THE REVEREND WILLIAM PROSSER
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?
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”, 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.
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,  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".
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.” 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, 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". 
Furthermore, he was described as an "idol of a portion of the female congregation". 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.
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.
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 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 work was quickly completed. The Minutes of February 8th 1876 record:
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 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.
The town to which he came in 1877 had passed the height of any industrial prosperity.
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.
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,
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.
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". 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 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.
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.
A letter dated 20 September 1894 gives a flavour of that meeting.
The activities of St. Luke’s parish were wide ranging. The Bilston Weekly Herald in September 1884 states a desire to
The first game was to be against Pelsall at Prouds Lane. An annual ticket was available at a reasonable price.
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.
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:
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.
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.
There is a shorter, but rather telling comment in the “What People Are Saying” column:
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:
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.
The list of stolen articles makes interesting reading.
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 report offers an insight into the mutual respect which existed between Prosser and his parishioners:
At St. Luke's (last years)
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.
On September 10th 1910, "the Master is going to Canon Ford’s to dinner. He will be at home about 8.30".
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
She refers to Wrockwardine Vicarage and, by implication, St. Luke’s Vicarage, as
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
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.”
The Parishioners finally bade farewell to Rev. Prosser in July 1911. He was, by now 79 years old.
The Express & Star for Thursday June 28th 1917 published the following death notice:
In 1881 he had articulated to 30 or so members of his Bible Class, his special feelings for the people of Bilston.
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.
 (1880) Bilston Weekly Herald, Saturday, October 9
 Letter to the Manx Sun written from Harrow, April 18th, 1859.
James M. Wilson An Autobiography 1836-1933 www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/fulltext/wi1931.htm
 Durham Advertiser February 1860
 Morning Chronicle & Jackson’s Oxford Journal December 1855
 Glasgow Herald 20th February 1860
 Glasgow Herald 20th February 1860
 The Hull Packet and East Riding Times (Hull, England), Friday, August 23, 1850
 Friends of Durham Record Office Newsletter April 2006 Kathleen Allison
 Wolverhampton Archives, Minutes of General Hospital
 Frances Taylor Page A History of Bilston, Black Country Memories Club website.
 Bilston Herald Saturday February 14th 1880
 Bilston Herald Saturday July 3rd 1880
 Bilston Herald Saturday February 14th 1880
 Bilston Herald June 16th 1883
 Bilston Herald Saturday October 9th 1880
 Lichfield Record Office B/C/12/1/47
 Wolverhampton Chronicle April 5th 1882
 Bilston Herald April 8th 1882
 Midland Weekly Herald 11th December 1891
 The death of the Duke of Clarence
 Midland Counties Express 23 July 1911
 Express and Star Thursday 28 June 1917
 Bilston Herald 31 December 1881