Owston Ferry Case

The use of the title 'Reverend' on the gravestone of Annie Augusta Keet, daughter of the Rev. Henry Keet (1822-1879; e.m. 1847), in Owston Ferry churchyard in 1876 led to a cause celébre over its use by Wesleyan ministers. The title and status of Wesleyan (and other non-episcopal) ministers became a matter of ecclesiastical and national debate throughout the English-speaking world. The case was reported in Canada, theUnited States, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in England and Scotland.

The vicar of Owston Ferry, the Rev. George Edward Smith, refused to allow the words 'Rev. Henry Keet Wesleyan Minister' to be put on the headstone and would only communicate with the father through Charles Barningham, the local stonemason. Keet wrote to Christopher Wordsworth, the Bishop of Lincoln, who supported the vicar's objection. He then wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Tait, asking for his advice and referring to a similar situation when the vicar of Easingwold objected to the title 'Rev.' being put on the tombstone of Dr. Robert Newton in 1854. The Archbishop of York, Dr. Thomas Musgrave, had 'strongly recommended the incumbent to withdraw such an objection as a matter of prudence and policy'. Tait's reply was addressed to 'the Rev. Henry Keet'. While he did not wish to give an opinion on the legal question, he considered that the vicar's objection was one which ought not to be made and suggested that the Bishop of Lincoln might possibly take the same view.

Keet wrote again to the Bishop of Lincoln, enclosing a copy of the Archbishop's letter. The bishop's reply, addressed to 'Mr. Henry Keet Wesleyan Preacher', was sympathetic about the death of the child, but unhelpful about the case. Whilst he did not query what title his 'co-religionists' gave Keet as a Wesleyan minister, he said 'it is not easy to determine what is the exact meaning of the title Rev.' He was shortly going to admit into Holy Orders of the Church of England some Wesleyan preachers and if he permitted Keet to use the title of Rev. on the gravestone he 'would be chargeable with equivocation and duplicity to them, and with dishonesty and treachery towards the Church of England.' He also pointed out that John Wesley had regarded his preachers as laymen and quoted the Wesleyan Conferences of 1793 and 1794 which forbade the use of the title 'Reverend'.

The correspondence was brought before the 1874 Conference, which referred it to the Committee of Privileges. Keet appealed and the case went before the Chancellor of Lincoln, who found in favour of the vicar, holding that as a member of a schismatic body Keet's citation must be refused. It then was referred in turn to the Court of Arches and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, as a result of which a faculty was issued for the use of 'Rev.' on the tombstone. As neither the vicar nor any counsel on his behalf had appeared in any courts considering the case, the total costs, amounting to £1,600, fell on the appellants. An appeal by the President of the Wesleyan Conference and Secretaries of the Committee of Privileges for donations to defray the costs appeared in many regional and national newspapers.


'To his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury

'Owston Ferry, Near Bawtry, July 3 [874] 'My Lord - Having recently lost a dear child and interred her in the Owston Ferry Churchyard, I requested the mason to put up a stone, with the following inscription - 'In loving memory of Annie Augusta Keet the younger daughter of the Rev. Henry Keet Wesleyan minister who died at Owston Ferry, May 11 1874 "Safe sheltered from the storms of life." To my great surprise and grief, the Rev. G.E. Smith, the vicar, has refused to admit the stone into the yard unless the words "Rev." and "Wsleyan minister" are left ou. Will you kindly inform me whether the vicar has a right to object to a stone bearing a title which is acknowledged by the Government of the kingdom and in accordance with general usage? Dr. Ace, the vicar of Laughton, who is acquainted with the case, has in kindly sympathy requested me to submit it to your consideration, and also reminds me of the fact that some few years ago the vicar of Easingwold interposed a similar objection to the word "Rev." being placed on Dr. Newton's tombstone, and that Dr. Musgrave, the Arcbbishop of York, strongly recommended the incumbent to withdraw such an objection as a matter of prudence and policy, and not tending to produce godly and brotherly love. Awaitng the favour of your kind reply. I am, my lord, yours truly

  H. Keet
  • Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser, 12 August 1874, 19 August 1874
  • Western Times, Exeter, 11 August 1874
  • Spectator, 5 June 1875
  • Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 21 March 1876
  • The Times, 11 May 1876
  • Donald Ryan, 'Keet v. Smith - Owston Ferry cause celebre: Wesleyan Ministers' Right to be Called 'Reverend' Challenged', in Wesley Historical Society Proceedings, 60:5, pp.214-227