Wealthy benefactor and popular vicar who died after freak ice-skating accident
REVEREND William Newton’s very affluent background was a world away from the working class of Rotherham — to whom he became a hero.
His family owned large chunks of Birmingham, including the part of New Street on which the city’s railway station was built.
They owned Whateley Hall at nearby Castle Bromwich and spent three months each summer at their Scottish holiday home — a 50-room castle on the 26,000-acre Glencripesdale Estate.
Rev Newton’s parents were worth £100 million in today’s money.
Thomas Henry Goodwin Newton, one of his two brothers, was chairman of the Imperial Continental Gas Association, which became Calor Gas.
Rev Newton was ordained in 1861 and spent 11 years in his first position as curate at St John’s Ousebridge, York.
When his appointment as vicar of Rotherham’s All Saints’ parish church was announced by predecessor Rev Moseley, it was said that the new arrival “had means” — hinting at Rev Newton’s substantial private income.
In 1874, two years after his arrival, the new reverend presided over a meeting about the future of the church, which is now Rotherham Minster. It was unanimously agreed to press on with a £10,000-plus restoration — and Rev Newton himself donated £1,000.
The old galleries were removed from the church and high-backed pews replaced by more comfortable ones. The organ was shifted to the north chapel, making room for more seating, and there were repairs to the walls, roof and floor.
There was a congregation of 1,500 residents at the reopening ceremony, which was also attended by the Archbishop of York and Earl Fitzwilliam.
On April 24, 1877, Rev Newton married Kate Fox, the youngest daughter of Rev Fox, the vicar of his old patch in York.
The wedding was a huge occasion at the revamped Rotherham church, with streets outside thronged and residents waiting at upstairs windows for a glimpse of the couple.
Venetian masts were erected on each side of the pathway leading from High Street and an arch was constructed. The church spire was decorated with bunting.
Rev Newton was heavily involved in the anti-alcohol Temperance movement. He also offered his services as workhouse chaplain, for which he received £40 a year.
Historian Margaret Drinkall, in her Rotherham Workhouse book, said: “The new chaplain was unhappy with the squalid conditions of the town’s housing. It was felt that the working man would often prefer to seek refuge in the local hostelries than the unsanitary conditions of his own home.
“Following a temperance mission held in Rotherham in 1876 with the Archbishop of York, the chaplain opened a cocoa and coffee house at the bottom of Wellgate.”
It was opened in November 1877 by the mayor, Mr CJ Morgan, who congratulated the vicar and thought the premises would be of great benefit to the town.
Rev Newton was concerned about the drinking habits of the town, and this was his offer of a way to help.
The coffee house became so busy and successful that it was moved to a larger building, St George’s Hall, in 1878, at a cost of £6,000.
This expansion move was called his greatest achievement by Mrs Drinkall.
St George’s Hall became a centre to church work and learning — a place without alcohol for the working class to meet. Rooms were provided for community groups.
Historian Margaret Jackson, who featured the reverend’s Temperance ventures in her Rotherham Wellgate book, said: “Rev Newton was a popular person who used his private income for the welfare of the townspeople and gave a generous donation towards the parish church restoration in 1874.”
Popular Rev Newton’s sudden death at 41 after a freak ice-skating accident came as a massive shock.
It happened in his native West Midlands on February 18, 1879, just seven years into his blossoming relationship with Rotherham.
He was staying with a family friend and, on the previous evening, collided with a his brother, Rev Horace Newton.
There was a delay in getting him off the ice, leading to a chill and causing congestion of the lungs.
He went to bed happily that night — wishing wife Kate “goodnight and God bless you” — but she found him dead at 6am.
Back here, the people of Rotherham were expecting his return within days. The first sign of what had happened was the tolling of bells from the church he played such a big role in transforming.
The Sheffield Independent subsequently reported: “He appeared to be making a good recovery but he was suddenly seized with a rheumatic affection of the heart, which proved fatal.”
The parish church was, of course, the venue for a memorial service, when the whole town mourned and business ceased.
Clergy from across the region arrived to pay their respects, alongside the mayor, the corporation, the school board, the Feoffees, the hospital, the Guardians, the Freemasons, the workhouse folk and many others.
A letter from the burial board to Kate and her family expressed the town’s great sorrow — adding: “He was the warm-hearted friend and advisor of all who sought his help, and his bright example of Christian life, self-denying and devoted character were evidences of his fitness for the position he held.”
The family’s response said: “It is most gratifying to them to be assured that his fellow townsmen of every denomination feel in his removal, the loss of a true friend.”
And Kate asked for permission to erect an Iona cross at Moorgate Cemetery, where her late husband was buried.
The cemetery’s website pays tribute to Rev Newton, saying: “His privately-funded works and ministering to the townspeople of Rotherham had made him very popular and loved, and his care for the welfare of the community made the occasion of his untimely death much lamented.”
John Guest, writing in his Historic Notices of Rotherham of 1879, described Rev Newton as “firm, unfaltering and ever diligent in the discharge of his varied duties.”
He added: “Any laudatory allusion to his good deeds would be an insult to his revered memory.”
Mrs Drinkall said in her Rotherham Workhouse book: “He had been the chaplain for only seven years and during that time it was stated that ‘no-one has ever done as much for the town’.”