Life at Ashdon began with a sense of loss and disappointment.
Mr. Swete has looked forward to his country Rectory becoming the home of his
sister Mary. They had much in common, and she was eager to join him and to help
him in his parochial work. But in the summer of 1876 she died. There is no doubt
that at this period of his life he was feeling, perhaps unconsciously, lonely.
He had put from him in boyhood all thought of possible marriage. He held the
common belief of the time that comsumption was hereditary, and he felt that
he would be wrong to run the risk of transmitting his mother's disease to a
future generation. No temptation to reconsider this decision ever assailed him,
and to the end he was always firmly convinced that not only had he personally
acted rightly, but that for the scholar and parish priest the unmarried life
was better and more appropriate. It may be added that he hardly shewed consistency
in his views on the celibacy of /40/ the clergy since he gave the preference
in his choice of a colleague to a married curate.
His life as Rector of Ashdon was systematically ordened
on the twofold basis of literary and parochial work. His literary activity during
the thirteen years of his incumbency covered the edition of Theodore of Mopsuestia's Commentary on St. Paul, 1880-82; contributions to the Dictionary of
Christian Biography , 1882-87; the first volume of his edition of the Septuagint,
which was published in 1887, and the greater part of the second volume, which
was completed in 1891; while from 1882-1890 he was Professor of Pastoral Theology
at King's College, London. He was Examing Chaplain to the Bishop of St. Alban's,
1881-1890. In 1881 he took the degree of Doctor of Divinity, and in 1886 his
College did him the honour of electing him an Honorary Fellow. Of his work as
Professor of Pastoral Theology Dr. Knowling, a former
colleague at K.C.L., writes:
From 1882-1890 Dr. Swete held the post of Professor
of Pastoral Theology in King's College, London. During this time he was also
Rector of Ashdon, in Essex. And, as the Bishop of Ely has said, there was no
part of his life which was more characteristic of him than the part he played
here, which marked him out as at once a scholar and a parish priest.
It was this combination of the devotional and intellectual which
was fully appreciated by the /41/ students, and made itself felt in more than
one connection. <note 1>
It was here then that Dr. Swete had an early opportunity
of influence; and he used it. It was certainly unfortunatele that, with all
his power of enforcing deep spiritual truths in the simplest way, he had few
opportunities of preaching in the College Chapel. Perhaps the distance of London
from Ashdon might explain this. But thouse who heard it are not likely to forget
the sermom in which on a St. Peter's Dat he brought home the Saviour's threefold
appeal to the love of His erring disciple.
If we ask what part of his teaching in King's College impressed
the men most markedly, we may point to his lectures on the Prayer Book. A remarkable
testimony to this may be found in a letter written by one who could scarcely
be expected to be in sympathy with all that Dr. Swete taught, one who lived
to be called in after days a leader of the Evangelical School of thought. His
Prayer Book teaching, so this pupil expressec it, was ‘magnifcent.’
His standard of examination was very high, and we students thought that he was
particularly sparing with his first-classes. This led therefore to a keen efford
on our part to be among the few men in the conveted division. The same scholar
with his friends bears witness to Dr. Swete's keen personal interest in his
And they in their turn can tell us how much they valued the
notes which they took from his lectures, and how even the Sermon Outlines. although,
as one somewhat quaintly put it, such a use might seem to run the risk of idleness,
were used in the pulpit once and again.
But if the students in their day were hard workers, they
must have had an inspiring leader in Professor Swete. It is sometimes forgotten
that it was during these years in King's College that Dr. Swete commenced his
great labours upon the lxx.
But whether in the common room or in the lecture room, Dr.
Swete never forgot the amenities of life, and Dr. Mason, with the bishop of
Ely, has not forgotten to remind us of his humour.
Dr. Swete, too, would often in some little way reveal his
kindness of heart to colleagues and pupils alike. Every Monday morning, in the
summer term, he would carry from his country house at Ashton a bunch of flowers
to gladden the eyes of some resident of King's College, in the heart of London.
Deeper truths, too, were ever present to him; deeper that the pleasantries of
custom, cheering as they might be.
In the midstof an unspeakable sorrow one of his King's College
friends cheered by receiving from Dr. Swete a single verse in the Greek text: If so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be
also glorified with Him. That was all but it was enough. It wa
a law which could not be broken, the law of the Christian life and the law of
the Christian Church. /43/
Into his work as a parish priest the new Rector threw himself
whole-heartedly. Two tasks awaited him: the restoration of the church, and the
far more difficult problem of the maintenance of the Church Elementary School.
The church, with the exception of the chancel, which had
been put into good order by the late Rector, badly needed restoration. The condition
of the tower was unsafe, and the interior comfortless and in a state little
befitting the House of God. The parish was entirely agricultural, and had no
squire or gentry to whom an appeal for funds could be made. But Dr. Swete was
not to be baulked by the difficulties of raising subscriptions. He obtained
what he could from friends and the parishioners, and paid the rest of the bill
himself. The result was, in the course of the first seven years of his charge,
a tower made safe; a nave re-floored and filled with seemly seats of pitch-pine
in place of high square pews; an unsightly erection called the gallery
removed from the west end of the church; the beautiful tower-arch opened out,
and the tower itself fitted up as a choir vestry; and as the tower could not
be sufficiently strenghtened to allow the fine old peal of bells to be rung,
an arrangement for chiming them was furnished. The men's gallery,
a curious structure in the S.E. Chapel, he would not touch. The seats faced
north, and starting from the level of the chancel /44/ floor rose behind the
other in tiers until the south wall and the level of a high window ws reached.
Heree the labouring men sat, and this the Rector refused to restore. It
is unsightly, he would say, but on Sunday it is full of men, and
serves its purpose. They could not lounge or sleep so comfortably in pews, and
they would not come if we tooki away their gallery. To the end of his
charge the men's gallery was well filled on Sunday, both morning and evening,
and if the toilworn labourer lounged and apparently took little or no part in
the service, he listened to the Rector's sermon and was helped and strenghthened
perhaps more than he knew.
The services of the Church were Dr. Swete's chief concern.
He himself defrayed the cost of organist and choir, and he believed in al large
choir. Do not think too much about a man's voice or musical ability; a
surplice binds a young fellow to the Church more firmly than anything else
was his doctrine. Such a theory meant unambitious music; but the procession
of some 20 boys, followed by 14 to 18 men, was imposing and heartening to a
village congregation. Further, he tried to make his services on Sunday suit
the taste of all his parishioners. If he wrote vestments at the early Eucharist,
the mid-day celebration was serverely plain. Mattins was only partly choral,
with the psalms an litany said; while /45/ evensong had its processional cross,
lights, and many hymns.
It should be stated that, with the exception of the years1881-3,
Dr. Swete had the help of an assistant curate. This help was a necessity when
he began his work on the lxx, and was in great part provided by the
University Press in order that he might be free to devote more time to his important
task. With his colleagues of this period, the Rev.
W.M. Edwards, 1883-6, and the Rev. W.A. Beckles, 1886-90, he formed links of
friendship that remained unbroken to the end of his life.
It is impossible to pass from the subject of the church and
its services without reference to the Rector's preaching, the outstanding feature
of his ministry at Ashdon. He took infinite pains with his sermons. He preached
chiefly from full notes, his text short and easily remembered. He would begin
by describing the scene of the subject on which he was preaching; his travel
in the Holy Land was an unfailing source from which he drew such vivid word-pictures
that the congregation could almost imagine that they stood and looked on the
scene. He used as far as he could country incidents to illustrate his teaching;
village colloquialims were pressed into service; and if some such words as "Incarnation"
slipped out, he would at once explain, "I mean, the Son of God made Man."
The unlearned country folk could follow /46/ and understand; while behind all
his simplicity of expression lay the knowledge and exactitude of the theologian.
One of the parishioners who owed much to the influence of his preaching writes:
"It was just as if he knew everything and preached to me and me only
I know all that year 1879 he helped me more than anyone could possibly imagine.
I always reckoned on holidays so that I might hear his sermons, and there was
always a bit you could take to yourself, either in form of a rebuke, advice,
or a stimulus to stick to duty in spite of everything. Just at the tinme that
I required a guiding hand, God did it through Dr. Swete and I've thanked God
for his help many a time."
A diificult problem awaited the new Rector in 1877 in connexion
with the day school. The National School buildings had been condemned by the
Education Department as being inadequate as they then stood; and the school
was inconveniently placed for the majority of the children attending it. During
the late Rector's long and fatal ilness the Nonconformists of the place had
induced the villagers to petition for a Board School, and when Dr. Swete came
upon the scene the Board was formed and the site for a school in the village
bought. He at once approached the Education Department, offering to carry out
the required alterations and enlargement of the existing school /47/ entirely
at his own expense. He was informed that the matter had gone too fare, and that
the new school must be built. But to relinquish his Church School was not at
all to the mind of Dr. Swete, and he quietly carried it on for the next eight
years. The school buildings were altered to meet the requirements of the Department,
and an exellent schoolmaster found, who was ably assisted by a mistress for
the Infant School. The National School flourished; it won commendation from
H.M. Inspector; and the character and manner of its children stood high in the
estimation of the village. The reverse of the pictury lay in the fact that as
the Church people took no interest in the election of the School Board, it consisted
entirely of Nonconformists, of whom not every one could write his own name;
the master was chosen with a view to saving the rapidly rising rate; there was
no religious instruction given in the school. Moreover, a sharp line of demarcation
ws drawn between the 'Church' children who went to "top school" (the
National School stood on a hill above the village) and the 'Chapel' children
who attended "bottom school" in the village. This line was still further
accentuated by the good influence of the Church schoolmaster and the roughness
of the children who were in the hands of a succession of less efficient men.
For the good of the community as a whole amalgamation was needed. But the /48/
Rector stood firm, and continued to run his school until in 1885 Mr. Arthur
Goatcher, its invaluable master, accepted another appointment which was offered
to him. Representations were then made to the Rector of the burden entailed
upon the parish by the fact that only one half of its children earned the Government
grant, so that the rate had risen to 1s/ 6d in the pound. He therefore consented
to close the National School upon three conditions:
- That the children attending the Board School, should, unless withdrawn by
their parents under the Conscience Clause, receive a clear half hour's religious
instruction on each of the five school-days of the week.
- That all such children should be taught the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments.
- That the clergy should be allowed to visit the school, and be permited to
give the Scripture lesson twice a week.
After some heated discussion by the Board and a threat from the Rector to carry
on his school if his terms were not acceptedf as they stood, the Board gave
way. There were at first many bitter and justifiable regrets from the Church
parents. For a tine the tone of the children droppped grievously, and it seemed
impossible to believe that the right step had been taken. But as the years went
on the Board itself improved; more /49/ suitable members were elected to serve
on it; and it was seen that for the good of the whole village the one school
was gain rather than loss.
To the work of the Sunday School Dr. Swete was devoted, and
his catechising was as telling and effective as his preaching. He loved his
children, and they him. A cluster of boys and girls would await him as he came
out from the afternoon service in order to walk back to the Rectory with him,
a third of a mile away. Eacg finger was clutched by a small hand, others held
on to his cassock, and to walk thus surrounded required some skill. In summer
the walk inevitably ended in a visit to the garden, the little people going
away wiht their hands full of flowers. With the adolescent he was far less successful.
The village lads were beyond his comprehension, and he left them to the care
of the assistant curate. Girls he understood better, and their preparation classes
for confirmation he always took himself; but he was never quite at his ease
with them, nor did he ever atttempt with them anything like individual counsel
In 1883 Dr. Swete asked the Church of England Waifs and Strays
Society to open in his parish a Home for eight little boys. This Home was a
great interest to him, and with these children he was at his very best, regarding
them as his sons. He constantly said, "No country parish is complete /50/
without its Waif and Stray Home; the children bring fresh blood and ideas into
the village school; if boys they form the nucleus of the choir, and they are
a constant source of interest and delight to the parish priest." The cottage
which served as the first home was not very suitable, and the Rector decided
to build a home near the Rectory which would seve for twelve boys. Caius College
made a generous 99 years' lease of an acre of the glebe field in front of the
Rectory; and on this ground Dr. Swete built the Home. It was opened and dedicated
by him in September, 1890 just as he was leaving Ashdon. Other kind friends
have since enlarged and improved it, so that it stands to-day as a model home
of its kind. One of the first eight boys, now a married man and father of four
bonny bairns, wrote from Salonika on hearing of Dr. Swete's death: "
I cannot explain the benefit that I have received through knowing him, and I
feel sure every one ,ust know and feel the same as I do who have come in contact
with him, the goodness both moral and spiritual he imparted to every one."
A chance visit to his brother Horace, then living at Worcester,
in the summer of 1882 brought a great change into life at the Rectory. The two
youngest children had been ill with whooping cough, and the health of the elder
of them was the cause of some anxiety. It at once occured to her /51/ uncle
that a change to country air might be beneficial; and he carried the child off
for a month's visit. At the end of the time uncle and niece agreed that they
suited each other, and wished the visit to become permanent. The family at Worcester
was large, and its ohter and older members at the expensive stage of entering
on professions; so the proposal was gladly accepted. Dr. Swete also added to
his charge of the girl that of her younger brother, whom he placed as a weekly
boarder at Saffron Walden Grammar School. Both children made him, so he wrote,
"immensely happier for having them." The boy in the course of the
next year or two passed out of his uncle's care. The companionship of uncle
and niece lasted thirty-five years, to be broken only by his death.
But Dr. Swete's parochial activitities were by no means confined to the church
and the children. He was an assiduous visitor; every afternoon saw him start
out to visit his flock. The parish extended oer a large area, and he had often
a walk of two or three miles to an isolated farm or cluster of cottages. Sometimes
he would hold services in these outlying homes. In the sick room the Rector
was a welcome and looked-for guest; he was specially solicitous in cases of
long or chronic illness; and wiht such he would take infinite pains. The following
letter, written in the spring of 1885, /52/ to the mother of a most promising
lad who was dying of consumption illustrates this care: "Dear Mrs. A
I send you a list if Scripture texts and passages, from which you can choose,
if you think it desirable, a few short pasages suited to Archibald's present
wants. A very little at a time, read very slowly and devotionally, seems all
he needs or can bear. I hope the references will be clear enough, but I daresay
they will need to be studied beforehand. Yours very truly, H. B. Swete."
Then follows a list of no fewer than 44 passages selected from the Old and the
The Nonconformists in the parish were almost without exception
Baptists, and their minister was of the aggressive, political type, and a bitter
opponent of the Church; his influence and the Day School controversy made a
gulf between the Rector an this section of his parishioners which was never
bridged. But that he believed himself to have the care of the souls of all the
people in his parish was shewn in his attitude towards the one Roman Catholic
in the place. In onde of distant hamlets lived an old Irishwoman who for years
had been without spirtual ministrations, as the Roman Catholic priest for that
district lived at Ongar, more than thirty miles distant. The Rector held that
it ws his duty to provide the means of grace for all his parishioners; and /53/
since this woman would not receive them at his hands he must send for a priest
of her Church. Accordingly an invitation was sent to the priest at Ongar to
come over and stay at the Rectory, and from thence with the full sanction and
approval of the Rector minister to this member of his communion.
When Dr. Swete first went to Ashdon he was full of enthousiasm
for teaching the people and enlarging their outlook of life; he gave lectures
on Egypt and Palestine, illustrating them by his own cartoons and shewing his
curios, and on other topics likely to interest a rural audience. He tried to
gather the men together by opening a reading-room and in other ways. But it
must be admitted that he found the people of East Anglia less easy to interest
than those of his own West country; and as time went on he lost heart through
their lack of intelligence, and ceased to do much, if anything, for them on
the social side of life. The moral standard and tone of the village were lamentable,
and with the coarser forms of vice and evil he did not know how to grapple.
Wages were low. and many of the houses wretched hovels not fit for men and women
to live in; but to have interfered wiht social problems of this kind he would
have considered to be outside his province. He also spoilt his flock by doing
everything for them. The parish was poor and without /54/ resident gentry, and
it was following the line of least resistance for the Rector to pay for church
restoration and to meet the expenses connected with the choir, the organist,
and other ordinary parochial machinery; he could not beg and he would not stand
by and let things that needed doing remain undone. So he put his hand into his
pocket and did them. He went to Ashdon in 1877, when it was a 'fat' living,
with the comfortable balance of a bachelor don at his banker's; he left in 1890,
when lean years had set in and greatly reduced the tithe, with an equally handsome
balance on the adverse side of his bank book.
Henry Barclay Swete. A Remembrance, London 1918,39-54
Note 1: Dr. Swete would point out how a picture of this pastoral life was often revealed in some great Father of the Church, Patristic
Study, p. 178.
County Record Office:
Greville of Warwick Castle [CR1886/Box818 - CR1886/Box910]:
Letter from Ashdon Rectory. Rev. H. B. Swete to John Webbi, enclosing receipt
for Lady Brooke's subscriptions. Repair of bridge at Holden End.
Creation dates: 1883 8 Feb
Letter from Ashdon Rectory. Rev. H. B. Swete to Webb. Appeal to Lady Brooke
for assistance towards restoration of the Parish Church.
Creation dates: 1883 20 July
Letter from Ashdon Rectory. Rev. H. B. Swete to Webb. Repair of bridge at Holden
Creation dates: 1883 8 Dec