The Rev. Thomas Rackett is famous for his interest in science, archaeology and antiquaries but did he neglect his churchgoers? Roger Guttridge reports
It was November 1828 and in two parishes near Blandford ripples of discontent were spreading among the faithful.
Someone felt strongly enough to take their feelings about the Rev. Thomas Rackett, Rector of Spetisbury and Charlton Marshall, to a higher authority.
On November 10, the Bishop of Bristol wrote to Rackett over the ‘great complaint’ he had received.
The unidentified complainant alleged that the clergyman was ‘never at home’; that his curate lived at Blandford; that ‘all’ the parishes’ children attended a non-conformist meeting house, as there was no church school; and that ‘many converts’ were heading for the Catholic Nunnery and Chapel.
Converts to Catholicism? God forbid! Rackett reassured the bishop – but his troubles had barely begun.
The vicar’s never here
Four months later, in a speech in the House of Lords, the Marquis of Lansdowne accused the £750-a-year rector of ‘residing in London’ for the last 30 years, during which time there had not even been a resident curate at Spetisbury or Charlton Marshall.
As the Lords debated the controversial Catholic Emancipation Bill, and with the Bishop of Bristol among his audience, Lord Lansdowne cited Rackett as an example of Church complacency.
In a speech reported in several newspapers, he claimed the ‘real cause’ of any growth in Catholicism in that corner of Dorset was ‘the want of efficient discharge of clerical duties on the spot by a resident clergyman’.
In a further complaint in July 1829, the bishop was told that Rackett ‘scarcely ever’ resided in his rectory, that there was still no church school and that ‘a large Catholic Church is now building in your parish’.
Rackett continued to protest his innocence, claiming he had lived at Spetisbury Rectory ‘every year’ for 40 years, although admitting that ‘circumstances of a private domestic nature’ had caused his absence ‘at various times’.
Given the absence of his signature from the parish registers for months on end, year after year, this appears to have been something of an understatement.
Of the alleged drift to Catholicism, Rackett claimed that of 108 Spetisbury families, ‘five or three’ had always been connected with the village’s Convent of Augustinian Nuns while two other families and six individuals had been ‘induced to embrace the Catholic religion’.
Rackett the polymath
There is no evidence that Rackett received more than a few written reprimands.
But there’s no doubt that his lengthy stays in London enabled him to indulge his passions for physics, chemistry, botany, geology, heraldry, archaeology and antiquities.
His parishioners’ loss was posterity’s gain, for Rackett, who died in 1841, left more than 50 years’ worth of correspondence with friends who shared his interests.
First published by the Dorset Record Society in 1965, these letters have now been reprinted with additions as a smart new hardback.
It includes several drawings by Rackett, who was no mean artist and who provided some of the sketches for the second edition of Hutchins’ History of Dorset.
These included pictures of the old Rectory at East Stour, where Henry Fielding (1707-54) wrote most of his acclaimed novel, Tom Jones. The house has since been demolished and replaced by Church Farm.
In 1802 Rackett corresponded with Allen Fielding, one of five children born to Henry Fielding and Mary Daniel, the former maid of his first wife Charlotte. Mary was already pregnant when the novelist controversially married her just three weeks after Charlotte’s death.
As well as discussing the origins of characters in his father’s novels, Allen revealed that the East Stour house was given to his grandparents as a wedding present by his grandfather Edmund Fielding’s wealthy father-in-law.
Letters to Rackett’s wife and daughter, both called Dorothea, also feature in the collection.
Dorothea Jr (Mrs Solly) was a friend of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis’s famous fossil hunter.
In June 1844 Mary reported that there had been no great storms or landslips the previous winter and hence few fossils exposed.
Lyme had, though, experienced a ‘tremendous fire’, which had destroyed 52 houses including three inns, plus ‘the old clock that had stood for centuries’.
• More next month.
“From his quiet country parish at Spetisbury in Dorset, the Rev. Thomas Rackett corresponded with a wide-ranging variety of friends and contacts between 1786 and 1840. Fellow members of the Royal Institute wrote about experiments in physics, chemistry, engineering and the emerging science of electricity, Sir Richard Hoare wrote to him about archaeological exploration, and friends from abroad sent news from as far as South Africa, Canada and Russia. Rackett’s interests included botany, engineering, heraldry, prehistoric and Roman antiquities, geology, shells and conchology, barrow-digging, Greek and Roman coins and methods of engraving. He was personally involved in many of these activities and his correspondents wrote to him for advice and to exchange opinions. His wife and daughter contributed to the scientific, literary and historical discussions and come across in these letters as intelligent and well-read members of a society that accepted them as intellectual equals. The Thomas Rackett Papers was first published by Dorset Record Society in 1965 and this new edition includes correspondence with Mary Anning, who was a friend of Rackett’s daughter.”
Copies of the Thomas Rackett Papers are available by post from the Hon General Secretary, Dorset History Centre, Dorchester DT1 1RP (£14.95 + £2 p&p – cheques only) or in person from the Dorset History Centre.
by Roger Guttridge