The Case of Grossmith and Plumb

On 9 December 1729, two minor canons of Windsor, George Grossmith and Thomas Plumb, were expelled from the College of St George – the body responsible for the care of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. They had recently raised a complaint against a fellow minor canon, Thomas Bell, and after weeks of disputes with the Dean and Canons, were found to be in contempt of their positions.

Charges against Bell were first brought by Grossmith and Plumb on behalf of the other minor canons in September 1729. They requested that the Dean and Canons remove Bell from his position as a minor canon because he was a layman and unable to perform clerical duties in Chapel. He could not, for instance, deliver any prayers and was expected to pay the others to perform these duties on his behalf.

Minor canons of Windsor were expected to be ordained and to take an active role in the music of St George’s Chapel. Laymen gifted with musical talent could also serve the Chapel as lay clerks, adult male choir members. Both were obliged to serve an initial probation during which time objections to their appointment could be raised, but its length varied.

In 1729, Thomas Bell had already been a minor canon for eight years. He was elected on 19 April 1721 and admitted on 20 June 1722. No objections to his appointment are recorded during this time. However Bell had to receive a special sanction to be appointed minor canon. This was granted by the Lord Chancellor, who acted in this period as the Visitor – a royal appointment to oversee the College of St George. It stipulated that Bell was to enjoy all the perquisites belonging to a minor canon but expected to pay his fellows for the clerical work he could not complete.

Though an unusual appointment, Bell’s election as minor canon in 1721 was not without precedent. In 1721 he replaced another layman, Samuel Chittle (or Chettle) who departed because he had not yet taken Holy Orders. Chittle returned in 1725 to serve as a minor canon once more, but this time was ordained and admitted 9 July 1728. It is therefore possible that Bell was expected to take Holy Orders but his dispensation appears to indicate that he was exempt from taking such action.

A surviving record of the proceedings between Grossmith and Plumb and the Dean and Canons in 1729 indicates that they first objected in September to Bell’s appointment on grounds that it was contrary to the statutes issued to the College of St George. They further questioned Bell’s claim that he had been granted a special dispensation, stating:

Mr Bell was admitted by the authority of the Right honorable the Lord Chancellor with authority, which was never yet produced or exhibited to us. We conceive we have just reason to desire a sight of the said order or authority. [SGC XI.B.57/1]

They also requested access to the books and papers of the College in order to determine their role and the rights of a minor canon, which were rooted in the 1352 statutes but altered significantly during the sixteenth century. Access was granted but the disputes continued. In November, the Dean and Canons reported that following ‘a thorough search into all the College’s books, that [Grossmith and Plumb] could not make out any of their claims…’ They were accused of making allegations supported by ‘groundless insinuations, shameful prevarications and manifest falsehoods.’ In consequence, Grossmith, as ‘the chief promoter and exciter of this mutinous conduct’ and Plumb as ‘his principal abettor’, were admonished and expelled.

However, on 2 May 1730, a letter signed by George Grossmith and Thomas Plumb was delivered to a meeting of the Dean and Canons. It confirmed that thenceforth they would give ‘no more disturbance directly or indirectly…’ but ‘to behave with all due obedience towards the Dean and Canons.’ Their petition was accepted and they were permitted to re-enter. Thomas Bell was a minor canon until September 1733 [SGC VI.B.6], and he remained as a lay clerk until his death in 1743.

The eventual removal of Bell from his role after the proceedings ended the practice that a layman could be appointed minor canon. In the previous century, it had not been uncommon for a minor canon to be elected and placed on probation when a deacon and only be fully admitted to the College of St George when ordained a priest. However after 1733, no further minor canons were to be granted special sanctions like Thomas Bell.

Kristen Mercier, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.