The Day The Rural Dean Caught Fire (6 July 1973)
Are your one of those unfortunates who sometimes feel an almost irresistible urge to laugh at the wrong time? If so, you are not alone. I have been plagued by it all my life.
The first incident I remember happened at a funeral when I was a nipper. I was not supposed to be there. Our house was near the churchyard gate. Weddings were all right – sometimes the bridegroom or one of the fathers would grandly scatter a handful of pennies at the gate which we village children would scramble for. But funerals were not “all right;” for those we were supposed to keep out of sight and the blinds were downed. On this occasion I was trapped by the line of horse-drawn cabs that drew up at the gate.
One of the regular cabbies was so small that except for his normally lugubrious countenance he seemed all top hat and whip. That day wreaths were being handed down to him from the top of the hearse. But he was not ready for one of them. This was a fine affair in the shape of a harp and fell on his top hat and finished around his neck, strings and all, like a Honolulu garland. Strange how such pictures remain with you for the rest of your days.
Though I lived near the church and attended the adjoining church day school – where I once won the Catechism prize – I went to the Ebenezer Methodist Chapel on Sundays, well scrubbed and in my best corduroy trousers that stank to high heaven, especially when it rained. Then, as now, such chapels had to rely a great deal on “local preachers.” But in those days some of those worthy men had to make up in ardour and enthusiasm what they lacked in learning.
One day one of them – a collier – was pacing to and from in the pulpit and treating us to a thorough-going harangue on the story of Jonah when, in his excitement, he began talking not about Jonah in the belly of a whale, but about Jonah in the whale of a belly!
Another time he expatiated on the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo in the burning, fiery furnace and I can best leave to your imagination what he made of that combination before he had done.
The time came when I began to use the chapel sermons for shorthand practice. Later, as a reporter, I had to deal with lectures-cum-sermons by such eminent men as William Younger, Studdert Kennedy (the “Woodbine Willie” of the first world war) Sangster and Weatherhead, but I found them simplicity itself compared with our old local preachers.
To return to my original subject, do you remember how that altogether-loveable man, Canon C.A Wheeler, vicar of Fenny Stratford and rural dean of Bletchley, once inadvertently achieved international fame by catching fire?
The Gazette of March 8, 1947, tells how Fr. Wheeler was attending a clergyman’s service at Leighton Buzzard. It included a requiem mass for Fr. Carter, of Newton Longville, who had recently died. A hymn which had a line referring to the “consuming fires of sin” was being sung when Leighton’s vicar, Fr. Forrest, noticed that Fr. Wheeler’s surplice had been ignited by a candle.
Fr. Forrest beat out the flames with this hands and Fr. Wheeler said afterwards that he had felt unusually warm, but had not known he was afire.
That was only the beginning of it. The story got into the national press and thence ran like wildfire around the world, becoming more and more embroidered en route. Thus, on March 24 the American magazine, Time, reported: “Day of wrath, oh day of mourning’ sang the officiating clergyman at the funeral service in Britain’s Leighton Buzzard parish church, ‘see fulfilled the prophet’s warning, heaven and earth in ashes burning.’
“Suddenly a flickering ethereal light danced about the venerable head of Rural Dean Cyril A. Wheeler. The back of his snowy surplice had burst into flame from a nearby candle.
“The dean looked startled but stood quietly as Leighton’s quick thinking vicar S. John Forrest, hurried over and began beating him on the back with a hymn book.
“In a moment the crisis was over. As the solemn requiem mass swept sonorously on (‘Yet, good Lord, in grace complying, rescue me from fires undying’) Dean Wheeler hurried out to don a new surplice.
“I felt unusually warm,” he explained later, “but I didn’t know I was on fire until the vicar beat me.”
“Said the vicar: ‘No serious damage – except that he was wearing one of my surplices and they’re hard to come by nowadays.’”
Letters and poems were receiver (sic) from all over the country. Fr. Wheeler and Fr. Forrest saw the amusing side of the affair and the following lines appeared in the April issue of the Leighton parish magazine:
What kindly perfume fills the air
Within this lofty house of prayer?
These incense clouds which everywhere
Enfold the sacred scene.
The truth, dear child, let me declare:
This godly saviour, sweet and fair,
It is the fragrance rich and rare
Of smould’ring rural dean.
Then there was that very sad occasion a few years later when the Rector of Bletchley, the Rev. Allan Campbell, and his family were burnt out of the rectory.
Mr Campbell had rowed for Cambridge in one of the pre-war boat races and among the items saved from the fire were two oars which he treasured.
A young colleague of mine sent a line to the dailies that Mr. Campbell had saved the pair of oars he had used in the boat race! What’s more, this was printed.
Inevitably, among all the messages of sympathy, was one from an old crew-mate who said he now understood why Cambridge lost.