22 June 2020

Two colourful curates in
Tarbert and Ballylongford:
1, Sir William Augustus Wolseley

The former Rectory, Tarbert, Co Kerry … was this once the home of the Revd William Augustus Wolseley? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have been the priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes since January 2017, which includes a large part of North Kerry, from Tarbert and Ballylongford to Ballybunion, to Listowel and Moyvane or Newtownsandes.

Officially, the name of Tarbert parish is Kilnaughtin, recalling the older church to west of Tarbert. So, there is a deeply-embedded sense of history and continuity in ministry here in Saint Brendan’s.

The list of my predecessors in this group of parishes defy the stereotypical images of Church of Ireland clergy. We are not all like the plummy caricatures of ‘the more-tea-vicars’ found on television dramas. The variety of backgrounds of my predecessors shows what a mixture we are, not only in the Church of Ireland, but throughout all society in Ireland. Each one of us is a beautiful part of the mosaic that goes to make up Irish identity, and we need every colour and tincture, every shade and hue, to make that picture complete.

One of the most eccentric of them was a former curate in Kilnaughtin and Glin, the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley (1865-1950). He was the curate here for almost 20 years, from 1888 until 1906. I was interested to hear about when I arrived because, although we are not related, there have been connections over the generations between the Wolseley and Comberford and families over the centuries.

The first of the Wolseley family to come to Ireland was William Wolseley from Wolseley in Staffordshire, who fought alongside King William III at the Battle of the Boyne. Eventually, the family acquired a large estate outside Tullow, Co Carlow, and named it Mount Wolseley, now known as a golf resort and wedding venue.

The family tree is difficult to untangle at times, but the head of the Irish family had the hereditary title of baronet, which entitled him to put ‘Sir’ in front of his first name.

Frederick York Wolseley … gave the Wolseley name to one of Britain’s most famous car marques

Probably the most famous of all the Wolseley family members 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.

His brother, Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley, was one of Britain’s most important general s in the late 19th century. He was born in Dublin, in retirement lived in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and is commemorated in a very decorative monument in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

The Revd William Augustus Wolseley was the curate in Tarbert and Ballylongford for almost two decades. While Wolseley was the curate here, Dean Robert Beatty (1833-1921) was the Rector of Kilnaughtin (1878-1921). Beatty lived in Glin, and the 1901 census shows Wolseley lived in Rusheen in Ballylongford, although he may also lived for a time in the Rectory in Tarbert.

William 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. He was descended through an obscure branch of the family from the first baronet, Sir Richard Wolseley, and his father, Charles Wolseley, could never have expected that his only son was going to become the heir to this family 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 a then-famous school run by the Revd Dr Charles William Benson and at Trinity College Dublin, where he graduated BA in 1887. He was awarded the Wall Biblical Scholarship in 1888, and earned a first class Theological Exhibition in 1889 that entitled him to the Divinity Testimonium, then the basic qualification from TCD for ordination in the Church of Ireland.

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 this parish. A year later, he was ordained priest by Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe.

Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, where William Wolseley was curate for 18 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wolseley remained a curate in this parish for 18 years until 1906. During his time in this parish, he supplemented his income as a tutor to the Hewetson family, and his name appears only once in the parish baptismal records in Kilnaughtin.

He may have spent most of his time in Hewetson family household. But I still wonder what brought Wolseley to Tarbert.

Wolseley remained a curate in this parish for 18 years before moving to West Australia in 1906. He worked in two parishes there until he moved to England in 1920 to work as the curate in parishes from 1921 to 1927.

So, he had been ordained for almost 40 years and was in his early 60s when he was still working as a curate in a small rural parish in the north of England. Not where an aspiring priest might have expected to be at that stage in his life, considering he came from a titled family with many senior clerics among his close relatives and a senior, distinguished general as his second cousin.

What did he do for the next five years, between 1927 and 1932? I am not sure what he was doing, but during that time he had the bishop’s 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 from Grantham in Lincolnshire, on 16 June 1932. A year later, in 1933, he inherited the Wolseley title in the most unexpected way from his very distant cousin.

The story is told in Alnham 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 … I am still hoping to find out in the parish records.

The 11th baronet retired from parish ministry in 1942. He was then in his late 70s, and he died at the age of 84 on 19 February 1950. He had no children and the title passed to yet another distant cousin, a cobbler living in a four-room flat in Bromborough, Cheshire.

Sir Dick Wolseley, the ‘elevator baronet’ (Source (Wikipedia, WP:NFCC#4)

Sir William’s immediate predecessor, Sir Dick Wolseley (1872-1933), the tenth baronet, who was his first cousin once removed and worked as an elevator operator or ‘lift boy’; and Sir William’s immediate successor, Sir Garnet Wolseley (1915-1991), the 12th baronet, was his second cousin once removed and was a cobbler, born into poverty on Merseyside.

All three inherited their family title through a bewildering set of circumstances in an entangled family tree.

When Sir John Richard Wolseley (1834-1874), 6th Baronet, died aged 40, he was succeeded 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.

Meanwhile, the title of baronet passed 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 in 1889. But he held the title for only three months when he died on 26 January 1890. In all, seven successive holders of the title have died without immediate, direct heirs.

The title of baronet in the Irish branch of the Wolseley family to passed 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, seven successive holders of the title have died without immediate, direct heirs.

The tenth baronet, Sir Reginald Beatty Wolseley (1872-1933), known as Dick Wolseley, was the son of a Dublin doctor. He inherited the family title when his cousin died in 1923, but he never used this 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.

He married his mother’s nurse, they separated a day later, they divorced, the divorce was annulled, and as Sir Reginald and Lady Wolseley moved to England.

Dick, 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. And so the title passed to his distant cousin, the Revd Sir William Augustus Wolseley (1865-1950), who became the 11th baronet.

When the former curate of Tarbert died in 1950, it was not clear who was going to inherit his title.

But the Wolseley lineage had become so distant and dispersed by then that Debrett’s Peerage began an international search for an heir to the title. It seemed at the time that 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, Mrs 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 Mary’s 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.

At the time, Garnet Wolseley was earning £5.10s a week as a shoemaker and each day rode a bicycle to work in a backstreet shop. His wife, Lillian Mary Ellison, had worked in a greengrocers and as a telephone operator in Liverpool, and they had lived ordinary working-class lives in post-war England until a genealogical quirk transformed them into Sir Garnet and Lady Wolseley.

Sir Garnet died in Canada on 3 October 1991. Since then, 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 Baronets, and so the Wolseley title has been considered dormant since 1991.

Mount Wolseley House near Tullow, Co Carlow … sold in 1925 for £4,500 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These notes were prepared to accompany the first of two stories recorded at Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, as part of ‘Poetry With Paddy, Summertime on the Steeple Road’:

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