A Vicar’s Wife and Her Children

Fanny Dixon was born on 29 April 1834 in Pentonville and married Lawford Wlliam Torriano Dale on  1 June 1854. He was the senior curate of St Pancras church in London, but three years after their marriage was appointed Vicar of Chiswick, a living he held until his death in 1898.

St Nicholas’s Church, Chiswick

 

The children started arriving in 1855 and appeared at roughly eighteen-monthly for the next twenty-five years. Only the youngest, born in 1881, did not survive. Fanny was by then nearly fifty and had fourteen other children, all of whom were baptised by their father

The maintenance of such a large household must have been more than a full-time job,  and in 1871,             Fanny’s mother and niece were also living with the family as well as paid help – a nurse, a governess,           a cook and four housemaids. Fortunately, the vicarage was enormous.

Chiswick vicarage, home to the fourteen Dale children

The role of vicar’s wife was a demanding one, too, with an expectation that the woman would be involved in as many good works in the parish as possible. Fanny found time to organise the establishment of a Public Kitchen to feed the Chiswick poor.

Then, in 1887, it was announced that because of ill-health, she was leaving Chiswick and moving to Hythe, taking her youngest, Clement, with her. The extent of her subsequent activities in Hythe does not suggest any great degree of illness. It is possible that there were other reasons for her departure from the vicarage and that her ill-health was a polite fiction.

In Hythe, she joined the Ratepayers’ Association, a non-party political organisation which sought value for money from the town council. It accepted all rate payers as members, including women. Fanny was a member by 1892, when she fell into disfavour with them after writing a letter to the Guardian newspaper in which she allegedly ‘dragged the town through the mire’. In fact, she had not: her accusers had not read the letter, but were acting on hearsay. They backed down when presented with the truth, but Fanny’s relationship with them suffered.

She turned instead to social welfare, becoming a member of the Ladies’ Visiting Committee to the Elham Union Workhouse. She visited during 1893 and 1894. She considered the Matron greatly overworked ‘and has need of a capable needlewoman’. She made a thorough inspection of everywhere permitted, including the cook’s house, the laundry and the female tramps’ ward. She had long talks with an inmate who was very unhappy and troublesome to the staff and considered the woman was really mentally unbalanced. Visiting the infirmary, she said she thought the straw pillows were too hard ; but when she provided a feather pillow, the Matron would not issue it without permission from the Board of Guardians.

Frustrated she decided that she ought, in fact to be a Guardian, one of the managers of the workhouse, and when a vacancy arose in 1893, she put her name forward. Another contender was Albert Day, a slum landlord in Hythe and owner of the notoriously dilapidated row of dwellings (it would be glorifying them to call them houses) known locally as Buggy Row. Fanny put it on record that she thought that Day should not be allowed to be a Guardian. She said that in one of his properties a child had recently died because of the conditions in which he lived and that Day, who was also an undertaker had  profited even from this, charging £5 for a coffin.

The local paper, the Folkestone and Hythe Herald was outraged. It said that her comments were in ‘extreme bad taste’ and that the people of Hythe should be grateful to men like Day who were  ‘induced to fulfil the role of Guardian at considerable inconvenience to themselves’. It called her one of the ‘screeching sisterhood’ (their soubriquet for any woman who had an opinion about public affairs) and that ‘this ladybird will not rest and fold her wings until she has alighted on that topmost bough of the tree on which she has fixed her ambitious gaze’.  Fanny did not become a Guardian; Albert Day did.

Fanny died in 1897 of a burst blood vessel on the brain and was buried in Chiswick.  She was joined in the grave by her husband a year later.

Their children had all grown. Of the seven daughters, two married, two became nuns and the other three,  Lilian, Grace and Cicely all moved to Hythe to live with their eldest brother, Herbert Dixon Dale (known to the family as ‘Dicky’), now the Vicar of Hythe.

Herbert, born in on 22 October 1855, had not in his earlier life aspired to the priesthood and started training as a solicitor. In the early 1880s, however, he recognised his vocation and was ordained as a priest in 1884. Two years later, he became curate at the church of St Mary and St Eanswythe in Folkestone.

The church of St Mary & St Eanswythe, Folkestone

On 25 October 1899, he became vicar of St Leonard’s in Hythe and his maiden sisters joined him in the vicarage there.  They had inherited nearly all their father’s estate, amounting to about £7000.

Herbert remained unmarried and the sisters carried out the good works normally expected of the vicar’s wife, but unburdened by the additional demands of motherhood, they gave it their all.

Grace, born in 1860,  followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a Lady Visitor to the workhouse. She also succeeded where Fanny had failed, and became a Guardian (without any attendant adverse publicity). She was superintendent of the church mother’s meeting; supervised the cooking in the soup kitchen and distribution of food to the poor; was a Sunday School teacher; founded a Lad’s Social Club in Hythe and offered free private tuition to poor boys; she was a member the ladies’ choir and kept the church accounts.

In 1906, Grace developed appendicitis She did not survive the consequent surgery and died aged forty-six.  On the afternoon of her funeral town shops shut and despite a bitter wind and driving rain many hundreds of mourners were at the church and afterwards at the graveside.

Grace Helena Dale

Her memorial in St Leonard’s church, Hythe

Lilian and Cicely were less active in the parish, though Lilian acted as assistant church organist. Both of them came into their own on the outbreak of war in 1914. Cicely became Commandant of Hythe Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and Commandant Registrar of the Bevan Hospital in nearby Sandgate. She worked fifty-six hours (not including overtime) every single week from 8 October 1914 to 31 March 1919, by which time she was sixty-nine. She was awarded the MBE in 1921. Lilian worked at the Bevan, too, in the mending and patching room for twelve hours a week. She could not do more, according to her records, as she was ‘not strong’.

Doctors and nurses (and dog) at the Bevan Hospital

After the war, their lives had changed for good. Their brother Herbert had surprised his parishioners, and possibly himself, by getting married in 1916 at the age of sixty. His bride was Edith Olive Chessyre Molyneux  of Warwickshire. It was a quiet wartime wedding and as befitted their ages (Edith was thirty-nine) there was no white dress, no wedding flowers and no reception. They were married by Herbert’s cousin, another Rev’d Dale.

Shortly after their wedding, they had a close encounter with death. On 25 May 1917, Gotha bombers, returning from a failed raid on London, dropped bombs in Hythe and Folkestone. Herbert was chatting with his verger, Daniel Lyth, in the churchyard when flying shrapnel struck them both. Daniel died soon afterwards of his injuries, but a tobacco tin in Herbert’s pocket deflected the metal which struck him.  Edith, visiting Folkestone, was also slightly injured.  They were lucky: over seventy people died that day and many more were injured.

Lilian and Cicely tactfully removed themselves from the vicarage when Edith moved in and went to live in Marine Parade, where they wrote, directed and sometimes performed in amateur dramatic productions, including operettas. Lilian died in 1937 and Cicely in 1946. They are buried with Grace in St Leonard’s churchyard.

The grave marker for Grace, Lilian and Cicely Dale in St Leonard’s churchyard, Hythe

Two others of their brothers, Clement and Edgar, had also become Anglican priests. Two more joined their siblings in Hythe, though not at the vicarage. Gerald, who had made his fortune in Argentina, set up home in Hill House in Hillside Street. During the war he too worked at the at Bevan Hospital and acted as a Special Constable. He and his family returned to Argentina in 1928. At about the same time, another brother, Leonard, was returning from that country, after many years as a rancher, to settle in Cornwall. The other Hythe resident was brother Harold, an accountant, who lived in the town with his family until the 1930s.

Herbert Dixon Dale retired from his living in 1926 and went with Edith to live in nearby Saltwood. There he devoted himself to history. In 1931 he published The Ancient Town of Hythe and St Leonard’s Church Kent which was reprinted several times and then became interested in wider subjects and gave talks on such subjects as ‘The Influence of the English Monasteries on Art and Commerce’.

Herbert died on 8 January 1945. Edith recorded in her diary that day: ‘ My darling Dicky passed away at 6.20am’.(1) He is buried in Markbeech church, near Edenbridge, where he died. Edith died in 1965 and is buried in Saltwood churchyard.

Herbert’s grave                         Photo: Charles Sale

 

  1. Kent Archives H/U21/Z10

 

 

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