Canon Underwood

Canon Charles White Underwood MA (1816–1899)

A short biography written a century after Canon Underwood’s death

Whilst there is no direct evidence, it is probably safe to assert that the Canon’s childhood was neither privileged nor pious (at least not as an Anglican). He was born in 1816 at Totteridge, near Barnet, the son of Samuel Browne Underwood Esq, but was not baptised until he was twenty-four and about to enter St John’s College, Cambridge.(1) There he was a sizar, which means that the College supported him in return for the carrying out of menial duties. He appears to have been a sound student, and was in the senior optime of the Mathematics Tripos.(2) His late entry to St John’s and his later involvement in education suggest that he was a schoolteacher before going up to Cambridge.

Charles Underwood received his BA in 1844 and in the same year was admitted as a deacon of the Anglican Church at Durham Cathedral. A year later he was ordained as a priest.(3) Nothing is presently known about the next eight years (there are no entries in Crockford’s) except that he received his MA in 1847. I would suggest that he was teaching again because in 1853 he was appointed Vice Principal of the Liverpool Collegiate Institution, which presuposes educational experience.

While Underwood was engaged in Liverpool, the work of saving Histon church from the air of dank neglected decay which pervaded the whole place(4) was commenced with the restoration of the nave by the architect George Bodley. This work had been completed for almost ten years when Underwood came to Histon as Vicar and Patron in 1865. His motives for taking up the mantle of parish priest are unknown, but may well have been domestic. By this time he was married to Louisa Avery and the confines of the Collegiate Institution may simply have become too claustrophobic. It might also be that Charles White, who was now forty-nine, wanted to take on a parish at a time of exciting reform and confidence in parochial ministry, in the liturgy and in the ecclesiology of churches.

Whatever his reasons he found much to challenge his energies. The village had a population of 969 and the living was worth £320 annually arising from 218 acres of glebe, but there was much competition from noncomformity and the life of the parish church was, compared to our experience, moribund. The churchyard was a wilderness and the church building was still in poor shape with the north transept partioned off as a school, vestry and coal hole, which he described as not the Holy of Holies, but the hole of holes.(5) The chancel was very dilapidated and more like a barn than a church. The east wall was of brick and the window framed with wooden mullions. A very meagre table of deal with large drawers served for an altar table—it is now in my kitchen at the Vicarage.(6) That Vicarage was a mean thatched cottage containing one parlour and a kitchen below and three bedrooms above.(7)

Soon after the Underwoods arrived in Histon, Louisa was taken ill and Charles White had to obtain a licence from the Bishop of Ely to be absent from the parish.(8) Louisa was confined to hospital in London and Charles White lodged there for three months during which time he became a regular visitor to the British Museum book rooms. These studies during the lonely hours of waiting had a remarkable consequence for the later repair of the church, which he called providence. He found in a volume on the life of Archbishop Laud a request from the Bishop of Ely in 1699 for intervention against the demolition of the church of St Etheldreda at Histon.(9) The destroyer was Sir Francis Hinde who was using the stone to build a new long gallery at Madingley Hall. Underwood remembered this discovery some ten years later when the chancel of the church was being repaired at the same time as the long gallery at Madingley was being demolished. He was able to buy the salvaged stone from Madingley for use in the church, and thereby returned the stones of St Etheldreda’s church to Histon.

While we remember Underwood today as the great restorer, building was probably not his first love at that time, or that of his parishioners. The great work of repairing the church did not recommence until his ninth year of office and he had endured the shabby conditions he described (above) for those long years. The only work carried out immediately was the recasting of the old, ponderous ring of bells into a new ring of five in 1866. Nor was he the instigator when work started with the repair of the south transept in 1872 under the great architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. That was the role of Catherine Sumpter who paid for the whole work as a memorial to her husband. Mr Sumpter is depicted as the blind man in the south window (Underwod thought the device of showing a shade over the eyes to be foolish). Charles White was inevitably involved in the work, and his enthusiasm, which can be read between the lines of his record of the work, suggest that it was in this restoration that he discovered the pleasure of building which was to drive him on to the repair of the north transept and chancel. He writes that the cost of the restoration was £1500, this included the fittings and windows and screen (removed recently). The jambs and parts of the old windows were found, these I have had carefully preserved in lining the wall with ashlar. Sir Gilbert Scott said he must restore not rebuild… and he declined to take away the niche or replace the column saying that by replacing the original work he would destroy the history of the church.(10)

The next work was the north aisle and north transept, which was funded by a mortgage. A different contractor was used and Underwood considered the work to be poorly executed. He notes that the contractor took advantage of his absences to apply plaster with little lime and much sand.(11) It was this experience which led him to take command of the restoration of the chancel to the extent that he defied even the great G G Scott. The opportunity to undertake this final major scheme arose from an offer of £500 by William Rowley. Underwood hesitated, but decided to press ahead and raised the necessary money by mortgage, subscription, and at his own expense. It was during the work of repairing and lengthening the chancel that the contractor, Wilson & Son, was also working at Madingley, and the connection with the church of St Etheldreda (see above) was made. Underwood asserted himself by purchasing the old stones from Madingley and later by countermanding Scott’s order about the masonry at the base of the tower. At that time there was a mass of ancient masonry on the east side of the tower facing into the chancel which Scott intended to retain because he was afraid that the tower might fall if it were cut back. Underwood knew better and relates how, Scott warned us not to meddle (with the old masonry) but the restoration of the chancel would have been an unseemly work and I took it upon me to take off one half (of the ancient masonry) and so make the piers exactly like in appearance to the other two on the west side. We filled them up with liquid cement, faced them with ashlar and made pillars and capped them to correspond with the others. This was a risky job and when Sir Gilbert saw it he pretended to be in a rage but I am sure he was inwardly pleased for it has made the work worthy of his reputation.

This says much about the man but whether it indicates arrogance, stupidity, a response to Scott’s earlier rebuke about the restoration of the niche in the south transept or good-humoured inspiration must be left to the reader! It may be indicative of a growing obsession which led Underwood to design the windows of the chancel on a programme based on the Creed (he later designed windows for the south aisle and for Girton church), and to oversee its furnishing with gifts from a variety of sources.(12) As if the building work were not enough, he also oversaw the augmentaion of the bells to make six and records how the ringers did not meet his own high standards for, the first of the ringers gave way to the present team—but alas there is neither pluck nor enthusiasm in them.(13)

The completion of the chancel marked a high point in the life of the parish and of the good Charles White. In 1875 he became an honorary canon of Ely which reflected his pastoral success and his contribution to the Diocese for the Archdeaconry and Diocese had a great deal to thank him for, for while he laboured ardously and conscientiously in his parish, he undertook a great deal of labour in the Diocese, in connection with the inspector of religious knowledge.(14) A year later he became Rural Dean of Chesterton, and remained so until 1892. Clearly, the Canon was held in high regard and that regard was based not simply on his restoring zeal, but on his pastoral care which started back in 1865 when he began to haul the life of the church out of its 18th century quietude—Communion was given (only) four times a year in the early 19th century and there were said to be 30 communicants, a higher proportion than in other fen-edge parishes. It was probably only under Underwood that services became more frequent. In 1873 he held monthly communions and two full services on Sundays, and also preached on weekdays in Advent and Lent; and in 1895 he was experimenting with fortnightly communion at 8am. Underwood had 60 communicants in 1873 and reported his congregation as sometimes overflowing the church.(15)

It is good that the 1875 celebrations are so well recorded in a local newspaper(16) for there were to be fewer bright days for the Canon. Already there (was) a decline in the number of communicants, and attendance fell away as the village’s social and occupational character changed. In 1885 Underwood thought that only one third of his parishioners came to church, with as many or more neglecting all worship, and by 1897 the fortnightly communion had been dropped.(17) It should be remembered that Underwood was in his sixties when this decline began, and that in 1888 he suffered that ultimate tragedy of the sudden death of his beloved wife(18)). It appears that he lost his powers of pastoral leadership and that both he and the life of the parish declined towards his death in 1899 at the age of 83. The sad extent of that decline is recorded by his successor, William Chapman, in that same register in which Underwood wrote of his restoring exploits. He found the Underwoods’ dour Celtic grave neglected and writes how as no one else seemd to care I took it upon myself to honour his memory, and with my own hands made the grave worthy of one who had done so much for the church—very largely out of his own pocket.

George Elliot says of her principal characters at the end of Middlemarch, which was published while Underwood was at work on the south transept…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. That is certainly true of the Underwoods, but he has left us not only a fine memorial in the epitome of the Victorian church, which is now visited more than ever before, but also a number of documents, which give some insight into his character. Principal among these is his commonplace book which is preserved in the County Record Office.(19) This reveals a man with a sense of humour of a modern primary school child, which revels in wordplay and conundrums but totally lacks spite or irony. We might now groan at the story of the mad priest: A gentleman was complaining to a pious prelate that a certain clergyman in his neighbourhood was gone mad and did nothing but preach and pray. “I wish then,” said the good Bishop, “he would bite some of my clergy.” Most of us would probably wince at his recipe for a wife: Good temper, health, good understanding, agreeable physiognomy, figure, good constitution, domestic habits, good spirits, elegant manners, money! But we might find no better epitaph for him than the one he wrote down as: Live guiltless, God observes you!(20)

Robert Walker FSA


  1. Notes provided by Ann Roberts, Biographical Assistant at St John’s College, Cambridge.
  2. ibid.
  3. Crockford’s, 1865.
  4. The Cambridge Camden Society, Cambridgeshire Churches (Cambridge, 1844).
  5. A long account of the church and his part in its restoration is written in the back of the (transcribed) late C18 and C19 register currently kept in the church safe.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. The licence is preserved in the parish papers in the County Record Office.
  9. St Etheldreda’s church stood near the present Abbey Farm.
  10. See note 5.
  11. ibid.
  12. A booklet “Report of the Restoration of Histon Church” contains a detailed account of the whole work amounting to £1595.
  13. See note 5.
  14. Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal, June 26 1875. This is a fascinating and detailed report of the celebrations upon the completion of the restoration work. I am grateful to Mrs. D. Oates for the original of this article.
  15. Victoria County History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, Volume IX, p105.
  16. See note 14.
  17. See note 15.
  18. The words on their shared grave between the chancel of the church and Vicarage which they built.
  19. I am grateful to Chris Clare for reading and indexing the Commonplace Book.
  20. From the grave of Linnaeus, the great observer of nature.