Gently, Bentley!

John Woodley researches the curious tale of the various names of the second vicar of St Faith's

To the avid genealogist there are many sources of records now available online and many of these have now been digitised to permit easier and swifter access and research.   One of the very best is ‘Ancestry’, which contains a wealth of information drawn from official records of birth, marriage and death and census data. Other sites include online newspapers and ‘familysearch’ run by the Church of Latter Day Saints.

A brief conversation with Reverend Sue following the recent remembrance day service got me thinking about the men of the parish who fell during the two world wars and who they were.  Thus began many hours of online research.  This research led to an intriguing puzzle about our second vicar – more particularly his name.  The Reverend Harold B. Bentley-Smith, or Harold Bentley Bentley-Smith to give him his full title (and quite a mouthful) is recorded as the second vicar of St. Faith’s.  Indeed the commemorative board at the rear of church only just manages to squash his name on - and that’s with leaving out the first ‘Bentley’! 

The Reverend Harold Bentley Bentley-Smith began his short incumbency in 1915, ending in 1918, a period encompassing much of the First World War. His name occurs in several local newspaper articles of the time. It is a well-known fact, and recorded, that he introduced many controversial changes during his time at St. Faith’s, much to the annoyance of some elements of the congregation.  It is not the intention of this article to reflect on his ministry, as this has already been well documented and commented upon in several histories of St. Faith’s over the years.

Harold Bentley Smith, (as he was born) was the son of the Reverend Frederick Smith and his second wife, Juliette Gleadow. He was born on the 17th December 1877 in Aston Brook, Warwickshire, where his father was vicar of St. Mary’s. In the 1891 census he is recorded as living with his parents and siblings in the vicarage of St. Mary’s, Aston Brook, age 13. 

It is somewhat difficult to establish how many siblings Harold had, as his father was twice married and birth records, unlike today, did not have to specify the mother’s maiden name.  However, it would seem that his father’s first marriage produced four half siblings, the second marriage producing a further three siblings. By 1901, Harold, with his father, mother and older sister had moved to the more pleasant countryside setting of All Saint’s church in Church Lench. Harold is recorded as a student undergraduate of Cambridge. 

According to records of Cambridge alumni, HBS was on the staff of the Evesham Journal before taking up his place at Cambridge. He entered as an undergraduate in 1898, gaining his B.A. in 1901. He was ordained deacon (Manchester) in 1902 and became curate of St Alban, Cheetwood, a suburb of Manchester. Between 1902 to 1905, HBS gained a curateship of St. Paul's, Edinburgh. It was in 1905 that we encounter the first significant event. Harold Bentley Smith is reported as having changed his name to Harold Bentley Bentley-Smith. What precipitated this change of name is unclear, nor do we know when this occurred and whether it was prior to his move to Edinburgh. He undertook further curacies before becoming vicar of East Coatham.  In 1915, he exchanged the living with the Reverend Thomas Howe Baxter, becoming the second vicar of St. Faith’s.

The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury of 1915 enthusiastically records the incoming vicar as “being a skilful organiser, an eloquent preacher, and an energetic and tireless worker”; we are also told that he is a keen Freemason and was formerly a journalist.

A further report from the same paper of October 1915, drew parallels between his new parish and that that he had left in Yorkshire; “Mr Bentley-Smith can be counted as an important auxiliary to the numerous societies which make the sailor and his dependants their especial care”.  His first sermon was greeted with optimism; the vicar “struck a sympathetic note which will be far-reaching”.
However, the period of his incumbency was to be difficult. George Houldin, writing in his history of St. Faith’s stated; “The Rev. Herbert (sic) Bentley Smith was obviously unfamiliar with the Churchmanship of the Liverpool Diocese”. 

Over the period of his incumbency at St. Faith’s there were several local press reports that confirm a somewhat troubled time.

In 1916, the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury reported a “breeze” at the vestry meeting of the same year, (I guess a ‘breeze’ is just short of a storm!). Accusations were made of the vicar’s alleged use of the ‘confession’, in papers that had been handed to confirmation candidates; (the confession was the subject of much contro-versy in mid 19th century Church of England and resulted in a number of infamous court cases. Indeed, St. Agnes Church was embroiled in this very matter in the 1890’s). The matter was discussed at some length; “the vicar agreed that he would not issue any form that the Bishop of Liverpool regarded as contrary to the Church of England. He also challenged anyone to prove that he had ever gone beyond what the Prayer-Book allowed”.
By 1918, there were “several breezes at the vestry meeting”, so reported the Liverpool Echo of April 1st, under a heading, “Crosby Meeting in Disorder”. The paper reported the anger and frustration felt by those present at the vestry meeting, partly at the absence of the vicar (now using the title of Harold Bentley Bentley) and the reluctance of the Rev. T. R. Musgrave (curate of St. Faith’s officiating as chairman), to give a satisfactory explanation as to why the vicar wasn’t there. One member expressed disgust and claimed that the church had neglected the soldiers of the parish serving in the war; “It was deplorable that a large church like St. Faith’s should do nothing”.   The meeting was evidently full of much bickering and ill-feeling and the Echo in a dramatically titled subheading, “The Final Scene”, stated that “the meeting ended in disorder”.

We must remember that there were several significant events that occurred in Harold Bentley Smith’s life around this time; his mother died in 1914; the first of his two daughters was born the same year. In the spring of 1917 his second daughter was born and later that year his father died.  All of this was happening against the backdrop of WWI and the devastation that that wrought and the many local men in the parish that were lost.

A legal notice appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury in December 1917 concerning Harold Bentley-Smith. This was to change his name again by deed poll. From henceforth, Harold Bentley Bentley-Smith would be simply known as Harold Bentley Bentley.  Why he chose to do this is unclear.  Many people who changed their name during WWI did so to hide their Germanic roots, anglicising their name to avoid persecution. Given the life-changing events taking place at home, at war and in his personal life, it might be evidence that his behaviour marked a decline into some form of nervous breakdown.

Further evidence of the vicar’s state of health occurred in a short article entitled “Vicar To The Front” published in the Liverpool Echo in April 1918.  It stated that the Rev. H.B Bentley (as he was now known) had written to the Bishop tendering his resignation due to ill health and prolonged absence.  The article further stated that “He has volunteered to go to the front, and it is stated that he is to work in the Church Army Huts”.

George Houldin wrote in his history of St. Faith’s; “early in 1918 Mr. Bentley-Smith's health (never too good) broke down and for nine months the whole burden of shepherding the parish fell upon the Rev. T. R. Musgrave, the curate. Great as was the work of this truly faithful priest, the congregation appeared to lose heart and became dispirited. Added to this, came Mr. Bentley-Smith's resignation, and for the next five or six months the parish was without a Vicar”.

Thankfully, the Rev. Harold Bentley Bentley eventually recovered although it would be 1923 before he became Vicar of All Souls, Hastings, later securing other positions as a minister around the country. The Reverend Harold Bentley Bentley-Smith died in Gloucester on the 27th October 1964, his name recorded at death as being Harold Bentley Bentley.

John Woodley
November 22nd, 2014

The Story of St Faith's