Victorian Bournemouth (168)

Victorian Bournemouth (167): A. M. Bennett’s legacy (1)

Double, double toil and trouble


Victorian Bournemouth (167) investigates how the appointment of Reverend Bennett’s first two successors as the town’s St Peter’s vicars disrupted the parish. The events provide insight onto the strength of feeling associated with different styles of worship then prevailing within the Church of England during the 1880s. The Reverend Bennett dominated religious discussion at Bournemouth both during his life and after.

Victorian Bournemouth (167): background

Ecclesiastical terrain

During Bournemouth’s early years, organised religious worship took place within St Peter’s, a small church built by the parish’s patron, George Gervis-Meyrick. He presented the living to Reverend A. M. Bennett, an enthusiastic High Churchman. He improved and developed the St Peter’s church building during his ministry lasting over thirty years. As the town grew, Bennett expanded his influence through sponsoring a network of affiliated churches, some of which acquired parishes. He made Bournemouth a national showpiece for High Church rituals. In time, several Dissenting churches and meeting houses appeared, as well as a small Catholic presence. From 1867, a new foundation, Holy Trinity, offered Low Church services to Anglicans disagreeing with Bennett’s ritualistic fare. During the 1880s, the Bournemouth Guardian listed fourteen Anglican churches, many of which had affiliations with St Peter’s. The number of Dissenting places to worship, however, exceeded this, reaching almost twenty.

Reverend A. M. Bennett

Apart from Holy Trinity, a Low Church, most if not all of the other Anglican churches and parishes fell under the influence of Reverend Bennett. During his ministry he had implemented an enthusiastic, perhaps aggressive, programme, a side-effect of which placed him amongst the canon of ‘Bournemouth Founders’. He sought to extend his form of Anglican worship by championing local education and by providing public support to the Temperance movement. By his death, therefore, the Reverend Bennett had achieved a position of significant influence and power within Bournemouth’s communities, religious and social. Some thought that in his worship ritual he had become a law unto himself. An analysis suggested that several aspects went against the format approved by the Church of England. Critics described them as illegal. Nevertheless, in his support, Reverend Bennett had assembled a formidable array of loyal adherents, willing to challenge any who sought change, whether patron or bishop.

Victorian Bournemouth (167): revolts of 1881-1882

Death of A. M. Bennett

Reverend Bennett died in January, 1880. His departure initiated a struggle for ecclesiastical and also social power that blighted St Peter’s for some years. Although sudden, Bennett’s death came after a period of severe illness. His supporters had already taken steps to turn his ministry into a legacy. Curates, churchwardens, sidesmen, and leading members of the congregation and parish above all wanted to avoid the possibility of ‘sweeping change’. They may have decided that, as A. M. Bennett perhaps embodied the sui generis nature of St Peter’s, its continuity might face threat after his death. The dead man’s son, the Reverend A. S. Bennett, a curate at St Peter’s, stood ready to take on his father’s living. This appointment would preserve the extreme ritual established over the previous thirty years. Furthermore, the prominent place that St Peter’s occupied within the local Anglican religious landscape had a good chance of continuing.

The patron’s actions

Gervis-Meyrick, the patron, surprised the Bennett group, who wanted his son as vicar, by appointing Prebendary Harland, his brother-in-law. As a Low Churchman, the new vicar posed a threat to the status quo at St Peter’s. Hard campaigning by Bennett’s group caused Harland to choose discretion over valour. He resigned after six months. The patron now offered the living to an Evangelical churchman. As a former Bishop of Mauritius, Vincent Ryan had achieved much higher elevation within the established church than Reverend Bennett’s son. The patron appears to have asked the Bennett party to weigh the social value of having a Bishop as their vicar over possible alterations to their High Church ritualism. They called this possible bluff by continuing their opposition until Bishop Ryan resigned after a year. Gervis-Meyrick also seems to have had enough, for he appointed as vicar the Reverend Stopford Ram, a ‘moderate High Churchman’.

Victorian Bournemouth (167): assessing the revolt

Local prominence

To interpret the full importance of the parishioners’ revolt or the ‘War of Bennett’s Succession’ 1880-1881 the wider context needs consideration. St Peter’s formed one of Bournemouth’s foundation stones. The church’s physical improvement and augmentation reflected if not symbolized the commercial and cultural achievement made by Bournemouth since its beginning. Furthermore, St Peter’s headed a network of affiliated churches and sub-parishes. Thus, it held a position of religious primacy within the town and its rural hinterland. Men important within the community would have counted acting as churchwarden or even sidesman as a significant social achievement. Changes to aspects of St Peter’s liturgy would have had enormous religious repercussions, but, perhaps, even greater social impact. 

Tourist asset

A previous paper has discussed how, through A. M. Bennett’s efforts, Bournemouth became a showplace for religious tourists. The resort attracted a noticeable number of clergymen, for whom services at St Peter’s provided an attraction. Thus, the church and its vicar became part of Bournemouth’s visitor offering. It also perhaps enhanced the resort’s national reputation much as did the Sanatorium or even the Pier. Maintaining continuity within St Peter’s style of worship, therefore, went beyond religious confines. As a tourist asset, it contributed to the income stream that irrigated the town’s commercial endeavours. The press published a list of parishioners who supported action against Bishop Ryan’s appointment. This consists not only of privileged people, wealthy people who had retired in the resort, but middling people who ran local retail businesses. Such people would have wanted to avoid controversy as much as a dilution in the ritual performed in their church.


Victorian Bournemouth (167) has explored the events which disturbed St Peter’s parishioners during the period 1880-1881. Keen to maintain continuity in religious service after Reverend A. M. Bennett’s death, the parishioners proved willing to challenge both their Lord of the Manor and their Bishop who appeared to seek change. The turmoil formed part of Bennett’s legacy to the town.


For references and engagement, please get in touch. Main primary sources: here and here (subscriptions needed). For more about Reverend Bennett see here, here, here, and here.

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