Records of the Family of Sclater

Claude Sclater


THE early history of the family is closely linked with that of the Anglican Church since for six generations starting soon after the Reformation the head of the family was a Church of England divine. Furthermore all the younger sons also entered the Church until 1726 when Richard Sclater, from whom subsequent generations descend, began his successful career in commerce and civic government in London. For two more generations, when the elder sons were country squires, their younger brothers took Orders but this tradition lapsed after the premature death of the Rev. John May Sclater in 1818 and the disposal of the family benefice which he had occupied.

Amid the doctrinal storms and economic difficulties which beset the early Anglican Church the members of the family steered a middle course between the threatening extremes of Catholicism and Presbyterianism and generally avoided controversy with the result that they seldom attracted attention. They were all loyal “Church and King” men though influenced in their youth towards the Puritanism which was prevalent in the Universities. They must have held sincere religious convictions for far more economically rewarding professional and business careers were open to men with their education and ability. Their lives were little affected by historic events but it was part of their duty to proclaim Government Decrees, interpret the news and guide public opinion from their pulpits.

Apart from William Sclater (4), who fought in his youth as a Cavalier in the Civil War, they lived peacefully, intermarried with other clerical families or minor gentry, and died in their beds. Many of their children died in infancy or at an early age, and on more than one occasion the survival of the family depended on a single life; parsons who ministered to the sick and dying were doubtless exposed to more than the average risk of infection.

They were admirably qualified for their calling; devout, able and scholarly, they studied the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew, were eloquent preachers and skilled musicians. These qualities were faithfully transmitted from father to son through eight generations. Four of the family became Doctors of Divinity, of whom two attained Prebendal stalls, but they lacked the influence then so necessary to reach the highest positions in the Church. This deficiency may be explained by a certain streak of independence, which made them disinclined to seek favours or attach themselves to influential patrons.

Their private lives were pious and modest, but their circumstances were comfortable and cultivated, as revealed by an inventory of the possessions of John Sclater at this death in 1635. They farmed their glebe, educated their sons to follow in their footsteps, and brought up their daughters to become good parsons’ wives.

Benefice incomes were small, but pluralism was the accepted custom, and nearly all the Sclaters held secondary livings, which were left mainly to the ministration of curates. They found it possible to save; each generation passed on more in the way of worldly goods than it received, and the economic and social status of the family steadily improved.

Two fortunate marriages, that of Christopher Sclater to Elizabeth May in 1708, and that of his son, Richard, to Magdalen Limbrey in 1738, established the family in the ranks of the squirearchy, where it remained quiescent for nearly a century on its Hampshire estates, while the ownership of these passed in turn to Richard’s bachelor son, Thomas, and his two spinster sisters. By 1830 the only male member of the family left to succeed was their nephew William Lutley Sclater, who relinquished a promising career at the Bar for active but restricted life of a country squire.

By the next generation, following William’s marriage with Anna Maria Bowyer, the daughter of a line of hereditary officials in the legal office of the King’s Remembrancer, the family was ready for a further advance. It would have been more conventional for their elder son to have remained a substantial country gentleman and for the younger to have entered the Church. Instead George entered national politics and rose to high office and a peerage, while Philip became a world-famous figure in the expanding science of Zoology.

It seems as though some quirk of heredity had given them a new and unexpected quality - ambition, not for wealth, to a certain extent for position and fame, but above all to excel. Could it have been that William, frustrated by the loss of his own career, spurred his sons on to worldly success? There is little evidence of this, though he undoubtedly encouraged them and took great pride in their achievements. Was there some new factor in their education or environment which provided the stimulus? Some credit may be due to George’s Tutor at Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, who then, and afterwards as master, showed his outstanding talent as a trainer of young men, and raised the reputation of his College to remarkable heights.

Furthermore the new dynamism of the Victorian era made it easier for able men to realise their potentialities, but, on the other hand, the secure background from which George and Philip sprang could well have acted more as a restraint than as a challenge. There is nothing to indicate that luck or patronage played a significant part in their advancement: all the evidence shows that, while it was based on inherited ability and sense of duty, the driving force behind it was ambition.

As so often happens this ambition endured for only one generation and was not transmitted to their sons, who lacked the drive to win great success though they achieved distinction in their different spheres, married well, and preserved the status of the family. The grandsons have attained even less worldly success, and have been stripped of their land and most of the family wealth by high taxation and death duties.

In these days of universal education and fierce competition a family cannot stand still; it must aim to rise if it is not to fall rapidly in power and prestige. Much of the native ability still persists, and it is only necessary for future generations to regain the impetus of their forebears in order to add fresh distinction to the family name.

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