Lapford is known as the parish of the wayward eighteenth-century parson, Rev. John Arundel Radford (1799-1861), whose pastoral care reputedly included deceit, bullying and violence. ‘Parson Jack’ was physically strong, with a reputation for pugilism and “a fist like a prized beetroot1, but his hold over people could be purely psychological. His parishioners were too scared to testify against him, and it is widely rumoured that he got away with two murders in the village: the drowning of his young housemaid and the knifing of a curate (who had been appointed to Lapford after Jack had gone into hiding from angry creditors). Jack eventually spent time in prison for attempting to knife a tollgate keeper who had refused him free passage, and for striking a police constable four times in the parsonage yard.

Accounts of him suggest that he was fighting an inner demon. At times, he was the perfect gentleman; at other times, he exhibited an uncontrollable temper. On a Saturday evening, he was a drunken street-fighter, begging for an opponent; on a Sunday morning, he was a ‘curer of souls’, preaching godliness from the church pulpit. He was capable of good humour, enjoying the occasional practical joke; he equally capable of brutality. Fearful parishioners made the difficult decision to dissent from the village church, creating family and community divides. The parson’s memory hung as a black cloud over Lapford for years after his death. Tales of his misdeeds became the stuff of lore, and he is still reputed to haunt the village to this day.

By comparison, Jack’s predecesor, his father, Rev. William Radford, has all but faded into obscurity. Yet it was William, not Jack, who first attracted national media attention; who first brought notoriety to Lapford’s church office; who began the downward turn in the fortunes of the Radford family. In April 1824, William was outed as ‘a scoundrel’ in The Political Register, one of the best-selling national newspapers of the day. The journal’s editor was the famed William Cobbett—a people’s champion with a reputation for fearlessly taking on the British establishment.

Radford had earlier attacked Cobbett in a well-publicised speech. In a vociferous response, Cobbett unleashed a tirade of criticism at the Lapford parson:

You are … a base, blaspheming blackguard.

What a liar, what a malignant wretch, what a scoundrel you must be.

You knew you were inculcating a lie; that you were sending a lie about the world.

You, without any provocation, called me a wretch and a scoundrel. I will punish you for it, Parson.

These were strong words indeed! William Radford, like his son, was clearly a controversial figure.

Such blazoned attacks were rarely of consequence. However, the war of words between Cobbett and Radford, explored further in this article, is noteworthy. It was from this point that Lapford’s trust in its parson appears to have been eroded. Loyalty turned to thoughts of litigation. Only a few months after his embarrassment by Cobbett, William Radford was dead and the dark days of his son’s ministry began.

Was Parson Jack’s inner demon rooted in the troubles and temperament of his father?

William Cobbett.
He was the foremost satirist of his day and is credited with laying the groundwork for many of the political reforms of 19th century. He became an adversary of William Radford, Rector of Lapford.
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.


William Cobbett was a household name and a working-class hero, so his scathing criticism of the Rector of Lapford would have attracted widespread attention. He was a self-taught farmer’s son who had achieved celebrity as a satirist and an influential political reformer. Today, he is widely applauded as a pioneer of critical journalism: a man who sacrificed his freedom to report the truth. In person, Cobbett’s admirers found him jovial, warm and generous, but in print he could cut down his enemies with a mastery of the English language as sharp as it was eloquent. He was not a character to cross, as William Radford was to discover!

The English essayist William Hazlitt wrote that Cobbett was “unquestionably the most powerful political writer of the present day2 and in 1982, the historian A.J.P. Taylor went as far as calling him “the second greatest Englishman that ever lived3.

Cobbett was once likened to a porcupine—a generally docile animal, but one capable of delivering a painful attack on its enemies. Cobbett liked the analogy and, for part of his career, his sharp, barbarous writing was delivered under the name of Peter Porcupine.

He devoted much of his life to exposing corruption, hypocrisy and injustice. He loathed the British Establishment—‘ The Thing’ as he called it—and it loathed him. He endured ridicule, libel suits, two years of imprisonment and was twice forced into exile. But, amongst ordinary people, he was idolised. He attracted large crowds during a decade of travel on horseback along England’s byways. In hard-pressed villages and towns, he sought out true-life stories. His best-known work, Rural Rides, is an enlightening journal of his travels. It was written during the extraordinary times of the 1820s—the age of the Industrial Revolution, of Regency extravagance, of literary romanticism—yet Cobbett chose to describe everyday people, ordinary lives, common reality. He wrote about the dire struggle of small communities, their loss of income from the enclosure of common land, the imbalance of wealth and the shortcomings of Poor Law in offering an effective system of welfare. He opened the eyes of communities to the possibility that their suffering, so long accepted, might be related to the British system of government, and the corruption within it. He played a key role in generating a groundswell of public opinion that eventually led to sweeping reforms.

Cobbett was a life-long supporter of the Church of England, but a fiercely vocal critic of the excesses of its clergymen, particularly those who paid little heed to the growing needs of their parishioners. Some clergymen lived many miles from their parish and were seldom seen. Cobbett questioned their right to wealthy incomes from tithes, particularly at a time when rural incomes were in rapid decline. He never tired of pointing out that the tithe system had originally been established to help the poor, not to fund lavish and leisurely lifestyles for its clergymen. Church patronage, and the right to receive tithes, was commonly passed on as a hereditary entitlement. In Cobbett’s view, this was a part of ‘The Thing’—yet another means of ensuring that the working class were kept in their place. To make matters worse, many clergymen had become magistrates or maintained close associations with the justice system, thereby enforcing laws that prevented dissent against the system.

Federalist Cartoon c.1799, with Cobbett portrayed as a porcupine.
Cobbett spent 15 years in America, either in exile or escaping legal prosecution. His journalism was an influential force in American politics before plying his trade in England. He generally sided with the Federalist cause, attracting thousands of loyal readers and at least as many adversaries! The cartoon above was drawn during the time of the French Revolutionary War when American sentiment was largely pro-France. Cobbett, as Peter Porcupine, is lampooned for his support of America’s relations with Britain. The words spilling from his quill include “I hate this country. I will sow the seeds of discord in it“. He is urged on by the devil, offering money, and by the British King (represented as a lion), who is trampling on the American flag. Columbia, the female personification of America, weeps in disbelief. A portrait of Benjamin Franklin is by her side; a torn treaty with France is at her feet.


Cobbett began publication of the Political Register in 1802. For over 34 years, he used it to provide factual information at a time when the truth was often suppressed. He included some complete transcripts of parliamentary debates (the beginning of today’s Hansard publication). Notable readers included Napoleon, Wordsworth, American Presidents and British Prime ministers. But the publication was primarily aimed at ordinary people whom Cobbett wanted to educate and empower. It was one of the most influential journals in the history of publishing. At its height, its sales outstripped every British newspaper, including The Times. Average sales were once as high as 70,000 for each issue4. A contemporary poem of the time jested that the poor would “rather go without a fire, than Cobbett’s Register”5.

Cobbett cleverly sold the Political Register in a separate tuppeny pamphlet edition that avoided taxes and was therefore affordable to a mass market. In 1819, the government applied a new 4d tax to limit readership and so avoid the risk of a revolt from ‘the lower orders’6.

Cobbett’s attack on the Rector of Lapford appeared in this edition of his popular journal.
Cobbett’s Political Register, 17 April 1824


Rev. William Radford (1768-1824) succeeded his father as Rector of Lapford in 1799. He was amongst the clergymen whom Cobbett specifically chose to name and shame in his Political Register.

The patronage of Lapford Church had been kept in the family for centuries. Radford was the latest in a long line of men, dating back to the early C14, who had acquired the living as a matter of hereditary right or through marriage. It was a system that Cobbett regarded as nepotistic. For generations, the Rectors of Lapford had enjoyed an Oxford education, servants, good Devon produce and a gentleman’s lifestyle—all ostensibly funded from the toil and sweat of parishioners.

Cobbett’s dislike of Radford may have been influenced by the clergyman’s outspokenness on political matters; the bond between politics and religion was, in Cobbett’s view, what made ‘The Thing’ an impenetrable force. Radford had been a supporter of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger whose government had attempted to silence men, like Cobbett, who wanted radical reform7. Something of Radford’s political nature can be gleaned from an obituary published in 18248. It describes his “patriotism and zeal” and his abilities as a public speaker in which “he occupied the foremost rank”; it describes his principled resolve and his standing “undaunted against the frowns of the factious and the sneers of the Radical”.

William Radford was a member of the Devon & Exeter Pitt Club, a private members club that was committed to upholding the principles of William Pitt. Essentially, Pitt Clubs looked to preserve the general concept of a privileged, well-educated, ruling class. Horrified by the mass rebellions of revolutionary France, they wanted to protect the British System against a similar sort of fate. William Radford’s Pittite views were the polar opposite of Cobbett who believed the British system to be broken, unjust, and in need of reform.

High on the agenda of political issues at the time was Catholic Emancipation—the lifting of laws that banned Catholics from holding positions of responsibility. It is on this particular topic that Radford most probably came to Cobbett’s attention. On occasion, Radford used the pulpit to voice political views and, in 1810, he delivered a sermon supporting the continuance of penal laws against Catholics. The sermon was published as a 25-page booklet, The Catholic Question Considered, and was sold widely. Radford became the pet of the lobby against Catholic Emancipation in the South-West. On 23 April 1819, he addressed a large gathering at Exeter Castle advocating a petition to The Houses of Parliament to block a motion for the further lifting of penal laws, explaining that they were still needed to prevent adford spoke of preventing “the restoration of Popery in these Kingdoms9.

The Exeter Flying Post described Radford’s speech as “a brilliant display of eloquence, combined with close reasoning and persuasive argument; and the free and energetic style in which it was delivered has been rarely, if ever, surpassed. It evidently operated most effectively on, the minds and feelings of the auditory, and was rapturously applauded9.

There were claims that the petition, organised by Radford and others, had been raised unfairly without proper representation or due notice. Nevertheless, it was presented to parliament just before a crucial Commons vote. The strength of the Devon petition may have been influential—the motion, allowing penal laws against Catholics to be reviewed, was defeated by just two votes!

Cobbett, as a vocal supporter of emancipation and a critic of political inference by clergymen, was probably well aware of the part played by Lapford’s parson. Radford had publicly questioned the intellect of those who fought the cause of emancipation, calling their views “narrow-minded notions, debased by bigotry and prejudice, and totally unworthy of men of enlarged views10.

Cobbett must have had William Radford in his sights!

Advertisement for Rev. Radford’s sermon, The Catholic Question, on the day of its publication.
Exeter Flying Post, 14 June 1810


By 1823, 17 years after the death of William Pitt, Britain’s Pitt Clubs had waned in popularity and were being openly mocked by newspapers whose freedoms Pitt had previously suppressed. That year, the Devonshire Freeholder gleefully reported that the Devon & Exeter Club hadn’t enough support to hold its annual dinner11: “Devon and Exeter Pitt Club appears to be about to die a natural death12. However, the club managed to muster enough members for a rearranged event on 18 September 182313, and Radford was asked to deliver the keynote speech, toasting the memory of Pitt.

The speech brought the dinner national media attention. One newspaper declared: “These monstrosities [Pitt Cubs] have not entirely disappeared. Every now and then one pushes its misshapen head above the earth …. on the 18th [September] a fungus of this description sprung up at the city of Exeter… Proceedings were so truly ridiculous, that we should not have noticed them, but from a reported speech of a Rev. Wm. Radford14.

Radford had used the occasion to describe Cobbett and other Radicals as “an evil spirit, still lurking” and accused them of “designing men”. They were: “Wretches who had nothing to lose, but everything to gain, and who would willingly play a desperate game to obtain their object”. He queried how “individuals of rank” had “countenanced such scoundrels”.

Radford argued that Louis XIV’s support of revolutionary principles (he had supported the American Revolution) ultimately led to his execution during the French Revolution. He warned that “gentlemen of exalted station in society” risked a similar fate if they supported England’s reformists.

Radical newspapers were quick to seize the opportunity to criticise Radford: “That he is a fool, or was drunk … could be no excuse for this reverend dealer in Billingsgate scurrility15. It was further suggested that Radford should have been thrown out of the window as “a disgrace to all christian society” and that Cobbett might be entitled to “lay hold of the nose of this reverend personage and twist it from his face16. This mockery was the stuff that sold newspapers, well before the advent of the tabloid!

William Radford had directly attacked Cobbett and the reformist movement. He could not have been surprised that Cobbett chose to reply; however, he may have been unprepared for the ferocity of the response.

Advertisement for the Pitt Club Dinner at which Rev. William Radford was to be a speaker.
Exeter Flying Post, 11 September 1823


More than six months passed before William Cobbett publicly responded to William Radford’s attack. In the Political Register of 17 April 1824, Cobbett delivered a 20-page criticism addressed to Parsons: “You have had your full swing at me quite long enough. I shall now attend a little to you”. Three full pages were addressed directly to Radford who was held up as an example to support his general criticisms of the church: “You are a fair sample; a specimen; a thing for us to judge by”. In 1827, Cobbett reproduced his long criticism of Radford in his book A History of the Protestant Reformation—it sold hundreds of thousands of copies internationally (and remains in print). Radford was specifically identified as the Rector of Lapford. The village was consequently getting a name for itself well outside of the confines of Devon!

Cobbett’s response analysed and played back Radford’s words with his typical use of a sharp tongue and a touch of humour. Radford had, for instance, urged following Pitt’s example in defense of God, to which Cobbett rebutted that God needs no defenders “especially such poor muckworms as are to be seen at Pitt-Clubs!”

His criticism of Radford makes mention of two other clergymen: William Morritt and Percy Joselyn. Rev. Morritt had attempted to collect tithes in his parish with the help of armed constables. They were met with a barrage of stones. The constables resisted with gunfire, killing two villagers and injuring a dozen more. Two constables were murdered as they traveled out to farms. One of them was found with stones rammed into his mouth. Rev. Joselyn had been arrested for a homosexual act with a Grenadier Guardsman but had jumped bail and escaped justice. A young coachman, who had tried to whistle blow on Joselyn, had been publicly flogged and jailed for libel. The scandals of Morritt and Joselyn were well known. William Radford had no direct connection with the men, so could not have been happy to see his name being mudded alongside them.

Cobbett ends his criticism of Radford with the words: “You go the way of all flesh”. Less than 6 months after publication, Radford was, indeed, dead. He was 56. Whether the embarrassment of Cobbett’s article played any part in this is a matter of pure speculation.

Tithe Pig, by Thomas Rawlinson, c.1790.
A lazy, gout-ridden Rector; his agent reading an ‘Estimate of the tythes of the parish’; his rotund housekeeper, dog, cat and the ‘Church’ in the background, all getting fat on the work of the gaunt, harassed farmer on the right.
Metropolitan Museum of Art under Creative Commons


Cobbett had many clerical adversaries. So why did William Radford, in particular, come in for such a personal and ferocious scalding? For sure, Cobbett was angered at being named in Radford’s Pitt Club speech, and he probably detested Radford’s interference in the cause for Catholic Emancipation, but the parson did not conform with Cobbett’s general grievance of absent, fat-cat clergymen. He was accessible, paid attention to his clerical duties17 and had an intellectual interest in church doctrine. Did Corbett know something more about Radford than he was able to print? Newspaper records reveal an earlier incident involving the Lapford parson that may have come to Cobbett’s attention.

At about 9 o’clock, on the evening of 27th August 1821, William Radford was enjoying wine and shell-fish at Mr Pocknell’s Oyster Rooms on St Martin’s Lane, London (opposite St Martin-in-the-Fields Church on the site of today’s National Gallery). He had been staying in London to attend hearings in the Court of Chancery18 against the ‘mad’ Earl of Portsmouth, who owned part of Lapford parish. Radford’s dining partner that evening was a Mr Barker. The nature of their meeting is not known, but Radford may have been under the impression that he was dining with a longtime secretary and great friend of Admiral Sir Sydney Smith—Nelson’s bitter-sweet contemporary, Napoleon’s nemesis19, and a much-loved public hero of the day. There is no evidence to support Barker’s “bosom-friend” association with the great Admiral20.

During the meal, the parson became involved in a serious altercation with a coal merchant. The eating house was a respectable establishment, advertised “To the Fashionable World”21 and frequented by nobility and gentry—not a place accustomed to bad behaviour. Radford threw various objects at the coal merchant—a pepper castor, glasses, an oil cruet, a mustard-pot, plates and a decanter. A chandelier and window were broken. The episode resulted in Mr Barker sustaining facial injuries and such loss of blood that a surgeon had to be called to the scene in genuine fear for the gentleman’s life. It may not have been the first time that Radford had caused trouble whilst dining with Barker, who was reported to have said: “I wish you would be quiet, for whenever I come out with you are always getting me into a row22.

Over a year later, Barker successfully sued the coal merchant. The court case became a talking point, not for the actions of the accused, but rather for the alleged behaviour of Rev. Radford! It seems that Radford believed he was being mocked by the coal merchant, and had inflamed the situation by calling him a blackguard23. Two witnesses stated that Mr Baker was accidentally lacerated by glass thrown by Radford, not the defendant. The parson claimed self-defence; he had had thrown a number of glasses all at once “for the sooner a man gets rid of those things the better24.

According to Mr Pocknell (the proprietor), Rev. Radford was drunk: “riotous and disorderly …hardly able to stand”, and had called his wife a d—– d—– (probably ‘damned devil’, both highly offensive and unprintable words at the time). It was stated that Radford later told Mr Pocknell: “Go home you — to your — of a wife”. The court found the words shocking. They had also been delivered with unfortunate timing. We now know that Mr & Mrs Pocknell were mourning their two-year-old son who had died earlier the same month after his clothes caught the flame of a candle25.

Radford’s grievance with Mr Pocknell was for appearing to take the side of the coal-merchant, a known customer. He had insisted that Barker and Radford were detained in the local watch house—which happened to be adjoined to the property—until damages were paid for. Radford reportedly exclaimed that he would first see Pocknell dead 26. The parish constable at the watch house confirmed in court that “the man who called himself a clergyman was very drunk and very riotous and made use of very bad language27.

The St. Martins Lane area, just off today’s Trafalgar Square, was a known stronghold for Radical activists. It is entirely possible that Radicals had set a trap, using the coal merchant, to provoke a reaction and thereby prompt a sensationalist press story. The target may have been Barker, based on his claimed association with one of the highest-profile men in the country (Sir Sidney Smith). Any attempt to smear the reputation of the British Establishment failed as Barker acted with decorum–which is more than can be said for William Radford!

Dirty tactics of this sort were not uncommon in the political hothouse of central London. In the following example, four years earlier, William Cobbett claimed he had been subjected to such a trap, staged by anti-Radicals just a few hundred yards from the Oyster Rooms.

In February 1817, a famed Radical speaker, Henry Hunt, was in London to speak at a mass rally. He found that his trunk had been removed from his hotel room at the British Coffee House and he suspected it was on account of his political views. Hunt and the hotel owner28 agreed to meet at a nearby venue to settle their differences. Hunt attended with William Cobbett, and the men soon suspected the whole matter was a set-up to lure Hunt into a fight so that he might be detained by police and therefore fail to speak at the mass rally. Cobbett and Hunt quickly refused to become involved. The anti-Radical press still got to work, portraying the men as cowards. A political cartoon, inset, shows a resilient Morley ready for a fight. Cobbett and Hunt are shown fleeing, their white feathers symbolising their cowardice. Cobbett is carrying a copy of the Political Register.

The 1817 incident (involving Cobbett) and the 1821 incident (involving Rev. Radford) are possible examples of the tit-for-tat media game being played by Radicals and anti-Radicals, each aiming to gain a moral high ground. In the coffee-house incident, Cobbett had acted as a peacemaker, yet he was ridiculed by the anti-Radical press. In the Oyster Rooms incident, Rev. Radford had acted aggressively, yet he had faced no recrimination. This inequality must have riled Cobbett—throughout his life, he loathed those in authority who escaped justice, whose public air of respectability masked hidden, darker secrets.

So Cobbett’s loathing of Radford may well have been more deep-rooted than the parson’s Pitt Club speech. Cobbett may have seen Radford as another example of the hidden deceit that existed within ‘The Thing’. Fortunately for Radford, the press coverage of the Oyster Rooms incident did not conclusively identify him as the Rector of Lapford, and Cobbett might have been wary of exposing the rector on an assumption. Radford’s behaviour in London never reached the Devon press, and it remained hidden from Lapford villagers … until now!29

Detail from a sketch by George Scharf of St Martin’s Lane in 1825.
It shows the watch-house (bottom left) with Mr. Pocknell’s Oyster Rooms being located in an upper room next door, to the right. Both buildings were demolished c.1830 to make way for the National Gallery. Directly across the road is the portico of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, asset 1613381333 licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


William Radford’s drunken behaviour and his use of abusive language in Mr Pocknell’s Oyster Rooms had been confirmed in court by the word of a parish constable, and were part admitted by Radford himself. They are very much the same traits later reported of Parson Jack. It is easy to imagine that William’s temperament rubbed off on his son. Perhaps so, but it is not the whole story. As we shall see, Jack’s anger may have been ignited by other circumstances involving his father.

William Radford had lived with financial troubles for most of his life, and he died insolvent30. He had borrowed heavily from Lapford’s land owners. In total, he owed the bulk of his creditors as much as £800031, a figure worth more than 25 times the rector’s annual cash income32 and equivalent to about £1 million today.

The living of Lapford should have been providing Radford with a healthy income of over £700 a year—more than 35 times greater than the salary of a Devon labourer. So how did William come to be in such heavy debt? Had he simply spent excessively beyond his means? Members of the Devon & Exeter Pitt Club were amongst the county’s wealthiest men, and socialising in this circle would certainly have been a financial drain. But Radford’s difficulties may also have arisen as a consequence of the legal mechanism that had enabled his family to pass on entitlement to the lucrative receipt of Lapford’s tithes.

The legal device—known as a ‘fee entail’, or ‘fee in tail’—prevented the normal hereditary passage of an estate and passed it instead to a named heir. The mechanism had been used for centuries to preserve the honour of high-ranking families by ensuring passage to a single blood-line heir rather than risking dilution across more than one family member, including illegitimate children. One consequence of the entail system was that it left other family members with no income. By the nineteenth century, it had therefore become common practice for entailed benefits to be reduced through annuity payments or gifts to other family members The Will of Radford’s father33. Radford, with few other options, decided to turn to Lapford landowners—his tithe payers—for help.

The landowners were mostly yeomen farmers. Their willingness to lend large sums of money may have been a matter of goodwill, admiration, respect or a sense of loyalty. The relationship between Lapford’s yeomen families and its parson went back generations. Their mutual respect may have been damaged by Cobbett’s public outing of Radford as a ‘scoundrel’ and a ‘liar’. The journalist must, at the very least, have sown seeds of doubts in the minds of the yeomen as to the parson’s trustworthiness and the security of their loans.

The relationship between Lapford’s yeomen and its parson entered a vicious circle of decline. It would eventually lead to expensive litigation in London’s law courts which only worsened financial worries. Once Radford was in the debt of his tithe payers, his ability to collect tithes in full, or to renegotiate new contracts, would have become increasingly difficult. These were times of agricultural poverty, and there was growing intolerance of the unjustness of the tithe system (championed by Cobbett). Lapford’s landowners found themselves in a position of leverage, able to influence tithes payments. They had the opportunity to pay more of their tithes in kind, i.e. by providing goods and services34. William’s cash income was in decline35.

Lapford Parsonage.
Now known as The Grange, it was home to both Rev. William Radford and Rev. John Arundel Radford (‘Parson Jack’).


Despite his financial situation, William Radford ensured that his son, the future Parson Jack, received a top education at Blundells School (from 1811), then Queen’s College, Oxford (from 1817). At university, Jack may have over-indulged in social and leisurely pursuits. He ran into financial problems. Later in life, Jack admitted to adding to his father’s growing debt: “I got into difficulties and tried to get my father to discharge them, for which I gave a bond36 .

Jack left Queen’s College without completing his studies. This could not have pleased his father who provided an ultimatum, written into his Will of 1821. The Will directs that if Jack could obtain Holy Orders and become a priest before his father’s death, then he should take the Rectory of Lapford for his benefit, and that of his heirs, forever; but, if he should fail, then the Rectory should be given to Jack’s younger brother, Charles, and his heirs.

Jack’s interests as an adolescent, and throughout his adult life, were in field sports, wrestling, boxing and drinking. Ruffianism was part of his character. He was probably never cut out for the priesthood. William’s ultimatum may have left him emotionally torn, perhaps angered. Jack decided to continue his studies at a different Oxford college, St Albans Hall, and was finally awarded a BA degree more than 6 years after first arriving in Oxford37.

He was subsequently able to take the first degree of Holy Orders and became Curate of Nymet Rowland in August 182338. But to ensure that he was in line to receive the benefit of his father’s will, he still needed to attain the second degree of Holy Orders and to become a priest within his father’s lifetime, or risk losing everything. He took the Holy Orders of Priesthood at the Bishop of Exeter’s Palace on 14 October 1824—just 11 days before his father’s death39. He immediately claimedk the living of Lapford, and so began his infamous ministry.

A Timeline of Events

William Radford thrills Devon’s lobby against Catholic Emancipation with his rousing speech at Exeter Castle.

27 August 1821
William is involved in drunk and abusive behaviour at a respectable London oyster-house. He is fortunate that publicity over the incident is muted and does not reach Devon.

21 October 1821
William writes his Will. It may have pressurised Jack into continuing his studies at Oxford and becoming a priest.

9 May 1823
Jack Radford is awarded a BA by St Alban Hall, Oxford University.

24 August 1823
Jack become curate of Nymet Rowland on a stipend of £50 a year.

17 April 1824
Cobbett publishes his lengthy criticism of William Radford.

21 April 1824
Jack marries 17-year-old Thomasine Dawson at Aston-on-Trent, Derbyshire. She had inherited from her deceased father, easing Jack’s financial worries. Jack’s celebrations may have been spoilt by Cobbett’s attack on his father, just four days previously.

3 October 1824
Jack is ordained as a priest, meeting the inheritance conditions of his William’s will.

14 October 1824
William dies at Lapford Parsonage.


After William’s death, Jack Radford may have had some cause for optimism. He had the prospect of a good income from the tithes of the landowners of Lapford and Nymet Rowland; he could settle into Lapford Parsonage and start a family with his wife of 6 months (they would have fourteen children); he had some financial securing thanks to his wife’s inheritance from her deceased father; and the debts that had plagued his father seemed no longer to be his concern. He believed that the entailing of the family estate would ensure that he could take the benefits of its tithes, without inheriting its debts; the reality was dramatically different.

The legal process of entailing an estate was complex and fraught, with potential pit holes. William’s creditors had reason to hope that his legal arrangements were not water-tight. If it could be shown that Jack had inherited the estate, not as tenant-for-life (in tail), but as owner (in fee), they might be able to claim back their large loans. It would leave Jack owning more than he could possibly hope to pay back in his lifetime.

No time was wasted. Just two days after William’s demise, an advertisement was drafted for the sale of his livestock, his furniture and his valuable collection of some two hundred books. It was a body blow for Jack. He was the presumptive heir, yet here were his family heirlooms being prepared for sale, against his wishes, and with the family in mourning. The very speed seemed disrespectful. Jack’s mind must have been awash with feelings of frustration. Anger. Was this the action of Lapford yeomen? How could he minister to a parish without the respect of its most influential men? What hope was there of ever escaping the situation?

Sale of William Radford’s effects (North Devon Journal, 05 November 1824). The advertisement is dated 16th October—just two days after William had died.

The drafting of the sale particulars (above) is curious. How was it possible for William’s creditors to draft a long, detailed, inventory of his goods within hours of his death? It can only be assumed that William himself had been part of the prior creation of an inventory. If so, had William agreed to a sale and put the interests of his creditors above those of Jack? Had he known that Jack was unlikely to receive the estate entail, and would therefore inherit his debts?

Jack may have felt a sense of betrayal. His decided course of action was to attend the sale and to buy back his father’s furniture and other family heirlooms. It was an emotive, but rash, decision. He was “without having a farthing of money in his pocket to pay for them40.

Worse was to come. A long and expensive legal battle, fought out in the London Courts of Chancery, resulted in a judgement against Jack. The courts were satisfied that the legal arrangements of Jack’s grandfather, Rev. John Radford, had intended the passage of an entailed estate to William, then Jack. However, there was a legal necessity to set up new arrangements when William reached the age of 21 to perpetuate the passage. In 1790, the new legal documents had been signed jointly by William and his father, John. Their intention, almost certainly, was to continue the previous arrangement, but the documents were poorly written. Crucial clauses were missing or found to be void. The court disregarded any likely intent, and took the strict legal view that William Radford had inherited the estate from his father as owner, and not as entailed tenant-for-life. Jack consequently inherited William’s estate together with its huge debts.

Jack must have been devasted and enraged at the failed legal arrangements. Perhaps, he was angry with the legal profession for sloppy wording? Perhaps, he blamed the law court’s for a decision which he believed went against the clear intended wishes of his father and grandfather. Perhaps, he was incensed by the actions of Lapford’s landowners in bringing rapid litigation, tearing apart a long standing relationship of trust. Perhaps. But Jack’s dark, bullying and violent nature during his 34 years as Lapford Parson suggest an even deeper emotional scar. Was Jack’s inner anger the consequence of the relationship with his father. Had his father forced him into a career in which he was disinterested and ill-suited? Had his father led him down a path knowing the possibility of financial ruin that lay ahead? Had his father blotted respect for the Radford family through drunkenness, excesses, political dabbling and by incurring a national mocking by William Cobbett. Cobbett’s exposé of William just four days before Jack’s wedding could hardly have helped a father-son relationship that was already strained.

The story of Parson Jack—his sharp temper, his reported brutality and his alleged acts of murder—has always begged the question: why? There can be little excuse for his behaviour, but the event’s that unravelled in last year’s of his father’s life lead us to the beginning of an understanding.

Cobbett’s own story did not have a happy ending. Standing against powerful interests took its toll. He succumbed to chronic paranoia, to the extent he came to suspect his own family of collusion with his enemies.

Crowned with ivy: the grave of Rev. John Arundel Radford (‘Parson Jack’). There is no memorial to mark the grave his father, Rev. William Radford.


Rev. William Radford lived in a time when a parson could get away with high living, bad behaviour and bad debts, under a British system that offered protection to those in positions of social standing. In exposing the system to the masses, William Cobbett was influential in bringing about change. His articles criticising Radford and the tithe system may have spurred Lapford’s landowners into action to fight their losses. It was Jack Radford who ultimately paid the financial price, and who suffered the wrath of the very yeoman families whose support had been the mainstay of the church and its parson for centuries.

  1. Western Times, 01 June 1861 []
  2. Hazlitt’s Essay on Cobbett, published in his Table Talk,1821 []
  3. From Nuclear Bombs to Samuel Johnson (1982), AJP Taylor. Taylor said that Samuel Johnson topped his list []
  4. Hollis, P. (1970). The Pauper Press: a study in working-class radicalism of the 1830s, p.96, London: Oxford University Press []
  5. Moncrieff, W. T. (William Thomas). (1830). The march of intellect: a comic poem. London: W. Kidd []
  6. Labourers without land or property ownership were once referred to as ‘the commons of England’ before their rights to farm ancient common land were eroded. Cobbett hated the insulting expression ‘lower orders’ that came into usage. The term ‘commoner’ is still used disparagingly today []
  7. Cobbett was originally not a member of the Radical Party. He was a Tory who developed Radical sympathies. He did eventually become a member of the Radicals and, in 1832, became a Radical MP for Oldham. However, he maintained independent views throughout his life, and he never developed devout party allegiances []
  8. Norfolk Chronicle, 23 October 1824 []
  9. Exeter Flying Post, 29 April 1819 [] []
  10. Exeter Flying Post, 29 April 1819 []
  11. Traditionally held to mark the anniversary of Pitt’s death []
  12. Evening Mail, Monday 02 June 1823, quoting from The Devonshire Freeholder []
  13. ‘The Glorious 18th September’ celebrated the anniversary of the landing in England of Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. He was crowned George I thereby ensuring that the British Crown was not taken by Catholic claimants []
  14. Drakard’s Stamford News, 26 September 1823 []
  15. Billingsgate scurrility is foul language, after the fish market where it was notoriously to be heard []
  16. Drakard’s Stamford News, 26 September 1823 []
  17. Parish records show that he was rarely absent []
  18. held in the Old Hall at Lincoln’s Inn []
  19. Napoleon said of Smith: “That man made me miss my destiny”. During the Napoleonic Wars Smith had halted Napoleon’s march on the Ottoman empire by thwarting his attempts to take the city of Acre in present-day Israel. Acre was under siege for 60 days until Napoleon retreated having lost a third of his men []
  20. The claim that Barker was Sir Sidney Smith’s longtime secretary, and his very close friend, was made by Barker through his legal representative in the court case that resulted from his dining experience with William Radford. Newspaper reporters at the hearing describe that Barker was introduced by his counsel as Smith’s “bosom friend” and “chosen companion-in-arms”. According to naval records (National Maritime Museum Caid Library, Bound-Out Letters, ADM 354/216/378), a James Baker was briefly Secretary to Sir Sidney Smith from March 1803 to September 1804. This, it must be assumed, is the gentleman whom the Lapford parson dined with. But the association of this James Barker with Sir Sidney appears to have been brief. There is no mention of James Barker in Smith’s detailed memoirs, nor his published collections of his letters, nor his numerous biographies. Sir Sidney was, however, closely acquainted with a John Barker and his father William Barker, two highly influential men in the consulate and mercantile operations in the Levant (the important eastern Mediterranean region where Europe, Africa and Asia meet). It was in the Levant where Sir Sidney had heroically made his name repelling Napoleon. However, William and John Barker were still operating in the Levant at the time of Radford’s meeting with Mr Barker and couldn’t possibly have been in London. Neither did William and John Barker have a close living relative by the name of James. The claims that William Radford’s dining partner was a “bosom friend” and secretary to Sir Sidney Smith for many years therefore appear to be false []
  21. Saint James’s Chronicle, Thursday 22 November 1821 []
  22. New Times (London), 08 November 1822 []
  23. In 1822, Blackguard or Blaggard was regarded as a very offensive and condescending term. Blackguards were originally the lowest ranked servants in the household of a nobleman. ‘Black’ possibly refers to the fact that such workers were regularly dirty from sooty chores []
  24. Paraphrase of Radford’s words reported by Morning Herald (London), 08 November 1822 []
  25. General Evening Post,11 August 1821 []
  26. Commercial Chronicle (London), 09 November 1822 []
  27. The News (London), 10 November 1822 []
  28. Atkinson Morley []
  29. We can be almost certain that the Rev. William Radford named in the court case was Rev. William Radford of Lapford: 1) No other rectors of this name were in clerical office at this time (ref: Clergy of the Church of England Database;; 2) Reports of the hearing of the Oyster Rooms incident indicate that the rector was lodging in London, away from his usual parish, on account of wanting to attend a long court case. He had been to six hearings. The only protracted court case at the Court of Chancery that summer had been that of the Earl of Portsmouth who lived a few miles from Lapford and who was a Lapford landowner (Bowerthy Woods). He was well known to Radford. []
  30. Tryell, Jack Radford’s barrister, at a hearing for the Commutation of Tithes, Western Times 29 Dec 1838 []
  31. £7000-£8000 according to church patron, Wm.Henry Tanner, during questioning at a hearing into the commutation of tithes, Western Times, 29 December 1838 []
  32. Based on an average cash income of £317 from tithes agreed by the commissioner at the commutation of tithes hearing in 1839, Western Times 23 Feb 1839 []
  33. Will of Rev. John Radford, Clerk of Lapford, 1792, National Archives, PROB 11/1391/224) was 24-pages long, loaded with complex arrangements that detracted from his son’s inheritance. Like many other entail beneficiaries of the time, William Radford may have struggled with obligations forced upon him by an arrangement that he alone was unable to break. Furthermore, the entail made him life tenant (not owner), preventing him from resolving financial difficulties by selling land. Few institutions would consider loans against entailed estates ((An entail gave the beneficiary an interest in the estate for their lifetime after which it ceased to be part of their estate, making it difficult to secure loans against []
  34. The Commutation of Tithes hearing in 1839 heard that a significant portion of tithes was paid in kind e.g. George Challice of Lapford Mill milled the rector’s corn in lieu of paying any cash tithes []
  35. In 1833, two independent valuers, Dean and Croote, had estimated that the living was worth ~£700, but the average cash income from December 1828 – December 1835 was assessed in 1839 at only £317 (Western Times 23 Feb 1839). This clearly indicates that a large percentage of tithes were being paid in kind, and/or tithes were not being collected at the rate suggested by the valuation []
  36. Western Times, 16 February 1839 []
  37. Alumni Oxonienses: the Members of the University of Oxford, 1715-1886, University of Oxford, J. Foster, 1891, Parker and Company []
  38. CCED, Clergy of the Church of England Database, []
  39. William’s death does not appear to be sudden; Jack signs the Lapford parish registers from 12 Aug 1824 suggesting his father was ill []
  40. Western Times, 29 Dec 1838, reporting the words of Jack Radford’s barrister at the hearing Tanner vs Radford on 21 Dec 1838 []