Irreverent Road Rage

In August 1846, Rev. John Radford, rector of Lapford, found himself in Exeter prison after an incident at a turnpike toll-gate.

The law gave the rector exemption from paying turnpike tolls when travelling on church business; however, most of his frequent journeying along the Lapford-Exeter turnpike was for a very different reason. The road gave “Parson Jack” access to his favourite pleasures: drinking and street wrestling. On a Saturday night, it was not uncommon for him to become so drunk and bruised that he had to be supported through the streets of Exeter and bundled into his trap. Yet, he always managed to deliver a robust Sunday morning sermon, albeit to an almost empty church.

The toll-gate incident took place on a summer’s evening, probably at Red Cow on the outskirts of Exeter. Parson Jack’s expected free passage was refused by the toll-collector, or ‘pikeman’, who probably failed to see how such a rude, dishevelled man could possibly be a clerk on church business! The parson was indignant: “Were the Apostles ever required to pay a toll?”. But, with free passage still refused, Rev. Radford pulled out a knife and in anger attempted to stab the pikeman.

Local policemen arrived at the scene but, rather than submitting to the authority of the law, the pugilist parson revelled in the prospect of a fight. It took four policemen to overpower him. With gyves on his wrists he was eventually carted off to Exeter gaol.

News of his arrest would not have been altogether shocking for Lapford villagers. Many already suspected him of getting a servant girl pregnant and drowning her in the rectory pond; and, it was widely believed that he had killed a stand-in curate. These matters were rarely spoken of; the village’s fearful silence probably helped Rev. Radford to ‘get away with murder’ in a very literal sense. One villager is said to have declared: “We’ve never hung a parson before, so we’re not going to start now!”

After years of bullying behaviour, Parson Jack had a hold over his parishioners as powerful as his famed fist. Bishop Philpotts, Bishop of Exeter, had been aware of the situation for many years, but he had done little other than use his influence to silence the press.

Now, with Parson Jack in prison, The Western Times finally found courage to speak out. On 22 August 1846, the newspaper unleashed pent-up journalistic frustration in a damming article. Both the parson and his bishop came in for a tirade of criticism. Why had the bishop attempted to keep news of Parson’s Jack’s violent nature hidden from public knowledge? Why had he failed to publicly rebuke the parson’s behaviour?

Such criticism was brave: the bishop was already suing the newspaper on a different matter. The newspaper took the risk:

“Why do we write this unreservedly at a time when a Bishop’s prosecution is pending over our heads? It is not that we wish to increase the perils of our position, but because we feel impelled, before all things, to speak the truth”.

No other newspaper dared report the toll-gate incident in their own words, but the Western Times’ article was quoted verbatim by numerous other journals across the country and as far away as Australia! The article did not criticise Lapford villagers for their silence. Rather, the journalist saw them as innocent victims. He wrote of the “great terror of the unhappy people” and suggested that few people could ever have been bold enough to “hazard the wrath” of a man so adept in fighting.

It might be expected that the Western Times article dealt Rev. Radford a blow, but the parson positively enjoyed trading insults as much as he enjoyed physical sparing. Some months after the incident, Parson Jack sent the editor of The Western Times a peace offering: a freshly caught pike. It was, perhaps, meant as a humorous nod to the pikeman at the toll-gate and a signal that the parson was now back on his feet, ready for another round.

The bishop didn’t take criticism so lightly. He may even have taken legal action to prevent his name, and that of Rev Radford, from being further discredited: there are no newspaper reports of the parson’s trial nor details of how long he spent in Exeter prison. In fact, Parson Jack received little further press attention until his death in 1861. Only then did journalists again feel free to tell the story of the parson’s hold over Lapford and the village’s decades of suffering.

One newspaper, retold the toll-gate incident—then 15 years in the past—and suggested that the parson had spent 12 months in prison for the attack. Parish christening records indicate that he was back at work much sooner but we can’t be certain: his signature starts to reappear in the parish registers but, curiously, it is quite different to his usual mark.

The Western Times,
22 August, 1846

On Rev. Radford:

He is a powerful, savage sort of a man… a man of lawless disposition and ferocious mind, a common pot-house brawler, a reverend professor of pugilism.
Jack Radford was never intended by nature for any gentlemanly calling. There is not one redeeming grace in his character that we are aware of.
As odd a specimen of a Christian minister, as the Devil himself could ordain for the work.

On Lapford villagers:

[They] have taken refuge in neighbouring places of worship whilst some, like their parson, have learnt to do with very little religion whatever.
The people of Lapford think themselves ill used in having to pay tithes for the support of such a minister.

On the Bishop of Exeter

He ought to be ashamed of having been a bishop all these years, and taken so many thousands of pounds of the public money for the discharge of the duties of an office which is worse than useless, if it be not exercised to repress such cases as this before us.
He should not disgrace the cloth permitting a person of his [Rev Radford’s] character to wear it.

Perils of the road—3

A Fist Like a Prize Beetroot

The Copplestone Inn was a large hostelry just past Copplestone Cross on the road to Exeter. Much of it survives as housing today. The inn was popular with road travellers and Rev. Radford was a regular patron.

His appearance was, apparently, unmistakable. The following is one man’s memory of first laying eyes on Rev. Radford outside the Copplestone Inn in about 1838. The account was written 23 years after the event, so the parson clearly left an impression!

A man came out of the Inn, and as the glare of the gig lamps fell upon him, a more ruffianly character we never saw …

He was dressed with an elaboration of ruffianism: bottle-green coat, plush waistcoat, a Belcher neckerchief, with a large flash knot —corduroy breeches, stockings and half boots, with a fist like a prize beetroot.
Western Times – Saturday 01 June 1861

Another account describes Rev Radford as being tall, with a 54 inch chest. In Nellie Drake’s book, A North-Devon Village, he is described as being:

of great size and girth, a yard and a half round the chest, and arms like oak saplings.

Perils of the road—4

Taking on the Navigators

On one trip to Exeter, in about 1843, Rev Radford was passing through Red Cow toll-gate. St. David’s Railway Station (nearly named Red Cow Station) was under construction nearby.

News came of a navvy who fancied his chances wrestling the parson. Always up for a decent bout, Rev Radford immediately accepted the challenge.

By all accounts, the navigator put up a good fight. He became one of the few men ever to floor the parson with a punch. It was said he delivered “a blow that would have finished a bullock”. But, Rev Radford brushed himself off and quickly saw off his opponent.

The parson rather admired the strong opposition of the navvy, and when the North Devon railway was being constructed through Lapford a few years later, he purposely made visits to the navvies to seek out worthy opponents. Neither wrestling (wraxling), nor fist-fighting (bruising) were fitting for a gentleman, let alone a clergyman, but it was a pastime he adored—and excelled in!

Wraxling and Bruising

The Parson was an enthusiast of Devonshire wrestling (or wraxling in local dialect), but his late nights in Exeter also involved blooded fist fighting (or ‘bruising’). In a refereed wraxling bout, the object was to ‘back’ your opponent, landing his back flat on the floor before any other part of the body. Kicking was allowed but not the use of the fists. Rev Radford’s bout with the navvy clearly involved blows, and was therefore probably no-rules bruising rather than refereed wraxling.

Perils of the road—5

Jumping Jack

Like Parson Jack, Isaac Newton Fellowes, who became the 5th Lord Portsmouth, was a regular user of the new turnpike road through Lapford, and just as prone to episodes of bad temperament!

He often drove through the parish on his way to and from Eggesford House, and with ‘four-in-hand’ he was one of the fastest vehicles on the road. This led to occasional incidents with slow village carters. Anybody in his way was likely to be punished personally with a slash of his whip!

In a rare act of empathy with the downtrodden carters—or perhaps just for sheer devilment—Parson Jack once dressed himself as a labourer and laid down inside a cart pretending to be asleep. When Newton Fellowes came along and found the sleeping carter deaf to his commands, he flew into a perfect fury. He began to flourish his whip as usual. Suddenly, up jumped the parson and gave the future lord a severe drubbing.

A version of this tale was told in The Blackmore Country, By F J Snell, 1906

“Horseflesh”, the 5th Earl of Portsmouth, caricature from Vanity Fair, 1 July 1876.

Perils of the road—6

Shadow boxing

Rev. Radford, brash and brawn, must have been an imposing figure to meet on the roads in and around Lapford. The turnpikes, traps and toll-houses of his lifetime are long gone and Lapford Cross now beats to the regular passing of mechanical engines along the A377. But, visit the quieter lanes, and it is said that you might still meet the spirit of Parson Jack.

A favourite haunt was said to be the now deserted farmstead of Holywell along Eastington Lane, where a footpath still leads to Rev. Radford’s old parsonage. Even in recent years, there have been accounts of a hare-like darting white image along Eastington Lane. Is light-footed Jack still looking for a decent opponent to spar with?