The Right Reverend Percy Herbert (1886-1968)

Chair of Rossall Council (1927-1942)

Diana in the arms of her parents, Lord and Lady Althorp (30th August 1961)

   On 30th August 1961, the Hon. Diana Spencer, later Diana, Princess of Wales, was christened in the beautiful little church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Sandringham Estate. Diana was to become the most photographed lady in the world but the very first public image of her was taken on this late summer’s day when she was only a month old. She was christened by the Right Reverend Percy Herbert who was previously the Chair of Council at Rossall, until he was forced to step down upon his elevation to the bishopric of Norwich. 

    Percy Herbert was born in 1885. He was the second son of Sybella Augusta (née Milbank) Herbert and Major General William Henry Herbert. Percy had a very comfortable childhood and lived at Winsley Hall in Shropshire. His paternal grandparents were Edward Herbert, 2nd Earl of Powis and Lady Lucy Graham, and through his mother he was related to William Vane, the 1st Duke of Cleveland. Percy was educated at Rugby School., where his headmaster was none other than Herbert James who had been headmaster of Rossall between 1875 and 1886. Percy was a great admirer of James, and thus he must have been cognisant of Rossall from a very young age. Percy went up to Trinity College, Cambridge and graduated in 1907 with a doctorate in divinity.

Winsley Hall

Percy was ordained in 1909 and returned to Rugby School to become the school chaplain; a post that he held for a number of years. In 1915, he became the vicar of St George’s Camberwell and headed up the Trinity Cambridge Mission. The Trinity Cambridge Mission had been established in 1885 and was set up to ‘do good work’ amongst the poor of the parish. The Bishop of Rochester was so delighted that Trinity had embarked upon this charitable initiative that he exclaimed with no small degree of excitement that, ‘The news about Trinity comes like a bottle of port wine to a weak man’. 

Percy Herbert (National Portrait Gallery)

    In 1921, Percy became Bishop of Kingston and briefly served as a chaplain to King George V. In 1927, he was appointed the very first bishop of the newly formed diocese of Blackburn. Almost immediately, he was invited to become Chairman of the Council at Rossall. He served the School loyally and with distinction during the most challenging of times. The Great Depression of the 1930s had a disastrous impact upon pupil numbers and the once healthy school finances went into a period of miserable decline. Furthermore, the coming of the Second World War necessitated the School’s brief relocation to Naworth Castle a few miles north of Carlisle. In 1942, Percy became Bishop of Norwich and, consequently, he was compelled to resign from Rossall and thus his active association with the school came to a conclusion. 

   His immediate predecessor at Norwich was Bertram Pollock (1863-1943). Pollock was responsible for the prosecution of Stiffkey’s parish priest Harold Davidson. Davidson was something of a bon viveur who regularly disappeared from his north Norfolk parish in order to rescue ‘fallen’ young ladies in London’s Soho district. Davidson’s activities caused Pollock a good degree of disquiet and he ordered that he should be tried in a rarely convened ecclesiastical court. Pollock had commissioned the Arrow Detective Agency to follow Davidson to London and they took some potentially compromising photographs of the controversial vicar that were published in the Daily Mirror. The case became something of a tabloid sensation. 

The presiding judge for the trial just happened to be a university chum of Pollock as well as being godfather to his daughter. Unsurprisingly, Davidson was found guilty and it was decreed that he should be ‘removed, deposed and degraded’. This strikingly medieval spectacle played out in public in Norwich Cathedral. A weeping and penitent Davidson was denied mercy and ejected from the cathedral cloisters. 

Davidson’s downfall was spectacular and plummeted to dismal depths that were almost gothic. Indeed, no author of fiction would have dared pen the denouement that was to come for it was not long before Davidson was to be found at the end of the North Pier in Blackpool exhibiting himself in a barrel. A few years later Davidson developed an act which was based upon the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. He would preach upon the story and his final pièce de résistance involved sticking his head inside the gaping jaws of a circus lion. On one occasion, someone had ‘forgotten’ to feed the lion and, in front of a shocked crowd of Skegness holidaymakers, Davidson was mauled to death. He remains, quite possibly, the only Church of England vicar to have been eaten by a lion. Fame is a curious thing, and the lion himself became something of a celebrity. People were happy to pay a couple of pence to see the lion that had eaten the vicar of Stiffkey.

Davidson ill-advisedly playing with a lion!

Bertram Pollock’s daughter became a friend of my great aunt and only died a couple of years ago. Her father had been sixty eight when she was born in 1931 and so there was almost a hundred and eighty years between her father’s birth and her own passing. 

   Anyway, that was a shameless but irresistible digression. No such scandal marked Percy’s time as Bishop of Norwich and upon his retirement, he became Rector of St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Sandringham. It is the church that the royal family stroll to every Christmas morning. Percy died in 1968 at the age of 82. His life had spanned an extraordinarily interesting period of British history. Very much a Victorian, he lived through two World Wars and baptised the infant Princess Diana, whose influence over the royal family and public life is still so apparent to this day.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School