Thursday, 12 March 2015

A potted biography about Kilvert and his time at Bredwardine

His full name was Robert Francis Kilvert, although he was always known by his middle name or Frank (as my dad was, his middle name being the same). and he was born in 1840, so a contemporary of Thomas Hardy, amongst others.  He was a Wiltshire man, being born in Chippenham, son of the Redv. Robert Kilvert, who was rector of Langley Burrell.  He finished his education at Oxford, after which he followed his father into the church and was his curate at Langley Burrell in 1863/64, before heading for the parish of Clyro, just a mile from Hay-on-Wye, in Herefordshire, heart of the Welsh Marches area, spending 7 happy years there.

His diaries began in 1870 (those that remain anyway as they have fallen foul of his wife and an elderly niece down the years) and are a fascinating social history of that period.  Amongst his Clyro parishioners  was the old soldier who had served at Waterloo who told some wonderfully lurid details of his wartime experiences.

In 1876/77 he was Vicar of St Harmon in Radnorshire - which is some three miles from Rhayader in mid-Wales.  He ended his career at beautiful Bredwardine, where we were on Sunday, although his stay there was all too short, being from 1877 until his premature death of peritonitis in September 1879, just three weeks after his marriage.

Those are the bare bones, and don't sound very interesting without the padding of his writing, and his personality which allowed him to be at ease with all stratas of society.  He was equally at home in the drawing rooms of the local gentry, and the kitchen of his humblest parishioner.  He walked many many miles to seek them out, and in fact was a prodigious walker.

Extract from his diary, where he writes of looking out across this very churchyard:

"The southern side of the churchyard was crowded with a multitude of tombstones.  They stood thick together, some taller, some shorter, some looking over the shoulders of others, and as they stood up all looking one way and facing the morning sun, they looked like a crowd of men, and it seemed as if the Morning of the Resurrenction had come and the sleepers had arisen from their graves and were standing upon their feet, silent and solemn, all looking towards the East to meet the Rising of the Sun."

We drove across the splendid 6 arch brick bridge (built in 1879) which links Brobury and Bredwardine across the River Wye.  Kilvert wrote of a dreadful flood there in November 1878, in which "the Hereford coach was wrecked near the bridge because the coachman would not take the bearing reins off the horses and their heads were held under water."  (Bearing reins were a dreadful "fashion accessory" deemed necessary at that time - you may remember that Anna Sewell wrote scathingly of them in "Black Beauty" - and went from the bit up through a keeper near the browband and back to the backband of the harness, holding the horses heads up "proudly".  Of course, with their heads tied in this way they could not move them down or have movement to get their heads away from the floods.

More of that flood:

"So far the greatest flood of this century.  Before breakfast I went down to the bridge to see how the Jenkins family were.  Soon after I passed last night the river came down with a sudden rush and wave and filled the road full of water and they had to escape to the trap, carrying their children on their backs, wading through water knee deep and leaving 3 feet of water in the house, the house also being surrounded by water and the water running in at front and back.  Mr Stokes kindly rode down from Old Court to see if they were safe, the water was then up to his horse's girths.  Many people were flooded out of their houses at Letton and Staunton and spent the nightr on Bredwardine bridge watching the flood.  A number of cattle and colts were seen to pass under the bridge in the moonlight and it was feared that they would be drowned.  Some women saw a bullock swept under the bridge at noon today.  Mr W Clarke told me that the Whitney iron railway bridge was carried away last night by the flood and 2 miles of line seriously damaged.  No trains can run for 3 months, during which time the gap will be filled by coaches."

On New Year's Day 1879, Kilvert stayed up to see the old year old and the new one in.  He recorded:

"I was up last night to see the old year out and the new year in.  The Church bells rang at intervals last night and all today.  At 6 I went to Crafta Webb to begin my cottage lectures there.  It was raining fast when I started, but when I got as far as the Common, I noticed that the ground was white.  At first I thought it was moonlight.  Then I saw it was snow.  At Crafta Webb the snowstorm was blinding ans stifling, and I passed by Preece's cottage where I was going to hold the lecture without seeing it in the thickness of the driving snow.  Before the lecture I went in to see old John Williams.  On opening the door I was confronted by the motionless silent figure of a person veiled and wearing a comical cap which I presently discovered to be a dead pig hanging up by its snout.  John Williams deplored by being out on such a night and said it was not fit for me.  There were not many people at the service but the usual faithful few.  When i came back the storm was worse and so thick and driving that I was glad I was between hedges and not out on the open hill."

He was certainly tough and dedicated to his parishioners.  If you would like some more extracts, shout out.


  1. My husband read one of his diaries, liked it, but said the Rev. definitely had a thing for young girls.

  2. I would like to think it wasn't in a sexual sense, as he appeared to be very naive with young woman generally and regularly falling in love.

  3. I love Kilvert's diary, it is so wonderfully written and makes you feel like he would have been a friend, had you known him. He had such a gift for making the people and places he described come alive and jump off the page. Lovely post.

  4. He did sound a lovely chap didn't he CT? What a shame he didn't live long enough to have the family he obviously longed for. His diaries would have to be one of my Desert Island Disc choices for books.

  5. Lovely revealing post on Kilvert but I felt sad for the horses, I remember excavating at Langley Burrell, medieval pottery kiln, it was a very small place.

  6. Thelma - so did I. ignorant barsteward of a coachman. I don't think I've even been nearer to Langley Burrell than pootling along the A350. I imagine his parents are buried there. Yup - just checked 1882 and 1889 (his father dieing first).