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Rev Stephen Hales

Issue: TW11 May 14

Rev Stephen Hales – Vicar & Scientist

ON 4TH JANUARY 1761, the longest running ministry in Teddington was brought to an abrupt end; Stephen Hales had died.

Hales was born into minor gentry on 17th September 1677 at Bekesbourne in Kent. His parents, Thomas and Mary had eleven children, Stephen was the tenth child and sixth son, and a long way removed from the baronetcy of his grandfather, Sir Robert Hales. Stephen’s father died at an early age and Sir Robert took on his guardianship and saw him placed at Bene’t Collage (the forerunner of Corpus Christi) Cambridge in 1696 at the age of nineteen.

The country was still recovering from the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration and the Great Plague and the college was predominantly theologian. Little is known of his life at Cambridge other than that he graduated and was elected a Fellow of the college in 1703 and in the same year, he was ordained a Deacon. In this period Hales became interested in every aspect of science and physiology which led to his study of anatomy and the dissection of frogs, dogs and other animals.

On August 10th 1709, he was appointed Perpetual Curate of the parish of Teddington. Although he still continued his experiments on blood pressure and on live horses. Mindful of the distaste with which his parishioners viewed these experiments and not wishing to be considered cruel to animals, he moved his attentions to the life of plants and how they lived and breathed. His work became better known and he was elected to the Royal Society in 1718 and on March 15th, he delivered his first paper to the Society. This appeared some time later in his book Vegetable Staticks.

At the time of Hales’ appearance in Teddington, it was a small village of about 400 people, a small manor house and a rundown church. There was no parsonage. The ‘living’ of the church was normally in the hands of the Lord of the Manor but in this case, it had been taken on by a wealthy and influential family, the Bridgemans, to whom Hales was distantly related. This explains his presence in Teddington in the first place. This living was the princely sum of £87, twice the value of his Fellowship.

In 1720 at the age of 43, he married Mary Newce, the daughter of a Hertfordshire clergyman. They were married in St Paul’s Cathedral under a special licence by his old college head, Dean William Stanley. Nothing is known of Mary and sadly she died a year later. He conducted the service himself and wrote in the register ‘Mary Hales, my dear wife was buried. Oct.10.1721.’

He set about restoring the fabric of the Church of St Mary which had fallen into disrepair and in the years of his ministry, he virtually rebuilt the church himself. His sermons were moral dissertations, based on the gospels and stressing the Christian values of charity and love. To these he added some of the arguments he had noted for himself, drawn from natural science. The effect of this combination was to draw large attendances to the services to the extent that within five years, it had become necessary to enlarge the Church.

He kept very full records of his ministry and his registers contain much more detail than one would normally expect. One of the more unusual aspects of his tenure was the application of Public Penance for acts of immorality. This involved the poor penitents being clothed only in a white sheet, given a white rod and made to stand barefoot, outside the church until the Litany, at which point they were brought inside to be prayed over. The registers show :
Anne Clarke, Spinster for Adultery, 10 Feb 1722
William Whiting, for Fornication )
Hannah Hill, Widow for Fornication ) 18 Apr 1732
Frances Honeywell for Fornication )
Sarah Fuller for Fornication, 13 June 1733
Frances Honeywell for Fornication, 6 Oct 1737
Eliz. Mansell of Hampton got with child
By Joshua Mitchins of London, Feb 8 1740

It was the job of the parish to deal with the poverty of the parish and in addition to support other national tragedies and these, Hales seems to have skilfully dealt with without imposing any huge levies.

One of his particular dislikes was drunkenness not only for the harm that it did to men’s bodies but because of what he called the ‘bewitching of Naughtiness in these fiery liquors.’ He ordered 200 copies of a tract Against Drunkeness and 250 of a similar tract Against Swearing and distributed these around the village. When he took on the living of Farringdon in Hampshire also, he noted that at Farringdon he found himself placed among a sober and industrious people but the people of Teddington were more remiss. In 1741 he calculated that the expectation of life at Farringdon was one third longer than at Teddington which being unhappily within the Gin Bills of Mortality, grows continually from bad to worse.

He undertook some experiments on food preservation and was particularly concerned with the effects of air supply on both human health and stored foodstuffs. He wrote a paper for the Royal Society in 1741 promoting the use of ventilators ‘whereby Great Quantities of Fresh Air may with Ease be conveyed into Mines, Gaols, Hospitals, Work-Houses and Ships, in Exchange for their Noxious Air.’ This slowly became a popular feature of everyday life with ventilators in granaries speeding drying and eliminating mould and putrefaction. The first major prison installation was at Savoy Prison where the subsequent drop in prisoner deaths was so marked as to prompt new installation in a number of prisons.

The Admiralty finally took up ventilators following some success in reducing illness and death in the merchant fleet, particularly on slave and transport ships. An order went out in 1756 to fit ventilators to all His Majesty’s Ships. Hospitals followed starting with the Navy hospitals at Portsmouth, Gosport and Plymouth to Hyde Park Corner and the Middlesex small-pox hospital.

During the Seven Years War with France, he wrote to the French authorities in charge of English prisoners of war to urge them to install ventilators in their prisons and prison ships. This they did, to the benefit of English prisoners. Hales hoped none would accuse him of treason for corresponding with the enemy.

Back at home in Teddington, he improved life in the village with a method of flushing the drain in the High Street which ran the full length from the village pond to the River Thames with a supply of fresh water fed into the pond.

Hales died on 4th January 1761 after a short illness at the age of eighty four, having been parish priest at Teddington for fifty two years. He is buried under the tower of the church and in 1986, a memorial plaque was placed on the floor of the porch.

Sources: Stephen Hales DD, FRS by A E Clark-Kennedy, Stephen Hales DD, FRS 1677-1761 by David G C Allan

Ken Howe is a historian and author of several local history books
Tel: 020 8943 1513