The Reverend William Palin (1803-1882), the Essex village of Stifford and the Grays Steamboats

William Palin was Rector of Stifford from 1834 until his death in 1882.

Essex local historians remember him for his large, sometimes rambling and occasionally idiosyncratic book, Stifford and Its Neighbourhood, which he self-published (with the help of subscribers) in 1871. Although he complained that he lost money on the project, he followed it the next year with a sequel, More About Stifford and Its Neighbourhood. (Palin was inspired to preserve the materials for local history when the churchwardens of nearby East Thurrock decided that the best use for old documents was to burn them.)In his lifetime, Palin's moment of glory came in 1840, when he survived being thrown into the Thames from a steamer off Grays, and boldly campaigned for redress. Nowadays, devotees of old churches might see the restoration of Stifford's St Mary's parish church as his enduring memorial, although they would perhaps not know his name. If his name survives at all, the one-time Rector of Stifford is more likely to be remembered as a great-uncle of Michael Palin, former member of the Monty Python team and now a respected television presenter. However, there seems to be no connection between the Reverend William Palin and the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

        With no publisher to rein in his prejudices, Palin used his two volumes as a vehicle for his vigorous and eccentric opinions, for instance sneering unpleasantly at Nonconformists. Most of his prejudices were conventional enough for the time: he did not like the idea of women in the workforce, and called the idea of a Channel Tunnel an "abortion". But some of his opinions were downright bizarre. He insisted that outdoor markets were un-English, and that English people preferred shops. In his defence, it should be said that he was capable of changing his mind but this did not happen very often. In 1871, for instance, he denounced Bismarck for his cruelty to civilians during the Franco-Prussian War, but in 1872, when Bismarck had taken on the political power of Germany's Catholic bishops, the Iron Chancellor became a hero. It will be noted that none of this was relevant to the history of Thurrock. Palin's inflexible intolerance manifested itself all too often. It was almost certainly for this reason that this undoubtedly able man never rose to high rank in the Church of England to which he was so menacingly devoted.

        Although his surname was Welsh (from ap-Heilyn, the son of Heilyn), William Palin was born in Surrey in 1803. He enrolled in 1829 at a small Oxford college, St Alban's Hall, but his ambition was evident in his decision to move to Trinity College, Cambridge, which was large, fashionable and wealthy. In 1833 he was ordained, got married and came to Stifford as curate to the Reverend Dr Hogarth, a "squarson" who lived at one of the few mansions in the parish, Ford Place. The following year, Palin succeeded him as Rector.

        Palin arrived in Stifford, "a healthy and pleasant village", on the eve of rapid change. Life was not entirely idyllic: the shutters on the Rectory windows were reinforced with iron plate because in an age before police forces which relied upon amateur parish constables, everybody lived in fear of burglary. The year before Palin's arrival, the parish vestry had ordered the constables to deal with disorder at the local hostelry, the Dog and Partridge, and one wonders whether they rose to the challenge. But the parish was still relatively self-contained, and few locals had even visited London. A coach from Horndon-on-the-Hill passed through the village every morning at 8 o'clock. If the roads were in good condition, it deposited passengers at Aldgate three and a half hours later, before starting its return journey at 4 in the afternoon. Return fares, six shillings and sixpence (32.5 pence) inside, four shillings and sixpence (22.5 pence) outside, were wholly beyond the pockets of the labouring class. Stifford had about 350 inhabitants, and most men were employed by a handful of local farmers or worked in the Stifford chalk pit. However, the local economy was changing. Land-holdings were becoming consolidated into larger units, which sharpened social divisions between farmers and their labourers, while the introduction of machinery reduced the need for unskilled labour. "The numerous and well-to-do yeomen, though holding comparatively small but their own farms ... were the backbone of the nation. ... sturdy, strong, peaceable, and loyal men, not given to change." Palin deplored the fact that the yeomen were "dying out", although he was probably romanticising a mythic category.  An 1833-34 scheme to turn the Mardyke into a canal linking Purfleet with Childerditch (to supply Brentwood with bulk cargoes) might have given Stifford a measure of economic independence, but it was obvious that Essex would soon acquire railways and the plan was abandoned. Stifford was becoming integrated into a wider economy, especially after the chalk pit closed around 1840, and the wider economy meant Grays. Grays, and its neighbour West Thurrock, constituted a small offshoot of industrial Britain, a small riverside port with its population engaged in quarrying, lime-burning, and even including a small military garrison at Purfleet. In 1841, the two parishes contained just 2,500 people, rocketing to 4,000 by 1871: Manchester it was not! Nonetheless, Palin did not like Grays. Not only did it have far too many public houses, but their loose management encouraged "harlots" to flourish, secure in the knowledge that if their sins made them pregnant, they would be cosseted in the local workhouse.

        Two major changes occurred immediately after Palin's arrival in Stifford. First, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 swept away the old system that had required each parish to provide its poor. The following year, Stifford became part of the Orsett Union, and in 1838 the parish sold two cottages by the Mardyke that had been used as a refuge for impoverished widows. (Stifford had farmed out all other welfare problems in a deal with South Ockendon.) The Poor Law Unions represented the first major surgery on English local government boundaries for centuries, sweeping aside the traditional divisions, called hundreds. Orsett Union grouped together eighteen parishes from across south-eastern Chafford Hundred (which stretched from Brentwood to Grays) and the south of Barstable, a sprawling hundred that stretched from Doddinghurst to Benfleet. Chafford retained an identity as a rural deanery, a Dean. But by straddling the Chafford-Barstable boundary, Orsett Union brought Palin into even closer contact with Richard Wingfield (later Wingfield-Baker), who owned most of the parish of Orsett. He was also the patron of Stifford church and, in the words of the dedication of Stifford and Its Neighbourhood, "the squire of the district", as well as a personal friend for over thirty years.  Although Palin did not spell it out, for him Stifford's "neighbourhood" was the Orsett Poor Law district. Only rarely did he cross its borders, to criticise Wennington and Rainham for failing to maintain their churches. (Palin's relations with the other major local landed family, the Barrett-Lennards of Belhus at Aveley, to the west, do not seem to have been close, probably because the Barrett-Lennards were Liberals in politics. If Chafford Hundred had remained a living administrative entity, it is likely that Palin would have enjoyed less freedom and local position. In Stifford and Its Neighbourhood, he took a perverse pleasure in announcing to the Barrett-Lennards that he had secret military information that Belhus would be used as an army base if Britain was ever invaded – as indeed it was so used during the Second World War, with fatal results to the mansion house.)

        The second major change, also a product of the reforming eighteen-thirties, was the commutation of tithes. Clergy of the Church of England were entitled to a ten percent share of all the produce grown in the parish. Even devout farmers sometimes grumbled about the burden, while Nonconformists objected on principle to supporting the State Church. The Anglicans were too strong to allow tithes to be abolished, but Parliament reached a compromise by which, parish by parish, the contributions in kind could be negotiated into cash payments, a form of hidden tax that would not be so obvious a burden. One incidental benefit for subsequent local historians was that a meticulous map had to be made of every parish, based on a detailed survey. In Stifford, this brought to an end an age-old custom called Beating the Bounds. Across England, every year after morning service on Rogation Sunday (usually mid-May), parishioners would walk around the limits of their parish, checking that their neighbours had not interfered with boundary markers, and ensuring that local lore was passed down to the next generation. (At Stifford, this seems to have been emphasised by taking young boys – but not, it seems, girls – and "bumping" them at key points to encourage them to remember. Some parishes even guarded against forgetfulness by thrashing their youngsters.) With a detailed map in prospect, Stifford and its young Rector "beat the bounds" for the last time in 1835.

        The commutation of tithes made life comfortable for the Reverend William Palin. When the process was settled, in 1836, he had a guaranteed annual income of £450. He also had a "good residence", plus 26 acres of glebe, land attached to the Rectory which he could either farm himself or let out. Palin believed that the labourers were "well paid", receiving between twelve and fifteen shillings a week (60 – 75 pence), and double at harvest time. This meant that the best-paid farm labourer, assuming he could get work year-round, might earn £45. Palin's stipend was ten times that, with a free house and a small farm thrown in. Like other villages, Stifford had some charity income, bequeathed by a benevolent local worthy back in 1631. It yielded twenty shillings (£1) each year to be divided among the poor. By contrast, Palin received over a pound for each and every parishioner.

        Of course, Palin did not make any such comparison. It is not uncommon for people who have soft jobs with fat salaries to persuade themselves that they are underpaid. To Palin, one great defence of the Church of England and its privileges was that it ensured that there was a clergyman in every village, upholding order and morality. Who, he asked, would live in the "somewhat unattractive" village of Bulphan if there were no stipend? In any case, clergy worked "for Incomes, generally, that lawyers and doctors would laugh at." Palin's comments drew forth a pained letter from the Rector of Bulphan, who had been kind enough to subscribe to Stifford and Its Neighbourhood. In the sequel, Palin admitted that perhaps Bulphan had its good points.

        Fundamentally, Palin wanted a clergyman in every village not simply to deliver religion, but as a form of social control. If the Church of England were swept away, "half of the country villages and more would relapse into heathenism and become a terror to their neighbours." The poor benefited from the ministrations of the clergy, and the amateur health care provided by clergy wives, but, even so, "too many of that class" indulged in "communistic envy" of those who owned property. Palin feared "irrepressible Communism" in 1871. By 1872, that hotbed of local radicalism, South Ockendon, was supporting a trade union for farm labourers. Clearly, it was an uphill struggle to maintain the thin veneer of public order, and Palin was firmly on the side of authority. In 1842 he became a magistrate on the newly formed Orsett Bench, along with three other clergymen. By 1856, the Bench consisted of Wingfield-Baker and seven clergy. And Palin took his responsibilities very seriously indeed.

        So much so that in 1852, he became the target for the ultimate gesture of English outrage, a letter in The Times. Two soldiers from the Purfleet garrison, gunners from the Royal Artillery, had been arrested and charged with malicious damage after a pub crawl at South Ockendon. Their case came up before the Reverend William Palin. As was standard Army practice, an officer attended the court to observe the proceedings. The evidence for the prosecution came from a "navvie", who admitted that he had been drinking with the accused, but who claimed to have been totally sober. His testimony established that one of the soldiers had smashed a window, but his only negative report about the other was that he had been "freshy". This was a slang term meaning "slightly intoxicated" – a modern equivalent might be "merry" – but it certainly did not indicate total inebriation. On this flimsy evidence, Palin fined the soldier five shillings (25 pence) for being drunk.

        Naturally the defendant protested, and the officer attempted to intervene, requesting "sufficient time to produce evidence to prove that the charge of drunkenness was false." The navvy had apparently been matching pint for pint for soldiers: if he was sober, was it likely that they were incapable? William Palin did not like to be contradicted, especially in his own court. He curtly remarked that "he was not astonished" that soldiers should misbehave "when their officers attended at their trial for the purpose of encouraging and screening them in their vicious propensities", and threatened to complain to the Army authorities. Fearing that Palin would lock him up for contempt of court, the angry officer contented himself with writing to The Times to denounce "this bull-in-the-china-shop mode of administering justice". Palin, however, remained a magistrate.

        On an earlier occasion, in 1840, Palin's combative personality had worked for the public good, although the fact that he had almost drowned in the Thames was the motive that drove him to action. In Stifford and Its Neighbourhood, Palin made a passing allusion to "the merry river steamers" on the Thames at Grays. By 1872 these cheerful vessels were mainly engaged in taking holiday-makers to Southend and Margate, complete with raucous brass bands whose music wafted across the water. But thirty years earlier, paddle-steamers had provided the quickest and (in theory) the most reliable transport link to central London, and they remained so until the railway reached Grays in 1854. In 1848, London and Gravesend steamers were calling five times a day (presumably five times in each direction?), and in 1850 it was estimated that there were 25,000 Grays passengers each year. While that total sounds impressive, it probably means only a handful of people on each sailing: the steamboats were important to Grays, but Grays may not have been so important to them. Moreover, before 1841, when a pier was constructed out into the deep water, passengers to and from Grays had to be transferred to and from the shore on the open river on small boats. Worse still, on the May afternoon in 1840 when William Palin boarded the Star at London Bridge, the rough sailors and stokers of the steamboat fraternity were conducting a feud against the inhabitants of Grays. Not long before, several people had been drowned when one of the steamers had run down a smaller boat. Grays people had given damning evidence at the coroner's inquest, and the "ruffians" were taking their revenge by inflicting "the greatest possible annoyances" upon anyone connected with the town.

        It seems that Palin often travelled on the Star, which made a regular run between London Bridge and Gravesend. It would have provided a quicker, more comfortable and probably more interesting journey than the Horndon coach. The Star's 400 passengers would have felt reassured by its sheer size and power. The paddle steamer would also have provided more room for packages than the stagecoach, and on 9 May 1849 Palin had been shopping in town. Unexpectedly, as the Star pulled away from London Bridge on its five o'clock sailing, another steamer, the newly-built Sons of the Thames, also started "at exactly the same moment", and it soon became clear that there was a race on between them. Worse still, at Blackwall, a third vessel joined in and, as the Vesper was not carrying any passengers, it pressed the Star hard as the three raced downriver. Palin subsequently discovered that agents of the two companies had published a joint notice in the Morning Advertiser announcing a race on thr 5 o'clock sailing, with a massive prize of two hundred guineas (£210). Unfortunately the Morning Advertiser was the newspaper of the Licensed Victuallers Association. It was not read by respectable people like Palin, who did not patronise public houses.

        With the finishing line at Gravesend not far ahead, the crew of the Star were in no mood to sacrifice their narrow lead for the three passengers who planned to disembark at Grays. As usual, a wherry came out to meet the steamer, a companion-way was dropped overboard, a sailor from the Star hooked on to the smaller boat and the mate propelled the departing passengers to complete a quick transfer. Accounts of what happened next are understandably confused. Palin insisted that not only did the Star refuse to stop, but that it did not even slacken speed. Another witness thought the engines were "eased", but "only for a second". The two passengers ahead of Palin got into the boat, but before the Rector of Stifford could haul himself and his parcels aboard, the paddle wheels thrashed at full speed, and the boat was almost swamped. "This will not do" protested Palin as he demanded that the engines be stopped. The mate replied, "Nonsense, go in" and, at just that moment, the sailor with the boathook decided that "if he did not at once quit his hold, the boat would go down". Waves from the Star's engines tossed the wherry aside, and Palin was "precipitated into the water".  He briefly blacked out as he slid beneath the surface of the cold, filthy Thames. When he surfaced and recovered consciousness, the Star was travelling at full speed, several hundred yards downstream, evidently with no intention of making a rescue. The remaining passengers felt the "greatest indignation" at the Star's failure to stop. Fifty of them held an impromptu protest meeting in the main cabin and signed a petition to the company management demanding the dismissal of the captain. Palin, totally exhausted and minus his shopping, was fished out of the river by a passing boat. As he later said, "if he had not been a good swimmer he must certainly have drowned." "He had never witnessed such a total recklessness about human life before."

        Happily, by the following Tuesday he was sufficiently recovered to lead a high-powered deputation to complain to the Lord Mayor of London. (Perhaps he took the precaution of travelling up by the railway from Romford to Shoreditch that had opened the previous year.) The Lord Mayor was sympathetic, asking incredulous questions ("They would not stop the vessel at all?"). He "highly commended" Palin's determination to seek redress. Unfortunately, however, he was powerless to take action himself, and recommended an application to the appropriate magistrates. So the following day, the indomitable Palin and his delegation of supporters applied for a warrant for the arrest of the captain and mate of the Star at Thames Police Court, which exercised jurisdiction over the Pool of London. Like the Lord Mayor, the magistrate was not only sympathetic but astonished – and, once again, powerless. Until Parliament got around to making steamer racing an offence, no crime had been committed. The steamers were hard to control as it was: they "went up and down the river every minute, in a most rapid and reckless manner" – so who could say whether they were racing or not? Officially, there was a five-mile per-hour speed limit within the Pool, but the steamer captains took no notice and cared little for fines. In the magistrate's opinion, if they could be sent to prison or, better still, to the treadmill, "this sort of thing would not happen." Palin's best course was to launch a civil action for damages in either the Essex or Kent courts. Herein probably lay a further problem, for if the crew of the Star were sued in an Essex court, they would surely swear that the vessel had been on the Kent side of the Thames, and vice-versa. None the less, Palin was winning the publicity battle hands down and, so his camp insisted, their main aim was "to protect the public from similar outrages."

        Two days later, the Star Gravesend Steam-Vessel Company counter-attacked. A Lincoln's Inn barrister unmasked their strategy to readers of The Times. The proprietors of the paddle-steamers relied on the fact that their passengers were mainly strangers to one another. Once their journey was over, they scattered in all directions. Hence it was the "custom" of the proprietors "to wait a day or two after any complaint has been made against them" under the pretence of making an investigation, and then issue an offensive denial, confident that "no person will put himself forward individually in opposition to a powerful company, with the certainty of getting abused, and probably put to expense too." They did not reckon with the Reverend William Palin – but he was given a sour taste of their tactics.

        On the Thursday following the incident, the Lord Mayor received a call from a director of the steamboat company, a man called Tickner, accompanied by his solicitor. Tickner reported that he had investigated the complaint. He claimed he could prove that the Star had stopped in midstream to discharge the Grays passengers. “Mr. Palin got into the boat, but, perceiving that there was a fracture in it, determined to return to the vessel.” (If there was a “fracture” in the wherry, it was because it had been swamped by backwash from the Star's paddle wheel.) The boatmen, not the crew of the Star, had given the signal to be pushed off, when "it occurred to Mr. Palin not to go in the boat, and having two large parcels with him, in trying to return, he fell into the river." Any fault "entirely originated in the gentleman's own movement," Tickner alleged, unfeelingly adding that even if Palin had drowned, it would still have been his own fault. The Lord Mayor was so taken aback by this entirely novel account that he failed to ask the obvious question: if the crew of the Star could supply such a detailed narrative in their own defence, they must have been aware of what happened. Why had they not attempted a rescue?

        Tickner made light of the charge of racing, claiming that there was bound to be rivalry on the river. His solicitor quickly intervened. There were "express instructions" to company staff "not on any account to race, but if a new company chose to run at the same time, it was not the fault of the old company." By any standards, this was a brazen performance, but its final contemptuous twist was counter-productive. The Star's solicitor asserted that the other passengers had been consulted (all four hundred of them?) and "they attributed the accident to Mr. Palin's own conduct." Palin promptly appealed, again through the columns of The Times, for witnesses from all three steamboats to contact him at Stifford Rectory. Presumably, they came forward in numbers sufficient to establish his case for, late in July, the Star company settled Palin's legal action, with compensation for his lost shopping and payment of his costs, along with a "satisfactory explanation" (it apparently stopped short of an apology) by Tickner of his statement to the Lord Mayor.

           The construction of the Grays pier in 1841 ended the practice of pitching steamboat passengers into small boats in the middle of the Thames. Perhaps it was a direct victory for Palin, a tribute to his ordeal. Unfortunately, in 1843, his career path crossed the spectacular and intolerant trajectory of another outspoken cleric, Michael Augustus Gathercole.