Heritage: Drink helped Romford vicar deal with a changing world

Richard Atkins was vicar of St Edward the Confessor Church in Romford. Picture: Wiki Commons/Fay1982

Richard Atkins was vicar of St Edward the Confessor Church in Romford. Picture: Wiki Commons/Fay1982 - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin looks at the ups and downs of a 16th century clergyman

I confess to some sympathy for Richard Atkins (who's also called Atkis or Atkyns). From 1561 to 1588, he was vicar of St Edward's church in Romford. The world changed around him, and he couldn't keep up.

At his death in 1608, he was said to be 80. If he was born around 1528, he'd have been in his twenties when England see-sawed between Catholic and Protestant.

Although appointed by New College Oxford, he can't be traced as a student there.

Atkins accepted the shift to Protestantism under Elizabeth I, but hankered after the old ceremonies.

But Romford people backed the new ideas. His traditional homilies caused controversy.

In 1572, the vicar's line manager, the Archdeacon of Essex, banned Atkins from preaching altogether. This made matters worse with local Puritans, who loved sermons.

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In 1584, Harold Hill landowner Thomas Leggett demanded that 'idolatrous priests' like Atkins should be 'weeded forth of the church'.

Romford wasn't an easy job. The enormous parish contained around 1400 people, but the population of Romford town was perhaps half that. Deaths always exceeded births in the unhealthy town, but the place was growing, drawing in migrants from nearby villages.

Thus Atkins was constantly dealing with new residents and burying old ones. The plague often spread from London: 1561 and 1571-2 were bad years.

Disillusioned with his calling, Atkins even became cynical about this deadly disease.

In the parish register, local man William Browne made a note that he'd wagered the vicar twelve pence (now 5p) that the plague was raging in London on the previous St James's Day, which fell on July 25.

Clergymen didn't usually bet on the plague!

Relations with Romford people got worse. In 1583, they complained that he was grazing pigs on consecrated ground: the churchyard was 'rooted up with hogs'. They demanded that since 'he hath the profit of it', Atkins should repair the fence.

A Romford couple prosecuted in 1583 for not attending St Edward's at Easter blamed 'discord' with Atkins, but added that their home 'was infected with the sickness' and they weren't allowed out anyway.

Atkins was obviously drinking heavily. In 1584, he denied being out of action twice within a month, but two years later he was found guilty of being too drunk to read evening prayers: he'd even tried to read the same lesson twice.

Richard Atkins was now firmly on the Puritan hit list. In 1585, they criticized him for simply reading services from the prayer book and not preaching - unfair, given that he was banned from the pulpit. He was slammed as a 'drunkard'.

Around 1588, New College stepped in. They were also responsible for providing a clergyman for Havering-atte-Bower's chapel (now St John's church), but the villagers rarely had a full-time minister.

The solution was to move Atkins sideways to Havering, handing Romford over preaching Puritans.

There were still problems. In 1591, Richard's son Geoffrey - who wasn't a clergyman - read the Sunday service, claiming his father was away. Was it a hangover?

But the move proved a success. Havering-atte-Bower was an old-fashioned place. Villagers enjoyed ceremonies and rituals, and didn't care that their curate couldn't preach boring sermons.

As part of Romford parish, Havering residents paid church rates to St Edward's, and were buried there. But now they were supporting their own chapel, and maybe even clubbing together to pay Atkins a salary. They began a century-long campaign for independence.

When Richard Atkins died in 1608, he was laid to rest at St Andrew's in Hornchurch. I'd guess it was his dying wish: don't bury me with those horrible Romford people!

Nowadays, idealistic people who want to help others become nurses and doctors, teachers or lecturers, but too often find themselves worn down by ticking useless boxes and chasing silly targets.

Richard Atkins signed up for a vocation but found that the rules had changed. Across the centuries, I salute him.