Pear Tree Church - Southampton

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Hard Times (Early 18th Century)

Though life was hard for the incumbents of Jesus Chapel in the first half of the 18th century, it was even harder for their little flock. The farmers and labourers of the area were very dependent upon the seasons and the harvests, and a poor yield meant hunger for all. The harvests of the sea were equally unpredictable. Sometimes great shoals of herring came up the Itchen, or the catches of sprats were so huge that the surplus had to be spread over the fields as manure. At other times the fish did not come, and adverse weather made it perilous to venture out in search of them. When illness, accident or death overcame a breadwinner, his family could soon be reduced to desperate straits. Southampton itself was in a bad way - almost on the verge of bankruptcy - and had declined as a port because its trade with the continent had been hampered and disrupted by wars with France. Even trade around the coast and with the Channel Islands was risky, owing to the activities of French Privateers, and in the Mediterranean all shipping had to run the gauntlet of encounters with Algerian and Turkish pirates. The punitive expeditions that were despatched from time to time often included amongst their crews men from Itchen Ferry, who had a hard-won reputation for good seamanship. These "Algerines" as they came to be called were sometimes captured and enslaved for a while. The old Church Warden's books record the little sums doled out in those dark days to the sick, needy and orphaned to help them over the bad patches. There are frequent references to the "poor Turkey Slaves", the hardy souls who somehow struggled back home, utterly destitute, and who looked to the little church on Pear Tree Green for some relief of their misery. They came in considerable numbers 12 in 1727, 9 in 1729, 3 in 1730, 18 in 1734, 11 in 1736, and no less than 46 in 1737.

 

Jesus Chapel lacked the resources to do much to relieve the bodily distress of its people during those hard times but it could provide spiritual comfort, and a hope of better things to come. During a particularly lengthy interregnum, around 1730 it is thought, even this comfort was often denied them, and they sorely missed the ministrations of a vicar of their own. Consequently a petition was prepared for presentation to the Rector of St Mary's, asking for his help. A copy of the petition, unsigned and undated, was found among the papers of Jesus Chapel. The petition begins by reminding the Rector of the reasons for the building of Jesus Chapel, and says that the people are again in a similar plight, both with regard to crossing the Itchen and from "the want of a minister to perform the offices and dutyes in the Chappel and to visit the sicke which are here very numerous and Poore and easily persuaded to tarry at home or tern to Conventicles, to prevent which wee are willing to make such a subscription as may in some manner support a Goode man to reside here on this side the water ".The Rector was asked to make a contribution, which if he did so, "would gaine him the prayers of all these poore inhabitants.

 

Whether the petition was ever actually presented to the Rector of St Mary's (Archdeacon Brideoak), is not known. Certainly his name does not appear among the 53 subscribers who in 1733 promised to pay annual sums amounting in all to £11 6s to the "goode man" who came to the rescue, namely the Rev Saunders. Perhaps the people of Jesus Chapel decided to rely entirely on self-help. In any case, the mother church still had problems of its own. For most of his ministry Archdeacon Brideoak was actively engaged in having his church rebuilt. A nave was built on to the old chancel in 1711, and then the chancel was rebuilt in 1723. The work was strong, plain and honest, and St Mary's remained virtually unchanged until 1833. Archdeacon Brideoak had only a small number of people in his parish, as most of the inhabitants of Southampton still lived within the city walls, or in the parish of All Saints. St. Mary's was surrounded by farm land, orchards and marshes, and as late as 1779, according to the town records, had only 57 rateable houses in the parish.

For how long subscribers were able to maintain their payments is not known, but around 1770, the then incumbent, the Rev Scott, was finding it so difficult to make ends meet that he resolved to do something about it. In a memorandum in the church register he wrote "The reason why so few baptisms after this year are registered is that James Scott, ye curate of Jesus Chapell in two memorials complains to ye Bishop of Winchester (Dr John Thomas) of ye hardship and inconsistency of taking care of parochial duty in that part of ye parish called St Mary's Extra as curate of Jesus Chappell when ye Rector of St Mary's received all ye emoluments of surplice fees. The Bishop considered ye case and ordered ye Rector of St Mary's to do all of parochial duty of baptisms and visiting of sick, etc. ,in that part of ye parish as well as

ye other ,just ye same as if there was no Chappell existed. The Rector of St Mary's having nothing to do with ye service of ye said Chappell nor of Burial of ye Parishioners of St Mary's Extra in ye church-yard of ye said Chapell. The Bishop's injunction exempted ye curate from ye unprofitable burden of slaving for ye Rector of St. Mary".

 

It took a while, but by withdrawing a part of his labour, the Rev Scott succeeded in having the terms of his employment ameliorated. From his time onwards, the rewards of the ministers of Jesus Chapel began to be more commensurate with their labours.