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Reverend William Rice: Vicar charged for causing Bodley harm
St Thomas Church, Simpson, taken around 1920

At the age of around 73 the rector of Simpson, the Reverend William Rice, died after a short illness in February 1919.

But during his life many of his parishioners lost their reverence for him; and in fact he provoked many an unholy row.

Educated at St David's College, Lampeter, he had taken his BA degree in 1875, and being ordained a deacon in the same year, proceeded to priest's orders in the diocese of Worcester in 1876.

After positions as curate of St Paul's, Birmingham, 1875 to 77, Ashover, near Matlock, 1877 to 1879, Melbourne 1879 to 1888, Derbyshire, and Hodnet 1889 to 1890, he then became rector of Simpson in 1891, by the patronage of Sir William B Hanmer.

However, when he came to the village his predecessor had been ill for four years, and during that time the parish had suffered accordingly.

Adding to the burdens of the new rector, he was unable to let the glebe, of some 225 acres, and because he had to therefore farm it himself, it was perhaps because of these combined pressures that, almost from the beginning of his appointment, he seems to have habitually antagonised certain of the parishioners.

In fact in 1896 he was fined £3 for assaulting a boy named Bodley. Yet having raised the funds, it would be under his auspices and direction that the parish church was restored in 1904, and it was also due to his efforts that a new bell was added to the belfry. In fact, he even offered to finance the building of a mission hall, for those of his parishioners who lived in Fenny Stratford.

It might have been thought that his marriage, on April 9, 1912 to Lady Sydney Grant, daughter of the 10th Earl of Seafield, would have tempered his entanglements, both with the authorities and parishioners, but sadly this was not to be.

He was fined for driving without a light, and for allowing heifers to stray on the road and was also in trouble in 1915, when a drunk parishioner hit him on the head with a stick.

The next day the man's wife then also hit him with a stick, but when she charged him with assault, he promptly issued a counter summons. In the event the couple called a witness, and the Reverend was fined £2.

As for other appearances before the magistrates, these included a summons for having a collie dog on the loose, which Special Constable Badger had managed to trace, by its barking, to a barn.

Yet despite these blights on his character, at the school board elections on two occasions the Reverend Rice had been returned as head of the poll and, having "the look of an open air man, with a sunburned clean shaven face and plentiful grey hair," many parishioners held a certain affection for him.

Others, however, held a different view, and alleged that for some years the church not been conducted satisfactorily and relayed their concerns to the Bishop of Oxford, who, as a consequence in early 1917 appointed the Bishop of Buckingham to preside over a commission into the supposed inadequacies.

The claims included that Sunday morning congregations had dwindled to an average of 17, including the choir, that early Communion was held at irregular intervals, and that no candidate for confirmation had been presented for many years.

Also, that there were no systematic visits to the sick, although there had been no case of actual refusal.

Occasionally, Reverend Rice had apparently been seen to walk through the village with his sheep on Sunday evenings, en route to the station to London, while regarding the church services it was said that the prayers were so gabbled as to be difficult for the congregation to join in.

The conclusion of the commission was that the rector no longer had any influence over his flock, because as a keen agriculturalist - having some 500 sheep and 33 beasts - he had neglected his church duties.

Therefore on receiving the reports the Bishop of Oxford, under the Clerical Discipline Act Parliament, inhibited the Reverend Rice from performing his clerical duties at St. Thomas's Church.

At this, the Reverend Rice appealed to the High Court of Justice, and - as the first to be held under the Benefices Act of 1898 - the case would be subsequently heard in the King's Bench.

During the trial, a solicitor said when he attended Simpson church in August 1914 not only was the congregation less than 10, but also the service began 10 minutes late, with the rector seeming to have just come in from a field.

In fact he looked as if he had not washed for a week, and it was alleged that he had been incoherent during the service.

However, another view was put that the rector had been known to leave his meal to pay a visit to those who were sick, and statements were additionally made that he had always conducted the service in a reverential and impressive manner.

Not that this seemed a unanimous view, for an old naval pensioner, who being a regular churchgoer, had lived in the village since 1905, had kept a diary of the rector's sayings and doings, and these included an entry that "the whole address, lasting 10 or 15 minutes, was most outrageous, especially from a Church of England pulpit on the Lord's Day."

"Many people left the church during the rector's abuse."

In fact because of this he had written to the Bishop.

As for the sermons, when asked "is he as good as other clergymen?", one parishioner replied "I have heard worse."

During the course of his questioning, the Reverend Rice denied having said to the mother of the churchwarden's wife "hold your tongue, woman, or I'll have you up for brawling," although as evidence of his alleged temper one man recalled that having asked him not to trespass on his land, the rector flew into "an absolutely disgusting exhibition of temper, so that he was quite incoherent and literally foamed at the mouth."

Another woman cited an instance where he had threatened her with a clothes prop, while another alleged he shook a stick at her, and called her a liar.

More alarmingly, a one-armed man alleged when he had 'touched' the rector with his stick, the Reverend knocked him down and stamped on him.

As for one tenant who, following the death of her brother, who had been killed in action, owed him rent, she was three times called a hussy, and she had even heard him use bad language to his sheep!

Therefore at the conclusion of the proceedings even the defence had to acknowledge that he had an "over virile temperament," and it was perhaps inevitable that the appeal failed.

Nevertheless, although he was debarred from exercising any clerical functions in his parish, the Reverend Rice still remained the rector, and now having more time for agricultural matters, he continued to farm the glebe land, plus the other land he had acquired from time to time.