Jill Loach

Alongside the Black Country Route as it leaves Bilston for Wolverhampton is a short length of a once busy street.  On the other side of town, in Bilston Cemetery, two graves are now neatly grassed over, their inscriptions moss-covered and barely visible.  The holes in the kerbs suggest that the graves once had more imposing railings, possibly removed as part of the War Effort, and would be the last resting place of a family of some prominence.  What is the link between these two places? 

The moss-covered inscription on the right hand grave reveals it to be that of the Rev. William Prosser M.A. curate in charge of  St. Luke’s, Bilston (1877-1880) and vicar of the same parish, (1880-1911), after whom Prosser Street was named. To the left, the adjacent grave bears an inscription to his sister, Eleanor Bond Prosser, who once, as we shall later see,  played a key role in her brother’s parish.
Burial records reveal that William Prosser’s grave is also that of his mother, Sophia and that his father, also the Rev. William Prosser, is buried with Eleanor in the adjoining grave although the parents’ inscriptions are sadly no longer visible. 

This acquisition of two bricked graves demonstrates that the Prosser family regarded Bilston as home and yet their origins were far from the town which, shortly before their arrival, was described as “beneath a curtain of black smoke which forms the normal canopy of Bilston".  

The Rev. William Prosser M.A., who was described by Sir Alfred Hickman M.P, as a “zealous and ever-anxious vicar”[1], served the town of Bilston as curate and vicar of St. Luke’s from 1874-1911. In the early years of the twentieth century, the town clearly felt a debt of gratitude to him for his dedication and care in a notoriously poor parish, naming a street in the town centre after him and dedicating a stained glass window to him in St. Luke’s Church.  His grave in Bilston Cemetery would have been quite an imposing one.  The kerbs, now barely visible, show marks of railings.  The church was demolished in the 1970s, the railings removed from the grave, possibly at the start of the Second World War and Prosser Street itself fell victim to redevelopment.  His story might have been lost had it not been for a hoarded collection of letters and photographs from a former housemaid, a hazy family memory and the power of the search engine to make unexpected links, something he could never have envisaged.

The Rev. William Prosser, M.A.

William Henry Prosser was, it seems, a man of intelligence, even charisma.  Born in St. Mary’s, Monmouth in 1832, the son of  William Prosser, a surgeon who later took holy orders and his wife, Sophia, his early childhood was marked by a number of moves as his father took a succession of curacies, eventually becoming  vicar of Ashby Folville in Leicestershire.

 William’s academic record appears impressive.   Entering King William’s College, Isle of Man in 1845, he became Head of School from 1850-51.  

The College, which now enjoys an excellent reputation, was almost certainly a very different place in the mid-nineteenth century.

Some three years earlier the position of Head of School had been held by F.W. Farrar who was later to write “Eric, Little by Little”.

His former school became the inspiration for Roslyn College on the Isle of Roslyn, and although Farrar publicly denied that the picture of bullying and poor teaching was in any way based on King William’s College, [2]  he privately expressed the feeling that "the picture, as far as it is one, is highly flattered" and   "the things that did go on there are really far worse than I have described".  Another contemporary, James M. Wilson recalled that the boarders in the Principal’s House "suffered also from dirt and slovenliness, from insufficient food, from horrible bullying and indecencies indescribable. We took it all as a matter of course and never complained at home".[3]

It was perhaps inevitable that William Prosser would, like his father, enter Oxford University, where he was reported to have “displayed talents of a high order.  He took his degree of M.A. with credit, and was known to entertain very “High Church” opinions.”[4] His entry in the Oxford Alumni maps his academic career as "matriculation at Jesus College, Oxford on March 13th 1851, S.C.L. Magdalene College 1855, B.A. 1856 and M.A 1857".  Assuming that "SCL" indicates summa cum laude it seems that his university degree was achieved with the highest honour.

On leaving Oxford, William again followed in his father’s footsteps by entering the Church, briefly as curate in Gadesby, Leicestershire.  His ordination by the Archbishop of York took place on St. Thomas’ Day 1855 after which he was licensed to the curacy of Hessle Yorkshire[5], the home of his first wife, Emily Ullathorne. 

In 1858 he was appointed to the curacy of St. Nicholas, Durham, where "his style of preaching, which was extempore, combined with his youth, soon led many to believe that a second Spurgeon had come amongst us: and, as a consequence, the church was crowded to excess whenever it was known he would officiate". [6]

Furthermore, he was described as an "idol of a portion of the female congregation".[7] In 1859, the young ladies connected with the Bible class presented him with a writing desk and inkstand as a rather generous Christmas present.

Despite this adulation, he chose to marry Emily Ullathorne, the daughter of Frances Ullathorne a Linen Draper and his wife, Sarah Hey White.  Frances Ullathorne  appears to have been prosperous and respected in the area but his death in 1850, when Emily was 10, must have necessitated an upheaval in the lives of his widow and children.  An advertisement for the auction of their house with its outhouses, yards, gardens, orchards, stables and 12 acres of land includes the enticement of the free use of a pew in the Parish Church of Hessle.[8]

The marriage of William and Emily took place in York in December 1858, the year he had begun his curacy at St. Nicholas, Durham.  It was here, in 1860, that an early disruption to his career resulted in a two-year gap and eventual rehabilitation.[9] 

After five years at Leven in Fife, he came to the Midlands, to the village of Wrockwardine in Shropshire.  Although on the fringes of the East Shropshire coalfield, Wrockwardine could be considered rural, certainly in comparison with the Black Country parishes where he was later to spend 37 years.  It says much for the relationship he established as curate that he retained links with Wrockwardine throughout his subsequent long career.  His general servant in the early years of the C20, Patience Goodger passed on to her daughter Ethel Gutteridge memories of an annual exchange between Wrockwardine and St. Luke’s, and the vicar of Wrockwardine, the Rev. A.P. Salusbury attended his Institution as Vicar of St. Luke’s in 1880.

After six years as curate of Wrockwardine, he was appointed curate to St. James’ Church Wolverhampton in 1874.    An additional role was as Chaplain to the nearby General Hospital. The hospital minutes[10] of the time record his attendance at a number of meetings, including one which took place the week before his wife’s death.  Among his achievements as Chaplain, recorded in the minutes, was the raising of funds for alterations and additions to the Hospital Chapel, which appeared to have fallen into disuse.

The chapel at the Royal Hospital in the 1990s, largely a legacy of William Prosser.

"Upon the representation of the Chaplain, it was resolved that the room originally used for Divine Service should again be used for the purpose and the Chaplain be authorised to provide the necessary fittings out of funds at their disposal."  (Minutes: November 23rd 1875)

The work was quickly completed.  The Minutes of February 8th 1876 record:

 "It was resolved that this board having received the amount from the Revd W. Prosser of the alterations and additions in the furniture of the Chapel and of the expense thereby incurred, begs to congratulate Mr Prosser on the successful issue of his work and to express with him their thanks to the various subscribers".

St. James' Church, Wolverhampton, and its schools, from a print, undated but of about the time William Prosser was there.

It was during his time in Wolverhampton that his first wife Emily died, at Elm Cottage, Merridale Street, on March 21st 1876 at the tragically young age of 36.  The couple appear to have been childless.  The cause of her death was given as bronchitis and emphysema and it is possible that the move from the countryside to an industrial town contributed to her ill health.  Her death was registered by William’s sister, Eleanor Bond Prosser, whose address is given as Knossington, Oakham, but who was, before long, supporting her brother in his work.

Hospital minutes suggest that domestic arrangements fell apart on the death of William’s wife.  On August 29th , it was recorded that:

The weekly Board approved of the Chaplain, the Rev. William Prosser dining with the officers of the Hospital, he subscribing five shillings a week to the maintenance amount.

The following year, having being left a widower at the age of 44, William took what appeared to be a short sideways move from S. James, Wolverhampton to the curacy of St. Luke’s Bilston, tendering his resignation, which was received “with regret” in February 1877.  It seems he threw himself into the role and, as a result of the indisposition of the vicar, took on the running of the parish.

St. Luke's, Bilston, in a drawing by Ron Davies (reproduced here with his permission).

The town to which he came in 1877 had passed the height of any industrial prosperity.  

There are few manufactories of large size, the work being carried on in small workshops, usually at the back of houses, so that the places where children and great bodies of operatives are employed are completely out of sight in the narrow courts, unpaved yards and blind alleys.In the smaller dirtier streets, in which the poorest lived there were narrow passages at intervals of every eight or ten houses, and sometimes every third and fourth house; these are under three yards wide about nine feet high and they form the general gutter. Having made your way through the passage you find yourself in a space varying in size with the number of houses, hutches, or hovels it contains, all proportionally crowded. Out of this space other narrow passages led to similar hovels, the workshops and houses being mostly built in a little elevation sloping towards the passage. The great majority of yards contain two to four houses, one or two of which are workshops or have room in them for a workshop.In process of time, as the inhabitants increased, small rooms were raised over the workshops and hovels were also built whenever space could be found and tenanted first perhaps as workshops and then by families also. By these means the increasing population were lodged from year to year while the circumference of the town remained the same for a long time, owing to the difficulties of obtaining land to build upon …."[11]

Map of 1901, showing St. Luke's church and its vicarage.  The church was very centrally placed:  the High Street runs obliquely across the top left, the Market Hall and Market Place are close by on the east, and Sankey's Albert Street works are immediately south of the church. The Black Country Route now runs over the site of Market Street.

Three years later, in 1880, he became vicar.  It seems that this promotion was preceded by a period of uncertainty.  At the Shrove Tuesday tea party attended by 220 "congregation and friends" he took the chair and referred to the insecurity of his position. 

"His hope was that a new vicar would shortly be appointed.  St. Luke’s year just past, in spite of the depression had been a very successful one.  Additions had been made to the schools which were in constant use and the church re-heated at some expense".[12] 

He was, perhaps being cautious about an appointment which, to others, seemed a foregone conclusion.  Certainly the Rev. P. Wilson, vicar of Moxley was rather more forthcoming on the identity of the new vicar.  After congratulating Mr Prosser on the success of the tea party, "he was sure that the hope was re-echoed by all present that before another re-union, their chairman would be installed as the resident vicar.  (Applause)"

By June 26th, William Prosser’s appointment was confirmed with his Institution to take place on Wednesday, June 30th. At the Institution, the Bishop of Lichfield said,

"When by the providence of God, it came to pass that their late minister was disabled by illness from continuing his ministrations among them, it seemed that he (the Bishop) could not do better than appoint as his successor one who had for some years been labouring among them, in the absence of their appointed minister, and who had commended himself to them by the faithfulness and diligence of his ministrations, and the diligence and affection he had shown in the discharge of his duties."[13]

The interior of St. Luke's, Bilston.

Newspaper reports of the time give a vivid picture of parish events, with frequent references to the involvement of Eleanor Bond Prosser in her brother’s work.  Many of these events appear to have been conducted on a grand scale and must have required considerable organisation. 

"On Saturday, August 7th St. Luke’s Excursion took 400 scholars and friends by train to the Clent Hills, arriving at 11 am.  A walk and a visit to the church was followed by a variety of games including football. Tea took place at the Hill Tavern and the party returned at 6.30pm.  A second tea party was held for the infants the following day.   Similar excursions took place in later years to Bewdley and Sutton Park". [14]

How the parishioners must have looked forward to a change of scene and some fresh country air.  These outings became annual events.  In June 1883 the Congregational Trip ventured as far as Derbyshire, with special tramcars laid on from Bilston to Wolverhampton Station where the vicar and Miss Prosser were "evidently anxiously waiting to enjoy the day".[15]  Matlock"a wide change from the Black Country"was followed by a ride by open topped carriages to Chatsworth and the return journey included a cream tea at Haddon. 

Despite the obvious appeal of such outings for the workers and friends in the parish, in 1884, the choir decided to sacrifice their trip in order to pay for a window commemorating their former choir master, Richard Smith.  Smith, a tailor in Dudley Street,  had died suddenly while preparing for choir practice.  On the discovery of her father’s body by his daughter, Miss Prosser went to the house to render aid.

In October, an Autumn Bazaar took place at the Town Hall.  It seems to have been a grand occasion.  Formally opened by Alfred Hickman Esq. it was said to be "under the distinguished patronage of several nobleman and gentlemen". 

"The funds are to aid the schools of St. Luke’s which requires refurnishing and the population generally is comparatively poor; and thus the assistance of aid is much needed as the schools are doing a most useful work and have in Rev W. Prosser a zealous and ever-anxious vicar, whose desire is to meet all the wants of his parishioners in educating their children."[16]

The Town Hall was decorated and a valuable collection of paintings exhibited.

William Prosser’s family and educational background appears to have given him a number of influential connections and it seems that he commanded enough respect and affection to be able to call upon them repeatedly to support his work in the poor parish.  As well as financial assistance, the art exhibits at the Bazaar and the quality of visiting musicians as well as the resident choir seems to have been of an unusually high standard.

William Prosser in later years.  The lady is presumably Amy Prosser and the photo was probably taken in the back garden of the Vicarage.

His work went beyond the pulpit and the raising of funds.  He conducted a long campaign against officialdom in order to extend both the school buildings and playground facilities.  In 1884, he was advised that he could not build an infant school on his (disused) Burial Ground and was referred to the Disused Burial Grounds Act (1884).  By January 1896 the architect, Richard J. Rowe, was submitting plans for a new playground with the assurance that "there are no vaults in this position of the church nor have any burials taken place there".

A warm and useful working relationship seems to have developed between Prosser and Hubert Hodson, Registrar of Lichfield diocese.  A rather formal post card, dated September 14 1894 notified Hodson of an intended visit.[17]

"Can I see you if I come to Lichfield on Tuesday morning next.  I would come by the train which reaches Lichfield at 11.57.

"I want to confer with you on a Faculty question and a personal visit is more satisfactory than correspondence".

A letter dated 20 September 1894 gives a flavour of that meeting.

"I cannot write at once on the school question we discussed last Tuesday for the simple reason that (as it happens) our two principal managers are taking holiday and don’t return till the end of next week.  You will readily understand that I could not well deal with such an important matter in their absence.

"I thought it only decently courteous to write and tell you this: lest my silence for some ten days over the subject should be deemed curious and ungracious.

"I am the more glad to send this brief explanation, because I get an opportunity of telling you how delightful you both made my Tuesday visit.  I started on business, pure and simple, and experienced quite a treat.  That family of bloodhounds and that august deerhound I shall never forget.

"Will you renew my heartiest thanks to Mrs Hodson for her gracious kindness and tell her that her pigs (so exceptionally beautiful)  were the subject of a really brilliant descriptive eulogium from me – yesterday and the day before!!!

"With many thanks to yourself.

"Very truly yrs

"W Prosser"

The activities of St. Luke’s parish were wide ranging.  The Bilston Weekly Herald in September 1884 states a desire to

"congratulate the members of the St. Luke’s Football Club on their full determination to be second to none in the Midlands’ coming season and hope that their perseverance will not fail to meet with success.  The vicar of St. Luke’s, the Rev. William Prosser, has liberally led the way, by presenting the members of the club with a suitable playing suit so that the cerise and primrose colours may easily be distinguished on the field". 

The first game was to be against Pelsall at Prouds Lane.  An annual ticket was available at a reasonable price.

Another photo of William Prosser, possibly in the same garden as the photo above but some years later.

It is important not to overlook the contribution made to the vicar’s work by his sister, Eleanor Bond Prosser.  She appears to have remained with him after the death of Emily and her name appears constantly in newspaper reports of parish affairs, teaching at Sunday School and constantly reported at her brother’s side during excursions, prize giving and distribution of the Dole. The only exception to this tireless service was in  Spring 1888 when she was absent from St. Luke’s Annual Tea Party, on pilgrimage to Palestine.

This photo was in the same bundle as the photos of William himself and possibly shows the dog.  It seems to tie in with William's sense of humour.  The hat is possibly borrowed from the postman and we know that William smoked a pipe. 

The death of his mother Sophia early in 1882 seems to have been a great blow to William. 

Little more than a month later, on April 5th 1882, the Wolverhampton Chronicle reports:[18]

 "Accident to the Rev. W Prosser

"On Tuesday evening, as the Rev W Prosser, vicar of St. Luke’s was crossing Swan Street, Bilston, he was run over by a trap belonging to Mr. J. Thompson, pork butcher, of Bilston, and had his ankle dislocated.  The rev gentleman was turning round to look at a placard without observing the approach of a vehicle, the driver of which, seeing his danger, shouted out, but Mr Prosser unconsciously ran under the horse’s feet and one of the wheels of the trap passed over his ankle".

The Bilston Herald completes the story, claiming that he was reading a newspaper.  "After the accident he (was?) rushed into a tramcar but was almost unconscious".

The following week brought an update on the vicar’s recovery.

"Whilst we hear that the Rev W Prosser, Vicar of S. Luke’s is progressing favourably since the accident last week, we deeply regret his absence at his particular season of the year from amongst us; and from the many parish duties he was ever ready to fulfil.[19]"

The accident took place during a period of fundraising for a new church organ which was opened in September of that year.

It is difficult not to compare the outpouring of sympathy and sense of loss in the parish of St. Luke’s for his mother with the earlier death of his wife, Emily whose passing was marked by a brief death notice in the Wolverhampton Chronicle.  He absented himself from the Annual Tea Meeting the week after his mother’s funeral.  In his absence, he was referred to as "one of the most excellent of men".  Detailed obituaries appeared in local papers.  Some of this must be put down to Sophia’s comparative fame but there is a sense that there was an inequality of grief in a personal sense. 

Sophia’s death occurred at a time when a major refurbishment of the church was under way despite the fact that the church was only thirty years old.  A window was dedicated to the former choirmaster, Richard Smith and an oak lectern in memory of the previous vicar, the Rev. Twiss.  By September the new church organ was dedicated to Sophia.  A service of re-opening took place in February.  Contributions for the refurbishment came from a variety of sources. 

In October 1890, William married for the second time at Holy Trinity Church in Bath.  Marrying for the first time at the age of 41, Amy Sophia Kennedy was 17 years younger than her husband.  She came from an Indian Army background. Her parents Major-General James Kennedy and her mother, Eliza Madelina (née Turner) the "only surviving child of Capt. W. Turner" were both born in Bengal.  As her younger sister’s birthplace was also given as Bengal, it seems likely that Amy (born in Bath) may have spent part of her early childhood in the East Indies.  The wedding was very much a family celebration with his brother-in-law, the Rev. Edward Woodcock assisting with the ceremony, his sister Eleanor and four nieces as bridesmaids and his cousin, Robert William Dibdin Esq., acting as best man.  On their way from church, a telegram of congratulation was delivered from the scholars of St. Luke’s schools.  The couple’s short honeymoon was spent in Penzance before their return to Bilston the following Friday.  The Midland Weekly Herald reported that the presents were numerous and costly.

Eleanor Bond Prosser’s active role in supporting her brother in the years which followed their mother’s death appears to have ended in 1891 a year after William and Amy’s marriage.

"On Monday afternoon at St. Luke’s Mission Room about 60 members of the Mother’s Sewing Group and several ladies of the congregation including Mrs Bennett, Mrs Morrell, Mrs Longden, Mrs Cooper and Miss Smith met together to present to Miss Prosser who is going to leave Bilston a beautiful gold bracelet in recognition of her unwearied and invaluable service through so many years".[20]

There is a shorter, but rather telling comment in the “What People Are Saying” column:

"That Miss Prosser is leaving the town and the parishioners of St. Luke’s will feel it".

Eleanor Bond Prosser continued to “give tables” for the social functions after her departure.  She lived for another 10 years, dying in Paddington in 1900 aged 50.   Her funeral took place in Bilston and she is buried alongside her parents and brother in Bilston Cemetery.

By the time of Eleanor’s departure, Amy was confidently assisting her husband in his parish work..  Early in 1892 she represented her husband at a Dinner for the Aged Poor of the parish at which over 100 were entertained.  The reasons for her husband’s absence were unclear, but his letter expresses regret:

"My Dear Friends,

"It is a great trouble to me not to be with you this afternoon.  I should have loved to have been among so many friends – the helped and the helpers.  It seems to me that our schools were never put to a higher or more beautiful use.  And I feel as if the spirit of the dear old man (John Bishop) who loved them so well and whose heart was so full of brotherly love is with us in entire sympathy.

"The sad intelligence that has reached us this morning[21] will sadden your feast.  It will draw all together in common grief.  There was a great feast preparing but it is all stopped!  And our tears fall for the poor widowed bride.  It tells us – doesn’t it? – that our lots are not so unequal as they may sometimes seem.

"God save the Queen

"God comfort them all

"God Bless You".

The early years of the twentieth century were taken up with the usual round of church services, classes and social events.  Parish Magazines and newspaper reports from the time suggest an active parish.

Even in his final years as vicar, life was not without incident.  Behind the respectable round of Vestry meetings, Parish teas and choir outings, was a Parish which continued to have social problems.  The Bilston Weekly Herald at the turn of the century reported numerous cases of violence, drunkenness and poverty and in 1902 conducted a long correspondence about the appalling housing conditions in the town. 

However, little could have prepared William for one of the most horrific duties he would ever have to perform.  “The Bilston Tragedy: Three Children Killed by a Madman” was the headline of a story which appeared in August 1903.  A puddler named James Cartwright who had been co-habiting with a married woman, Mary Ann Pumphrey, in a fit of delirium brought on by a combination of fever and drink, attacked her so violently one night that she was forced to run half-naked to a neighbour’s house, where the sounds of  smashing furniture could still be heard. 

The police were called but had great difficulty in gaining admission, being kept at bay for nearly an hour by the violent Cartwright, eventually gaining admission using a mattress as a shield. 

At this time, the paper reported, there appeared to be no suspicion that the lives of the children who had been left in the house with the man would be in danger.  However, when the police eventually found Cartwright, he was crouching over the bodies of the three children.  It seems that "immediately his wife left the house, he proceeded upstairs and dashed out their brains with the barrel of a gun which usually hung on a beam".

The three victims, Alfred aged 11, Jeremiah, 9 and Mary Ann. 6 were pupils at St. Luke’s School and it fell to Rev. Prosser to conduct the funeral service.  The funeral procession was headed by a number of boys and girls who were scholars in the classes formerly attended by the children.  Poignantly, the child’s natural father joined his former wife at the service. 

After concluding the service at the graveside in Bilston Cemetery, William said, "I dare not trust myself to offer any remarks on this terrible affair today, but it is my intention to do so at the service on Sunday evening next".

The following Sunday evening service, conducted in a crowded church, took the form of a Memorial Service for the victims.   The vicar took as his text, Judges 14, v14: “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”  He opened with the words that this might seem a strange text but he would justify the choice for the occasion.  He attempted, in what now seems a rather clumsy way, to search for the good that came from this terrible tragedy.

Another disturbing incident took place in 1906.  It was William and Amy Prosser’s custom to take an annual holiday in Monmouth, returning to the county of his birth.  It was clearly thought necessary for the Vicarage to be under “special observation” by the local police.  It seems that on their return, vigilance was relaxed.  The police were aware of the return of the vicar and his wife; not so a midnight intruder.

The vicarage and grounds are surrounded by a low wall and at the rear of the premises is St. Luke’s Street which adjoins the open wholesale market ground.

"Upon retiring to bed on Saturday night a window open on to the stairs and also several bedroom windows were left open in accordance with the usual custom.  The fact that no trace can be found of a ladder having been used impels the police, who were promptly notified of the occurrence, to arrive at the conclusion that the entrance was effected by the back door of the vicarage, which was found to be unlocked, and which the vicar is unable to state whether he locked or not before he retired.

"Anyhow, about 2.30 am on Sunday Mrs Prosser was aroused from her sleep by someone touching her on the arm as she lay in bed.  Upon awakening she saw a man in her bedroom with a lighted candle in his hand.  She commenced to scream and the burglar promptly took to his heels, running out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and making his escape from the vicarage by the back door.  A subsequent search revealed the fact that the nocturnal visitor selected a varied assortment of articles as mementoes of his visit".

The list of stolen articles makes interesting reading.

"Amongst those taken being a purse containing £2.10s in cash, several Indian Mutiny medals which were formerly the property of Major-General T. G. Kennedy, C.B., Captain J. E. Kennedy, and Mr J. D. Kennedy, the uncle, brother and father respectively of Mrs Prosser.  Two C.B. medals and also the badges, medals and jewels in connection with a Free-masonry Lodge, and belonging to the Rev. W. Prosser, were also taken, together with a pen-knife, and twelve penny postage stamps.  Two or three ounces of tobacco were also included in the haul which, but for the alarm raised by Mrs Prosser, might have been considerably greater".

The experience must have been a shocking one for the couple.  Understandably the shock which Mrs Prosser experienced rendered her unable to give a description of the unwelcome intruder.  The following week, William Prosser suffered what could possibly have been a panic attack during morning service.

The Midland Weekly News reported that:

"The congregation attending St. Luke’s Church, Bilston, were much distressed at a sudden seizure which their vicar, the Rev. W. Prosser M.A. experienced whilst conducting the service.

"The vicar, who has been looking remarkably well since returning from his holidays, conducted the morning service, and also an afternoon class in apparently the best of health, but towards evening he was seized with giddiness and a feeling of sickness.

"In the reading of the prayers, he halted several times, to the astonishment of the congregation but the Rev. gentleman proceeded with the service, entered the pulpit and preached a short sermon.  He had to be led, however, from out of the pulpit, along the chancel to the altar, where the Benediction was pronounced, and he was afterwards assisted from the vestry to the vicarage.

"Inquiries made later reveal that the rev. gentleman is much better".

The report offers an insight into the mutual respect which existed between Prosser and his parishioners:

"The Rev.  W. Prosser, M. A. who is over 70 years of age, has been vicar of St. Luke’s Church since 1877 and during the 29 year a bond of affection between the rev. gentleman and his parishioners has steadily grown.

"That the vicar hold his parishioners in much affection is demonstrated by the fact that on two occasions – once recently – he has refused offers of livings because he felt, as he said, 'I cannot leave my Bilston people'".

At St. Luke's (last years)

Patience Goodger's confirmation certficate. Patience was confirmed on 22 March 1908 at St. Mary's, in Oxford Street, Bilston.

Her first communion was on Easter Day at St. Luke's. The certificate is signed by William Prosser.

The letters of Patience Goodger, general servant at S. Luke’s vicarage in 1909-10, make only occasional reference to her employer, by then in his late seventies, and his wife.  The references are mainly to do with entertaining as the preparation of meals was obviously an important issue, governing her free time – or lack of it. 

"Come down here on Monday night at 7.45 o’clock as I cannot get out till Master’s dinner as gone in"

On September 10th 1910, "the Master is going to Canon Ford’s to dinner.  He will be at home about 8.30".

Patience Goodger's marriage certificate. 

She married Daniel Gutteridge on 17th December 1910. The certificate is signed by William Prosser.

She records the annual visit in mid-July to Wrockwardine. It appears to have been a welcome change of scene for the whole household.

Her first impressions of the Vicarage are of

"A lovely house twice as big as ours and we can’t see anyone.  We have only seen the gardener since we arrived….We had some strawberries out of the garden for tea.   They were lovely".

She refers to Wrockwardine Vicarage and, by implication, St. Luke’s Vicarage, as

 "... a fine place.  It is a lovely country house furnished much nicer that ours all so clean.

"I hope you don’t think I have a lot of work because there is nothing like what we have to do at home.  We have got a boy to get the coal in and carry the water for us put sticks and clean window a yard so you know that is a great help.  I have only cleaned the kitchen once yet the places do not get dirty like ours.

"I get a nap every afternoon.  When I go up to dress there are 30 steps to our bedroom so Mrs Prosser don’t come up there but the beds are so narrow we are afraid of rolling out.  They are about half the size of ours at home so you can guess what they are like".

Anxiety was cause by the disappearance of “the dog”.  Whether this dog belonged to the vicar of Wrockwardine or the Prosser family is not clear.  In a post script on July 15 1910, she reports that

"Dog came back about 10 o’clock. He followed me to Wellington on Thursday and arrived back on Friday morning. We give up all hopes of him".

She is appropriately discreet about her employers and it is perhaps unwise to try to read too much into her casual remarks.  Inviting her sweetheart to visit her (and to mend the vicarage doorbell) she adds, “Mrs Prosser is going out so I thought you would rather come then.”

This page from one of Patricia Googer's letters records a domestic disaster, which she seems to see mainly as an imposition on herself: 

"... but don't attempt to come tomorrow   I will go down home as I am sure I can do with a rest   we had not enough work to do so master set is bedroom on fire last night and made us a little bit more   it gave us all a shock this   morning all is bed linen is burnt to cinders   he managed to escape with burnt hands".

The Parishioners finally bade farewell to Rev. Prosser in  July 1911.  He was, by now 79 years old.

"The congregation of St. Luke’s, Bilston, met in the schoolroom on Wednesday evening to bid farewell to their vicar, the Rev. W. Prosser M.A, whose resignation of the living terminates this month.  The rev. gentleman intends spending his remaining days at Leamington.

"Dr J P Mathie occupied the chair and said they desired to show the love they bore the vicar and his wife for their work amongst them during a period of 34 years.  The congregation had subscribed for a handsomely fitted dressing case which he asked the vicar to accept. 

"The rev gentleman said they did not want him to go, and he did not want to go.  His whole heart was with them and had been the whole time.  His confidence was great and had increased of late that someone would be sent to succeed him who would not disturb that peace which had existed for years.  In that case they would be the gainers as they would have strength and energy which was at present required to continue the house to house visitation which he had not been able to carry on for some years".[22]

The Express & Star for Thursday June 28th 1917 published the following death notice:

"On the 25th inst at Sylvanhaye, Radford Road, Leamington, Rev. William Prosser M.A. Funeral Service in St. Luke’s Church, Bilston, Friday 12 noon.  Interment Bilston Cemetery 12.45.  Will local and district clergy please note".[23]

In 1881 he had articulated to 30 or so members of his Bible Class, his special feelings for the people of Bilston. 

"When he first came to the parish, he met with so much heartiness and good will that before he had been in the parish six weeks he had resolved, if he were spared, never of his own free will to leave the parish. That statement he adhered to now and if there was anything wanted to strengthen that determination, he found it in the constant intercourse and loving communion with those by whom he was now surrounded". [24]

In 1920 plans were put forward for a figured glass window in his memory.
The proposed inscription was to read:

This window and tablet were provided by Subscribers in loving memory of the late William Prosser, M.A. for 34 years Incumbent of this Church which he beautified by many personal Gifts.  He endeared himself to all by his loving Service.

(Drawing of the proposed window, from Lichfield Diocesan Office).

St. Luke's, Bilston, shortly before its demolition.  (By courtesy of Wolverhampton City Archives.)

St. Luke’s Church was demolished in 1973 and to date, it has not been possible to discover whether William Prosser’s personal gifts were destroyed or re-located.


[1] (1880) Bilston Weekly Herald,  Saturday, October 9

[2]  Letter to the Manx Sun  written from Harrow, April 18th, 1859.

[3]James M. Wilson   An Autobiography   1836-1933

[4] Durham Advertiser February 1860

[5] Morning Chronicle & Jackson’s Oxford Journal December 1855

[6] Glasgow Herald 20th February 1860

[7] Glasgow Herald 20th February 1860

[8] The Hull Packet and East Riding Times (Hull, England), Friday, August 23, 1850

[9]  Friends of Durham Record Office Newsletter   April 2006  Kathleen Allison

[10]  Wolverhampton Archives,  Minutes of General Hospital

[11] Frances Taylor Page A History of Bilston, Black Country Memories Club website.

[12] Bilston Herald Saturday February 14th 1880

[13] Bilston Herald Saturday July 3rd 1880

[14] Bilston Herald Saturday February 14th 1880

[15] Bilston Herald June 16th 1883

[16] Bilston Herald Saturday October 9th 1880

[17] Lichfield Record Office B/C/12/1/47

[18] Wolverhampton Chronicle April 5th 1882

[19] Bilston Herald April 8th 1882

[20] Midland Weekly Herald 11th December 1891

[21] The death of the Duke of Clarence

[22] Midland Counties Express 23 July 1911

[23] Express and Star Thursday 28 June 1917

[24] Bilston Herald 31 December 1881

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