D is for Frederick William Densham

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!
Frederick William Densham

Frederick William Densham

Frederick William Densham was an eccentric vicar who for decades preached to an empty church, apart from a congregation of cardboard cut-outs, and was the inspiration for a character in a literary classic. Although one of these facts is a myth.

In 1931 the Reverend Densham was appointed vicar of St Bartholomew, the parish church of Warleggan, the remotest hamlet in Cornwall on the edge of Bodmin Moor.

His congregation was never more than twenty and often less than fifteen and his problems with them began almost immediately.

Densham had been born the son of a Methodist minister in 1870 and despite being ordained in the Church of England, his ‘low church’ Methodism never left him and this didn’t go down well with the ‘high church’ folk of Warleggan.

Densham began by painting the interior walls of the Norman church in bright primary colours and then banned whist drives and concerts which he declared were ‘amusements from hell’.

Densham's lonely walk to church

Densham’s lonely walk to church

He closed the Sunday school, preached vegetarianism to his flock of livestock farmers, surrounded the rectory with barbed wire and fitted increasingly elaborate locks to the church doors.

But the biggest bone of contention was the ancient church organ and its music which Densham decreed was a ‘gabbled profanity’. He drove away the organist and locked his replacement in the church overnight so that he didn’t dare return.

Then the vicar proposed to get rid of it altogether and this infuriated his parishioners, including churchwarden Nick Bunt who threatened Densham saying: ‘If you touch that organ, vicar, I’ll knock ‘ee down.’

After two years of this mayhem the parishioners applied to the Bishop of Truro to have Densham removed, but the bishop stubbornly refused to be dictated to and backed the eccentric vicar. And at that point the congregation dwindled to precisely zero.

Densham continued his preaching despite having a church full of empty pews and dutifully filled in the church register, one entry which poignantly read: ‘No fog, no wind, no rain, no congregation.’

He was to stand in the pulpit for another twenty years and a story has grown that Densham replaced his congregation with cardboard cut-outs. It is certainly true that he wrote the names of previous vicars and placed them on the pews and it is likely that this was the basis for the myth.

Charlston New & Courier - 29th Dec 1952

Charlston New & Courier – 29th Dec 1952

Densham became a recluse and barricaded himself in the rectory where he was found dead in 1953, lying at the bottom of the stairs, having become something of an international celebrity. But his memory lives on as the basis for the mad vicar in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn published in 1936.

Whether he was truly mad or simply eccentric is a moot point. Densham was a well-educated man and a graduate of London University and the Divinity School at Oxford. He had also travelled widely, including to South Africa where he was influenced by the ideas of Gandhi.

One theory is that he suffered some sort of breakdown and that his appointment to Warleggan was to help him recuperate. It failed miserably in that regard and it is sad to say that the theme for his final Christmas Day sermon to his absent flock was ‘God is Love’.

Warleggan Twinned with NarniaIt is perhaps appropriate that the sign that welcomes you to Warleggan claims that the village is twinned with Narnia, presumably a reference to Densham’s time as its vicar, although I haven’t been able to verify that claim.

Another note of interest is that this strange tale and its link to Daphne du Maurier is told in the film, A Congregation of Ghosts, with Edward Woodward playing Densham in his last role before his death in 2009, although the film has yet to be released.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

8 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 7th August 2013

    I had heard there were some anti-organ folk, but I never much agreed with them!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • PhenoMenon, ABCW Team 7th August 2013

    well it happens. People can be Damn weird


  • Oakland Daily Photo 7th August 2013

    Fascinating and sad story. I think he was a shade past eccentric.

  • Eccentric Pudding 7th August 2013

    This post has knocked me back on my heels. Do you believe in reincarnation? I was born in the same year that Densham died. Spooky or what?

  • Leslie 7th August 2013

    Weird! I think he passed eccentric on his way to “mad as a hatter.”

    abcw team

  • Reader Wil 7th August 2013

    This vicar inspires a lot of authors. The surroundings of Bodmin Moore are the ideal background for a novel like Jamaica Inn provided there is a dense fog hanging over the Inn. I was there when the sun was shining, and that was not the right atmosphere for the shipwreckers who were lead by the mad vicar of Altarnun. I love Cornwall and wished I could go there again.

  • Trevor Rowley 7th August 2013

    But we still don’t know what happened to the churchwarden’s organ. You may not be particularly bothered missus but I’m sure it meant a lot to the churchwarden at the time.

  • Suzanne 8th August 2013

    What a curiosity that made me smile. As a pastor myself I can understand many parts of Densham’s story.


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