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Saturday, 5 September 2015


In 1836 the Gentleman’s Magazine carried the following item in its Obituaries column:
Feb. 19. At the Hotwells, Clifton, aged 36, the Rev. John Warne, priest vicar of Exeter. He was of Trin. coll. Camb., BA 1823, MA 182-. [sic]
That was that, then. More of an announcement than an obit. Was there really nothing more to say about the late John Warne, my 3x great uncle? Was he not even worth discovering the date of his MA for?

We do know a little bit of his clerical career, which was remarkably unspectacular. He was a minor canon in Bristol, and a curate in the posh Bristol suburb of Clifton until on the 6th June 1830 he was (as the Hampshire Chronicle reported the following day)
collated by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter, to a Priest Vicar's Stall in their Cathedral, void by death of the Rev. Wm. Tanner.
Not by his own merits alone but by the death of poor old William Tanner! 

 Exeter Cathedral in 1830

Curate, minor canon and priest vicar are all variations of the same relatively junior role in the hierarchy of the Church of England. A curate was the local bishop’s man-on-the-spot, the cleric in charge of a particular church or parish – only after 1868 were such ministers formally known, as they are today, as vicars. A minor canon (for which priest vicar is simply another name) fulfilled the same tasks as a curate, but as part of a team of such clerics in a larger church or cathedral. Often they also had a choral role, leading the singing of high church calls and responses. Perhaps John Warne had a talent there, a sweet spiritual voice. But in a cathedral diocese they were the foot soldiers of the bishop, never part of his inner circle or chapter. So it was at Exeter Cathedral, and there John Warne remained until his own death six years later. 

His death – so often it is the manner of one’s departure that leaves the greatest impression; and, in the absence of much other information, so it is with Warne. The Hotwells of Clifton at which he died were, as the name implies, hot springs at the base of the cliffs of the Avon Gorge, now crossed by the Clifton Suspension Bridge. They have been known since at least the fifteenth century and the first attempt to harness their commercial potential came with the erection of a pump room in 1696.

The original Hotwells pump room, demolished in 1822

The original building was replaced in 1822 with Hotwells House, and a grand new pump room, based on those in Leamington and nearby Bath which Bristol hoped to rival. Presumably John Warne had some ailment which he thought would be improved by bathing in the warm waters. In the fifteenth century they were believed to cure scurvy; in the seventeenth, they were recommended for “hot livers, feeble brains and red pimply faces.” Warne’s death while actually visiting the spa cannot have been good for business. Perhaps he was simply overcome by the heat.

Hotwells House and pump room (1822)

The Hotwells’ location at the Avon Gorge was considered one of the most dramatically picturesque in England, and the spa had some success in attracting patrons to its supposedly restorative waters (later shown to be rather polluted). But it never competed with Bath, and Bristol’s real wealth was generated not by tourists at Hotwells Spring but by ships on the River Avon. If it was to continue to be accessible to ever-larger vessels, the port of Bristol needed to straighten the river bend on which the spa stood, and in 1867 the city’s merchant princes demolished the entire complex and the land it stood on.

If John Warne’s death is the most interesting thing about his life, it is not his greatest legacy. In 1832 he married Mary Laura Elizabeth Acraman (1802-1876), my 3x great aunt and a member of a prominent Bristol family of ships’ chandlers. In 1833, before the onset of whatever illness led him to the Hotwells, the couple had their only child, a daughter Elizabeth Ann. In time Elizabeth married and had children of her own. Mary Warne never remarried but, remaining in Clifton on a clergyman’s widow’s pension, outlived her husband by forty years.

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