Rev Thomas Sotham was curate of Hungerford in 1888, having previously been a very popular curate in Kintbury. He had been married, to Fanny Andrews, less than a year, but despite all these good things, Thomas Sotham became paranoid, his mental health deteriorated towards the end of the year, and he shot himself at his home in Eddington on 11 Dec 1888. He was buried in St Saviour's churchyard.
There are reports of his death in the NWN, and also in the Coroner's Inquisitions in the West Berkshire district.
The Kindly Curate:
The following account, thought to be by Susan Wood in 2009, was found in miscellaneous papers in the HHA Archive:
"When I first saw the death of a clergyman in the list of Coroner's Inquisitions I assumed that it referred to an elderly gentleman who had perhaps died of a sudden heart attack or stroke. I was therefore surprised to find that an age of only 29 is recorded in the Hungerford burial registers; still that did not preclude ill health or perhaps an accident of some sort could have befallen the young curate. My curiosity was piqued. Sitting down to read the Coroner's Inquisition I had not an inkling of what was to follow. The circumstances surrounding the death unfolded slowly and then came to an abrupt end, without any explanation. I was desperate to know more about the truly sad case of Revd Thomas Sotham and what lead him to commit suicide by shooting himself in the temple.
Thomas Sotham's father, also named Thomas, was a farmer and substantial land owner in the parish of Wootton, Oxfordshire. Thomas was born not two miles from Blenheim Palace and Gardner's 1852 Directory lists the Duke of Marlborough as the largest land owner in the parish and the Lord of the Manor. However, Thomas Sotham senior is also on the list and it is therefore quite reasonable to presume that Thomas' father would have been acquainted with the Marlboroughs, especially John Winston Churchill the ih Duke as he was the MP for Woodstock before inheriting the Dukedom in 1857.
Thomas, who was an only child, was born one year into his father's second marriage to Miss Eleanor Painter, the spinster sister of a fellow Wootton farmer, who at the age of 41 was over twenty years his junior. Thomas had several Sotham step siblings but they were all considerably older and he saw them only rarely. It was not wholly unexpected when at the age of 73 Thomas' father died. Eleanor was left independently wealthy and she decided to move with the eight year old Thomas junior to the village of Evenley in Northamptonshire, which although in the adjacent county was only 10 miles from Wootton. Eleanor was accompanied by her trusted servant, Elizabeth Roper, who had looked after Thomas since he was a baby. He seems to have had a happy childhood and both his mother and Elizabeth doted on him. He was a kind and gentle boy and it was agreed that his character was ideally suited to being a clergyman. He gained a place to study Theology at Durham University and duly graduated.
Thomas first moved to Hungerford in 1884. The town's population had grown substantially uring the 19th century and to accommodate the increase in the number of worshippers Hungerford parish now had 2 churches. The old church of St. Lawrence served the main town and the relatively new church of St. Saviour's was built for the convenience of the parishioners in the north part of the parish. Thomas' new "boss" was Revd Joseph Ball Anstice who was thirty years his senior, and had already been vicar of Hungerford for nearly twenty years. They would become good friends, and it is not unreasonable to think that Revd Anstice became the father figure that Thomas had lacked for so long. Thomas was not an especially confident character and he worried excessively over every small matter but Revd Anstice would happily act as a sounding board, when needed, and guided Thomas in his parish duties. Thomas took a particular interest in the schooling of the town's children and he was much loved by the children and teachers alike.
In 1886 there is a note in the parish records in the Revd Anstice's handwriting to the effect that Revd Sotham was given the living of vicar in the parish of Kidlington in Oxfordshire. Kidlington is only four miles or so from Thomas' birthplace of Wootton and as so often seems to have been the case in the 19th century, his family connections in the area probably led to the offer being made. However, Kidlington parish doesn't have any record of him ever taking up the position. There is no explanation of why Thomas decided not to go; it may just be that he didn't have the confidence to strike out on his own. Instead he chose to move just three miles to the parish of Kintbury where he acted as curate to the Revd William A H Edwards. This would have been a vastly different proposition to his position in Hungerford. Unlike Revd Anstice who was a bachelor in his mid fifties, Revd Edwards, who was born in Limerick, Ireland, was less than ten years older than Thomas and married with a large family. Nevertheless Thomas enjoyed his work with the Kintbury parishioners with whom he was very poplar and universally loved.
I now suspect the hand of Revd Anstice was at work because in late 1887 Thomas had the opportunity to return to Hungerford parish as the senior curate. The Kintbury parishioners were very sad to see him leave but happy that he wasn't moving too far away.
1888 started in a joyous manner with Thomas' marriage to Miss Fanny Andrews, a young lady that he had known for many years. Fanny was 23 and the daughter of a wealthy farmer from Evenley. The marriage coincided with his mother reaching her 70th birthday and her health was starting to decline. It was therefore ideal that she should live where she could be cared for; with Thomas and Fanny at Eddington. Tragically this happy time was to last only a few short weeks. Thomas' life was shattered at Easter time by the sudden death of his beloved mother, Eleanor. Now he had lost the main stabilizing influence in his life and his grief seems to have triggered a sudden deterioration in his mental stability. Thomas started showing signs of paranoia. He confided in Revd Anstice that he believed everyone hated him and when anyone spoke to him he felt that the words had a sarcastic or hidden meaning. This couldn't have been further from the truth. Revd Anstice did all he could to dispel Thomas' fears and he pointed out how much he was loved by all his parishioners and especially Fanny. There is no record of how Fanny was coping with Thomas' mental state but I imagine it was exhausting for her.
By early December 1888 Revd Sotham's behaviour was giving real cause for concern. On the morning of Wednesday 11th at about 10 0' clock, Thomas Sotham visited Revd Anstice at the vicarage. Revd Anstice was now seriously worried. Everything about Thomas' manner and demeanour evidenced that his mind was unhinged. The vicar had mentioned his anxiety to another visitor to the vicarage later that morning and he was so worried he felt he had to make a visit to the Sotham's house that afternoon.
The day was bright and sunny but very cold, with the frost lingering in the shadows. At about half past two that afternoon a young shepherd by the name of Crosby Hopkins was herding his sheep in the Leverton Road going in the direction of Eddington when he heard the report of a firearm. He thought that it was about forty
yards away and in front of him but there was a bend in the road and he could not see. He cautiously went round the bend and took a small step out into the road. He then saw a man lying in the middle of the road and ran to him to see if he could help. He shouted "Hello, master what is the matter"? When he reached the man
he found him lying on his back perfectly still. Hopkins did not recognise him, perhaps his solitary work tending the sheep kept him away from church. His first thought was to loosen the man's clothing but he then saw a revolver clutched in the man's right hand and resting on his chest. The road was very secluded and when no one else reacted to the gun shot Hopkins drove his sheep back into a field and ran to Leverton for help. There he found P.C. Goddard and told him a man had shot himself in Leverton Road. P.C. Goddard went for a conveyance and returned with Hopkins and the doctor just before 3 o'clock. Revd Sotham's body was still lying in the same position and was identified by P.C. Goddard. The doctor noted the wound in the right temple and P.C. Goddard searched his clothes, discovering a razor in his right side pocket. The men then removed Revd Sotham's body to his home.
Revd Anstice was on his way to see Thomas when the news of his death reached him. He hurried on to Eddington to be with Fanny, who had been married less than a year and was now a widow.
P.C. Goddard informed the Coroner, J C Pinniger, of the death and the inquisition was arranged for the following morning at the Infant School, Eddington. The body was viewed by the jury but everyone was aware of the great distress of Mrs Sotham and the conduct of the court was such as to minimise any further hurt. The officials present at in inquisition included the Rural Dean, Revd Anstice, Revd J T Gardiner (vicar of St. Saviour's) and Mr M Cave, solicitor.
Crosby Hopkins and P.C. Goddard both gave their evidence as to the previous day's events. P.C. Goddard produced the revolver and explained that it was a six-chamber revolver, and five were loaded, the sixth having been discharged. He also produced the razor that was in Thomas' pocket, presumably being held as an alternative instrument of self destruction if his nerve had failed with the revolver. The foreman asked P.C. Goddard if the revolver belonged to Thomas but he did not know. Then William Taylor, a juror, added that there was a rumour that the Revd Sotham had been in the habit of carrying a revolver on his person. Revd Anstice replied that he had heard the rumour but did not know for certain one way or the other. It was believed that Thomas had had the revolver in his possession for six months. Nothing was said as to whether any effort had been made to get Thomas to give the revolver up. It is possible that if he truly felt everybody hated him he initially started to can)' it as a means of self defence. Realistically there is no reason to believe that matters would have turned out any different even if he had given the revolver up, he could easily have found another means of killing himself, as witnessed by the razor in his pocket.
Revd Anstice informed the Coroner of Thomas' state of mind and the interview he had with him on the previous morning, Thomas' mental fragility was already known to many of those present at the inquisition. Revd Anstice explained the delusions that were tormenting Thomas and his belief that everybody hated him. He then made the simple statement that summed up the entire situation. "The deceased was a man of the most placid and affable disposition and consequently he was universally beloved. He was the last man anyone would have thought of committing such an act".
When the evidence was complete the jury immediately returned a verdict that "The deceased shot himself in the temple with a revolver whilst in an unsound state on mind".
The funeral was set for 2 o'clock on the Saturday afternoon. St. Saviour's started to fill well before the allotted time as parishioners attended in large numbers from both Hungerford and Kintbury. St Saviour's was overflowing and a large crowd of mourners congregated outside the church. Floral tributes were sent by many individuals as well as by St Saviour's choir; both the Eddington and National Sunday school teachers and the teachers of the National day school. After the service Thomas was laid to rest in the same grave in which his mother had been placed earlier that year. The quietness at the graveside was only broken by the occasional muffled sob. Fanny Sotham was supported by her sister and two brothers.
The Sunday services at Hungerford and Eddington both alluded to the melancholy events ofthe previous few days and in general concentrated on how much Thomas was loved and how much he would be missed. However, I cannot let Revd Edwards' comments prior to the Sunday evening service at Kintbury pass without comment. They are particularly worthy of attention, for whilst they may have just been an inopportune choice of words I detect a certain coolness towards Thomas. Revd Edwards first made reference to the large number of people at the funeral and how this testified to the esteem and affection in which Thomas Sotham was held. He then continued by referring to Revd Sotham as not being a man of "great ability" but from a two year acquaintance he could bear testimony to his benevolence and extreme
conscientiousness; which he felt had undoubtedly contributed to his mental state. He went on to say that he knew, upon good authority, that on the day of Thomas' death his manner was so extraordinary that it was in contemplation to put him "under restraint".
Having read this I was beginning to wonder what sort of relationship Revd Edwards and Thomas really had. He certainly didn't sound the sort of supportive figure that Revd Anstice undoubtedly was. To belittle Thomas' "ability" in public one day after the funeral and furthermore to tell all and sundry that in all probability, had Thomas lived, he would have been committed to a mental institution, is an unforgivable indiscretion. He seems to have been totally oblivious to Fanny Sotham's feelings. I do not suppose that the parishioners cared two hoots about Thomas' "ability". It was Thomas' gentle kindness that made him so loved by all who came into contact with him. I do wonder whether Revd Edwards was just a little bit jealous of Thomas' popularity with his parishioners.
A final twist to this story was discovered in the public records. I needed to know what had happened to Fanny and a bit of detective work found her living with her sister Annie and her brother in law, Thomas Sharp, in Wylde Green, Sutton Coldfield. In the late 19th century this was a very nice area indeed with many large houses. Annie was well placed to offer sympathy to Fanny, as her first husband, George Parker, had also died just 2 years after they married, aged only 30. Thomas Sharp was a more mature man in his 50's and a civil engineer. He and Annie had been married for a little over two years but there were no children from either marriage.
It was therefore with great excitement that baby Marjorie Eleanor Sotham was welcomed into the family on ......... 1889. Fanny must have been ..... months pregnant when Thomas died. Did he know? Would it have made a difference? Who can tell? He certainly loved children and knowing he was going to become a father might have been enough to stay his hand. Fanny's pregnancy wasn't mentioned in any of the documentation at the time of the inquest so she may have kept it private, although I cannot imagine that Revd Anstice was not taken into her confidence.
Surprisingly Fanny never remarried and died in 1911, at the relatively young age of 46."