Henry Gepp: The importance of the pre-Adderbury years

Henry Gepp became vicar of Adderbury in 1874 and held the post until his retirement through illness in 1913. This made him the longest-serving vicar of Adderbury since 1381. Despite its length, his incumbency was to a large degree without incident, the well-known exception being his disagreements with the church bellringers. The main outcome from his years at Adderbury was a major restoration and reparation of the church. (See Nicholas Allen. Adderbury, A Thousand Years of History, 1995, Philimore & Co Ltd, pp 24-28).

One way of characterising Gepp’s incumbency would be as someone who, having achieved the living he desired, relaxed into the comfortable lifestyle that some of his ecclesiastical colleagues enjoyed. Anthony Russell (The Clerical Profession. London, SPCK, 1980, p. 237) represents this lifestyle as follows:

“The … last decades of the nineteenth century and the years before the First World War are often spoken of as a ‘golden era’ for the clergy, particularly those in rural areas. In some rectories, where the income was sufficient to allow the employment of many servants, the clergyman was able to sustain a style of life which approximated to that of the manor or hall, to send his sons to public schools and professional careers in the Army.”

Although there are elements in this picture which apply to Gepp, overall it goes against everything we know about him. From all contemporary accounts, he was a devoted and hard-working clergyman, dedicated to the spiritual well-being of his congregation. An alternative – and preferable – explanation of Gepp’s relatively trouble-free reign in Adderbury comes from recognising the degree to which Gepp was prepared for and skilled at the tasks which lay before him, and, as a result, able to achieve results with the minimum of trouble.

The first element in Gepp’s preparedness for clerical office was his family background. He came from a professional family who had been practising law successfully in Chelmsford since 1768. His father, Thomas Morgan Gepp, was the second generation to control the family firm. He had six sons and planned their futures much in accordance with the conventional wisdom of his day (see, for example, Parent’s Handbook by J.C.Hudson, first published in 1842): two to the armed forces, two to the church and two to the law and hence the family firm. After the death of Lieutenant Thomas Sydney, his elder brother, in action in India in 1858, Gepp took on the role of eldest son.

At a time when the apparatus of local government was in its infancy a country law firm would be deeply involved in a wide range of local enterprises. The following account of the community activities of Gepp’s father gives an idea of this:

“It would appear that he was almost hyperactive in the amount he took on: from 1832 the firm was almost continuously Undersheriff [Chief Administrative Officer for the locality, often held by a firm rather than an individual]; he was the steward of some thirty-five manors and was himself Lord of the Manor of Braintree.  Gepp was the Essex County Treasurer; Registrar of Chelmsford County Court; Registrar of the Archdeaconry of St Albans; Registrar of the Archdeaconry of Chelmsford; Clerk to the Commissioners of Income Tax (not long introduced); Clerk to Chelmsford Lunatic Asylum; Clerk to the Commissioners of Sewers for Dengie, Foulness and Fobbing; Governor of Chelmsford Grammar School; Trustee of Chelmsford Charity School; Trustee of Chelmsford Dispensary and Infirmary; Trustee of the Chelmsford and Dengie Savings Bank; Chairman of the Chelmsford Gas Lighting & Coke Company … Possibly the most powerful and time consuming of all T M Gepp’s extra activities was in his role as Rector’s Warden at St Mary’s Church a role which was not one open to election, but rather selection by the incumbent of the day.” (J.B.Gilder: The Way We Worked. Gepp & Sons Solicitors: Lawyers in the County Town, Published by Gepp & Son, 2010, pp 39-40)

With this sort of family background, it seems likely that Gepp would have had a broad-ranging appreciation of how country society operated and would therefore have been more prepared than most for any challenges that his Adderbury role might present.

The second influence on Gepp before he came to Adderbury will have been the process of ordination into the priesthood that he went through at the conclusion of his university studies at New College, Oxford. The Victorian period saw a great change in attitudes towards ordination, with a general revival of emphasis on its spiritual importance and function. In the vanguard of this change was Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford at the time of Gepp’s ordination. Wilberforce’s twenty-five years at Oxford was described by Gladstone, incidentally, as “that truly great episcopate” (Alan Haig: The Victorian Clergy. Croom Helm. 1984, p.178)

Wilberforce saw the pastoral role of the clergyman as being key, and, within this, concern for the spiritual well-being of parishioners. He warned candidates for ordination against undertaking the cure of souls “just as other men go to the counting-house or to the court of law, or to the senate, meaning to live by it, to be respected, to be able to respect themselves … Rather, the pastor must have some desire at least to live nearer to Christ in employment and pursuit than worldly callings render possible.” In particular, Wilberforce believed that the whole of a clergyman’s life should be lived in an exemplary fashion; he cautioned against allowing any “earthly parentheses in our ministerial life”. (Samuel Wilberforce: Addresses to the Candidates for Ordination Oxford, 1860). On a less exalted level, Wilberforce was a champion of good communications and provided an example of persuasiveness through what has been called his “eloquent pragmatism”.

So it is in his rather austere presence, in his habitual clerical dress, in his emphasis from early in his incumbency on communication via the parochial newsletter, in his pursuit of a parish meeting place, in his renowned powers of persuasion which gave rise to so many donations to support church improvements, and especially after 1906 in his assumption of the role of Rural Dean, that we can see Gepp as a true pupil of Samuel Wilberforce – and recognise the degree to which Wilberforce’s teachings prepared Gepp for his parish role.

The third factor which will have prepared Gepp for his incumbency here is the wide range of other parishes he had already experienced as a curate before coming to Adderbury. A curate was usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman and whose wages would be paid from the vicar’s own pocket. To have the promise of a curacy was a necessary part of the ordination process, and an ordinand often had to employ an agent to find one. Gepp’s first curacy was at the church of SS Trinio, Peter & Paul in Llandrinio, between Oswestry and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. After a year in this position he moved to St Dunstan’s in Cranbrook, before coming to this locality with a curacy at Broughton for the period 1864-71. Finally, he spent 1871-74 at St Martin’s in Dorking. It is difficult at this distance in time and lacking any sort of personal diary to provide reasons for Gepp’s choice of curacies – ranging in geographical terms from the Welsh Marches to the Kentish Weald and from Oxfordshire to Surrey. Looking at the churches he cared for, it is possible that a common theme is church restoration, and it may well be that Gepp developed his ideas and learned techniques while observing developments at these parishes and also more than likely that he built up a range of contacts with architects and craftsmen that would serve him well when he came to plan and carry out similar developments at Adderbury.

Henry Gepp died in 1919, five years after leaving Adderbury. His widow published his History of Adderbury “in which his love for both New College and for the parish he served so long is abundantly clear” (Jennifer Thorp, Note to Cover Illustration, Portrait of Henry John Gepp, New College Record 2011).

Phil Mansell
April 2020

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