Allan Newman Guest: New Bradwell’s Troublesome Priest

Rev. Allan Newman Guest in 1909

One of New Bradwell’s more colourful characters in the past was the Vicar of St James. The Reverend Guest arrived in 1908 and almost immediately proved to be controversial.
He was inducted with appropriate ceremony on Thursday 17 September 1908. He was single, 40 years old, and had held curacies in seven different places in Ireland, where he was born, London and Brighton. Perhaps the warning signs were already present in this fact alone, but he was energetic and at this date spoken highly of. His stipend was £350 a year – a very good income in 1908.

He was barely six months into the job when he sparked the first major controversy of his incumbency; he discovered that the register used for marriages was the one for St Peter’s at Stantonbury and that St James had never been licensed for marriages. Technically, therefore, these marriages could be construed as illegal. Something of the order of 500 marriages had been conducted over a period of 50 years. So what did the good reverend do? Instead of making his discovery quietly known to the bishop and looking for solutions he contacted the Registrar of BMD to inform them that the marriages were illegal and made a dramatic announcement from the pulpit. The news caused a sensation and not a little consternation amongst those unfortunates who now were led to believe that they had been ‘living in sin’ throughout their married lives. The Bystander (April 7 1909) was quite critical at the time and called him a ‘troublesome guest.”  Eventually, more rational heads took command of the situation and an act of parliament retrospectively legalised the marriages. 30 years later, the dramatist J B Priestley used this incident to construct his play When we are married, where long married couples meet to celebrate a 25 year union only to discover to their horror that they have been illegally married.

One gets the impression that Reverend Guest was a man of strong character and strong beliefs who rarely stopped to consider the views of others – there was only one way, his way. Matters came to a turbulent head in 1913 when he appears to have antagonised the entire parish. His parish was essentially working class, as was Wolverton. There were no gentry or time honoured traditions in a town that was barely 50 years old. The predilection for most parishioners was for simple church ceremonies based on the book of Common Prayer. They had no truck with fancy ritual which they regarded as ‘popish.’ In the parlance of the day they were ‘low church.’

A petition, signed by many, had been submitted to the bishop of Oxford complaining about the services of the church, which, in their view, were distinctly ritualistic, in their view. The bishop had shown the petition to Reverend Guest who, in a vestry meeting, treated it with contempt had threw it on the floor. At the last Sunday in April the bishop was to be at St James for a confirmation ceremony and had agreed to meet with the parishioners at 5 o’clock. The parishioners looked forward to it eagerly, believing that the situation could be resolved. As the Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press remarked,For two or three years past, Church matters at Bradwell have proceeded the reverse of smoothly.”

Passions were obviously riding high as about 1000 people turned up to listen to the bishop and have their say. Among them were some “Kensitites”. that is follower s of John Kensit a campaigner against ritual in church.

The bishop found himself in a difficult position. He obviously wanted to support his parish priest and was probably reluctant to cave in to mob rule. At one point said that Rev Guest had been reasonable, which was greeted by snorts of derision from the crowd. The meeting became quite rowdy with lots of jeers and catcalls and people shouting out. The bishop eventually left seeing that there could be no outcome, other than removing Rev Guest, which he was unwilling to do. A contingent of police from Newport Pagnell were present to keep order.

The outcome, if indeed there was one, was that Rev Guest remained the incumbent. Unlike the situation at the Stony Stratford church of Wolverton St Mary’s in 1909, where there were clear doctrinal differences between the vicar, Oliver P Henly and the Church of England, Newman Guest was more or less preaching in accordance with the church’s teachings. Newman Guest’s issues were more to do with his personality. So whereas Henly was locked out of his church, Newman Guest continued as vicar for another 30 years. The bishop did try to persuade him to move to another parish in 1916 but he refused. Over the years parishioners voted with their feet and joined other churches. 

In September 1915 he was before the magistrate for assault on a 14 year old girl. He apparently asked the girl why she was not in church. She replied that she was a Primitive Methodist, whereupon Guest, who did not like her attitude, slapped her on the face. He was fined £3. Nowadays the incident would probably have brought calls for his resignation.

In 1916 he married Dorothy Cooke from Eastbourne. His parishioners may have hoped that this would calm him down, but even she, after giving birth to two sone and a daughter could not cope with him and left him in 1926 to return to Eastbourne. She took her eldest son with her but Newman Guest put up a fight to keep the two younger ones with him in New Bradwell.

Relations with his congregation deteriorated over the years and by 1943 he was conducting services to an almost empty church. Only six members of the parish council stayed loyal to him. On Sunday he would ring the bell, go through the form of the service and play the organ  in a practically empty church.

Something of Rev Guest’s combative personality can  be discovered at a meeting of church ministers and laypeople to discuss the new prayer book in May 1927. The new proposals, he said, gave a layman power over the cure of souls, and he thought it was a wrong position to thrust upon a vicar. He added, “I would object to it in my parish.” The Rural Dean, Canon W. L. Harnett of Wolverton tried to quell the potential controversy by pointing out that the presentation of the new prayer book was for information only and it was not advisable to provoke controversy.

Guest was a strong and fit man and even in his forties he was prone to challenge other men to a swimming race. There are several newspaper reports of such challenges. Mostly he lost against much younger men, but this did not seem to deter him from putting up a challenge. He was also a recognisable figure on his bicycle which he regularly used to travel around the parish. The bicycle was of nearly vintage and I am told had a fixed wheel, which must have made it hard work cycling up the hill. Coming down was easier of course, but the fixed wheel made it hard to keep one’s feet on the pedals. Accordingly, he had a bar made to rest his feet while he was freewheeling downhill. One day in 1932 the front fork of his bicycle collapsed while he was coming down the canal hill at speed, and in the course of the fall he hit his head. He did recover.

Rev Guest was an accomplished musician and sometime composer, but even that was not without controversy. He composed a Valse in C Minor and he was accused of plagiarising Chopin’s Valse in C minor. To prove his point Reverend Guest played the two pieces and the audience were persuaded that the two pieces were dissimilar, The occasion was a bazaar to raise funds for the school and as it happened my grandmother was there at this occasion to open proceedings on Saturday November 6th 1937.

He finally resigned his ministry at St James in 1943, and died three years later in a Bedford nursing home in December 1946 at the age of 79.

He must rate as the most colourful ecclesiastic in the district in our history. He was argumentative and pugnacious, characteristics which, for al his gifts and intelligence, precluded him from higher office. During his years in New Bradwell he collected a lot of historical information which were published in newspaper articles and then by himself as Stantonbury Tales in 1924. He also adopted the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to play the organ and thus disturbing the neighbourhood. Complaints were of no avail and some felt that this activity was a deliberate act to disturb the peace of his neighbours.

The Bradville at one time changed its name to The Jovial Priest and sported a sign purporting to be based on the bicycling eccentric.