Reverend John Cullen 1837 – 1914

John Cullen was born in 1837 in Ireland, the son of John Cullen, a country gentleman from Newport, Co. Tipperary.  He studied at St. Aidan’s and Trinity College in Dublin.  In 1865 he became a curate at St George’s in Wigan, Lancashire and then at Knipton in Leicestershire.  He married Leontine Eugenie Derdinger in Knipton in 1869.  She was born in Heidelberg, Germany, her father was a barrister. For the next five years John Cullen held a curacy at Bottesford, also in Leicestershire.  In the 1871 census he is recorded living at The Glebe House, or Manse, on Chapel Street in Bottesford with his wife and 8 month old daughter Evelyn (born on 28 July 1870).  They employed a local girl from Muston, Elizabeth Challands, as a servant. Another son, Frederick Adolph, was born in 1872 but only lived for 6 months and is buried in Bottesford churchyard. The family was completed when Cecil Donald was born on 3 December 1873.

On 2 February 1874 the family moved to Radcliffe on Trent where John took up the post of Vicar of St Mary’s. The local school was closed for the day in order that a welcome tea party could be arranged in his honour. They lived in the Vicarage on Vicarage Lane (now demolished).  In 1881 the household included a German governess, Agneta Roethyer together with a housemaid, Annie Straw from Mansfield and a cook Sarah Topps from Muston. At the time the parish comprised about 1300 souls and the church was in a dilapidated condition.

John was a scholar and a poet. In 1869 he published Horae Poetica, a collection of poems mainly written in his youth.  He was also a man of very strong and pronounced views who according to a newspaper article, delivered ‘his conviction without any hesitation’.

He established himself in the village by putting the church records in order, providing a Preacher’s Book which recorded the names of visiting preachers and readers, as well as notes about collections. At the front of the book an inscription reads –

            This book was bought by the churchwardens in order that a record of all preachers

            may be kept, to comply with the law as laid down in the 52 canons. No book had been

            kept previously; or if so, it cannot be found.

Perhaps he was mildly reproving his predecessor.

Rev Cullen also reintroduced in April 1875 the recording of the day to day expenses of the church. Early in 1876 he helped inaugurate a local branch of the Church of England Temperance Society and he began a parochial magazine in 1877.  He also encouraged the YMCA as well as coal and clothing clubs in the village.

Radcliffe’s first Mission

John was famous for his energetic evangelism and in November 1875 he organised a ‘mission’ in the village and was ably assisted in this project by Frances Burnside who was living at Lamcote House.  She was the third daughter of Rev John Burnside, rector of Plumtree.  Frances was recorded in the 1871 census as living with two of her sisters and waited on by eleven servants.  Her elder sister Adelaide Ann was the owner of Lamcote House. France’s interest in evangelism apparently was influenced by a visit to the seaside in 1875 where she had attended a Mission.  She plucked up enough courage to return to the Mission church and acknowledged her conversion.  Upon her return to Radcliffe ‘all the countryside was astonished at the change in her’.  A weekly prayer meeting together with John Cullen was established in preparation for the forthcoming Radcliffe Mission. Each Monday morning John Cullen held a brief service of prayer, reading and exposition at Lamcote House.  Frances led a bible class for young women on Sunday afternoons and a meeting for mothers on Mondays.  Together with her sisters she attended all church services and visited the parish house by house testifying to the salvation she had experienced.  Frances died aged 46 in December 1875.

Rebuilding the church

Rev Cullen was responsible for the decision to rebuild the church. A number of churches in other villages had been restored after the Church of England encouraged rebuilding work. The project began with a notice posted on the church door on Sunday November 4 1877

           A church vestry meeting will be held at the Church Schoolroom in Radcliffe on Trent

            at 4 p.m.on Thursday November 8 1877 to consider as to the advisability of enlarging

            the parish church and of deciding upon the best means of carrying it out.

John chaired the meeting which comprised of 14 prominent male parishioners headed by two churchwardens (Frederick Wright, a banker who lived at Radcliffe Lodge and John Taylor, a magistrate from Radcliffe Hall).  This socially mixed but affluent group took the decision not merely to extend, but to sweep away what remained of the medieval church.  What was planned was basically a new build.  They gave the following reason for their decision

             In consequence of the now rapidly increasing number of houses and inhabitants in

            Radcliffe and of the Congregations at the Parish Church having lately very materially

            been augmented, and also taking into consideration that there is every prospect of the

            village becoming much larger than it is now, it is considered advisable that the Parish

            Church should be enlarged as speedily as possible,

            so as to provide sufficient Church accommodation for the people.

Naturally a committee was formed, consisting of the vicar, churchwardens, seven of the men from the first meeting plus a further four parishioners.  John Cullen was the secretary, Richard Daft (cricketer) was assistant secretary and Frederick Wright the banker was made treasurer.  The committee’s first task was to consider where the money was coming from.  By November 28th £2,300 had been raised locally.  As it was not intended that the new building should cost more than £3,000 and grants would be available it would have seemed that the target was in easy reach.  However in order to raise the rest of the money the village was divided into three areas with two canvassers calling at each house seeking financial assistance.

The enlarged church would hold approximately 700 people, all on the ground floor.  An advertisement announcing a competition for an architect was to be placed three times in three Nottingham papers and in The Architect. Designs were to be submitted to the vicar by February 1st 1878. Twelve designs were received and the winner was Messrs Goddard and Paget of Leicester. There were a number of problems attached to the build, mainly financial, but they were overcome and the first service was conducted by the Bishop of Nottingham on November 6th 1879, but the alterations were not complete.  The final cost was £8,144.

Design of the Tower

It has been an issue for many a year ‘where did the design come from?’.  In the drawings by Goddard and Paget  the design of the tower is vague.  It seems unlikely that so unusual a design would have been passed without comment by a village committee but there is no documentary evidence that the tower was part of the original design.  The story accepted in the village is that the German-French character of the tower was due to the influence of John Cullen’s wife, who perhaps liked to be reminded of home. Later on John Cullen had doubts about the tower and discussed how it could be changed and even today residents and visitors comment on it.

Church Bells

John Cullen also improved the church bells.  In 1878 the Restoration Committee had written to Taylor & Co of Loughborough requesting estimates for the removal, storage and subsequent re-hanging of the four bells.  There was also some recasting work plus the committee wished to purchase two additional bells. A Bell Committee was set up to raise funds and in 1886 the last two bells and their fittings were hung.

Other activities

John helped to form the Radcliffe branch of the Church Missionary Society and also presided at the Radcliffe and Holme Pierrepont Church of England Temperance Society.

In June 1878 he was involved in a dispute with the landlord of the Black Lion, who was opening the public house on a Sunday.  The Temperance Society held an opinion ‘ that the sale of intoxicating liquor on a Sunday is a great source of intemperance, Sabbath breaking and disquietude’. The society appealed to the publicans of the village ‘to close your houses during Sunday’. They also felt that the trouble at the railway station and the prevention of persons in the village wishing to attend a place of worship was down to alcohol.

John’s forthright personality shone through particularly in 1885 when he showed his Tory commitment by trying to prevent the use of the schoolroom by the Liberals and again in 1908 when he warned the Manvers Estate against a radical who was behind an application to use the now redundant schoolroom on Main Road for the Territorial Army and the Boys Brigade.

In July 1891 another side of Rev John Cullen was reported in the Nottingham Evening Post.  He had been seen working a very lame pony through the village.  Unfortunately for the vicar there was a representative of the RSPCA in the neighbourhood and he had spotted the pony.  John Cullen was summoned for cruelty to a pony by working it whilst in an unfit state on June 13.  The vicar in his defence said he was aware of the injury but thought the best way to treat it was to exercise the pony by driving it. He stated that he was kinder to animals than many were to their children.  The summons was dismissed but he was told that any recurrence of the offence would be severely treated.

He also vehemently opposed the growth of spiritualism and at a meeting held in the village in March 1898 a Mr G H Bibbings, a renowned spiritualist, spoke to an audience and informed them of  certain statements made by Rev Cullen relating to spiritualism.  John had denounced’ all communicating spirits as lying evil spirits and that the devil is at the bottom of it all’. He also said that all leaders of this form of religion associated with all kinds of vice, claiming them as thieves, gamblers, adulterers and murderers.  Mr Bibbings challenged the vicar to reply but there is no evidence available showing that he did.

John took a particular interest in the children of the village.  He visited the school, taught regularly and summarised the inspector’s reports in the log book.  He also encouraged children to attend Sunday School.

He campaigned for better public health after the deaths of many children from epidemics of scarlet fever and typhoid fever. He had written directly to the Local Government Board in London asking them to take action about the sanitary condition in Radcliffe.

In recognition of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ministry in 1899 a stained glass window by Evans of West Bromwich (see below) was dedicated  in the baptistery by those he had baptised.  Other gifts from the village were an umbrella after serving fifteen years and later a walking stick.

John loved to travel and during his time in the village he crossed the Channel a number of times visiting Austria, France, Holland, Italy and many other European countries.

His writings

He was a prolific writer especially in his later years.  In 1881 he produced a small book on confirmation. Poems and Idylls were published in 1882, 1893 and a collected edition in 1904.  In  March 1886 he received Queen Victoria’s thanks for the tribute of respect paid to her in his poem ‘Queens Regnant’.  In America he was hailed as a champion of women’s suffrage and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by Illinois Wesleyan University in 1893.  In 1899 he wrote ‘The River Trent’, an idyll – which included eleven poems and was illustrated by photographs depicting the course of the river.  The eighth and ninth poems were entitled ‘Radcliffe on Trent and The Radcliffe Bells’. In 1908 he compiled ‘The Hundred Best Hymns in the English Language’. (Read one of his poems below)

In 1912 he published ‘Life through Death’, a sermon preached on the third Sunday in Lent, after he had spent 38 years in Radcliffe on Trent.

His later years

John’s wife, Leontine died in 1906 and is buried at Bottesford.

Photographs of grave and inscription courtesy of Bottesford Living History

To mark his 38 years in the village in 1912 a concert was held to help raise funds for further projects. The mixed programme was divided between local performers and outsiders.  It was opened by the Radcliffe hand-bell ringers, followed by a charming little dancer Miss Dorothy Truman, Miss Dorothy Redgate who sang a couple of songs and many more performers.  It was a happy occasion, the churchwarden Thomas Rose expressing on behalf of the people their gratitude for the vicar’s work and hoping that he would live long among them.

By the beginning of 1914 he was ill and many messages of sympathy were sent.  He died on May 6th 1914 aged 77.  A funeral service was held in the village but he is buried in Bottesford beside his wife and infant son. In his will he left effects to the value of £1476.18s.3d.

His daughter remained in the village for a while (she died on 20 March 1945 in Dundee, Scotland) and his son Cecil Donald became a clergyman and worked in Paris and Russia before becoming the Vicar of Bawtry.  He also served in WW1 as a temporary acting chaplain with the Royal Navy (he died in 1960).

Rev John Cullen was remembered by many residents of the village as a white-bearded figure in a flat clerical hat travelling in a wicker-sided trap. He was a benevolent personality, greatly beloved who revealed a real patriarchal influence throughout the village. Looking back on the time that he served the village he is known for his energetic evangelism, establishing several missions in the area and of course the rebuilding and enlarging of St Mary’s Church.

(The full story of the rebuilding of the church can be found in the Local History Society’s book Radcliffe on Trent 1837 to 1920 – see book page on this website for information on how to purchase this book)


From this red cliff I look around

The winding Trent runs clear below,

And, like its onward, affluent flow,

May peace in all those homes abound!

For here the seventh Henry slept

Ere he to Stoke his legions led,

And there o’er friends untimely dead

Surviving mourners sorely wept.

From hence, I view the meads and fields,

Where browse the flocks, where grows the corn

And where each day, and night, and morn,

All bounteous nature blessing yields.

Here Spring her crown of verdure weaves,

While songs in break, and bush, and dell,

Of secrets and of gladness tell,

Behind the hedge, beneath the leaves.

Here Summer pours her glory down.

And every path is bright with flowers;

And here, to pass the sunny hours,

Come wan, thin faces from the town.

To them we give a welcome sweet,

For rural sights must glad their eyes,

And silence, here, contrast with cries,

And roaring brawling of the street.

Here Autumn in her afterglow,

Doth touch with gold the stately trees,

Which shower it down with every breeze

Upon the fruitful land below.

Here Winter clothes the earth in white,

While on our hearths the crackling fires

Awaken in our hearts desires,

And in our homes create delight.

Written by Rev John Cullen c 1899.