A former Rector of Lydlinch was obsessed with hunting – but his first quarry was an unfortunate old woman, says Roger Guttridge
You won’t find a country clergyman like him today, which is probably just as well, for the Rev William Chafin was far too outrageous for the modern era.
The one-time Rector of Lydlinch was obsessed with hunting and has been called the ‘epitome of the sporting parson of 18th century England’.
He was also a renowned eccentric who always dressed in ‘old boots and greasy leather breeches and refused to change even when dining with the Prince of Wales’.
No excessive tenderness
William’s character owed much to his unusual upbringing.
Born in 1733, he was the 11th and last child of George and Elizabeth Chafin, wealthy owners of Chettle House (now a grade one listed building on Cranborne Chase).
Sadly, only three of William’s ten siblings had survived infancy, a record that their father put down to the excessive tenderness bestowed upon them.
Determined to improve William’s chances, George had the newborn immediately baptised, then removed from his mother to be wet-nursed by the estate shepherd’s wife.
William himself later recalled: ‘I remained in this cottage under the care of the good inhabitants until I was nearly five, without once sleeping in my father’s house.
‘As soon as I could crawl, I was carried by the shepherd to his sheepfold every morning, even in the very depth of winter.’
William was known for his robust constitution, and he put this too down to his upbringing.
He was still riding to hounds at 80 and only suffered a decline in health after being struck by lightning while sitting at a window in 1817.
Even then he survived another year, eventually dying in 1818 aged 85.
From fleas to elephants
Chafin is also famous for his book Anecdotes and History of Cranborne Chase, first published in the year of his death and which reflects his hunting obsession.
According to his contemporary, Sir Archie MacSarcann, William hunted ‘everything from the flea in the blanket to the elephant in the forest’ … ‘But his chief sport was afforded by foxes, hares, rabbits and owls,’ said Sir Archie.
Chafin’s biggest fan was the novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott, who sent some handwritten notes about him to Lord Montagu, which survive in a copy of Anecdotes in the library at Beaulieu.
Sir Walter reveals that William’s ‘first commencement as a sportsman [was] rather inauspicious – he shot an old woman [and then] left his game where it dropped without staying to bag it.’
When a servant at Chettle House announced that a woman called Goody had been shot dead, ‘there was a confession in the boy’s looks which made his father exclaim: “There sits the rascal that killed her.”’
What the coroner’s inquest decided is unknown but Sir Walter reports that the boy’s father confined him to a garret for a month on a diet of bread and water.
The young William whiled away his time by trapping hungry sparrows using bits of his bread as bait.
In a separate letter to Lord Montagu, Sir Walter describes how the young Chafin also ‘shot an old cat’, for which offence he served three months in the garret on bread and water, this time amusing himself by hunting rats.
It’s not clear when Chafin became Rector of Lydlinch but he was certainly in post by 1769 and probably continued until 1776, when he inherited the Chettle estate following the death of his brother, another George.
Diarist Stephen Terry wrote that the entire Chettle household got sucked into Chafin’s hunting, apart from the butler, who ‘superintended the garden’.
Terry added: ‘The old cook supervised the cuisine in the kennel as well as in the kitchen, and got the footman up in good time to do his part in the house before he was booted and spurred for the chase,’ For rabbit-hunting, Chafin maintained a pack of miniature beagles, each a mere 12 to 14 inches high, which he carried in panniers on his horse.
For owl-hunting, his parishioners were the first pack, flushing out a distressed bird on a sunny day and pursuing it until it sought refuge in a bush, at which point the beagles would be released.
Chafin’s inheritance included the manors of Lydlinch, Folke and North Eggardon.
Tradition has it that he sold Eggardon Hill near Bridport to his friend Isaac Gulliver, Dorset’s leading smuggler, who planted fast-growing trees on the summit as a marker for contraband ships approaching the coast.