines upon and Oak Tree at Denham Rectory taken from History of Denham Bucks by Robert Henry Lathbury 1904
Image of Pinckards Cul-de-sac Chiddingfold from Google Earth
Harries, Hazel M., One Thousand Years in a Village Church, 1998, The Pentland Press, Ltd.
Image of Pinckards Cul-de-sac Chiddingfold from Google Earth