Archdeacon Matthias

John Alexander Mathias was someone I knew nothing about until his name appeared on the marriage certificate of his son Edward Herbert Mathias. Edward was my great x2 grandfather on my maternal family line. John Mathias was born in 1810 in Dublin, Ireland, the son of Benjamin Williams Mathias and Anna Stewart.

Benjamin was a Church of England curate, who became the chaplain of Bethesda Chapel in Dublin the year John was born. You can read his story in the side bar opposite.

John was educated in Dublin, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree, and followed his father into Ireland’s Anglican Church by becoming a curate at a church in the Enniskillen area. More information on this has yet to be discovered.

On December 30th, 1852, Queen Victoria appointed him as the Chaplain of Ceylon.

This information was printed in the ‘Bulletins & Other State Intelligence’ for the year 1852, as compiled from official documents published in the London Gazette. Rev. John and his wife Alicia moved to Colombo, Ceylon, where he prepared to take on the duties assigned to him. Whether the couple had children at this point is as yet unknown, however, my great x2 grandfather, Edward Herbert, and his brother, James, were both born in Colombo.

Rev. Mathias fulfilled his duties as chaplain at St Peter’s Church to the best of his ability and was eventually appointed Archdeacon of Colombo. Whilst in Ceylon he served in a two year deputy position, known as a ‘locum tenens’ for the Bishop of Colombo, Bishop Chapman.

Apparently, Alica Mathias died sometime between 1858 and 1861, although I’m still trying to find evidence of this.

Archdeacon Mathias was later nominated to fill the position of bishop, but due to his declining health he decided to retire and return to England. The Government of Colombo made a request to the home government to grant John a double pension, as they were so pleased with the work he had done, but of course they declined and he was granted the standard pension.

So in 1861, Archdeacon Mathias and his children returned to England, settling first in Greenwich, London. Once his health improved he took on several positions as locum tenens throughout England; records indicate that these were under the Bishop of Gloucester and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The 1871 census shows John and his second wife, Sophia, residing in Fairfield, Derbyshire, with his occupation described as ‘late Archdeacon of Columbo’. Their son, James, is listed in another part of England as an undergraduate; he went on to become a clergyman like his father. However, my great x2 grandfather, Edward Herbert, is listed as being a pupil at a school for the ‘poor clergy’ in Hackney, London.

Now the most captivating part of John’s life was the events that transpired between August 1874 and January 1875, later to be referred to as ‘The Clerical Dispute at Newcastle’. Well, to be truthful, the events from August to December 1874 were just a prelude to what happened in January 1875.

In the August of 1874, Archdeacon Mathias received a letter from Rector Henry Veale of St Giles Church in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. Rev. Veale was interested to know if the Archdeacon would consider acting as a locum tenens for him whilst he took a year’s leave of absence from his duties. So on September 1st, the Archdeacon attended St Giles, and on September 2nd, a service was conducted before the church congregation. Rev. Veale was impressed with his replacement and arrangements were made for Rev. Mathias to take over the operations of the church on September 15th, 1874.

By this date, Rev. Veale had already left to reside in Leamington and the Archdeacon took on his new duties with his contract in place. The terms of the locum tenens was for a twelve month period, with the fee of £120 to be paid at monthly intervals by Rev. Veale, with living quarters of two sitting rooms and two bedrooms, and a staff of a cook (to be paid for by the congregation) and a servant (who was to be paid £16 by Rev. Veale). Plates and linen were also to be included. However, two rooms were to be kept for the use of Rev. Veale should he need to return to Newcastle-under-Lyme on parish business.

It should be mentioned here that Rev. Veale indicated that he would apply to the Bishop of Lichfield for a license. Mathias was surprised that a license was needed as he was an archdeacon and had been told on his previous locum tenens that no license was needed due to his position.

For the next several months all the duties required of the church leader were fulfilled most adequately. Members of the congregation were pleased with their replacement, especially in light of the fact that the new church extension was under construction and a replacement building for the weekly services was being used.

In late November Rev. Mathias received a letter from Rev. Veale indicating that the Bishop of Lichfield, George Augustus Selwyn, had declined his request to license Mathias, stating that it was felt that his health was not sufficient to run the church on his own. The letter further indicated that Rev. Veale would be returning to the church in January and that it was expected that the contract would be voided.

The Archdeacon responded by saying that things were running smoothly, that he was fulfilling his contract and that he did not wish to void the agreement. He further indicated that he would seek legal action, should he be forced to do so.

It was at this point that the congregation held a meeting to see if there was any way that arrangements could be made for Mathias to remain until the end of the agreed term. The Bishop was summoned and his opinion was that so long as Mathias abandoned his desire to take legal action, he would agree to extend the term until March 31st. This decision was made on January 13th, 1875.

However, on Friday January 15th, Rev. H. Veale arrived at the rectory with seven men, who made themselves at home in his quarters. After returning to the rectory, Mathias attended Rev. Veale, after which he and his wife retired to their beds.

On the Saturday morning when the couple arose, they found all the doors to their rooms locked and their personal belongings removed. Whilst they stood in the hallway in their dressing gowns, one of the men proceeded to lock their bedroom door refusing them access.

Whilst this chain of events was taking place, Rev. Veale had apparently removed himself from the proceedings by staying in bed claiming to be ill.

Eventually Mrs Mathias was allowed to leave and quickly sought legal advice. Meanwhile, the Archdeacon was held prisoner, without food or water. At some point he was able to make his way to a window where he obtained the attention of a passer-by. He yelled down that he was being held captive and the police were duly summoned. There was then an altercation with one of the men, Joseph Hand, who grabbed the Archdeacon by the arm and threw him down. Hand then proceeded to lock the window and close the drapes.

Upon hearing of these events, it was reported that Bishop Lichfield removed himself from involvement stating that Rev. Veale should accept all responsibility for this change of events.

The police arrived and escorted Rev. Mathias to safety, and all the men involved, including Rev. Veale, were charged with assaulting the Archdeacon.

The court proceedings went on for several days with the absence of Rev. Veale noted due to his apparent illness. The congregation were horrified and rallied in support of the Archdeacon and his wife, to the point that they refused to attend services at the temporary church, with some even giving up their permanent seats.

The newspaper reports at the time state that Archdeacon Mathias was a tall, slender man with white hair, a beard and a venerable appearance. His wit was noted from his answers during questioning by the legal council. In the end, this intriguing ancestor dropped all charges and this is where my search has ended. No further leads to his whereabouts after these events can be found as yet.

At least some good came out of this squabble; it was reported on February 15th, 1875 that due to the decline in parishioners at St. Giles, the Rector Veale had announced that as of March 25th all pews would be free and that he would entrust to the offertory to pay for the incidental expenses of the church. Later that month the Staffordshire Daily Sentinel reported that a draft bill was presented to be adopted by the Council of the National Association for the Freedom of Worship, in support of the Freedom of Worship.

The reports of this incident can be found in the archive of the Staffordshire Daily Sentinel from January 15th to 20th, 1875. Many thanks to a couple of members of Family Tree Forum who guided me in a direction I would never have otherwise gone. You sent me on a journey of utter titillation uncovering all the details of this strange chain of events.


© ziperrump 2008


Bulletins & Other State Intelligence for the year 1852. I found this on Google Book Search.

‘The History of the Diocese of Colombo’ written by Beven, F. Lorenz in 1946. A friend’s father had a copy, however the book can be purchased on the rare books website AbeBooks.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available to view free at various libraries