A Riotous Penance

  • 21 Feb 2012
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In a collection of Stourbridge newspaper cuttings of about 1950, there were items from a 'Century Old Diary' kept by a     Mr. B Leadbetter. There was no identification as to the newspaper, but it was thought to be the County Express. The diary entry was for May 5th, 1849, and it was revealed the fact that the custom of doing penance was still in vogue - but the ceremony of penance was more like a circus. Here is Leadbetter's description of the scene:

'The church was crowded on Sunday morning to see a man doing penance in consequence of a sentence passed on him. It was performed in the presence of a large congregation, assembled from all parts of the district - the majority of whom were of the lower orders. Some persons of more respectable positions had evinced great anxiety to secure pews and seats, and on the opening of the church doors, a rush took place, and every part of the church was instantly filled. The screen was occupied by bargees, who sat astride, the capitals of the columns had human occupants, and in other parts struggling and fighting arose for a good view of the penitent, a man named Smith, a gardener and fiddler, whose offence was having slandered Mrs.James, The Minister on coming to the service was saluted with a shout, 'Speak op, old boy', accompanied by a chorus of laughter.

The sermon was interrupted by the breaking of windows by the mob outside the church, by cat-calls, whistling and other unseemly noises, and a dog fight in the building later divided the attention of the congregation with the ceremony of penance. The arrival of Smith the fiddler, was at length announced by a tremendous uproar, which put an end to the sermon.

He was received with three hearty cheers, and the most discordant applause of his friends, many of whom were smoking tobacco. The crush was so bad that Smith had to be put in the churchman's pew. He waved over his head the paper containing his recantation, and was welcomed with one cheer more, after which a broom, hassock, pieces of pews etc, were thrown in all directions, aimed at the head of the clergyman, Smith, at the conclusion was carried on the shoulder's of several of the mob to the Plough Inn.

Note: Benjamin Leadbetter of Dudley, was the son of John and Sarah Leadbetter. He was baptised at St Thomas's Church, Dudley, on  June 6th, 1784.  His diary was found on a bookstall.