Chaplain to William, 5th Baron Byron

William Byron, 5th Baron Byron, 1722-1798, the great uncle to the Poet, has a very shady reputation being dubbed the ‘Wicked Lord”. Most notoriously, he was tried by his fellow peers for murder in 1765 after he had run his sword through a distant cousin in a London pub. Nonetheless, it is known, he had a series of chaplains who served in his household.

Listed in “Register of Noblemen’s Chaplains” appointed to Lord Byron in 1774 is Thomas Shaw, MA from Queens College, Oxford. This would appear to be the same Thomas Shaw who later went on to become Rev Thomas Shaw-Hellier when he inherited the Wodehouse in Wombourne in 1784. The connection is listed in the Church of England Clergy database but there is little other evidence to substantiate it. Is it really true? Thomas Shaw, renowned for his financial astuteness and theological study, is not an obvious match for one of the most dissolute and profligate Lords in the realm.

Thomas Shaw’s predecessor in post was Brackley Kennett, who resigned and took up an appointment as Chaplain to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough on 24 Mar 1774. This date coincides with the time that the impecunious William Byron vacated his London property in 15 Great Marlborough Street. The new tenant was none other than his chaplain, who then lived there until he died in 1795. Brackley Kennett’s will of that year gives his address as Great Marlborough Street and shows he was a clergyman of property, also being the Rector of East Ilsey in Berkshire.

This much the Rev Kennett had in common with Thomas Shaw, in that the title Chaplain was not a barrier to being a man of property and some substance in his own right.

Thomas Shaw by 1774 already held a number of clerical posts and was indeed renowned for his absence, and allegedly treated many of the appointments as mere sinecures. At first glance though it would seem impossible that a clergyman based in Wolverhampton could usefully serve a Lord whose main seat was at Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

Thomas had been chaplain to George Grey, 5th Earl of Stamford with a given date of 1767. What this entailed again we are not sure, but Thomas was briefly Rector of Enville, whilst George Grey was resident at his seat of Enville Hall. At least there was a proximity that meant lip-service could be paid to the posting.

It is true the fifth Baron Byron spent much of his time in London, rather than Newstead where he sold off much of the contents to raise cash.¬† Concurrently we know little of what Thomas Shaw was doing before 1784, at which date he inherited the Staffordshire estates of Sir Samuel Hellier. Moreover, Thomas’s mentor and benefactor, Sir Samuel, did also spend most of his time in London – if not as a barrister at least heavily engaged in cultural activities and most notably music.

For the identity to fit we have then to surmise that Thomas Shaw probably spent some full seasons in London at this time and plausibly associated himself with the London households of Sir Samuel as well as that of Lord Byron. It should also be noted that Thomas’s younger brother, James, was living in Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia until his death in about 1784. The Shaw-Helliers later were Freemasons and this may also have been a connection with Lord Byron who early in his career had been Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England until 1752

Whilst we perhaps should not doubt that Thomas’s appointment is correctly recorded in 1774, it is perhaps best to presume that it never amounted to much of any substance. It was probably no more than an acquaintance of convenience. Lord Byron, essentially separated from his wife and relatives, slipped into such a financial parlous state that he soon became a recluse from society. Despite any initial desire, he was in no position to pay for the services of a chaplain

Thomas Shaw, for his part, was in no better position either to fulfil his part of any perceived  bargain. He was, for example, perpetual curate of Claverley in Shropshire for nearly fifty years, yet is only recorded as once signing the register. He evidently had a propensity to agree to roles, whilst soon finding out he had little time to carry out any of the functions that might reasonably be expected of him.


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Last updated on 9 April 2024 by JJ Morgan