The Reverend William Henry Brookfield shone like a fleeting meteorite in early/mid-nineteenth century Southampton.
The son of a Sheffield solicitor, Brookfield entered Trinity College, Cambridge in October 1829, proceeding to BA in 1833 and MA in 1836. By the sheer force of his own charm he had entre into the inmost ring of the literary circle of which Alfred Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray and Arthur Henry Hallam were shining lights. In the words of a contemporary at Trinity (and later Master of the college), William Hepworth Thompson: “He was by far the most amusing man I ever met, or ever shall meet. It is not likely that I shall ever see again a whole party, all grave and learned men, lying on the floor for the purpose of unrestrained laughter, while one of their numbers poured forth, with a perfectly grave face, a succession of imaginary dialogues between characters real and fictitious, one exceeding the other in humour and drollery” (Charles and Frances Brookfield, Mrs Brookfield and her circle, volume 1, 1905 and quoted in the Oxford dictionary of national biography). A sonnet published to W H Brookfield by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1869 echoes this theme. To quote the opening lines:
Brooks, for they call'd you so that knew you best,
Old Brooks, who loved so well to mouth my rhymes.
How oft we two have heard St Mary's chimes!
How oft the Cantab supper, host and guest,
Would echo helpless laughter to your jest!
Following a brief spell as private tutor to George William Lyttelton (who succeeded as fourth Baron Lyttelton in 1837 and who later held government office under Sir Robert Peel), Brookfield was ordained a deacon in Lincoln diocese on 21 December 1834. His first cure was the remote parish of Maltby in north-east Lincolnshire.
Brookfield came to Southampton in autumn 1836. He was curate successively of Holy Rood (September 1836-December 1837, under the Reverend Dr William Wilson) and All Saints (January 1838-September 1840, under the Reverend John Emilius Shadwell). He was an effective and popular preacher. A eulogy in the Hampshire Advertiser, 3 October 1840, on his resignation from the later curacy, praised “his elegant diction and stories of biblical learning [which] proclaimed the scholar”, ‘his uncompromising denunciations of lukewarmness in the cause of Christ’, “his forcible inculcation of the precepts of the Gospel” and his “easy manner of conveying instruction” from the pulpit. This suggests that he was on the evangelical side of Anglicanism.
Brookfield was a fellow traveller with the Bullars in the foundation and management of the Royal South Hants Hospital. Ever willing to support the cause from the pulpit, Brookfield became joint honorary secretary - with Dr William Bullar - in January 1840.
Brookfield was Provincial Grand Chaplain of the Free and Accepted Masons of Hampshire. As such he officiated at two of the landmark Masonic ceremonies in Southampton: laying the foundation stones for Southampton docks on 12 October 1838 and (although now resident in London) of the South Hants Infirmary on 10 July 1843.
It was in Southampton that Brookfield, outwardly the most eligible of bachelors, met his future wife. Jane Octavia Elton (born March 1821 and twelve years his junior) was the youngest daughter of Sir Charles Abraham Elton, 6th baronet, of Cleveland Court near Bristol. She was connected by marriage to the historian Henry Hallam (Hallam's wife was her aunt) and hence to Henry's son Arthur Henry Hallam, a fellow alumnus of William Brookfield at Trinity College, Cambridge, whose untimely death in 1833 prompted perhaps the most famous of requiems, Tennyson's In memoriam. The Eltons moved to Southampton in 1837, and William and Jane - a noted beauty - became engaged at the end of 1838. The 1839 Southampton directory records his address as Commercial Road, Hill.
Southampton was too provincial a stage for a man of Brookfield's talents and prospects. In October 1840 he was appointed curate of the highly fashionable St James's Church, Piccadilly: one of Christopher Wren's city churches. His new appointment, the Hampshire Advertiser prophesied, “will introduce him to a sphere where his rare talents may meet with that reward to which the curacy of a country church, but moderately endowed, is totally inadequate”.
In March 1841 he was appointed Sunday morning preacher at Archbishop Tenison's Chapel in Regent Street. Jane and William were married on 18 November 1841. In July 1842 William was appointed preacher and assistant at St James's, Piccadilly and also perpetual curate of St Luke's District Church in Soho.
Brookfield was still in demand in Southampton whenever there was money to be raised for the church. He preached in May 1842 and November 1844 in aid of funds for, respectively, a new organ and a new spire at St Lawrence's Church. Sermons were delivered in St Michael's Church in November 1845 to help pay for the introduction of new gas lighting and at All Saints Church in January 1847 in aid of funds to erect national schools in the parish.
Brookfield was appointed Inspector of Schools in Hampshire, Surrey, Kent and Sussex in 1848, on his resignation of the cure of St Luke's. His report into national schools published in 1851 is a seminal document for the study of primary education in these counties.
This however is a veneer of normality. His life was increasingly dominated by matrimonial problems and his wife's liaison with William Makepeace Thackeray, William's close friend from their Cambridge days. It is an unhappy story that can be followed in Thackeray's published correspondence: The letters and private papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, collected and edited by Gordon N Ray, 4 volumes, 1945-6. This can be supplemented by the entries for both Jane Octavia and William Henry Brookfield in the Oxford dictionary of national biography. Many of the scenes were played out in Southampton.
There is, however, a postscript. In 1861, Brookfield re-entered the church as rector of Somerby near Grantham and in January 1867 was appointed an honorary chaplain in ordinary to the Queen. He was officiating minister at the funeral of all four Bullar brothers - John, Joseph, William and Henry - at their closely-spaced funerals in St Nicholas's Church, North Stoneham between 1867 and 1870. This raises the intriguing question as to the influence, if any, of the charismatic Brookfield in the wholesale conversion of the Bullar brothers from the Congregationalism of their parents to the Anglican church.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, Volume 7
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