The tale of the runaway rector | Looking Back


There’s nothing like a naughty vicar story to set tongues a-wagging, and the Rev W M Anderson certainly did that, says Roger Guttridge.
Mrs Axford, who left her husband and two daughters in 1912 to elope with the Rev. Anderson, rector
of Durweston and Bryanston

The rector of Durweston and Bryanston was already low in diarist Julietta Forrester’s
stimation, and when he eloped with a parishioner, his reputation went through the floor.
“Received a letter from Mrs Oborne saying that Rev W Anderson had gone off on Wednesday with Mrs Axford, Lord Portman’s coachman’s wife,” Julietta noted on January 25, 1912.
“There had been talk about them for some time. He said he had loved her for 17 years! It seemed incredible!
”‘I never thought of Mrs A behaving so but Anderson was bad enough for anything! I believed he had sold his soul to Satan over the Durweston Ghost!”
This was a reference to Durweston’s headline-making poltergeist, the subject of this column in our October issue. Anderson was among those who took the spooky events of 1894-95 seriously, unlike the sceptical Mrs Forrester. Even before the poltergeist, Julietta – wife of James Forrester, agent for Lord Portman’s Bryanston Estate – was not enamoured with the rector.

Lord Portman was disgusted
After his first service at Bryanston in 1893, Julietta wrote: “I liked his appearance and voice. I wish I had liked his sermon.” In 1895 she complained that Anderson was neglecting the Bryanston half of his flock. And when Durweston and Bryanston played Blandford at cricket that same year, she commented that “our rector,
Mr Anderson declined to play because he was afraid of the weather!” It appears that God was not on their side either.
After Blandford declared their innings at 300 for 9, the Durweston and Bryanston XI were skittled
out for 70. Fast forward 17 years to 1912. On February 3, Julietta noted that Lord Portman was “very
disgusted” with Anderson ‘after all he had done for him, paying for him to go abroad etc”. She added: “About two years ago, on hearing of the intimacy between Anderson and Mrs Axford, Lord P spoke to the former about it but A denied all the charge.”
Anderson’s more charitable parishioners might have forgiven his inability to resist the lure of love but less
forgivable was the theft of his curate’s pay packet, and money from the Coal Club fund to finance the elopement. He had also “left his wife his mother and his sister destitute”, according to Julietta.

Cuckolded James Axford, a diminutive man of less than 5 feet in height, was Lord Portman’s coachman and known as a fine horseman

No welcome in Halifax
Her diary continues: “Axford had spoken to Lord P about a divorce but as he had actually seen his wife off by train when she left him (because people should not say they had parted bad friends or that he had
driven her from home!), Lord P told him he had connived at the elopement and therefore would be unable to obtain a divorce. “The two [Anderson and Mrs Axford] had first gone to Halifax to her brother’s but he refused to take them in and where they went then did not appear to be known.”
Two years before his death in 2014, Pete Sherry, a grandson of James and Mrs Axford, told me the hostility to the runaway couple was such that a crowd threatened to tar and feather them as they waited on the
platform at Blandford station. Pete, of Maperton, near Wincanton, confirmed Julietta’s claim that they were turned away at Halifax and added that they then spent six months at the Pump House in Bath.
According to Julietta, Mrs Axford made a brief return to Bryanston hoping to collect the younger of her two daughters, Constance. The child refused to leave. “I suspect Auntie Con hung on to my mother and said she
wouldn’t go,” Pete told me. On February 17, Julietta noted her fear that Anderson would continue drawing his
rector’s stipend as long as he was ‘let alone’.
She added that his ‘unfrocking’ would be costly and had to go through the ‘Court of Arches’.

A quiet end
From Pete Sherry, I learned that after leaving Bath, the elopers went to Montreal, where Anderson eked out a
living as an artist. After his death just seven years later, Mrs Axford worked as lady-in-waiting to the Molson
family, owners of North America’s oldest brewing company.
She eventually returned to England with a substantial pension from Molsons of £7 10s a week. She lived in
Worcestershire until her death aged 98. James Axford, a diminutive man of less than 5 feet in height, retired in 1923. He subsequently lived with his elder daughter, Winifred, and her family at West Orchard and later Maperton, where he died in 1936 and was buried in the churchyard in an elm coffin made by his own hand.
Pete recalled: ‘He was a terrific horseman and taught me to ride ponies.
“He never talked about my grandmother. He was very strict about that and paid a solicitor to make sure she never got in touch with the family.
“We used to get dollars from ‘Auntie in Canada’ and I guess that was my grandmother.” After James Axford’s death, his estranged wife was accepted back into the family, being introduced not as Winifred’s mother but as ‘Auntie’.
• Roger Guttridge’s book Dorset: Curious and Surprising includes chapters on The Runaway Rector and
The Durweston Poltergeist.

by Roger Guttridge


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