Port Elizabeth of Yore: Clergymen Behaving Badly

Society holds priests and other arbiters of human behaviour to a higher standard than normal humans. So when their behaviour does not conform to these standards, the disbelief and interest is all the greater. 

So it was with two clergymen of St. Mary’s Church half a century apart. 

Main picture: Rev Francis McCleland

The first culprit was my great great grandfather, the Rev Francis McCleland, the first pastor of St Mary’s Church in Port Elizabeth.

This incident arose in 1826, half a year after his appointment. This was not his first action which caused enmity and consternation since leaving Ireland as he had brought his profession into disrepute on a number of previous occasion

Irish Temper

We have all met this type of person: quick to take umbrage and even quicker with their hot tongue. Perhaps it was his Irish heritage but whatever the reason for it, Rev Francis McCleland probably did not endear himself to other people who were probably wary of him.

Lord Charles Henry Somerset
Lord Charles Henry Somerset

Instead of firing him in 1823, the Governor, Sir Lord Charles Somerset had relented after Synnot’s intervention, and had merely transferred the irascible priest from Clanwilliam to Port Elizabeth. As a leopard does not change its spots, so did McCleland not mend his ways.

In this instance, the issues evolved from a complaint by Capt. Evatt during April and May 1826. At issue was an allegation by Evatt that McCleland had travelled to Grahamstown without leave and hence neglected his Church Services. On the 16th May 1826, letters of outrage passed between them.

In response, Mr John Anthony Chabaud, the Secretary of the Church Committee – either having read or heard about the letter that Capt. Evatt had written – wrote to the Government stating: “[I] do declare [that] the subject matter of that complaint or charge to be without foundation”.

The Church Committee also passed a resolution requesting Rev. McCleland to accept the thanks of the Committee for general good conduct and usefulness as Chaplain. Copies of these resolutions were then forwarded to the Government with a letter from Chabaud.

Evatt retaliated by claiming that the Church Meetings are called “whenever they see fit without reference to him and he is met with marked disrespect”.

Captain Francis Evatt
Captain Francis Evatt

Bickering and misunderstanding continued from both sides – the Church Council and Mr Evatt – with Mr Chabaud being the intermediary, attempting to pacify all parties. However, later on, he and McCleland then quarrelled. Chabaud responded by stating, “I hope that you are not in any way interested or connected with him or his descendents for he [McCleland] is a most unamicable character”. Chabaud then continued to sully McCleland’s character even further. “Even on the voyage out he evinced a most quarrelsome, mischief-making disposition and is in constant hot water with one and another in Port Elizabeth after settling here”.

Remember that these gripes are being made about McCleland’s character flaws barely six months after he arrived in Port Elizabeth.

At this point Chabaud gets to the nub of one of his criticisms of McCleland’s character. “There is barely a door open to him in the village [Port Elizabeth] through his having quarrelled with everyone but the malicious and scandalous reports [that] he sets in motion regarding a young married lady (who had visited Chabaud)”. McCleland “makes an attempt to blast the character and prospects of a beautiful but unfortunate young female and says some terrible things, which are worse, coming from a clergyman”.

In order to smooth things over, Capt. Evatt decides to give a dinner party to which the most prominent people are invited. The morning before this takes place, Rev. McCleland and his wife Elizabeth invite Mrs Chabaud – who is now hauled into the fray – to No. 7 Castle Hill. During this meeting, they say the most insulting things about her guest, the young lady. They refuse to go to the dinner if “that lady is to be there”. They “suggest [that] Mr Chabaud inspan his cart and send her home immediately or their house would get a bad name, and many worse things”.

The poor woman returned home very agitated and informed her husband, Mr Chabaud, what had transpired. Incensed, Mr Chabaud writes to Francis for an explanation. Nothing is recorded of this.

When confronted, McCleland “hedges and prevaricates and even, in a terrible fright, says he is happy to see her at his house (No. 7)”. This did not prevent him from continuing the slander and tensions escalate until Mr Chabaud deliberately decided to insult Francis in the expectation that McCleland would either prove his statements or retract them.

Then on 12th August 1826, Francis drafted a letter to the District Secretary, Roselt, in which he details a confrontation between Chabaud and himself, during which he is called a slanderer and a pest of society.

St Mary's Church in 1876
St Mary’s Church in 1876

Furthermore, he requests him to intervene.

As can be imagined, the quarrel caused a great sensation in the small community for most of the leading members were involved, either directly or as witnesses.

Mr Chabaud’s witnesses are Capt. Evatt, Mr. Dawson, Capt. Sheaffe and Mrs. Chabaud. Roselt, the District Secretary was undecided who should hear this case. Ultimately, it was heard before the Court of the Landdrost and Heemraden on the 3rd November 1826. After lengthy evidence from both sides, Mr Chabaud is fined RxD300 and costs. Furthermore Mr Chabaud was considered a “peaceably disposed person and not a quarrelsome character”.

It was then admitted that “since Mr McCleland had taken up his residence in Port Elizabeth, broils and dissensions have become common”. Mr Chabaud in evidence stated at length that “this Revd. Divine sent by our Maternal Government to preach in this remote corner of her dominion Peace and Goodwill to all men” and continued by mentioning his own upright character in contrast to the irreligious behaviour of McCleland.

Storm in a Teacup

Ironically this incident also involved an Irishman. Mr O’Donnell, the complainant, sued the Reverend Augustus Theodore Wirgman, the vicar of St Mary’s Church, for £20 damages with costs for “accusations and false rumours.” These alleged misdeeds had apparently led to O’Donnell losing his billet at the Standard Bank.

Rev A.T. Wirgman
Rev A.T. Wirgman

O’Donnell exhibited some unfortunate habits one of which was to roll up his sleeve as if anticipating a fight and when seated, he invariably hitched his trousers up over his knee. Moreover, his face twitched giving one the impression that he had been imbibing “too freely.” Apart from these minor peculiarities, he was an honest Irishman whose religious principles were said to be more in favour of Catholicism than of the opposite creed.

On the night of Sunday, 13th January 1878, he had with his supper a bottle of beer and two bottles of ginger beer forming a drink known as “shandy gaff,” and then proceeded with a fellow clerk to attend evening service at St Mary’s. On seeing him enter the church, Rev Wirgman was said to have remarked to a Mr. Biden, “O’Donnell is quite tight again. See if I don’t have him turned out before the service is over!” O’Donnell sat down next to his friend in the Civil Commissioner’s seat and when the sexton came up, he made a remark to him about putting him too far forward in the pews. Whereupn the sexton replied, “You had better hire two seats.” To this remark, O’Donnell whispered jokingly, “I’ll toss you for two!”

The night being rather warm, O’Donnell appeared very restless and inattentive, besides lounging about and constantly gazing down the aisle.

At the conclusion of the service, O’Donnell had just reached the Church porch on his way out when Rev Wirgman – who is said to have disrespectfully thrown off his surplice – came up to him and sternly reprimanded him for his irreverence of posture and general shabby demeanour and studied inattentiveness throughout the service.

Whereupon O’Donnell became annoyed  and used “foul language” towards the reverend within hearing of other people.

St. Mary's Church on the right of the Commercial Hall in which Francis held two shares
St. Mary’s Church on the right of the Commercial Hall in which Francis McCleland held two shares

Mr Wirgman admitted that O’Donnell’s conduct was “the last straw.” The next day, Mr Wirgman handed in a written complaint to the bank officials. The manager suggested to O’Donnell that he apologise to the parson but O’Donnell refused and handed in his resignation from the bank, whereupon O’Donnell brought an action of libel against Mr Wirgman.

At the conclusion of the case, O’Donnell was awarded £10 damages with costs.

A clever cartoon in the “Observer” summed up the whole ridiculous affair under the apt title of “A Storm in a Teacup.”

Storm in a teacup
Storm in a teacup

Similar to Rev McCleland in some ways, O’Donnell was also oversensitive and easily offended.


Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

The Rev. McCleland Story in South Africa by Grizel Hart

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