The Reverend Frederick William Densham (BA ACA) died aged 83 in 1953 after a strange and enigmatic life. A life which has left unanswered questions even though his story has been discussed world- wide. He was seen in the mid 1930’s by Daphne du Maurier and reputedly inspired her vicar in Jamaica Inn. It is also believed that Densham’s spirit still haunts the church in which he was vicar for 22 years prior to his strange death.
The Reverend Frederick W Densham was born in 1870 in London to a Methodist Minister and his wife. It is likely that this upbringing laid the foundations of his intransigent non-acceptance of the ‘High Church’ congregation he was to meet later in his life at Warleggan. He was a clever man , graduating from London University and the Divinity School at Oxford. It is not known why Densham ordained in the Church of England while he held these at odds beliefs. Perhaps, as with many people, Densham initially wished to shake off the views of his parents and as he aged, found himself becoming the same man as his father.
A tall strong man, standing over six feet, Densham was also pompous, pious and sure of himself and certain that his beliefs were the only correct ones. He was at his best when working with the needy and found positions working in a Boys’ Home in Whitechapel and at a Home for Inebriates.
By 1921, Densham decided to enlighten foreigners and travelled to Natal in Africa as a missionary. He was unsuccessful and after learning of the teachings of Gandhi, applied to work in India but was turned down. It was this temporarily demoralised man who turned up to minister at St Bartholomew’s Church in Warleggan in Cornwall in 1931.
There he found 168 parishioners, Cornishmen born and bred, distrustful of strangers and unwilling to change their patterns of worship. It seems that they may have been against Densham from the beginning as even early in his residency there, the congregation averaged only between 4 and 9 people. On very rare occasions there were as many as 15 or 20 worshippers. Equally, there were many days when he would preach to an empty church. As the church emptied, it became Densham’s practice to place small cards in the first six pews inscribed with the names of prior vicars and so preached in his imagination to his peers.
It may have been a result of this habit, from which grew the legend of him preaching to the cardboard cut outs of parishioners, a story which some say originated from Daphne du Maurier in her book Vanishing Cornwall. However, Miss du Maurier did not write this legend until 1967 and heard about it around 1932.
Daphne visited the church with her friend Foy Quiller Couch a short time after Reverend Densham had arrived. He had been invited to tea at The Haven along with another clergyman, by the Quiller Couch family. They found him to be amiable and loquacious, although a little odd. Daphne du Maurier wrote about her conversation with Foy following this encounter,
“In what way?” I enquired.Vanishing Cornwall by Daphne du Maurier
“He asked me,” she said, “to recommend a gardener to live in.” He was a bachelor, and whomever he employed would receive for his services a penny a year and all his potatoes free.
“I told him,” said my friend (Foy), the most courteous of persons, “that gardeners are rather hard to find, and possibly the wages he suggested were a little low.”
It was from Foy and her father, the highly respected Arthur Quiller Couch, that Daphne heard of the cardboard cut-out congregation. Other writers have disputed the story, stating that Densham only preached to hand written cards left in the pews.
It wasn’t long before Densham and his parishioners fell out. He wished to change the services and had various ideas to update the services but soon fell foul of the Parish Council. He responded by removing the complainants from the parish electoral rolls. He could find no staff, as he wanted them to live in on little or no wages. It was highly likely that he was lonely and could not understand why it was his own actions clashing with a long-established community belief that were to blame. It was his job to work with his congregation and not against them.
It has also been reported that he kept strange books in his library, possibly to do with witchcraft and devil worship. It seems more likely that his academic books on Eastern religions and folk and pagan beliefs were causing the trouble. He was however, preaching the merits of vegetarianism and had banned whist drives and concerts, declaring them ‘amusements from hell.’
Densham then took it upon himself to purchase an entire litter of Alsatian puppies, cute at first, but which soon ran wild killing sheep belonging to local farmers. This caused more antagonism and there were loud demands for the destruction of the dogs. Instead of this, Densham had his entire property at The Rectory fenced with eight-foot-high barbed wire as a compromise, while he insisted that his dogs, including his favourite Gandhi, were not to blame.
Now, there was a twelve-foot-high gate as an entrance to The Rectory, outside of which Densham left a box where his meagre shopping requirements could be left. Appointments to visit him had to be in writing and Densham would wait for them inside the gate. Any visitors without an appointment would have to bang loudly on an old oil drum left there for the purpose.
Mindful of his tiny congregation, and wanting to please them, Densham decided to repaint the church, choosing to do it at night and using colours of deep red, blue and yellow. Horrified, his small congregation walked out of the church upon seeing his work, fearful of Densham’s clear pagan beliefs. Densham responded by painting over the church windows and bringing in only one candle when a meeting was held to object.
In 1933 Densham had closed the Sunday School and the shocked congregation called on their Bishop, Walter Frere, hoping he would remove Densham, but he could find no ecclesiastical reason so to do. It appears that the Bishop was alarmed by some of the accusations, such as the threat to sell the church organ, a World War 1 memorial, and Densham telling one parishioner that he would kill him by ‘Holy Magic’. But Bishop Frere in response asked for peace and reconciliation.
Densham remained in his place at St Bartholomew’s.
It was around this time, that Daphne and Foy visited. They stayed at Jamaica Inn and trudged to Warleggan early one morning. A journey of over two hours.
Daphne wrote in Vanishing Cornwall;
Vanishing Cornwall by Daphne du Maurier
The trek was long, the day was hot-surprisingly, for mid-May – and Warleggan was not easy to find. We arrived weary and already rather scared, having eaten a pasty lunch unwittingly upon a nest of adders, the strange hissing noise beneath warning us, just before they uncoiled and rose, that the stone was occupied. Warleggan church already had an air of desolation, the small churchyard tall with unkempt grass, the silence profound. No one, save the pastor, had said a prayer within for many years. Our courage waned. We left the church and approached the rectory, which was screened by tall trees nested in by colonies of rooks whose restless cawing held a baleful note.
We found the entrance gate barred and wired, with the box upon it for provisions empty. Daringly we sounded the bell.
Hardly had it clanged than eight – my companion afterwards said ten – enormous dogs, wolf-hounds and Alsatians, sprang from nowhere upon the fence above us, leaping, snarling, yellow fangs bared in rage. Like the organist, we fled in terror to the moor, preferring the nest of adders to this pack of hungry dogs, and there consulted as to our next move.
A year or so later, Daphne and Foy were joined by their friend Lady Clara Vyvyan in her car. Clara was determined that they should all gain entry, although she disliked dogs and they hoped to avoid them.
They hid the car by parking in a nearby lane and crept by the rectory garden, disturbing the rooks. But there were no dogs, they mused,
Vanishing Cornwall by Daphne du Maurier
Possibly they had starved to death.
They climbed the far hedge, hoping to see the vicar. As they struggled up the bank through the ubiquitous brambles and nettles and ignoring the barbed wire, they saw the Reverend Densham.
There was the vicar, scarcely twenty yards away, pacing up and down his little plot of ground, a strange, unbelievable figure in a dark frockcoat green with age, a black shovel hat upon his head.
We stared. He did not see us. Up and down he walked, with heaven knows what melancholy thoughts, what lonely speculations. Suddenly the explorer (Clara Vyvyan) did a crazy thing. She took her handkerchief from her pocket and began to wave it wildly in the air.
“Cooee!” she shouted. “Cooee!” (her Australian roots showing here.)
The vicar paused. He lifted his head a moment to right and left and walked away, his hands behind his back. Scarlet with shame, I plucked the explorer from the hedge. The last of the trio (Foy) was already running for the car. This expedition, like the first, had proved ignominious. We retreated, cowed.
Vanishing Cornwall by Daphne du Maurier
The three ladies learnt later that the dogs had already gone, although it is not clear where. This was only a few years after he had bought them.
Densham had now fixed up speakers at the church and preached his echoing sermons so that passers-by could hear him even though they refused to enter. He built a playground for children and set up a little theatre in one of his buildings which would show films. He advertised a date and yet again, no one showed up. He cleared his house and stockpiled food during the war and applied to the authorities to house evacuees, but none were allocated to him, Densham, not surprisingly, being designated an unsuitable host for children.
He responded by raising the height of the barbed wire fence to 12 feet.
He had now painted the doors inside his Rectory with red crosses and drawn religious names thereon. He wrote new sermons, journals and continued to preach to empty pews.
Growing ever more insular, Densham did not clean either himself or his house and began to rip up floorboards for his fire.
After 1951, his story had travelled around the world and often journalists would turn up to interview him. He was photographed several times shouting at the local Methodists, but eventually even the journalists lost interest. Densham was now spiralling into self-absorption.
One morning in 1953, locals noticed that for several days, there had been no chimney smoke and no sightings of Densham. They bashed the oil drum at the gate, but to no avail. Further investigations revealed the Reverend Densham had died partway up the stairs several days previously and lay there in his final sleep.
His funeral service was attended by no one, save his solicitor and his ashes were not scattered on his own Garden of Remembrance as he had requested, but in a Plymouth cemetery.
This sad, possibly misunderstood old man, died alone and lonely and yet his story still circulates as a mystery. It is rumoured that his spirit even now, paces the Rectory Garden and he has been seen walking the lanes with his favourite dog, Gandhi. Densham has been immortalised in several books and most recently in a film called, A Congregation of Ghosts
There has never been another Rector of Warleggan after Densham. The Rectory was sold, and his paltry possessions taken by his brother or sold off. The church was soon whitewashed and cleared of any trace of the Reverend Densham.
It is worth mentioning that not everyone believed Densham to be a strange man. As he had often attended the local Methodist Church, some of their congregation remember him as a misunderstood and kind man, who would attend the bedsides of sick parishioners and bring them flowers in addition to his prayers. These fond memories, however, are few and far between.