The Reverend Isaac Williamson died on November 15th 1816, and a lot of jobs became available, because he had more than one. It was no scandal; it was money and connections that decided whether you made it in the Regency world of the Church of England. Some qualified people never gained a parish; others had more than one. It was just tough.
Isaac was not a historically important figure. This blog may be the first time his name is mentioned in a hundred years , but how his life developed tells us a great deal about a world we have mostly lost. He may have had some lasting literary influence, however!
He was the rector of Estrop, near Basingstoke in Hampshire and Master of the Free School there. In an age of absentee and plural tenancies, he was also a Chaplain, licensed for the instruction of men and boys at the Chapel of the Holy Ghost in Basingstoke. He had other jobs. They are all listed in the C of E clergy database. He was curate at Winslade, Tadley and Pamber in Hampshire .His salary as curate of Winslade was £25 a year and more than £ 40 from Estrop. He received £35 for not being present at Pamber, due to the “shortage of accommodation” at Pamber. He was also “unable to find anywhere” to live in Tadley, but was able to pick up the stipend of £50 per year “plus Easter offerings” Records seem to suggest that he did not provide a curate as a substitute for the places he could not be. Even for an age of pluralist and absentee clergy, this was “pushing it”.
How had Isaac become a Church of England cleric? He did a degree in Theology and either Cambridge or Oxford University; this is not stated anywhere; it was simply impossible to do so without this qualification.
He had been educating young men for most of his career. This comes from 1795.
Lots of Church of England clerics had a private school as part of their income- Jane Austen’s father George Austen had a school at Steventon. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by teaching three or four boys at a time, who boarded at his home. Isaac may have done the same.
He died of a “severe affliction” in November and in March all of his possessions were sold over two days by Tolfree and Sons the Auctioneers. The list tells us so much about the life of the gentlemen-farmer –vicar.
His Alderney cow was auctioned; it was five and was having a calf in April; his other horse, his donkey, his other cow, his heifer and his donkey cart. He had a carriage for sale, hopefully to get to all the places where he was in charge of people’s spiritual welfare. His brewing equipment, storage for beer and his drinking vessels; all open to offers. His three beds and seven sets of bed sheets were up for sale ( It was common for the very wealthy to have many spare set of sheets so they could all be washed together and stored for future use). He had goose and down bed linen, so he had feathered his nest in the literal sense of the word. Isaac had dining and gaming tables, expensive carpets and had just bought an eight day clock in a wainscot oak case produced by the desirable James Staples of Odiham. The whole inventory took half a column of the Hampshire Chronicle.
Isaac had a wife and children but his belongings were sold from under them. The details are hard to fathom, but it is clear that Isaac was bankrupt and all of his money went to pay his debts. It could have been his severe affliction that caused the bankruptcy; the number of respectable people who helped the family suggests it was not a moral weakness. I have not been able to find out.
Mrs Williamson was incurably blind and had been so for several years. Now she was a pauper; and the Church of England did absolutely nothing officially to help. It was all left to charity.
On the 17th July 1817, as Jane Austen was having her last day on earth , this advertisement appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle. Despite the apparent ” J Williamson”, it is our Isaac.
The clergy of Hampshire rallied around, including the Reverend James Austen, Jane’s older brother. If James knew Isaac, then it is very likely that Jane had met him as well. Williamson had been a Hampshire cleric in the same decade as Jane was at Steventon, and it was a small world.
All three of her main fictional clergy- Elton, Grant and Collins- had strengths and weaknesses, but did Isaac have any influence on her characterisations? It would help if we knew more; we know that Williamson was rich; liked nice things and had a blind wife who he seemed to have made no consideration for. Is it possible that Isaac Williamson is Mr Collins, interested in money more than anything? Or were there just so many clergy like this in late Georgian era. We do not know what severe affliction killed the Reverend Williamson-perhaps it was similar to the digestive complaints that kept the Rev James from attending his own sister’s funeral- but the misery for the widow continued.
Mrs Williamson was now poor and blind. She became a widow of Morley’s College, Winchester, which despite its name was an alms house for ten widows of Church of England whose husbands died in post working for the Winchester diocese. By 1818 £430 had been raised, of which £161 had been paid out to pay for “ H Williamson” to be apprenticed to a surgeon in Winchester-presumably a son. This was a prestigious appointment; Williamson was a great man; we just don’t know whether he was a good man or if he has appeared in any Regency novels…
Life didn’t improve for Mrs Williamson. In 1819 further advertisement in the paper raised a subscription for her to be lodged in a “ cheap lunatic asylum” That was another £138. Life was all about the money, even more than now, perhaps
My book-The Dark Days of Georgian Britain.
A chapter-by-chapter guide here