Father Ignatius and His Singing Boys, 1864

In 1864 in Norwich, Norfolk (England), Samuel Hase, a fifteen-year-old boy apprenticed to a printer, became attracted to the order of Benedictine monks to whose monastery on Elm Hill he delivered print orders. He was a good singer, a member of the choir of St Saviour's Church, and soon he was attending services at the monastery and singing in its choir. The Superior, Father Ignatius, was said by another boy to be "sweet" on Samuel, and often gave him gifts of fruit and asked him to take tea with him after the services. One day in September the boy took home a hymn book presented to him by Father Ignatius, and showed it to his widowed stepmother. She promptly returned it with an indignant note, and subsequently met with the Superior and refused her consent for her stepson to enter the order. Samuel (who had lied to Ignatius about obtaining his stepmother's approval) nevertheless continued to serve as a singing boy at the monastery, sometimes slept there, wore the gown and hood, and became baptized. He even asked his master to cancel his indenture so he could devote himself entirely to the monks, but the printer refused. His stepmother, a Protestant anti-papist, one day intercepted a letter sent to him from Brother Augustine, the second-in-command at the monastery, which is printed below. She sent the letter to the Norfolk News, which had been conducting a campaign against popery aimed specifically against the monastery at Elm Hill, and they published it. As a result, Brother Augustine fled the monastery and disappeared. Father Ignatius wrote to the paper from Newcastle (he was on a northern tour to collect money for his mission) that it was a very foolish letter and Augustine had been expelled for violating the order's rule against secret communications. Before leaving on his trip Ignatius had begged Augustine not to spoil the boy, but nothing untoward ever took place in the monastery and they were not ashamed of inviting young people to join their order. The Norfolk News continued its attack, asserting that the letter revealed that the sham monks (for they were not really Roman Catholics, but very "high" Anglicans) were kidnapping and mesmerizing the sons of Protestant families: "The system is essentially unnatural, and nothing can come of it but mischief, disorder, and monstrosities, either ridiculous or frightful. . . . these Monasteries are for the most part cages for unclean birds." Every issue of the Norfolk News through December continued the attack on these "mad" and "unnatural" monks. In October Ignatius (real name Joseph Leycester Lyne, of Brighton) spoke at the Bristol Church Congress and was shouted down; he argued that collegiate churches should be established in all large towns to reach the masses, that they should follow the Rule of St Benedict, and that it was contrary to nature for their priests to be married and shackled to a family. He appeared at this meeting in full Benedictine garb, and the following speaker derided him as a "startling apparition." Later that month the Norwich Young Men's Church of England Association called for Ignatius to be expelled from the church. A year later Brother Stanislaus tried to overthrow Ignatius's authority, but failed, and fled with a boy from its associated Guild of St William. In 1868 ex-Brother Stanislaus spoke at Protestant meetings, revealing the scandalous "semi-Popish and improper practices" established by Ignatius. At a meeting in London two lads charged Brother Augustine with homosexual practices. In 1869 another boy alleged that he (the boy) had lived at the monastery in a sexual relationship with Stanislaus, with the encouragement of Ignatius. The continuing scandals are part of the history of the Anglo-Catholic brotherhoods that attracted gay men in the mid-nineteenth century (a similar case, involving a different 'Brother Augustine', occurred in 1869), and also part of the history of homophobia and anti-Catholic hysteria in Protestant Britain. The letter that stirred it all up is really nothing worse than a very touching love letter, not utterly different from a letter that could have been written by Saint Anselm eight centuries earlier.

Photograph of Joseph Leycester Lyne, Father Ignatius
Joseph Leycester Lyne, Father Ignatius, Superior of Elm Hill Priory, Norwich

17 September 1864

A rather painful case has just been brought under our notice, and we are induced to publish it for the purpose of exposing the system which appears to have been adopted, to some extent at least, by the Benedictines with regard to drawing boys of tender age into their ranks. A respectable woman named Hase, who resides in Alma Terrace, Infirmary-road, has been left with the care of a stepson of 15, who has been bound apprentice with a printer. The boy in the discharge of his duties has frequently had occasion to visit the monastery with printing work which had been executed at his master's office. He has a good voice for singing, and was a member of the choir of St. Saviour's Church. Whether Ignatius was aware of this fact we know not; but it seems he was observed to pay particular attention to young Hase on more than one occasion. To use an expression used by a companion who accompanied the lad to the monastery, the Superior was "sweet" upon him – inviting him to the services, giving him fruit and other presents, and occasionally asking him to tea. One evening the youth, whilst evidently deeply impressed with all these kindnesses, took home a hymn book which the Superior had presented to him, and shewed it to his sister and step-mother; but the latter returned it to the monastery, accompanied by an indignant note to Ignatius. She herself strongly objected to the proceedings of the monks, and as strongly objected to the boy taking any part in them; but he appears to have regularly attended the services without her knowledge until a fortnight or three weeks ago, when she learned that he had been baptised, and that he pretty regularly figured in the establishment in gown and hood. Things went on, the boy continuing his attendance at the monastery, notwithstanding his mother's advice to the contrary, and sometimes even sleeping there, and on Friday morning a lady, accompanied by a person connected with the monastery, called upon Mrs. Hase, saying she had been sent there by Father Ignatius, and presenting the following letter:–

Benedictine Convent, Norwich,
Nativity of the V. Mary.

DEAR MRS. HASE – I have been much interested in the young people, who so frequently attend our chapel services, among them your step-son Samuel has received no small amount of care and attention. He ought to have profited very much by what he has learned here. Whatever he may have been before coming here he seems now to love our blessed Saviour and to desire earnestly to serve him. The boy tells me that you now consent to his attending our services, and also, much to our astonishment, that you accede to his desire to be admitted a novice in our order. He has expressed an earnest desire to be devoted to the service of God, and seems to us thoroughly in earnest. We have represented to him that if he comes to us from any other motive than for the love of Jesus, he will soon tire of the most holy life that he will have to lead in this place. I am leaving Norwich, please God, on Saturday, for a missionary tour; I may be absent two months. If you really are willing that he should be received by us, you must come and see me yourself, that I may explain to you what the child is undertaking, and also that I may ascertain from you his previous character particularly concerning his health, &c. I must also have the marriage certificate of the child's parents. If you really intend sending the boy to my charge, I must tell you that I consider a very great responsibility will be entailed upon me in the signt of God, inasmuch as I shall, in a great measure, be accountable for his after life and final perseverance in the service of Jesus. The boy is very young and may easily be influenced for good or evil. At present he seems to listen most respectfully and happily to all that I say to him. Whether he is sincere or not you know best, and it is your duty to tell me openly and candidly all you can about the child if you intend committing him to my care. Did he ask your permission last night to remain to our night service, as I sent him home to you before allowing him to remain? I particularly wish to know this. If you are able, I should be glad if you will call upon me here on Friday, at four or five in the afternoon. You may be sure that I have quite forgiven the letter you wrote to me respecting the hymn book. You, like many others, have been deceived into shewing disrespect for us, the ministers of God; but as you did so in ignorance, you may be sure that I have no feelings of anger towards you.
                              Yours faithfully,
                                        †  IGNATIUS. Superior.

          The letter was presented in the afternoon, and in accordance with the request of the writer, Mrs. Hase went to the monastery in the evening, and on enquiring for Brother Ignatius, she was ushered into his room by Mr. Utten Browne. She says she talked to Ignatius about the boy, and assured him that he did not attend and take part in the services with her consent, and that if the boy said he did he was an hypocrite and not sincere in being baptised. The Superior then promised that he would not allow the boy to attend the services if she (the motheer) objected to it, and that he never could be made a monk unless she herself presented him. To this Mrs. Hase replied, "Then he never shall be a monk, for I shall never offer a child that I have anything to do with a sacrifice to such a delusion." Ignatius again told her that as the boy had presented himself against his mother's wish he would not receive him at the services again, and she then left with this assurance. On the next day, however, the lad went to the monastery as usual, and on Sunday he was there again, and notwithstanding the promises of Ignatius he assisted in the services as one of the singing boys. On his return in the evening, he stated that his cap had been dipped in "holy water" by some of the boys connected with the monastery and completely spoiled; but that Ignatius had given him half-a-crown to buy a new one. During the last few days the boy has actually been feasted at the monastery again. In fact, he seems to have been so well "wooed" that he is now strongly attached to the monastery, and has actually asked his master to cancel his indentures in order that he might devote himself entirely to the monks. His master, of course, refused to do this, but if he had, it is said the lad would have accompanied Ignatius during his missionary tour. It is also stated that Ignatius, during one of his first interviews with young Hase, offered to give him double the money that he was receiving for his services in the choir of St. Saviour's Church, provided he would join his own choir at the monastery.

          Mrs. Hase, who had herself furnished us with the above particulars, has since sent us the following, which, under the circumstances, we feel constrained to publish. This breaking up of homes and substituting of monkish influence for parental is such an outrage on social law as to require the most stringent exercise of authority to put a stop to it without further hesitation or delay:–

To the Editor of the Norfolk News.
SIR – The following letter was brought home by my son from the monastery on Wednesday night, and handed by him to me before he himself had read it. It was put into his hands, he says, as he was leaving by "Augustine" himself. As a distressed mother, I beg of you to give insertion to this letter that other parents and the public generally may see by what arts these monks are striving to beguile and fascinate our dear children and to supplant us in their affections. If such letters are written to a boy what may we conjecture are written to the young of the other sex?
                    Yours respectfully,
                                        L. HASE.

Feast Sancti Crucis, 1864.

MY DARLING CHILD – I want you to promise me that during the Superior's absence you will strive as much as possible to keep from doing wrong, and that you will daily pray for God's grace and help to fulfil the same.
          You will not be allowed to be here much, if at all, as I rather expected you would, so that I am obliged to write that which I should have preferred saying to you in person, but oh! my dearest one! you will never realize how much I really love you, and how wretched I feel all day without meeting you. My love for you is so deep, so tender, that I cannot bear even to be separated from you, and when I do see you I have such a heavy weight at my heart, and you seem so careless and light-hearted and so taken up with others, and all this makes me worse.
          Then the Superior, who is always having fresh favorites and likings, seems so dreadfully afraid even of one's looking at you, that I am perfectly obliged to look calm and indifferent when my heart is literally burning for you.
          This love I NEVER felt for a living creature beside yourself, it seems to consume me, and it is quite a comfort to write it down to you.
          Sometimes I think you know your power over me, you give me such searching looks, and what do you meet with in retuirn? What but the most earnest, burning, tender look of love, as pure as that of angels.
          Were I and you in the world I would lavish every care, every affection upon you that money or time could procure, every wish should be gratified if possible.
          Sometimes on Sundays you have sat in your cassock and cotta [black robe with white surplice worn over it] looking so like an angel I could have worshipped you.
          I have striven to collect my thoughts to the solemn service on which I was engaged, but no! you heppen to look my way whilst I am at the lectern, and then I grow quite confused and my breath even seems to fail, and I wonder if you have ever seen it and guessed the cause.
          Morning, noon, and night, nothing haunts me but your sweet darling face; in my very dreams I see it; in a word, I am infatuated and wretched and wish sometimes I had never seen you. I feel I could clasp you in my arms and never unfold them whilst I looked into the depths of those sweet eyes.
          It is very weak, perhaps wicked, to write like this, but I scarcely know what I am doing, and feel forced to write and tell you all this.
          Suppose I were to go away from here (as they want me at home) when my noviciate is up in February, I feel that leaving you would make me intensely miserable and perhaps break my heart. I know you will only laugh at me.
          Is there anyone here loves you like this? No! I am sure of it. Why do you avoid me, or content yourself with a passing glance?
          What I am now going to say must be a secret to everyone if you don't wish me to be troubled. I want you one day (I will tell you the time) to to to Mason's, S. Giles', to have your portrait taken. Dear mama shall send the postage stamps to you so that it will not be with any money from here.
          I will manage your having a cotta and cassock without anyone's knowing here what you want it for.
          Burn this. I would not have anyone know anything about it for the world, and if you have the slightest respect for me you will do so. I do not ask it out of love, for I know and feel you have none for me, and this, indeed, is the reason of my misery. Good bye, dear, sweet child, and my prayers shall ever be for your peace and happiness.
                    Your affectionate brother in Xt. [Christ],
                                        †  AUGUSTINE, O.S.B. [Order of St. Benedict]

(Norfolk News)

SOURCE: Norfolk News, 17 September 1864.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Father Ignatius and His Singing Boys, 1864", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 5 May 2020 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1864igna.htm>.

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