From cabin boy to archbishop
The story of William Ullathorne – the forgotten Pocklingtonian
MARCH 21st 1989 was the centenary of the death of one of Pocklington's most distinguished men Archbishop William Ullathorne. It will be no surprise if you say "Archbishop who?". as the intriguing story of the son of a Pocklington grocer who started out as a cabin boy on the high seas, and eventually became a Catholic archbishop who was instrumental in taking 'civilisation' to Australia , has been largely lost in the midsts of history. But on the 101st anniversary of his death This article attempts to put the record straight and tell some of the tale of William Ullathorne of Pocklington. bishop of Birmingham and archbishop of Cabasa.
William Ullathorne was born in Market Place, Pocklington, on 7th May 1806 the eldest often children of a local grocer. His father, also William, came from a family of West Riding landed gentry that forfeited its estates to the claims of the Stuart insurrection in 1745. William senior became a shoemaker, then draper, before marrying and setting up in business in Pocklington. He soon appears to have become one of Pocklington's most prominent traders at a time before the town had many of the services we now take for granted; and young William wrote of his father being "grocer, draper and spirit merchant and did half the business of the town, supplying it with coal before it had a canal, and in the absence of a bank, discounting bills."
William's writings give a unique insight into Pocklington life in the early years of the 19th century and his earliest memories were of the local militia exercising on West Green during the Napoleonic Wars.
"To see those red-coated, black gaitered men with feathers in their hats moving like one. at the voice of a man with a different shaped hat. was the cause to me of many surmises. The nurse used to subdue us into good behaviour by the threat that Bonaparte was coming, and I used to picture him as a little man with a big cocked hat and a great sword going from house to house killing all the people."
In Ullathorne's letters to friends in Pocklington almost 80 years later he showed his keen recollections of his childhood in the town, writing to his acquaintance Mr Hudson " In my days (around 1810 to 1815) the beck from English's Mill was open all the way; and the beck through Union Street, which regulated the water of the mill, was also open and ran into the main beck before reaching the Feathers Inn.”
"At the point where the beck emerges from underground at the churchyard corner we also caught hair-eels, believing them to be vitalised horsehairs, and sticklebacks. We had another tradition about horsehairs, that if you put one on your palm when the schoolmaster called you up to be feruled (beaten with a metal capped stick), it would split the ferule."
William was from an old established Catholic family and remembered clearly the little Catholic chapel with only two windows in Pocklington, under the patronage of the Constables of Everingham, and with a venerable French emigrant priest Abbe Fidele. But interestingly his father chose for him a rather ecumenical education. It started when he was sent "to learn my first letters" from a Miss Plummer, the daughter of a Protestant clergyman, while his nurse was a strong Methodist "who used to sometimes express her contempt for priests and their trumpery". When he was eight William and his brother were sent to a Protestant school at Burnby though the schoolmaster was, he found out later, a non-believer. Burnby in those days was a settlement of less than 100, almost entirely farmers and farm labourers along with a single blacksmith, a wheelwright and, surprisingly, the school which "had mud walls, thatched roof, and a clay floor, but turned out good accountants and land surveyors."
At Burnby, William and his brother lodged first at the blacksmith's and later with the wheelwright. William's description of his new abode at the blacksmith's is probably typical of the thatched cottages that abounded in the Pocklington district at that time saying "we slept in a dark attic under the thatch of the cottage, illuminated only by one pane of glass. We sat in winter evenings by the fire in the brick floored room that
served for kitchen parlour and hall, hearing vigorous talk on agricultural matters, intertwined with the gossip and small scandal of the village, of which the blacksmith's shop was the focus.”
"Sometimes we got the privilege of taking a turn at the great bellows, and sometimes we got a half holiday to help plant the family potatoes."
But it was an isolated upbringing and William later wrote "Burnby was a lonely little place; we seldom saw a stranger, and if one rode through it on horseback at rare intervals, he seemed to have come out of some unknown world, and to pass into an other."
While his father had built a fairly substantial business as a Pocklington shopkeeper there was a strong family tradition of seafaring - one relative was Sir John Franklin the famous artic explorer who discovered the north-west passage in 1845 but never returned from his expedition - and the family moved to Scarborough prior to William going to sea at the age of 15.
During the next two years he made several voyages as a cabin boy aboard sailing ships to the Baltic and the Mediterranean, before his ship landed on a Sunday at the Russian port of Memel (now known as Klaipeda) and his life was to be dramatically changed. The young sailor went to mass at the local chapel and was "powerfully affected by the solemnity of the celebration and the devotion of the people". He returned home and in 1923, at the age of 17, entered the Benedictine College of St Gregory, at Downside near Bath.
He became a Benedictine monk the following year and studied theology for the next seven years before being ordained priest at Ushaw, Durham, in 1831. He took readily to a life of solitude saying: "I was made for a hermit. There is no greater pleasure in the world than being left alone" and tried unsuccessfully to be allowed to join the more austere French Trappist monks. But after his years of study in Catholic colleges in Britain, Ullathorne began his travels again in impressive fashion when he accepted an invitation join the 'Australian Mission', and Ullathorne simultaneously became vicar general and his majesty's Catholic chaplain in New South Wales.
He arrived in Australia in 1833 to find it a wild and often barbaric place. He was one of only four priests in the whole of Australia, large parts ot the country were still unexplored (the continent was not completely charted until 1896) and majority of the population were transported convicts - many of them Irishmen banished 'down under' after the rebellion of 1798.
Ullathorne spent most of the next eight years either with the convicts, or trying to improve conditions, or drawing attention to their suffering. It was mainly through his representations to Pope Gregory XVI, that a Catholic bishop was appointed for Australia, while his skill as a writer and orator saw him publish several articles on the state of the continent in both England and Australia. He also brought over the first five nuns to the country - starting a movement that rapidly began to form Australia's first hospital colleges and orphanages.
Returning briefly to England he lectured on the state of the colony in both England and Ireland and produced a pamphlet on the 'Horrors of Transportation' that was circulated at the expense of the Irish government. In 1837 he was summoned to recount his experiences to the Roman Catholic authorities in Rome, and back in England he was questioned by a House of Commons select committee investigating 'Transportation'.
He returned to Australia to find himself universally unpopular with the authorities after exposing the corruption and ill-treatment of the system, but he carried on with the work there for another two years. He refused the offer of bishoprics in Hobart, Adelaide and in Perth, before declining health and his desire to return to a life of study saw him resign his Australian committments and come back to England.
But he was not allowed to give up an active life and he remained one of England's most distinguished churchmen, being sent again to Rome in 1848 to petition the Pope forthe restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England.
His petitioning was successful, and this was soon followed by Ullathorne being appointed Bishop of Birmingham - a post he was to hold for the next 38 years.
He continued to work diligently in the Birmingham district, and to publish numerous provoking and often controversial pamphlets and essays. Though he still yearned fora monastic life - writing to the Pope in 1862 asking to resign but being called forward by Pope Pius IX to his throne during a service in St 's, Rome, and being told "you are to remain at your post, for you still have many things to do."
And he made numerous trips to Rome and played a leading part in the Vatican Council of 1869-70, but in addition to touring the world and rubbing shoulders with popes, cardinals and top statesmen al home and abroad, he also made several visits back to his home town of Pocklington - most notably when he preached at the opening of the town's new catholic church in 1863.
He carried on with his work but was allowed to spend increasing amounts of his time studying and writing at Oscott College, being given an auxiliary bishop in 1879 to help with the work for his see of Birmingham.
He never ceased the prolific flow of articles and letters from his pen, even when he was in his eighties, including writing to encourage his former colleagues still in Australia.
The question of whether there ever was a chapel on Chapel Hill has long been debated in Pocklington. But when asked his opinion by a resident in 1887, Ullathorne stated quite clearly that he could remember one, writing: "Easter Sunday was a great festival at Pocklington. A large numberof the population went up to Spring Hill, Chapel Hill or Primrose Hill (for it was called by all of these names). There by the ruins of the old chapel, and at the clear spring sat half Pocklington, enjoying themselves with great freedom. I have no doubt the chapel was a place of pilgrimage in olden days."
When further asked about his memories on the subject he replied: "The very name of Chapel Hill indicates that a chapel stood there once. The spring must have been a holy well: probably held sacred in pagan times, and afterwards blessed to Christian uses by the first Christian missionaries. I certainly have a recollection of a few stones in situ, forming an angle, and a base course of some wall of no great extent, which I always thought might have belonged to a hermitage: or. if the property thereabouts belonged to some monastery or priory, it might have been attached to the monastic cell in which one or two monks would be caretakers, and the chapel would be for workpeople as well as monks."
He was finally allowed to retire as bishop of Birmingham in 1888 and was awarded the honorary title of archbishop of Cabasa by Pope Leo XIII, but his health declined and he died at Oscott on March 21 st 1889 and was buried at St Dominic's Priory, Stone, Staffordshire, ending, at the age of 83, the story of the cabin boy from Pocklington who became an archbishop.