Reverend Charles Gayer (1804–1848)

Proselytizing Church of Ireland Minister of Dingle, co. Kerry

Anthea Kennedy Gayer Mitchell, Australia

Charles Gayer was educated for the Church of Ireland. He was sent to the south west of Ireland into an environment of a different religion where his proselytizing brought him into conflict with the status quo. With his vital energy he assisted all people regardless of creed during the time of the Great Famine, providing food and work. Unfortunately he succumbed to typhus himself and died young at age 43 leaving a young pregnant widow and 9 orphans. Half of his children went to Australia, settled on the land, prospered and embraced that casual lifestyle, unimaginable to him in rigid Victorian times in Ireland.

Charles Gayer, my great great grandfather, was born 2nd and last son on 4th June 1804 to Major Edward Echlin of 67th Regiment of Foot and Frances Christina Dobbs. Many of the Gayer family were involved in the Church. Charles’ ancestors in Ireland since 1695 who came from Cornwall included 2 Religious clerics, a Clerk of the Irish Parliament and his father in the army.

Charles’ mothers’ family – the Dobbs had been in Ireland since 1595, when John, the son of Sir Richard Dobbs Lord Mayor of London 1551, went to Ireland. He built Castle Dobbs, and from him descended a distinguished line of statesmen, politicians, soldiers, barristers, churchmen, etc.

Charles was raised in a reasonably comfortable and well connected family environment, but as the second son he was earmarked for the Church. He obtained his degrees at Trinity College Dublin, B.A. 1826 and M.A. 1832. He was ordained by the Bishop of Meath, Nathaniel Alexander. He was Priest briefly at various places – at Cloyne, co Cork. Inishmacsaint, co Fermanagh and Kinnegad, co Westmeath until he went to Dingle, co Kerry.

Thomas Townsend Aremberg de Molynes, Lord Ventry, 3rd Baron, requested Charles come to Dingle to be his private chaplain. Baron Ventry was Charles’ 7th cousin once removed, the common ancestor being Roger Boyle, father of Richard “The Great” Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork but as to whether the two were aware of that connection is unknown and unlikely. Thanks to computers we can today establish relationships between our ancestors. Lord Ventry’s home “Burnham House”, near Dingle is now used as a Catholic Girls Boarding School, the only one in the country where all education is given in the Irish language.

Charles went to Dingle, co Kerry in 1833. He was not only personal priest to Lord Ventry but assistant curate at St. James Church in Main St. Dingle. He was encouraged by Lord Ventry to spiritually enlighten the area. Charles took on a third role as Superintendent of the West Kerry District of the Irish Society which was concerned with education in the Irish language, when he was responsible for 20 teachers. He set about organizing a comprehensive mission centred in Dingle and extended to the 5 parishes on the peninsula including the Great Blasket Island which was later to give rise to a school of renowned Irish writers. Lord Ventry assisted him financially and the full-scale missionary enterprise covered the whole of the peninsular by the late 1830’s. He ran the Ventry Mission Association, he enlarged the parish, built a new church and parsonage at Dunurlin and another at Ventry. He received funds for 15 houses, which were built in Strand Street, for his converts. He was responsible for having built 2 Eask Towers, one of which is extant, as a guide into the blind harbour for seafarers and to create work for the poor during the Great Famine. He built a schoolhouse on the Great Blasquet Island and other schoolhouses which were also licensed for Divine Service at Dunquin and Kilmalkedar where there had never been Protestant worship before. He was Rector of Dunurlin 1840-8, Rector of Ventry 1841-8.

As a proselytizing minister, with financial backing from the Church in England, he caused a stir in Catholic Dingle. Charles, energised by his charge to convert the local people, managed to greatly upset the Catholic Priests. They made dire threats, and he was subject to active and virulent persecution by the local Catholics, who were instructed by the priests to have no dealings with the Gayers or the converts. He was forced to use a farm and run a shop in order to supply his converts with food and clothing. His life was continually threatened as was that of Lord Ventry, if he did not rid the village of Rev. Gayer. Charles’ schoolhouse windows were broken, his children attacked in the street, his mother had stones thrown at her resulting in a head injury and his home was attacked. He sued the Kerry Newspaper for libel, he won, but did not request compensation.

The people who converted to his religion were called “Soupers”, because they were allegedly offered soup if they converted. If that was so in starving Ireland during the Great Famine, who could blame those despairing people who used any means available to them to survive? If others had been feeding their flock and providing work during this time of need, there may have been little response from the local population to Gayers’ efforts.

Charles had married Catherine King, daughter of Major James King and Letitia Irvine, on 28 May 1828 before he went to Dingle. They were 6th cousins, common ancestor being Reverend Alexander Conyngham d 1660, but again they were probably unaware of their relationship. They had 10 children – 5 sons and 5 daughters, all of whom lived to maturity, left Ireland, married and had children of their own, except the first son Edward, born 1831 who died age 9 in 1840 in Dingle.

Catherine’s family the Kings originated in Scotland, and when later in Ireland they married into the Bradley family of bookbinders, stationers to the King and printers to the House of Commons. Their series of bookbinding of the records of the House of Lords and the House of Commons from 1613 – 1800 was apparently brilliant. Unfortunately they were lost in the PRO fire of 1922. Her maternal family the Irvines, also of Scottish origin, were army personnel and public servants.

Charles and his family and probably his extended family – his widowed mother and his wife’s parents, were living in the large Hunting Lodge of Lord Ventry, “Ballintaggart House”, Garfinny, Dingle, a two storey Regency designed house built in 1830. The original huge soup barrels used during the Famine of 1840’s were still in the courtyard when I visited there from Australia in 2007. A different source noted Charles as having another house – Farrannakilla House, which now houses the local area offices of Kerry County Council.

Following the death of his wife Catherine in1846 age 42 as well as his mother age 79 the same year, his in-laws having died previously, Charles married for a second time the next year. She was a young woman 18 years his junior. Her name was Mabella (Belle) Anne D’Esterre Parker, daughter of Captain Nicholas Schottowe Parker RN and Dorcas Bousfield Stevelly of Passage West, co Cork. They were married 1 June 1847 in Monkstown Church, Dublin. Charles eagerly looked forward with optimism to his new future, in the midst of the devastation of the famine all around him.

Six months later Charles was dead. He died on 20 January 1848 age 43 from typhus, caught from over exerting himself while assisting people who were dying from starvation during the dreadful famine. He left a new, young, pregnant wife as well as 9 orphans from his first marriage. His second cousin Reverend Robert Traill of Schull, co Cork, had died in similar circumstances just 9 months before. (Robert was grandfather of the writer John Millington Synge). During the Great Famine 1/4 of the population of Dingle died.

Charles was buried in St. James Churchyard Dingle, co Kerry, together with his first wife Catherine King (d 1844), his son Edward (d 1840) his mother Frances Dobbs Gayer (d 1846), his father-in-law Major James King (d 1838) and his mother-in-law Letitia Irvine King (d 1842). His funeral was attended by large amounts of people from both sides of Christianity.

His successor was Reverend Samuel H. Lewis, who laboured successfully for many years to keep up the missionary work originated by Charles. However, Gladstone’s Irish Church Act of 1869 disestablished the Church of Ireland, separating the church from the state and repealing the law that required tithes to be paid to it. The Act showed that the old Protestant Ascendency was in decline, it was seen as the beginning of the end of the landlords and it gave the Irish people hope for a better future.

A Tablet in Dingle Church is inscribed – “To the memory of the Revd. Charles Gayer, Rector of Dunurlin and Ventry, Chaplain to RS. Honble. Lord Ventry and a Minister of the Church in Dingle, and of Catherine his true and faithful partner in life and labour. A few of the many friends who know and valued the untiring zeal, disinterested labour and faithful simplicity with which for XV years he preached the Gospel of the Grace of God and promoted the temporal and eternal interests of the people of this district, have united to place this tablet.”

Another Tablet in the Church states – “In loving memory of Arthur Edward Gayer, Q.C. LL.D one of H.M. Ecclesiastical Commissioners for Ireland, and Vicar General of the Diocese of Meath-Ossory and Cashel, eldest son of Major Edward Echlin Gayer and his wife Frances Christina, daughter of Robert Conway Dobbs, of Castle Conway, M.P. Distinguished by learning, religious fervour, and every domestic virtue. He won respect and esteem from all who knew him. He died at Norwood on X11 January MDCCCLXXV11 age LXX years. For many years he took an active part in advancing the Christian Mission, which his devoted brother, the Rev. Charles Gayer, had begun in Dingle. Erected by his brother’s children, who were left orphans and who received from him, a father’s love and care”. This would have been erected after Arthur Gayers’ death 12.01.1877 by Rev. Charles Gayers’ children who were obviously looked after by their uncle after their own father’s death in 1848.

Following Charles’ death in January after 7 months of marriage, his young 26 year old pregnant widow Belle is next heard of in June in Dublin when she birthed her daughter Dorcas Charles Gayer and baptised her there when she was 6 weeks old. A letter dated 1858 from Anne Gayer one of Charles’ daughters in Australia, indicated she had never seen the baby Dorcas. It would appear then that the orphans and the second wife parted ways soon after Charles death. The responsibility of the nine orphans came to rest on Arthur, Charles’ brother in Dublin. He would have arranged the children’s future at that point, as indicated in the Church Tablet above. It is probable that Belle took her daughter and returned to co Cork where her parents, her siblings and their families lived. As a young widow with a newborn baby she would require family support. She never remarried and she died in 1900 age 78 in Glenbrook co Cork.

Of the children from Charles’ first marriage at the time of his death – James was aged 16. He entered HEICS 2 years later. Robert was aged 14 and was sent to Wiltshire, England with his cousin to be educated there, noted in the 1851 census. Charles was aged 13, and he eventually joined the Royal Navy. Ventry was aged 4 years, and little is known about him from that time until he went to Australia later as an adult, except that he is noted as saying how kind Belle’s parents were to him. Letitia was 19 years old and she married later in India and Harriette was 12 years old. Anne 11, Catherine 8 and my ancestress Frances Hamilton 6, were being educated in England, according to the 1851 census.

Despite his early demise, Charles’ sons appear to have been well educated thanks to his brother, and they had good careers, while his daughters married into comfortable lifestyles.

Of his children from his first marriage, those who remained north of the equator were –

Colonel James Arthur Gayer HEICS married Emma Callander and had 4 children.

Commander Charles Richard Gayer RN married Susan Bryant and had 4 children.

Letitia Gayer married Brigadier-General George Samuel Montgomery and had 5 children.

Harriet Gayer married General George Uvedale Price and had 3 children.

Catherine Gayer married Surgeon-Major Thomas Mackford Lownds MD LRCP, and had 9 children.

The remaining four children went to Australia and settled there –

Robert Ventry Gayer MHA JP., Grazier m. Sarah Fetherstonhaugh and had 10 children

Ventry Edward Gayer, Grazier, m. Hester Hawdon Chambers and had 5 children

Anne Elizabeth Gayer m. William Kennedy, Grazier and had 14 children

Frances Hamilton Gayer m. Edward Clayton Kennedy, Grazier and had 6 children.

In a letter Anne wrote from Australia to relatives back in Ireland a few years after her marriage, she emphasised the casual and free lifestyle she enjoyed here such as was unknown in the rigid society she had come from.

Dorcas Charles Gayer, the only child from his second marriage, born 5 months posthumously, married as his second wife Dr. George Constantine Phipps, 2nd cousins once removed, and had 6 children. Five went to Australia, following Dorcas who as a widow went there with her daughter Constance c 1908 visiting nephews. Constance married there and Dorcas remained in Australia with her. She died in 1924, outlived by her last half sibling Harriette Price 12 years her senior, who died in England the following year.

A miniature painting of Charles Gayer is in the hands of a descendant of Dorcas in Australia, and a miniature of his wife Catherine King had been in the possession of great granddaughter Sybil Evelyn Jellett Mrs. Harold Matthews (d 1991 age 100 dsp). A copy of it was seen in the Irish Ancestor Magazine in 1970’s. Its current whereabouts are unknown.

Charles’ Church in Dingle – St. James – is no longer used as a church but as a concert hall. The decrepit, untended graves of the family remain at the rear of the property (2007).

Gayer had 11 children, 66 grandchildren but only 60 known great grandchildren. The Gayer name on Charles’ line died out with the death of the only two known male great grandsons in 1990’s without male issue, one in Australia and the other in South Africa.

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