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Devon’s villainous vicars and religious rogues


Author Suze Gardner takes us through the hidden history of Devon’s villainous vicars and religious rogues.

Joanna Southcott

In the 1760’s Joanna Southcott of Gittisham became a maid. She came from a family who had once been well off, but they lost all their money.  Her lowly job annoyed Joanna. Her Methodist mother placed her with a religious family. Joanna, was soon bored of cleaning and prayer meetings, and decided to liven things up by pretending to have religious ‘visions’. It  may seem surprising that people were taken in, but few people had any education back then then.  Joanna’s supporters began to give her money ‘to help the poor’.

Instead she left her job and used it to live the high life, hidden behind false piety. Joanna wrote and sold religious leaflets that, she said, had been dictated by God. Her biggest  scam was claiming that  she was pregnant with the new Messiah when she was aged over sixty! Again, some people were taken and gave her money and baby items which she sold. When her due date passed she was examined  by a doctor and was definitely not pregnant. Strangely a few people still believe in her claims.

Reverend John Froud

In 1803 Oxford educated John Froud agreed to become the Vicar of  Saint Peter’s Church at Knowstone. Some of the villagers were excited- a respectable and  educated gentleman wanted to come to their little out-of-the-way village to be their religious guide! They could not be more wrong about Froud though. Spurned by a girlfriend while living in Oxford, he had become very, very bitter. Ignoring invitations from his wealthier Knowstone flock, Froud only mixed with the roughest uneducated labourers, criminals and ‘ladies of dubious morals’. Froud would swear horribly in the vicinity of respectable ladies, got into fights when their husbands objected, caroused around the area with drunken youths, frightened small children and regularly arrived at church very, very drunk or didn’t arrive at all. Incredibly he remained vicar for nearly 50 years. Embarrassed about their choice, but glad that they’d put Froud in a small village, senior church officials swept his indiscretions and lax behaviour under the carpet. And as lots of his flock actually liked Froud’s free and easy attitudes, they got away with it!

Reverend Loveband Parminter

In 1846 Loveband Parminter (yes, it was his real name!) became vicar of the Parish Church of St Swithin at Woodbury. Most vicars would have been delighted with the church’s beautifully carved and very old wooden rood screen separating different areas of the building. Not Loveband though! The vain vicar thought himself very good looking and was annoyed that the rood detracted from the young ladies’ view of his fine figure in new clerical robes. A local carpenter was summoned to cut part of the rood down. He was a very religious man and refused to have anything to do with such desecration. So Loveband cut part of the rood down himself.  News of the vandalism reached the Bishop of Exeter who sent a senior cleric to look at the damage. This led to a loud argument between the two outside the church where gawping villagers could hear.  Loveband had to give his flock and the Bishop a groveling apology and pay to have the damage fixed which would have cost a lot of money. Loveband however remained the vicar of St Swithin for many years.

Parson John Radford

Parson Radford was vicar of St Thomas of Canterbury Church, Lapford from the 1850s. Married Radford was very flirtations with ladies. Then a handsome young curate arrived as Radford’s assistant. Mrs Radford got her revenge and  began making eyes at him! Their rows about this were loud, village gossip was rife and lewd jokes were told at the inn. Then the curate was found dead. Things looked bad for Radford- a villager had heard the parson threaten the curate. At his trial Radford got off on a technicality because the jury refused to condemn a man of the cloth. What’s more he was given his job back and remained at the church until his death! He didn’t get it all his own way though. The bishop refused his request to be buried inside the church. Instead his rather low key grave is at the side of the church at a distance from the others. For many years people claim to have seen Radford’s unsettled ghost prowling around the graveyard.


Aliester Crowley the infamous occultist was born in 1875 and was known as the ‘Wickedest man in the world’.  He lived at respectable Barton, an area of Torquay for some time. Crowley was brought up in a Plymouth Brethren family, in those days a branch of fundamentalist Christianity, but rejected the religion in his youth.  After his father’s early death Crowley became a tearaway, obsessed with sado masochistic practices and drugs.  His mother, aghast, called him a ‘beast’.  To annoy her Crowley gleefully adopted the nickname ‘Beast 666’ i.e. the Devil . Crowley began a new religion known as ‘Thelema’ which urged people to abandon normal moral behaviour and do anything they wanted. He had no shortage of followers! Crowley was inspired by Horus the ancient, cruel and mystical Egyptian God. Crowley’s wife it was claimed, was an enthusiastic follower of Thelma and. so the story goes, taught him to summon up evil spirits including Horus! Crowley died in the 1940s. 

By Suze Gardner

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