Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton

Scandal at Barnstaple, 1891

3 August 1891

We intimated on Saturday that a serious charge was to be heard on that day before the Magistrates at Barnstaple. The person affected is the Rev. William Ewart Ryan, Vicar of the parish of Pilton, Barnstaple, who was summoned to appear at the Court on Saturday. The Magistrates present were the Mayor (Mr. R. Lake), Colonel Hibbert, Messrs. W. P. Hiern, C. H. Basset, St. Goss, and W. Smyth. – On defendant being called, no answer was given, and he did not put in an appearance. – The Magistrates' Clerk then read the charge: which was that defendant, on the 8th July last and divers other times, at Pilton, did commit certain acts of gross indecency. – Mr. J. Bosson appeared in support of the summons, which was taken out by the police. – Suerintendent Songhurst proved serving the summons personally on the defendant the previous afternoon at the Vicarage, at a quarter past 3 o'clock.  Mr. Bosson said it was his very painful duty to proceed with the case. The defendant was charged with acts of gross indecency, and the circumstances of the case were, he was sorry to say, very distressing. The proceedings were taken under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which provided particularly for outrages of the sort, and provided a punishment, in case of conviction, of imprisonment for not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour. He must give some evidence in support of the charge, and for that purpose he had seven boys present, of the age of about 15 or 16 years, and they would be able to prove, if necessary, that defendant's conduct had extended over a period of two years. Mr. Bosson then called George Knill, a lad 15 years of age, errand boy at Mr. Hunt's, ironmonger. His evidence was to the effect that on 9th July last he had occasion to go to the Vicarage at Pilton for the handle of a lawn-mower. The defendant then behaved in the manner complained of. The same thing had occurred previous to that, and on that occasion defendant gave him sixpence and told him not to say anything about it. – Mr. Bosson now applied for a warrant for defendant's apprehension. – The Bench graned the application. – The affair has caused a very painful sensation in Barnstaple, where the defendant was highly respected. He was a member of the Board of Guardians, and only an hour or two before he received the summons he was at the Guardians' meeting and taking part in the discussions of that body. He was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Young Men's Christian Association, in which institution he took a prominent part. He was also an able preacher and platform speaker. Defendant came to Pilton some years ago as Curate to the late Vicar, the Rev. C. M. Hall. Defendant's sister married Mr. Hall's son, who is the patron of the living, and on the death of the Vicar the patron presented it to Mr. Ryan. Some time ago the sister died. The defendant has been residing at the Vicarage with his mother since his incumbency and has moved in good society in Pilton. The disgraceful exposure has come with a great shock to many of his friends. The police, however, received intimation of his conduct as long ago as two years, but it is only within the past few weeks that they have succeeded in getting evidence sufficient to justify them in setting the law in motion. We understand that the facts were submitted on Friday to the Magistrates privately, and that they instructed the Sueprintendent of Police to issue a summons and not a warrant. There is a strong feeling in the town, which is very freely expressed, that a warrant should have been issued for defendant's apprehension, so as to have prevented the possibility of his escaping from justice. Two hours after the summons was served he left the Vicarage in a cab, taking some personal luggage with him. He drove to the Great Western Railway Station, and instructed the cabman to meet him at the same station the next morning. He booked for Taunton, but since then he has not been heard of. The defendant is an Ireishman, and formerly held a curacy in Couny Carlow. It is also said that before the defendant left the town he signed a document resigning his incumbency. The living is now, it is understood, in the gift of the Bishop, it having been transferred to him by the patron immediately after Mr. Ryan's appointment.
          The services at Pilton Church were yesterday conducted by the Rev. B. Philpotts, of the Cloisters, Exeter, who has been sent down by the Bishop to take charge of the parish for a time. Mr. Philpotts is anxious, under the painful circumstances of his visit, that the people of the parish will come round him and render him all the assistance in their power. (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette)

6 August 1891

. . . George Knill, aged 15, a bright lad in the employ of Messrs. Hunt and Sun as errand boy, stated that abut half-past seven on the evneing of the 8th of July he went to Pilton Vicarage for his employers in order to fetch the handle of a lawn mower. He saw Mr. Ryan in the garden path. Mr. Ryan walked down the garden path with him, and committed the offence complained of. This had heppened on other occasions previous to this date. On the first occasion Mr. Ryan gave him six-pence and told him to say nothing about.
          Mr. Bosson said he could repeat this story six times, but he did not suppose the Bench wished this to be done. He would forbear now the painful examination of other boys. On the evidence of Knill, he asked that a warrant for the arrest of the defendant might be granted.
          The Bench granted the warrant, and adjourned the hearing of the case sine die. . . .
          It has been found that Mr. Ryan booked for Taunton on Friday evening. It is said that he told a friend whom he met in the train that he was going to Athelney, in Somersetshire, to preach on Sunday. There is reason to believe that he went to Newport, but he has not since been heard of. Before leaving Barnstaple Mr. Ryan wrote to the Bishop, it is said, formally resigning the incumbency. . . . (North Devon Journal)

7 August 1891

No information has yet been received by the local police as to the whereabouts of the Rev. W. E. Ryan, the clergyman against whom a warrant has been issued for arrest on charges [of] gross indecency with several lads about the age of fifteen. As the days pass and no news comes to hand public feeling in the matter increases. There is a strong feeling that the action of the authorities was grossly ill-advised and the course taken by the magistrates in ordering a summons to issue instead of signing a warrant for immediate arrest is freely discussed. It is understood that this latter course was favoured by the police. Of course the magistrates had no desire to aid or to afford an opportunity of escape to the accused, but it turns out that their method of proceeding has had this latter effect. The summons was served on the accused shortly after three o'clock on Friday afternoon, and as soon as possible after the magistrates in conference had directed that this was the course which be adopted. Superintendent Songhurst, who personally undertook the mission, found the accused at the house of his brother-in-law, Mr. Townsend Hall, and within two hours and-a-half after receiving the summons the accused left the town by the Great Western Railway. It seems that after the summons was served no further steps were taken and no attempt was made to watch the proceedings of the accused. It has since been discovered that Ryan left in his clerical attire and was in no way disguised. He booked for Taunton, and while in the train he met a lady acquaintance, who, unaware of the grave charges that were hanging over him, entered into conversation with him, and in answer to a question Ryan stated that he was gong to Athelney, a village in Somersetshire, to preach on the following Sunday. It is needless to add that this statement of the erstwhile teacher of religion was untrue and that he did not take charge of the souls of the parishioners of Athelney on the Sunday. It is also unnecessary to add that the accused did not return on Saturday to answer the charges which had been preferred against him. It is said that in making his escape in this way Ryan followed the advice of certain personal friends who, knowing what was in store for him, waited on him and persuaded him to leave. He left, lingering only long enough to sign the resignation of his living (Pilton), which document seems also to have been prepared for him. What became of the accused after he left Barnstaple is, so far as the local authorities are concerned, hidden in glorious mystery, and there seems as much likihood [sic] of this clerical runnaway being brought to justice as there is that this globe will ever be purged of the presence of rogues and scoundrels. What is urged by the public is that the magistrates should have done on Friday, when the accused was in the town, what they did on Saturday nearly twenty-four hours after he had left it, and when he had had sufficient start to be able, if he made good use of his time, to turn and snap his fingers at the police and their warrant. This view of the matter seems all the more reasonable since it is pretty generally understood that the magistrates had before them at their private conferences on Friday all the information that was offered in open court on Saturday. Some explanation of the reasons that weighed in deciding the course followed seems only fair to the uninitiated public, and it is suggested that a queston put in the House of Commons would be the more convenient and effective plan. (Western Times)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Scandal at Barnstaple, 1891", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 12 September 2021 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1891barn.htm>.

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