Hugh Cuthbertson, the 'Baccy Parson'

The last Vicar of St Paul with St Mark (1963-68) was Hugh Sainsbury Cuthbertson. Born 1899 in Cambridgeshire where his father was a Congregational minister, in Linton / Duxford - RAF territory - he trained as an aircraft draughtsman at Hendon and, living in a cottage in Thaxted, became a Christian Socialist and Anglican under the influence of Conrad Noel (who was also one of the heroes of Fr Groser and others at St George-in-the-East), and offered himself for ordination. Trained at Bishop's College, Cheshunt, he served curacies in Coggeshall (Essex) and Liverpool before a spell as chaplain of Concepción in Chile from 1929-34, having married Berry Burgess (whom he met during his time in Hendon).

It's said that he believed that this post, advertised as 'chaplain to the Falkland Islands', was off Scotland, which the thought would have made a good place to live for a time - but they went anyway (shades of William Quekett's appointment at St George's)!  They returned because of his father's ill-health, Betty's trek on horseback across the Andes to Buenos Aires bringing them some notoriety, and first-class passage home. In two further curacies in London (Stoke Newington and St Pancras), and spells in hospital chaplaincy, he put his values into practice as secretary of the English branch of the left-wing Film and Photo League from 1936-39 (which among other projects filmed the hunger march from Scotland to London): it was a disorganised and overstretched movement, and he invested much energy into keeping it going until war broke out. Keen on flying (from his background), he then undertook civil air guard training at the London Air Park Flying Club and gained the Royal Aero Club's aviator's certificate in June 1939, of which he was very proud [right].

From 1941 Cuthbertson was Vicar of Tilty Abbey church in Essex (between Great Dunmow and Thaxted - his theological 'mecca') - left then and now. They filled the vicarage with evacuees; he organised allotments, 'salvage stewards' and the 'parish invasion committee'. Right  is his signature in his copy of Songs of Praise.

Here he achieved a certain notoriety as the 'Baccy Parson': London Calling, BBC 1951, and 1948 Pathé newsclip Wot - No Cigarettes? - stills left - establishing a smokers' co-operative for the growing and curing of tobacco (a skill he had learnt in Chile) when tobacco was in short supply after the War. He began this to raise funds to repair the tower of Tilty church; it was so successful that it also financed the replacing of three windows in the west wall [right with some of the responses received to his appeal for 5s. contributions, in return for which he sent information on home-growing. The soubriquet was one that he didn't particularly relish, but like Woodbine Willie, cam to accept it as affectionately intended.

When rationing and shortages ended, he was able to tap into the modest post-war craze for home-growing tobacco, to save both import charges for the nation and pocket money for individuals (compare the exhortations of J.C. Pringle, Rector at St George-in-the-East a generation earlier, to buy Rhodesian rather than American tobacco). But he was watched warily and with some disapproval by customs and excise officials. He became President of the National Amateur Tobacco Growers' Association (see here for the firm that published their material), and produced a magazine The Smoker. The Association shared knowledge and experience of growing and curing, sold plants in the spring, and offered a postal curing service.

Left are some images of the Tilty enterprise. At his Harvest service in 1944, he distributed free beer in the parish hall after the service. Tilty is a very little hamlet of only 20 or 30 souls, he said, but it has quite a nice history as an English agricultural village, and I think that the harvest home service and the beer will be nicely in keeping with its traditions. As for where I shall get the beer I am not saying, except that it will not be on the black market.

He argued that home-cured tobacco was 'healthier' than commercial products. In the British Medical Journal 'Notes and Comments' for 5 February 1949, he wrote
Your reply on the subject of amblyopia and home-cured tobacco (Any Questions? Jan 22 p.163) vindicates the position I have always taken on the importance of a fermentative process. This is recommended in the literature of the National Amateur Tobacco Growers' Association, as also the removal or crushing of the mid-rib. Plans were made last year to provide for facilities for bulk fermentation under professional guidance, but had to be abandoned for the time being owing to the intervention of Customs and Excise. This does not mean that small-scale methods such as can be carried out in the home are not adequate or that there is any justification in the wording of your article for the misleading headlines in the national Press on the 'danger' of home-grown. Some moths ago a charge of high nicotine content in home-grown leaf was made by the Press, but my challenge to produce evidence was never met. You will realize, as we do, that some interests are prejudiced against the reputation of garden grown, indeed of any European, lead. In point of fact, most imported tobacco sold in this country does not, I believe, go through any process of fermentation except as naturally occurs in bond. We would like further information on this, and also whether the data you give on amblyopia on the Continent refer only to smoking or include the chewing of tobacco. A leaflet is now in the printer's hands on the subject of fermentation of amateur tobacco, a copy of which we should be pleased to send to correspondent with any other information they require. The association would give whatever co-operation and assistance it can in research on the subject.

After 23 years at Tilty, after the parish was joined with Broxted in 1961, he came to St Paul Dock Street. In 1967 the pattern of parish life as St Paul's was
Sunday - Holy Communion 8am and 10am (sung) with Confirmation/Bible Classes at 11.30am, Evensong 6.30pm (4pm with Baptisms, first Sunday of the month)
Weekdays - Holy Communion as announced
Clubs (at Church House) - 'Senior Mixed' Fridays at 8.00pm; 'Junior Mixed' Thursdays at 6.30pm, 'Church Children' Saturdays at 4.00pm
Magazine - bi-monthly Church News, incorporating The Pilot.
Church open for prayer and visitation on Wednesdays, 12-2pm, and the key may be obtained at other times from the Vicarage by responsible persons. Contacts or visits from any who work in the district will always be welcomed.

Hugh Cuthbertson retired to Tilty after five years, living in the former vicarage. His letter heading (according to Ken Leech) still proclaimedTilty Tobacco Co-operative, Proprietor The Revd Hugh Cuthbertson FRHS, 11 Dock Street, which may have puzzled some. He died in Uttlesford, Yorkshire in 1976 aged 77 (Betty having died the previous year).

The Tilty Tobacco Centre and Curing Co-operative continued in the hands of his daughter, Cecily (Cecile) Down - left - at Abbey Gates, the former vicarage - right - curing tobacco for the cartoonist Zac among others. As a child she had been impatient of the time her father spent with his tobacco plants; he is said to have replied, in the words of James Russell Lowell, Blessed are the horny hands of toil. The co-operative finally closed in 2013.

 Press stories about home tobacco growing and curing continued to appear; for example, in the Rochdale Observer on 4 August 2007:

Weeds may be the bane of gardeners' lives, but to one Norden man they were treated with as much care as any prize rose and were worth their weight in gold. The 'weed' in question was tobacco and it saved grower Arthur Buckley, who was featured in The Observer in 1973, plenty of money. Mr Buckley was not allowed by law to sell the home-grown tobacco, or even give it away. He had been growing the plant for about 20 years and his crop in 1973 was a bumper one - his 100 plants had produced about 10lbs of tobacco. Not a bad return on £4 - the cost of the plants bought from the Rev Hugh Cuthbertson of Dunmow, Essex, originator of grow your own tobacco. Mr Buckley said the growth was quick, especially in warm, sunny weather. The lower leaves ripened first towards the end of August, and the crop was 'harvested' at the end of October, hanging the leaves to dry and being careful they didn't touch. The leaves were then stacked in cardboard boxes, taken out as required, and 'cooked' using a home-made contraption of an aluminium container with electric light bulb heating. The cooker drove out the excess tannin, nicotine and tar, but the process gave off an obnoxious smell. When the offending smell reduced, the tobacco was ready. The next stage was the 'clamping' and perfuming rthe leaves with a mixture of liquorice, treacle, honey and rum essence. Mr Buckley said growing his own tobacco had left him with six years of stock. At the time of the story he was smoking his 1969 stock. His advice to the new grower was: Have patience.

The story of his enterprise was briefly but accurately told on The One Show (BBC1) on 28 April 2014; it provoked a further flurry of blogged comments from amateur growers.

Fr Jack Boggis succeeded Hugh Cuthbertson as incumbent of Tilty and its neighbouring churches in 1963 until his death five years later, continuing the Christian Socialist connections of the area.

Back to St Paul Dock Street  |  Back to Clergy 1900-