Wednesday, March 13, 2024

A Bishop Out of Residence - Victor L Whitechurch

One hundred years ago a Buckinghamshire clergyman with a cure of about one hundred souls and a Gothic Revival church saw three of his books published, all quite different. One was a murder mystery, another a tale of village life, and a third poked fun at bishops.

I was once highly fortunate to find half a shelf of his books in a shop in Holmfirth, whose owner also kindly fosters cats, which are an extra adornment as they wander among the bookshelves. The volumes were all very moderately priced, and I came out with a tottering tower of them. Partly because of this haul, I have a fondness for his fiction.

Victor L Whitechurch (1868-1933) was the son of a parson. He was born in Norham, Northumberland, but educated in Chichester, Sussex, an ancient cathedral city, where he went to theological college. The “L” stood for “Lorenzo”, chosen because his mother was half-Spanish. As an Anglican clergyman he wrote a few devotional pamphlets, but also about twenty novels and a few volumes of short stories. He seems to have been a likeable and rather flamboyant character who also enjoyed amateur Shakespearean acting and conjuring.

He is most known now for creating Thorpe Hazell, possibly the first vegetarian detective and certainly among the most notable of railway detectives. Quite a lot of C of E clergy have been keen railway buffs. When members of A Ghostly Company visited the Deanery Garden in the close of Wells Cathedral some years ago, a local churchgoer kindly regaled us with her recollections. “Of course,” she said, “a railway used to run through here.”

There was a pause, while we tried to picture how it could have been allowed anywhere near the great cathedral. “The Archdeacon’s railway,” she explained, “ran through the rockery.” This was of course a model railway, but the Revd Mr Teddy Boston used to run a full-scale steam railway in his Leicestershire rectory garden. Admittedly, it only ran a few hundred yards but it had its own timetable, station, a midway halt, and engine shed, and it was highly popular for rides at the church fete. Victor L Whitechurch was evidently of the same cloth and uses his specialised railway knowledge in Thorpe Hazell’s cases, which were collected in Thrilling Stories of the Railway (1912).

He also wrote half a dozen crime fiction novels in the Golden Age period which are neatly done and have their admirers. They include The Templeton Case (the crime story from 1924) and The Crime at Diana’s Pool (1927). Whitechurch’s first parish as Vicar was St Michael’s, Blewbury, in Oxfordshire but close to the Berkshire Downs. He evidently greatly enjoyed this country, and also wrote several volumes of village life set there or on the South Downs in Sussex, such as Off the Main Road: A Village Comedy (1911) and Downland Echoes (also published in 1924).   

However, in his time his most popular book was The Canon in Residence (1904), which was one of a number of yarns of that period in which eminently respectable individuals are jolted out of their usual routine by a series of unexpected adventures. In this case a parson has just been appointed to the titular office at a cathedral close and is on holiday abroad when a bounder steals his clothes, and then begins to steal his identity too.

Obliged to wear the villain’s somewhat loud attire, the new Canon finds himself seeing life from a new angle. Rumours of the impostor’s racy lifestyle in the guise of the Canon soon reach the close. And when the Canon takes up his appointment, his own interesting experiences give him a new campaigning zeal against social problems. The combination of gentle humour and mild thrills with a reforming message was enjoyed by Edwardian readers.

So well-liked was this book that Whitechurch in due course did several others in a similar vein.  He was still doing so some twenty years later, with A Bishop Out of Residence, the third of his 1924 books, which celebrates its centenary this month. In this case, in another convention of this sort of yarn, a Bishop is advised by his medical man to have complete rest and a change of air for six months. This opening often leads to ghost stories in which unrest is more in evidence than rest, and the reader will already be enjoying the venerable set-up.

Another Bishop, an old college friend, invites him to look after a quiet, lonely downland parish, incognito, while the incumbent also takes a break. During this temporary charge he finds that rural parsons have chores he had never suspected, like coaxing the church stove to work, putting up the hymn numbers, and filling out all the church school paper-work. He also feels the loneliness of being the only ‘educated’ man in the village, yet finds his shrewd and robust charges have a different sort of education. Complications ensue when he is confused with a disreputable and bibulous cleric with a name similar to his adopted one.   

A Bishop Out of Residence is not fantastical, nor is it criminous (except incidentally and very mildly), and it does not have the colourful eccentricity of the Thorpe Hazell stories. Yet it is just the sort of agreeable, amiable light reading that is occasionally a pleasant diversion and is in a charming minor tradition of clerical farces in English literature.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: A young Victor L Whitechurch



  1. The Clergy, it seems, is an inexhaustable repository of interesting characters. Even in the rural American South from which I sprang. The pastor of the Fundamentalist Southern Baptist church I grew up in believed in ghosts, thought that there would be sex in heaven, and owned a personal library that included works by Charles Fort and science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith.

    I became aware of the latter because, being known as the "reader" among the close-knit circle of believers that founded the church, I inherited his library when he was tragically killed in a plane crash. I was 14 yo and that was my introduction to the work of both of these writers. One of my very real regrets is that I was not able to know this man when I was older and better able to have an intellectual relationship.

  2. At some point in 2023 I got a wild hair about exploring the thrilling subgenre of railway fiction. Of course, I came across Whitechurch's Stories of the Railway collection from Routledge and devoured it in a weekend. I've since narrowed my railway focus to "railway weird" and "railway mystery", both supplemented by lovely line-focused books from Oakwood Press. That said, I'm always thankful for pointers to more railway fiction.