John Stevens served Cocking as curate from early 1795 to mid-1797, when he was appointed a canon at Chichester Cathedral and the head of the Prebendal School. He later returned to his native Oxfordshire, where he was vicar of three neighbouring parishes until his death in 1837.
John Stevens was born in Bicester and baptised at St Edburg’s Church on 27 August 1768, the son of John and Ann Stevens.
He was educated at Winchester College and matriculated on 17 December 1787, aged 19. He was a scholar at New College, Oxford from 1787 to 1789, when he was admitted as a fellow, gaining his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1794, followed by his Master of Arts in 1795.
It is not known when he was ordained as a priest, but John Stevens is recorded in the Cocking parish register as officiating at marriages between 28 July 1795 and 31 January 1797. This was during the last year of Thomas Williams’s incumbency and the start of that of John Ashburnham.
In 1797, he was collated as prebendary of the Highley (Highleigh) Prebend at Chichester Cathedral, thus becoming head of the Prebendal School. He retained this post for five years until his resignation in 1802. Shortly after that, he was appointed as rector at East Wittering. It is not known when he relinquished this appointment, although he was still referred to as “Rector of East Wittering” when he married in May 1809, after his appointment at Swalcliffe.
In 1807, he was “presented” by New College to be rector at Birchanger in Essex, where he was instituted on 1 July by Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, but the following year, at the end of his year of grace, he exchanged this to return to Oxfordshire as vicar at Swalcliffe, near Banbury, together with the neighbouring small villages, Epwell and Shutford. He was installed at Swalcliffe on 30 June.
On 4 May 1809, 40-year old John Stevens married 21-year old Augusta Mary Norton, daughter of John and Anna Norton, at St Mary’s Church in Lewisham, Kent. The couple’s first child, named John after his father, was born at Swalcliffe the following year and baptised at the Church of SS Peter and Paul there on 14 August 1810. The couple had a further nine children over the next 22 years.
On 23 October 1813, John Stevens was also instituted as rector of Great Poringland (Poringland magna) near Norwich. He retained this appointment and that at Swalcliffe for the remainder of his life.
In 1827, Stevens published a book of poetry, including three poems lauding the Duke of Wellington (The Battle of Waterloo, The Victory of Aboukir and The Portuguese Expedition) and Byron’s Vision of Judgment, Reversed, described as “an accusatory response” to Lord Byron’s 1822 poem The Vision of Judgment in which he identifies Byron as “the serpent’s seed” whose “chaos-like mind” mirrored his Satanic inclinations, and seeks to reverse Byron’s ideas.
According to the 1829 Eccliastical Directory, the combined living at Swalcliffe, Epwell and Shutford was worth £7 9s 4½d, while the rectory at Poringland had a value of £6 13s 2½d (compared to £13 6s 8d enjoyed by Thomas Valentine at Cocking). From this meagre allowance, Stevens had to employ curates to administer the spiritual needs of his various parishioners.
According to the editors of the article on Swalcliffe on British History Online:
During the incumbency of John Stevens, the problem of serving a large parish on a comparatively poor income became acute; Stevens, moreover, had ten children to support. He alienated his parishioners by cutting down young trees on the glebe, dismissing a curate, himself in financial difficulties, at short notice, and finally by attempting to serve three churches himself, although blind and senile. At times he found incompetent curates because he paid them so little; it was also alleged that he offered the cure for sale and that “though a rich man, he would sell himself if he could”.
His parishioners were reported as saying that they thought Stevens must have turned Roman Catholic for he prayed for the dead Queen Charlotte and must evidently be trying to save her from Purgatory.
By 1814, the number of communicants at Swalcliffe had fallen to 35. In 1831, one Sunday service was held in each church at which Stevens occasionally preached ex tempore, contrary to the bishop’s direction. In 1835, the churchwardens reported that many did not come to the church and in time none would do so, but even during this unfortunate incumbency when the number of nonconformists was increasing in the hamlets there was none at all in Swalcliffe, thanks mainly “to the sturdy churchmanship of the farmers”.
Shutford suffered as much as Swalcliffe from the ministry of John Stevens; in 1827, the inhabitants complained that he held the Sunday service when the poorer people were having their dinner, and it was reported that the clerk had frequently to baptize ailing children in default of a clergyman. By 1831, although the curate of Shutford lived in Tadmarton, conditions seem to have improved: there was one service each Sunday, and two on one Sunday of the month, and these were well attended.
In 1821 and 1822, John Stevens was three times presented for being incapable of “performing his duty in the church of Epwell in a proper manner”. In 1829, Stevens’s curate was also presented for minor negligence. In 1833 and 1835, Stevens was again presented for failing to find a curate to do regular duty.
John Stevens died at home on 24 January 1837, aged 68, and was buried at Swalcliffe on 1 February.
John Stevens’s widow, Augusta Mary, survived him by 37 years, spending her final years at Bromley College, a home for retired clergy and their dependants, where she died on 25 April 1874, aged 86. She was buried alongside him at Swalcliffe, where there is a memorial plaque inside the church.
Their eldest son, John, followed his father into the clergy, although he appears not to have been appointed to a parish. In 1871, he was a curate at Trinity Church, Oxford. He died on 29 October 1875, and was also buried at Swalcliffe.
1861 England Census
1871 England Census
England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384–1858
England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538–1975
London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754–1936
Oxford University Alumni, 1500–1886
Oxfordshire, England, Church of England Baptism, Marriages, and Burials, 1538–1812
Oxfordshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813–1915
Clergy of the Church of England Database:
- The Gentleman’s Magazine. April 1837. Obituaries
Oxford Journal: 13 May 1809. Marriages. Stevens–Norton
Morning Post: 5 May 1809. Marriages. Stevens–Norton
Memorial plaque: findagrave.com