Vicar Gray

Tall and full-bearded like an Old Testament figure, driven by unstoppable righteous energy, as keen on hygiene and sanitation as he was on high-church devotions, Gray could ‘hold his own in a boxing match against any of his parishioners with one arm tied behind his back’, according to one historian. A prolific writer, educator and social reformer in addition to his work as a parish priest, he was the dominant force of Helmsley from his arrival in 1870 to his death 43 years later. 

In that respect he outmatched even William Ernest Duncombe, 1st Earl of Feversham (1829-1915), who as the owner of most of the town and many thousands of acres around it, was literally lord of all he surveyed. Feversham had many projects of his own, but he was also content — despite occasional sharp spats between the two, such as over the building of a small Roman Catholic church in Helmsley, which Gray abominated  — to support those that were instigated by Gray, many of which would involve Temple Moore. 

Grandson of a bishop of Bristol and son of the first bishop of Cape Town, Gray inherited a passion for building and rebuilding churches from his mother Sophy, who had taken a hand in numerous projects in South Africa with advice from the great Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield.

Gray’s urge to provide places of worship in every hamlet of his extensive parish brought stern advice from his father the bishop: ‘The parish is quite a little diocese,’ he wrote to his son. ‘You may in your strength and zeal be able to have for some years a network of services all around; but fifty years hence will the living be able to support a staff of curates for these?’

Nevertheless, Gray pressed on, and the result is evident today.

Martin Vander Weyer 2012