WILLIAM BRETT OF LINTON
William Brett, the Stapleford incumbent
since 1837, became the new vicar of Linton living in November
1844. His appointment marked a radical change in direction
for the Linton Church since he was closely associated with
the Evangelical wing of the Anglican faith. Edmund Fisher
was far more conservative in outlook, but even he had moved
with the times by establishing the National School to educate
a new generation of Anglicans.
The Evangelicals were closely linked to the Church Missionary
Society which had been founded in 1799. They were passionate
about the gospel and wanted the teachings of Christ to be
lived and shared with the wider congregation. Although they
were a minority movement within the Church they were very
influential in the Ely Diocese at this period. They were supporters
of the anti-slavery movement, advocates of penal and factory
reform and favoured the education of the poor. Practical Christianity
should involve the richer classes in providing sustenance
for the poor, especially since the implementation of the harsh
Poor Law in 1834.
The Reverend Brett was determined to improve the morals and
conduct of Linton society by rigorously enforcing the laws
forbidding gambling, cruel sports and the excesses of drinking.
The Sunday shop and pub closure laws were largely ignored
in Linton and this was going to change! Overseas Christian
missions needed the financial support of the Linton congregation
and the Reverend Fisher had largely ignored their needs.
Evangelicals were also strong opponents of the new Tractarian
or Oxford Movement. This conservative group saw the Church
of England as a valid part of a worldwide Catholic Church,
and its identity in terms of its pre-Reformation authority.
In practical terms this meant that local churches needed to
be changed from being “preaching houses” to churches
where the altar was the focus of worship. There was a renewed
interest in pre-Reformation liturgy, doctrine and practice.
Evangelicals like William Brett deplored this move away from
the central place of the sermon, and under his ministry Linton
Church retained its galleries, triple -decker pulpit and simple
clerical vestments. Evangelicals believed that the celebration
of communion was less important than preaching, so the Linton
chancel was comparatively neglected and in a poor state of
William Brett was a fellow of Corpus Christi and a close friend
of James Bowstead, Bishop of Lichfield from 1839 to 1843.
Corpus was one of the most radical of the Cambridge Colleges
at this period and James Bowstead was a prominent national
leader of the Evangelical movement.
Brett was 39 years of age, and reasonably well off when he
married 33 year old Mary Brown in 1836. She was the daughter
of a Humberside solicitor and the couple had two young children.
The Bretts resided at Abington for a brief period and pressurised
Pembroke College and the Keene family to provide a substantial
Linton Vicarage residence, at an estimated cost of around
£1,000. His tactics seem to have failed since he moved
into the present number 3 Church Lane as a tenant in late
1845. The couple named it “Winchester Lodge” and
purchased the property in 1850.
On arrival in Linton, the new vicar demonstrated his pastoral
priorities by establishing a Shoe and Clothing Club for the
poorer parishioners, and the Cambridge press described him
as “a zealous and respected clergyman”.
By early 1847, a Soup kitchen had been set up in the old Market
Hall and the poor were served by the richer ladies of the
local congregation. A report in the Cambridge Chronicle claimed
that some recipients had complained that the soup, “was
poor stuff and rubbish”. The vicar revealed an autocratic
side to his character when, having tasted the soup, he wrote
that “critics did not need food if they were too dainty
to value it”.
His evangelical beliefs were reflected in his home visits
to all classes of parishioners and his ardent support for
charities. The Church was usually packed for his sermons and
collections were made for the needy across the globe. The
victims of the catastrophic Irish Famine were helped in 1847
and money raised for the building of an Episcopal Church in
New York. Lintonians saw a coloured clergyman for the first
time when an American minister preached to the congregation
William Brett supported Church Missionary and Bible Societies,
largely ignored by his predecessor. He was determined to reform
the morals of the local populace and drink was already impacting
on the behaviour of Lintonians. The relaxation of the drinking
laws in 1830 allowed any enterprising householder to open
a beer house for an annual fee of £2. Pubs even defied
the Sunday closure laws and little had been done to restrict
Everything changed in March, 1846 when the vicar demanded
that the Vestry “instruct the local constabulary to
enforce the law”. Charlotte Brand the landlady of a
beer house on the site of the later Princess of Wales public
house, was fined for opening during divine service. All the
Linton pubs immediately obeyed the law. Brett’s zeal
was then turned on local shopkeepers who were ignoring the
Sunday closing regulations. The selling or baking of bread
was banned and Linton shopkeepers no longer violated the Sabbath.
The Reverend Brett had a tremendous impact on Church attendance,
largely because of his evangelical preaching skills. The 1851
National Religious Census recorded that 62% of Lintonians
attended Christian Churches compared with the national figure
of 41%. Brett had stemmed the Non-Conformist threat and two
thirds of all Linton churchgoers went to the Anglican services.
Most Evangelicals believed that the Methodist split from the
Anglican Church was avoidable.
When the local Linton Congregationalists threatened to establish
a rival British School in 1847, Brett attempted to accommodate
their concerns. He suggested that the National School should
be run separately from the Anglican Sunday School to ensure
that all children would receive a non-denominational religious
education. The catechism and Anglican prayers would be confined
to the Sunday School and harmony of the local community safeguarded.
Sadly, the Master of Pembroke College vetoed this liberal
plan and commented that Brett’s proposal was “an
idea so novel we cannot entertain it”.
Tragedies in his family life contributed to the breakdown
in William Brett’s health by early 1858. In November
1849 a squib from a firework blinded 9 year old John, his
eldest child. John died of consumption in 1856 and tragedy
struck once more in January 1858 when his fourth child, Margaretta,
died when she was only 11.
Even though Brett was a man of indefatigable energy and sterling
character, these family losses contributed to the final breakdown
in his health. He resigned the living a few weeks before his
death on 22 December 1858. Mary Brett sold up in March 1859
and moved to Winchester.
The Linton curate, the Reverend Coles acted as caretaker vicar
pending a new appointment. It is significant that he was not
appointed as Brett’s successor even though he was regarded
as “an excellent preacher who gave beautiful sermons…
the Church was never to be so liberally crowded as on the
occasion of his departure, the galleries, stairs and aisles…
many were forced to stand.” The congregation presented
him with a parting gift of fifty guineas, a huge sum in those
days. However, times were changing and the evangelicals were
a lesser force in the Anglican Church. Most English parishes
were now coming under the influence of the Anglo-Catholic
movement and Pembroke College did not favour the charismatic
preaching style of the Reverend Coles.
William Brett had done little to improve the fabric of the
building and Victorian England was to witness the transformation
of most gothic churches. The Brett memorial is placed on the
south wall of Linton Church above the porch. The inscription
refers to the two children who died in Linton. Mary Brett
paid for the memorial to her late husband and two of their
children, but chose to be buried in Winchester after her death