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Rector of Ashdon


    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.

Rector of Ashdon, Henry Barclay Swete    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 old students./42/
    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:

  1. 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.
  2. That all such children should be taught the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments.
  3. 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 or teaching.
    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 New Testaments.
    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.

Internet Notes:

Warwickshire County Record Office:
Greville of Warwick Castle [CR1886/Box818 - CR1886/Box910]:

Reference: CR1886/Box818/221
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

Reference: CR1886/Box818/845
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

Reference: CR1886/Box818/1276
Letter from Ashdon Rectory. Rev. H. B. Swete to Webb. Repair of bridge at Holden End.

Creation dates: 1883 8 Dec