What was the bishop doing in Ilfracombe?

Posted in Devon

Lord William Cecil was the second son of the former Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. His time at Oxford, which he enjoyed, suggested that he may not have inherited his father’s brains since he only managed a third class degree in law. He became rector of the family church at Bishop’s Hatfield, Hertfordshire, for 28 years. During this period he made several visits to China, attempted to establish a Christian university there, and wrote (with the help of his wife Lady Florence – ‘Fluffy’ – Bootle-Wilbraham) a book Changing China (1910) which I have read and shows that he had great power as a descriptive writer and the ability to capture a scene which is full of human interest and humour. When the Cecil family lobbied for him to be promoted to a cathedral canonry, Prime Minister Asquith, who was about to be toppled from power and wanted the goodwill of the family, surprised them by offering William the bishopric of Exeter! The photograph you see of him was taken when he was 51, two years before he arrived in Devon.

And so Lord William came to Exeter as bishop in 1916 and soon earned the nickname ‘Love in a mist’. Although he was a hopeless administrator, and unwilling to take advice, it was acknowledged that, though highly eccentric, he had a most lovable personality. W.R. Matthews, who became Dean of Exeter in Cecil’s time, described him as ‘a great Christian and a great bishop’.

William Cecil refused to live in the grand bishop’s palace in Exeter, choosing instead a more modest house two miles from the centre of town and retained only an office in the palace. He rode into Exeter on an orange bicycle. Travelling further afield in Devon he generally used the train and had many adventures. Once, when he found himself on a journey without a ticket, the ticket inspector assured him that the honesty of the Bishop of Exeter was not in doubt. ‘But I need a ticket to know where I am going!’ the bishop replied. Another occasion will especially amuse readers who live in north Devon: he sent a telegram to his wife, Fluffy, which read, ‘Am in Ilfracombe. Why?’

But he became widely loved in Devon even by the vicar of Pinhoe, a widower of long standing. ‘How is your dear wife?’ the bishop asked him. Although the vicar reminded him that his wife had died many years earlier, the bishop repeated the question an hour later. The vicar replied ‘Still dead, my lord!’

Even though he was the son of a former Prime Minister, he rarely went to the House of Lords, except when on duty for saying the Prayers. He was, however, a strong supporter of the trades unions and in 1926 backed the striking coal-miners. When he died in 1936 at the age of 73, he had become sufficiently loved to be reproduced, beard and all, as St Peter on the top of the bishop’s throne in the cathedral.