▪Catholicism and The Big Burd

Marga’s maternal grandfather Edward Burd was one of the great characters of his time. A wealthy surgeon and man of property in Shrewsbury, he lived in one of the town’s great houses.

But was he as prejudiced against Catholics as much as has been thought?

Burd with big bill

Edward Burd, who was born in 1826, and lived to be 90 years old, seems to have been a larger-than-life character.

One of the stories told about him was that he met one of his patients one day on the bridge near Shrewsbury Abbey, and his patient mentioned a condition he was suffering from. Not long after the man received an invoice for “a consultation on English Bridge”! No wonder he was called the ‘Burd with the big bill’…

However, he could also be kindly, and seems to have taken his son-in-law, Dr Henry Rope, Marga’s father, under his wing and helped him to establish himself and his young family in the town.

Newport House, Shrewsbury
Newport House (with St Mary’s Church spire behind to the left)

He was one of the richest citizens of the town, living in Newport House (on Dogpole), which had originally been built in the 17th century by the then Earl of Bradford.
He was a major benefactor to St Mary’s Church, the huge Anglican medieval church in the centre of Shrewsbury. The large middle section of the Trinity Chapel East Window, designed and made by Powell & Sons, was donated by him in 1897, as were many other pieces of significant furniture and artwork that are still in the church today.

Catholic daughters

So, at first glance, it would appear that Edward, a powerful and leading citizen in a strongly Protestant town, with a stake in the main Anglican church in the town, must have surely ruled the roost at home, as head of the family, in matters of religion.
For example, it’s likely he used his influence to help Henry (Marga’s father) to become a church warden at St Mary’s.

But in fact, his family life only reflected the religious issues of the time. A new, more inquiring attitude toward religious belief was in the air by the late nineteenth century, with previously-suspect practices, from Spiritualism to Catholicism, becoming almost respectable. In fact, ‘Anglo-Catholicism’, a form of Anglicanism infused with Catholicism, was well-established by now, so much so that, in one of his diaries, the poet Wilfred Owen complained that St Mary’s was ‘now quite Popish’…

Agnes Maude RopeFar from being a bastion of strict orthodoxy, the Burd household had its dissenters. Five of his ten children, including the eldest, converted to Catholicism (including Marga’s mother Agnes – see pic right). Four of these daughters even became Catholic nuns – including Constance, who even went on to found a new order of Catholic nuns!

More research is needed on this, but it is hard to think that Edward could have been totally happy about this. In fact, he might even have been resentful.

‘In religion’

It is Edward’s will that has caused most confusion among researchers trying to work out his attitude toward the Catholic converts in his family.

It was a substantial will; in today’s terms, its worth is over £7 million. But it introduces a strange phrase – it disinherits anyone ‘in religion’.
(Although Edward did not die until 1917, and had already written a number of wills, he only introduced his final religious condition in a codicil dated 1913).
But what does ‘in religion’ mean? It is hard to work out.

Clearly it cannot mean just anyone of religious belief. It has been presumed by family historians that it meant anyone who had converted, or might convert, to another faith (especially Catholicism) – thus making an anti-Catholic bigot out of Edward – if that surmise is true.

But careful re-reading of the will seems to makes it clear that substantial (if not overwhelming) sums were in fact left to his Catholic daughters, including Marga’s mother, Agnes (who had converted in 1901).

But all becomes a little clearer in the codicil to the will, dated 1913. Here the will is specific, disinheriting “any grandchild of mine joining a religious brotherhood or sisterhood”.
By this time, of his grandchildren, Harry, Marga’s brother, was already studying to be a Catholic priest, and Monica, Marga’s sister, a nun. (Marga herself didn’t become a nun until 1923).
Edward may also have been bruised by the recent actions of his youngest daughter Beatrice, who had taken nun’s vows two years earlier, in 1911 – was that the final straw for him?

Edward Burd will, codicil 1913
Part of the text of Edward’s will codicil of 1913

Yet… the will does not say that it is specifically Catholic orders that Edward has an issue with.

So, it’s quite possible that such a man as Edward – rich, but careful with money -, may well have been simply dismayed by the vows of poverty that religious orders impose on their members (where novices might well be asked to surrender the bulk of their finances to the order).
Could Edward not stomach his hard-earned money being given away to a religious order, should one of his heirs have joined one? Or was it more deep-seated – was he the kind of pure Protestant who sees any religious order as … simply ‘unwholesome’?
Much more research is needed on this – but it’s one explanation to an otherwise inexplicable phrase.

The carving

A last word on the matter may speak to us out of the Trinity Chapel painted carving which can be seen even today on the front of an altar in St Mary’s (see pic below).

Shrewsbury St Mary's painted altar front
Sadly, no documents have been discovered giving us much knowledge of the carving’s genesis*. However, church historian Peter Williams is sure it’s a piece by Margaret Rope (who, to remind you, was Edward’s granddaughter). It was probably paid for by family members, or even by Edward himself.

However, would Margaret have consented to do the piece knowing that he was a man who discriminated hard against her kind of religiosity? While it’s possible… (she was quite saintly at times!), it seems unlikely…

Edward Burd - on Shrewsbury St Mary's painted altar frontAnd – look – who is the kindly old gentleman painted in the lower right-hand half of this piece (see pic right)?
As we say, no documentation exists, but Peter Williams maintains it must be Edward. If it is, Marga paints him as a slightly Pickwickian character, wearing a scarf against the cold – thus surely indicating a deep affection for him, not distaste at all.

So, was Edward – despite his will – an anti-Catholic? On balance, it seems …no.

Thanks for their additional research to: Ruth Anderson, Bill Pearson, Jane Morgan, Peter Williams and Jennifer Farlow

*Though, according to a faculty of the time, the altar to which it is attached was put in sometime in 1919.

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One thought on “▪Catholicism and The Big Burd

  1. The version I heard of the “big bill” epithet was “a small Burd with a very large bill”.
    I wonder if such behaviour is detectible even today on the western side of the Atlantic.


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