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A Man for All Seasons

‘Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying.’    

Romans 12:15

April 1911

Kingsbury Street, Calne, Wiltshire

The Rev. R. G. Wheeler, minister of Calne Free Church, knocked on the front door of the Tounson Almshouses, the heavy brass knocker sending vibrations along the terrace of eight, two-roomed – one-up, one-down dwellings. That would awaken the aged occupants after their post-prandial nap. As he waited, he scrutinised the exterior of the Almshouses – responsible as he was, along with other clergy of the parish and local benefactors, for the upkeep of the building, and the care of its residents.

In properties like these, dating back two hundred years, it was not surprising that the houses were rather tired looking and not in the best of condition: damp walls, draughty windows and creaking floor boards. Of constant concern. Comfort and safety were important, but like other charities, they struggled to balance their books, dependent on church collections and generous legacies.

 Rev. Wheeler knocked again. He was a man in a hurry. A man always with somewhere to go and something to do. A man whom parishioners looked up to, and whose company was sought.

 It was little Susie, the laundry girl, who came to the door, struggling to open the hefty oak door an inch to view the visitor. The Rev.  greeted her and pushed the door hard to enter the passage which led to the rear communal garden –with access to the individual homes. He was expected today. He required to meet and converse with each tenant.

The current batch of eight widows ranged from 93-year-old Harriet Clifford to the youngest, 73-year-old Elizabeth Pinnell. He knew all the widows – past and present, and the families going back the thirty-two years he had served the church. From baptisms to funeral eulogies. God Bless those who had passed away, members of his flock. He enjoyed the widows’ company greatly, with all the memories and stories they recounted – hardships and happy times. He found pleasure in their strength of mind, good nature and faith. But it was business today, not a social call, although tea would probably be offered.

 It was Census Day.

 The census enumerator was on his way across the town to the Kingsbury Green area, to collect the completed forms. The Rev. was prepared to help those who struggled to read and write, or those who were nervous or suspicious of revealing personal details to the GRO – General Register Office. He would witness their X mark on the paper – and countersign with his name. No judgement. Just a smile and a nod.

He had completed his own census form early that morning. A rather reduced household now: him, wife Rachel, and servant. Their four children were adults with lives of their own elsewhere. Early bird that he was, his To-do list was nearly done. A visit to a sick farmer in Bremhill, three miles away, tick; a meeting with the churchwarden to discuss mice in the organ pipes, tick. The widows still to be ticked.


A tall dark-haired young man of thirty, with an MA degree in Theology under his belt from Worcester College, Oxford, married, with a baby son, preached his first sermon at Calne Free Church in 1879. The Rev. Robert Gildey Wheeler from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, had taken the post of Pastor – only the second man in that position, which he was to hold for 50 years.

Calne Free Church today

The family lived in the Vicarage, No 1, The Green, opposite the Almshouses. Robert lived there until his death in 1932, aged 84. It was next door to the imposing Parish Church of  St Mary the Virgin, and a five-minute walk to his own place of worship. The Free Church was new to the town, having been founded in 1868.  Some members of St Mary’s congregation became critical of one of the vicar’s sermons. That he spoke contrary to the traditional ‘Scripture and the teachings of the Church of England.’ The sermon was submitted to the Bishop of Salisbury for scrutiny; he did not express any disapproval. The dissident group grew, and they planned to build a new church where ‘Protestant Evangelical doctrines of the Church of England should be preached.’

Money was raised from local supporters with help from the wealthy, teetotal Harris family, whose bacon-curing factory provided employment for most of Calne residents. A suitable site was hard to find but they settled on purchasing The Bear Inn, Church Street. No more ale to be served there.

Errand boys playing outside the Almshouses

 The vicarage was a fine house, three-storeys, with a large garden at the rear which sloped down to the River Marden, where his children used to paddle and swim and play games with friends. The Wheelers were famous for their tea parties en plein air (thanks to Rachel) for parishioners – the widows, regular guests. From his study window the Rev. could keep an eye on his elderly neighbours.

The parlour, No 1  The Green – music practice

A much-loved and respected minister, he was known across the county for his  compassion and all-embracing pastoral work. His name often appeared in the local press. Even his state of health was of interest to the nation.

We are glad to hear that the Rev. R. G. Wheeler, who was seized with a severe attack of lead cholic, caused by drinking home-made gingerade, has sufficiently recovered to be able to resume his ministerial duties. It will be remembered that about 18 months ago, there were a number of cases of lead poisoning in the town, and Dr. Campbell in a report to the local board on the subject, condemned the use of the lead glazed pans known as the ‘Salisbury Bushel.’                                                                  14 June 1888, Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette

CALNE  SCHOOLS’ PARTY.  Mr Thomas Harris invited all the day and Sunday school children – about 1,100, and 200 teachers to tea in the new recreation ground, a most liberal entertainment being provided. Calne Brass Band was engaged for the day, and the Rev. R. G. Wheeler kindly gave a series of limelight views [lantern shows] indoors.       19 September 1891, Marlborough Times                                                                                       

THE ARMENIAN MASSACRES. A meeting at Calne Town Hall to protest against the horrible atrocities which are being perpetrated on the Armenian Christians. Present: The Mayor ( Mr Henly), Edward Atkin, Esq., treasurer of the Grosvenor House Armenian Relief Fund, Rev. W. E. Cockshott, vicar of Wootton Bassett, sometime Chaplain to the British Embassy, Constantinople; Thos Harris, Esq., and Rev. R. G. Wheeler, Calne Free Church.       8 October 1896,  Devizes and Wiltshire Advertiser

SUNDAY CLOSING MEETING  CALNE … under the auspices of the Central Association for Stopping the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors on Sundays.  Among those present …Revs W. H. J. Page (Baptist),  R. G .Wheeler (Free Church),  W. Fiddian Moulton (Wesleyan) and Alderman W.A. Webb  (Mayor)              28 March 1903, The Wiltshire Telegraph

CALNE.  LOCAL APPEALS  TRIBUNAL MEETING …  Cases of exemption from military service. Present … Rev. R. G. Wheeler,  Messrs R. Wootton. H. J .Gunning, A. G. Angell and Colonel Hornsby Drake, representing the military authority… Mrs Blackford, widow, who has 4 out of 6 sons in the army appealed for the exemption of her son, Sydney, 18, single, labourer who is the only one left at home to support her… Mr Parkhouse , butcher, asked for leave to make a further appeal for his slaughter man named Robinson.                14 October 1916,  The Wiltshire Telegraph

They say that ‘all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.’ The Rev. was certainly no dull boy. His great love, after Jesus, Rachel, the children and the widows, was photography. He may have been introduced to it at his school, Christ’s College, Finchley, or taken it up at university. He certainly caught the bug.  One of his favourite cameras was the Kodak Box Brownie which came out in 1900; inexpensive and convenient to carry.

File:Kodak Brownie advert.jpg

He continued taking pictures of people and places throughout his life – moving to more sophisticated photographic apparatus.


         On the loose – Wombell’s and Bostock’s Touring Menagerie

 His real achievement and legacy was recording life in Calne at the turn of the century. Not only  family life, his beloved widows, errand boys, farm labourers, horse and carts, he  also managed to capture unexpected and unusual moments.  Circus animals loose in town, the visit of King Edward V11 and Queen Alexandra, July 1907, recovery work of a capsized steam roller by Studleybrook Farm.

All these, and more, survive, thanks to the Wheeler granddaughters who gave their family albums to Calne Heritage Centre. A generous gift, assuring  remembrance of The Man for All Seasons, whose images are still treasured today.

A wider world now shares his work – more than the Rev. Robert Gildey Wheeler could ever have imagined, each time he fired the shutter on his camera.

Rev. R.G. Wheeler and his wife Rachel (Rutty), taken by the man himself with an automatic timer, in the Vicarage garden.

The Wheeler family grave, Curzon Street Cemetery, Calne