THE STORY OF CHARLES BILLINGS
In 1764 there came to Moseley Old Hall as chaplain to Mr. Francis Whitgreave a young priest of whom much was expected, Charles Billings S.J.. Born December 16th 1735, he was the nephew of two priests, Fathers Richard and George Billings. He entered the Society of Jesus on September 7th 1753 and was prefect at St. Omer in 1761.
Francis Whitgreave, then aged 48, had lost two wives. The first, Penelope Gelley, leaving him with a son Thomas Henry Francis born in 1755; the second, Ann Hassall, with two sons - Francis born in 1760 and John born in 1761. He no doubt welcomed the arrival of the new priest and looked forward to his friendship and company in the house. The young priest was a competent violinist and we first hear of him complaining to his host that the low ceilings of the old Tudor house did not do justice to the tones of his Cremona. Mr. Whitgreave responded that he did not think that this was sufficient reason for demolishing the house.
The arrival in the district of this accomplished young man, educated on the Continent, must have created a minor stir in local society, and he was soon being welcomed into the homes of the local gentry both Catholic and Protestant. One such house was that of Robert Phillips at Little Saredon, possibly the house now known as Saredon Manor. Robert Phillips had two daughters, Elizabeth in her early thirties and Mary aged about 23, and by the beginning of 1767 the unthinkable had happened and Charles Billings and Mary were in love.
Charles chose marriage, left the Catholic Church, and was married to Mary Phillips at Trysull on January 7th 1768. He preached a service of recantation at Lichfield Cathedral and was appointed curate at Wombourne. Following the birth of a daughter - also Mary - his wife died in January 1769 and is buried with her parents, brother and sister in Shareshill churchyard. The grave is marked by a stone vault on the left of the path just past the church tower, although the inscription bears no mention of her marriage. On June 3rd 1769 their daughter was also buried at Shareshill.
Charles married again that September at Wombourne to Sarah Collier of Woodford Grange and four sons were born between 1772 and 1778. He led a wretched existence eking out his living teaching French and performing the marriage ceremony as far away as Darlaston for a few shillings. We hear of him looking through the railings at the Catholic boys' school at Sedgley Park, where the pupils taunted him "Old Parson Billings, sold his religion for five shillings". Dr. Milner the Catholic bishop wrote of him, "sunk into despair, starting continually and exclaiming 'I am a lost man, I dream of nothing but hell-fire'". In extreme poverty, he died in April 1805. A collection was made to cover the cost of his burial at St. Peter's Wolverhampton.