When the Devil came to Chester!
The story of Charles Kingsley, Red Canon of the Victorians

In 1869 the good people of Chester received news of the Devil coming to town. Moreover, he was booked for a long stay!

There was understandably some consternation. The Devil had assumed an earthly guise - that of Charles Kingsley, known to us as the author of The Water Babies and Westward Ho! But in his time he was the Red Canon of the mid-Victorian era; a Christian Socialist, Chartist supporter, friend of trade unions and similar heretical ideas.

Kingsley preached such incendiary ideals as universal brotherhood, equality for women, giving all your worldly wealth to the poor, and so forth, which was all very well in church on a Sunday, but was felt to be a bit impractical for daily life - not to say downright dangerous!

The author of these high-flown principles had begun his career as a radical-minded crowd-puller with fiery speeches and a series of pamphlets on the political themes of the day.

He had become a leading light in the Chartist movement and was always in the van of their marches and demonstrations. His rousing speeches at their rallies had alarmed .the upper classes with nightmare visions of the revolutionary mobs surging up the Mall and a guillotine in Trafalgar Square.

As the Chartist campaign quietened, Kingsley had advanced his position in the Church of England. While still sponsoring minority causes, he had also turned to literature and began to make a name for himself as an author, producing in 1850 his first novel Alton Locke, followed in 1851 by Yeast, both dealing with contemporary social problems in a forthright way.

In Hypatia, 1853, he had dealt with the highly intellectual subject of early Christianity in conflict with Greek philosophy at Alexandria.

In 1855 had come a very different Westward Ho! that rousing adventure of Elizabethans on the Spanish Main. In 1863, there appeared what is probably his best known title, The Water Babies, and in 1866 Hereward the Wake, a tale of Saxons versus their Norman overlords in medieval England. In between these works he continued to write for publications such as Christian Socialist and Politics for the People.

The surprising thing was, that with all his revolutionary writings, Kingsley was well received at Court, being Chaplain to the Queen and tutor to the Prince of Wales. This was an aspect of him that probably restrained many people in attacking him.

Such then, was the firebrand who now descended on peaceful Chester. But the natives need not have worried. Like many rebels, Kingsley's fire had cooled to a mere glow with the passing years, and the slow realisation that life and humanity are infinitely more complex than they appear in the bright light of youthful idealism.

Literature and scientific studies were now his priority. He was to spend his three years in Chester very happily. As his wife Mary commented: "My husband likes his cathedral services, especially the twice daily ones. He feels his soul at anchor in those two hours.

Afterwards he can take refuge in the Chapter and Library Room when we are likely to be invaded at the Residence. There he is safe from the eager parties of Americans whose first desire, after disembarking at Liverpool, is to move inland in search of the oldest thing they can find, ie, the Cathedral."

It would seem from that that Chester has not changed very much in over a hundred years. Only now the transatlantic tourists usually arrive at Manchester airport rather than Liverpool.

Kingsley's sermons drew large congregations, and soon, when people discovered that he did not sprout a pair of horns after all, they grew to love him. Although he was to spend only three months of each of the three years in Chester, his impact on the community was considerable.

Keenly interested in the sciences and in cultural activities, he decided to raise money for the City Library by starting evening classes in botany. Advertised at 3d for the evening, the idea attracted 40 young people of both sexes.

The presence of women, however, alarmed Kingsley. Although he had in the past supported women's rights, he did not favour the idea that both sexes should learn together. As he said: "The presence of young ladies might prove too strong a counter attraction. Let Mr John Price take the ladies. He is the nicest man and should have the nicest pupils."

His attitude to women was evidently still coloured by Victorian morals and is probably summed up in the beginning of one of his poems:

"Be good, sweet maid, and
let who can be clever."

Soon the two classes had grown, and Kingsley was leading parties of more than a hundred out into the countryside for fieldwork. Eventually a special train was hired for a full day out to places of interest further afield. All the students, even from different social classes, travelled together, returning at the end of the summer's day "refreshed, inspired, with nosegays of wild flowers and happy thoughts of God's earth and of their fellow creatures."

These classes led to the formation of Chester Natural History Society which still flourishes. A marble bust of its founder can be seen today in the entrance to the Natural Sciences Gallery at the Grosvenor Museum.

The time came when Kingsley had to write to the Secretary to the effect that 'The programme of your Society for the year makes me at once proud and envious. For now I have to tell you that I have just accepted the vacant stall at Westminster, and shall in a week or two be Canon of Chester no longer.

Had I been an old bachelor, I would never have left Chester. Shall we go up Hope Mountain, or the Halkin together again, with all those dear, courteous, sensible people ? My eyes filled with tears when I think of it."

It was Gladstone who recommended him for Westminster, and he was never to return to Chester.
In 1873 he published Town Geology, a work based upon his many tours of Chester with his students, and in 1874 came Prose Idylls. One of his most evocative poems spelling his love for the countryside goes:

"Leave to Robert Browning
Beggers, fleas and vines;
Leave to Squeamish Ruskin
Popish Apennines,
Dirty stones of Venice
And his gas lamps seven;
We've the stones of Snowdon
And the lamps of Heaven."