Monday, 30 January 2017

Following in the footsteps of an
‘eccentric’ and ‘prodigious’ curate

Inside Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, in Tarbert, Co Kerry … for two decades, the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley was curate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was involved in my first service in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, in Tarbert, Co Kerry, on Sunday morning [Sunday 29 January 2017], presiding and preaching at the Eucharist. Because this was the fifth Sunday in the month, this was also my first united service for the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes.

I am beginning to learn who my predecessors were in the four churches in this group of parishes, spread across west Limerick and north Kerry. I was delighted to learn that a former curate in Kilnaughtin was the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley (1865-1950).

He was the curate in Kilnaughtin with Aughavallin for 18 years, from 1888 until he moved to Australia in 1906. While Wolseley was the curate here, the Rector of Kilnaughtin was Canon Robert Beatty (1878-1911).

Neither the standard reference books not the popular accounts of the unusual circumstances of Wolseley’s life give much attention to the almost two decades he spent in these Church of Ireland parishes in Tarbert and Ballylongford. But Wolseley has direct connections with two extraordinary people as the immediate successor and predecessor, successively, of the ‘elevator baronet’ and the ‘cobbler baronet,’ all three inheriting a family title through a bewildering set of circumstances in an entangled family tree.

During a family wedding at the end of last year, I spent a weekend at Mount Wolseley, the ancestral home of these three fascinating Wolseley baronets. But I have had a long interest in the history of the Wolseley family.

The Wolseley Arms … near the former seat of the Wolseley family near Rugeley, Staffordshire (Photograph: fatbadgers)

Wolseley is in mid-Staffordshire, between Stafford and Rugeley, north of Lichfield. The coats-of-arms of the Comberford and Wolseley families are inverted reflections of each other, and the families were related by marriage in the 16th century. Wolseley and Comberford are about 20 miles apart, and one of my earliest contracts as a freelance journalist was to interview Sir Charles Wolseley of Wolseley for the Lichfield Mercury and the Rugeley Mercury over 45 years ago.

The first of the Wolseley family to come to Ireland was William Wolseley from Wolseley in Staffordshire. He fought alongside King William III at the Battle of the Boyne and later bought the 2,500-acre estate of Mount Arran from Charles Butler, Earl of Arran, renaming it Mount Wolseley. When William Wolseley died unmarried, the estate passed his nephew Richard Wolseley, who was MP for Carlow from 1703 to 1713 and a younger brother of Sir William Wolseley, 5th Baronet, of Wolseley, Staffordshire.

Probably the most famous of all the Wolseleys was Frederick York Wolseley, who in 1895 started producing one of Britain’s most famous car marques – the Wolseley. The name dominated the British motor industry for eight decades until 1975, when the last car with the Wolseley name was produced.

Mount Wolseley House near Tullow, Co Carlow … home to generations of the Wolseley family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

When Sir John Richard Wolseley (1834-1874), 6th Baronet, died aged 40, he was succeeded in the title by his brother Sir Clement James Wolseley (1837-1889), probably the last of the family to live at Mount Wolseley. The estate was sold for £4,500 in 1925 by Sir John’s daughters to the Patrician Brothers, who were founded in Tullow in 1808 by Bishop Daniel Delaney.

Meanwhile, the title of baronet in the Irish branch of the Wolseley family began to pass out in an ever-widening circle of distant cousins, and even the printed and online versions of the family tree are confusing and show many inconsistencies.

The eighth baronet, the Very Revd Dr Sir John Wolseley (1803-1890), was the Dean of Kildare (1859-1890) when he inherited the title on 16 October 1889. He only held the title for three months, and died on 26 January 1890. In all, five successive holders of the title died without heirs.

The tenth baronet, Sir Reginald Beatty Wolseley (1872-1933) was the son of a Dublin doctor. He inherited the family title when his cousin died in 1923, but he never used his title. Instead, he sought anonymity in self-imposed exile, working as an ‘elevator boy’ at the Black Hawk Bank Buildings in Waterloo, Iowa, for 18 years and living as plain Dick Wolseley.

That is, until his secret came out in May 1930. His mother’s dying wish was to visit Sir Reginald and persuade him to return to England. A day after her arrival in Iowa, Sir Reginald married his mother’s nurse, Marian Elizabeth Baker, a woman who was 18 years his junior. The day after their marriage, Marian returned to England on the understanding that he would follow her.

But the new Lady Wolseley realised that Sir Reginald was too set in his ways and that he was unwilling to move. He claimed he had taken the title and married her out of gratitude for the way she had cared for his mother. ‘I took the title for my wife,’ he said, ‘on marrying her out of gratitude for what she did for my mother. The title will be of advantage to her in English society. A lady is a lady over there.’

He obtained a divorce on the grounds that his wife ‘harassed him’ with telegrams trying to persuade him to return to England. However, she was not going to give way too easily. She returned to Iowa and in January 1932, she persuaded him to move, their divorce was annulled and Sir Reginald and Lady Wolseley moved to England.

Sir Reginald died 18 months later near Ilfracombe in Devon on 10 July 1933. Only a few villagers attended his funeral in Berry Harbour; 12 farmers carried his coffin, and his wife was dressed entirely in white. Lady Wolseley, who became a Justice of the Peace, died on 20 June 1934. Meanwhile the title passed to yet another distant cousin, the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley (1865-1950), who had succeeded as 11th baronet.

He was born on 19 April 1865, the only son of Charles Wolseley (1809-1889) and a grandson of the Revd William Wolseley, Rector of Dunaghy (1831-1846), Co Antrim, in the Diocese of Connor. They were descended through an obscure branch of the family from the first baronet, Sir Richard Wolseley, and Charles Wolseley could never have expected his only son was going to become heir to this title.

This was a strongly clerical branch of the Wolseley family, and the young William had two uncles who were priests, including the Ven Cadwallader Wolseley, who was Archdeacon of Glendalough, a canon of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and Rector of Saint Andrew’s, Dublin.

So the young William was probably thinking of ordination from an early age, without any thoughts of a title or celebrity.

William Augustus Wolseley was educated in Rathmines at the school run by the Revd Dr Charles William Benson and at Trinity College Dublin, where he graduated BA in 1887.

Within a year, he was ordained deacon in 1888 by the Archbishop of Dublin, Lord Plunket, on behalf of the Bishop of Limerick, and he was appointed curate of the parish of Kilnaughtin with Aughavallin in the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe. In 1889, he was ordained priest by Charles Graves, the Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe.

William Wolseley remained a curate in this parish for 18 years before moving to Australia in 1906. There he was the Rector of Ravensthorpe, West Australia (1906-1910), and Denmark West Australia (1910-1920), before returning to England in 1920 to work in parishes in the Diocese of Durham and the Diocese of Newcastle. He was the Senior Curate of Christ Church, Felling (1921-1923), and Curate of Saint James, Burnopfield (1923-1927), and later had permission to officiate in the Diocese of Durham.

He was the Vicar of Alnham in rural Northumberland from 1932. That year, at the age of 67, he married Sarah Helen Grummitt, daughter of William Cotton Grummitt of Grantham, Lincolnshire, on 16 June 1932.

A year later, in 1933, he inherited the Wolseley title most unexpectedly from his very distant cousin. The story is told in the parish that the news came one day by post so that nobody but the Wolseleys knew about it. That morning, the butcher from Rothbury arrived in the village in his van and knocked on the vicarage door, calling: ‘Butcher Mrs Wolseley.’ There was no reply, so he tried again: ‘Butcher Mrs Wolseley.’ This time the response was: ‘Lady Wolseley if you please.’

Australian newspapers that reported his inheritance described him as ‘a rather eccentric clergyman, notorious wherever he went for the prodigious rate at which he preached.’ I am not sure yet whether this means that he preached too quickly, far too often, or that he preached for far too long … perhaps I shall find out in the parish records.

The 11th baronet retired from parish ministry in 1942, and he died at the age of 84 on 19 February 1950. He had no children and the title passed to another distant cousin, a cobbler living in a four-room flat in Bromborough, Cheshire. Garnet Wolseley was then earning £5.10s a week as a shoe-maker and he rode on a bicycle to work in a backstreet shop each day when he became the 12th baronet.

The new Sir Garnet’s wife, Lillian Mary Ellison, had been a telephone operator in Liverpool, and they lived ordinary working-class lives in post-war England until a genealogical quirk transformed them into international curiosities as Sir Garnet and Lady Wolseley.

By then, the Wolseley lineage had become so distant and dispersed that Debrett’s Peerage began an international search for an heir to the title. It seemed at the time the heir would be a very distant cousin and two Americans vied for the title, Noel Wolseley, of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Charles William Wolseley, of Brooklyn, New York. The search seemed to be reaching a conclusion when a widow living in Wallasey, near Liverpool, Mary Alexandra Wolseley (née Read) claimed the title on behalf of her son, Garnet Wolseley, a 35-year-old shoemaker.

It was soon discovered that her late husband was descended from a line in the family that many had thought had died out in the 19th century. Experts from Debrett’s examined the competing claims. The American contenders were ruled out, and the quiet, pipe-smoking bachelor cobbler became the 12th baronet of Mount Wolseley, Co Carlow.

On 12 August 1950, the new baronet had married Lillian Ellison in Wallasey Town Hall in Cheshire. They had known each other for 12 years, since they worked together in a grocery shop in Wallasey.

A Wolseley memorial in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A genealogical quirk of fate had transformed them into international curiosities as Sir Garnet and Lady Wolseley. A quiet, pipe-smoking cobbler had suddenly become the 12th baronet of Mount Wolseley, Co Carlow, but this new-found accidental status brought no wealth, property or privilege. Overwhelmed by the media attention, they emigrated in June 1951 to Canada, where Lady Wolseley’s uncle, Andrew Ellison, lived in Brantford.

‘In Canada, I hope to live the life of a lady,’ she said. But they soon found there are few class distinctions in Canada and they became merely objects of curiosity. They moved from one address to another, and Sir Garnet, who liked to be known as George, worked as a press operator at Cockshutt Farm Equipment and later as a gardener at the city parks department, until he retired in 1979. Lady Wolseley worked for a while at Bell Telephone and at a sweet shop.

Sir Garnet died in Canada on 3 October 1991. Lady Wolseley died at Brantford General Hospital at the age of 94.

Since Sir Garnet’s death, the title has not passed officially to a 13th baronet. The presumed baronet, Sir James Douglas Wolseley from Texas, has not been able to prove his claims to the title successfully, his name is not on the Official Roll of the Baronetage, and so the baronetcy has been considered dormant since 1991.

Soon after Wolseley left Kilnaughtin, his rector, Robert Beatty became Dean of Ardfert (1911-1917). In Saint Brendan’s Church on Sunday morning, I searched in vain for any mention of the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley who had served this parish faithfully for almost two decades. And so I headed off in search of Tarbert Island and the Tarbert to Killimer ferry.

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