Thursday, June 2, 2011

June 6, 1860 --- The Disgraceful Case at Stepney

The Rev. James Bonwell is arraigned before the Arches Court, legal tribunal of the Church of England. A curate at St. Philip's, Stepney, since 1845, Bonwell is the center of a disgraceful scandal. He is charged with the "surreptitious disposal of the body of a dead infant."

Although a married man, he had courted and proposed to Lizzie Yorath, a clergyman's daughter whom he met at the seaside in Margate. Her brother investigated the suitor and found out the sad truth too late, for his sister was pregnant. Turned out of her home, Lizzie traced Bonwell to London. With delivery imminent, Bonwell hid her in the parish schoolroom, where she gave birth to a son in August, 1859. The child was born with a difficulty in swallowing. A Dr. Godfrey, a physician of dubious - if not sinister - credentials, was consulted; the child died within three weeks.

Bonwell cajoled the parish undertaker to conceal the infant's body in a woman's coffin. Anonymous letters to the Bishop of London, signed "A Parishioner," forced an exhumation and the shocking discovery. Incredibly, Bonwell received only a "severe reprimand." The Press, especially the more sensational, demanded more. Contemporaneous with the Hatch scandal (see 14 May), the affair brought the Church into even greater-disrepute. Forced to act, the Bishop suspended Bonwell and summoned him to the Arches. After summerlong proceedings, the dishonorable story fully aired, the Court held: "Mr. Bonwell has committed the very gravest of ecclesiastical offenses, seduction and adultery, fraud and deception." The courtroom rang with cheers as Bonwell was "deprived of his benefices," i.e. removed from St. Philip's.

Bonwell battled on, claiming among other things, that he was more seducee than seducer. Finally, in July, 1861, the Privy Council, the final appeals court, upheld the Arches' ruling: "Mr. Bonwell's ministrations would be an offense and scandal - even his presence [would be] shocking." Bonwell withdrew into obscurity; The Times gloated: "There is no story of sin better known among us, so industriously has the sinner himself dinned it into us."

The church of St. Philip the Apostle, Stepney.

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