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Venerable John Kewley

Title: Venerable

Epithet: ' ... Perhaps the greatest figure in the Manx Church in the 20th century' (1860-1941)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

John Kewley was born in Castletown on 1st May 1860. He was a Foundation Scholar and Barcroft Exhibitioner from King William's College to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from which he graduated as 34th Wrangler in 1883. He was ordained the same year by Bishop Hill. From 1883-1890 he was curate of St Paul's, Ramsey, from 1891-1912 Vicar of Arbory, and from 1912-1938 Rector of Andreas and Archdeacon. He retired to Castletown where he died on 6th November 1941 and was buried at Malew.

As curate of St Paul's he introduced and trained a robed choir, and became a captain in the Ramsey Rocket Brigade, a life-saving corps. He was perhaps the greatest figure in the Manx church in the 20th century. Bishop Thompson preached at Kewley's induction at Andreas and said 'no-one has more zealously toiled, in season and out of season, for the good of the church and the whole Island'.

Kewley never married, and after his mother's death his two sisters managed his household. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Manx church law, history, customs, antiquities and the Manx language, which won him the respect and affection of all who met him. He always said that much of this vast store of knowledge had been obtained from Sir James Gell, for many years Attorney General.

Kewley was a man of very simple tastes, and was equally at home with scholars or churchmen and with the farmers and farmworkers of Arbory and Andreas. He could tell endless stories about the 'characters' of the past, churchmen and laymen, and his physical presence and dignified bearing dominated any gathering. He was tall and big-bodied and had a large, white, tobacco-stained, untidy beard which made his appearance, in or out of clerical robes, an irresistible attraction to everyone's eyes. In later life he suffered from the medical condition known as rhinophyma so children, particularly, were drawn to scrutinise a face which seemed to have three noses. He always beamed with charitable amusement when they did.

For many years he read the laws in Manx on Tynwald Day, where his fine presence, commanding voice and perfect pronunciation of the language impressed everyone. He was very practical and often helped with jobs on the farms, and was good at repairing clocks and typewriters and binding books. In his later years Manx services were dying out, but Kewley kept them going single-handedly and preached at them himself. Till his dying day he was sure that the Manx language would survive, and he could converse in Manx with those of his parishioners who still spoke it. He had a remarkable memory which he attributed to a system of Pelmanism which he had devised himself. He had no personal ambition, and found full satisfaction and fulfilment in his daily duties as a parish priest. The driving force of his whole character was his simple, sincere faith in God.

Archdeacon Kewley was a great Manx patriot and after returning from Cambridge he vowed that he would never again leave the Isle of Man. He never did. There were two ways of bringing down his wrath on your head. One was to speak about the Vicar of Peel. He would at once say that there was no such person, but there was a Vicar of German, on which point he was quite correct. The other way was to refer to 'the mainland'. He would at once ask where you meant, and if you said `England' you were in trouble. One of his churchwardens in Arbory told a characteristic story about him. It was the coronation day of King George V in 1911, and meeting Kewley in the village he said, 'Well Vicar, you know what day today is'. 'Yes,' said Kewley, `Ballabeg Fair Day' - and it was. Nothing that could happen in England was, for Kewley, more important than what was happening in the Isle of Man. He was the last Squire-Archdeacon of Andreas, and would make his opinion known very firmly about anything which was proposed for the village. In many cases his views prevailed.

As Archdeacon he was examining chaplain to the Bishop, whose duty it was to examine candidates for priest's orders. He was sometimes criticised for making this examination rather carelessly, but Kewley was an unerring judge of character and never recommended an unsuitable person. An example of this was a candidate whom Kewley asked what the subject was in which he had taken his degree. When the man replied that it was mathematics Kewley handed him a tide table and said, 'Tell me when is the next high tide at Ramsey?

As Archdeacon, Kewley always maintained and looked after the interests of the clergy. On one occasion complaints were made to the Bishop that an incumbent had on several occasions been drunk and disorderly on licensed premises. The Bishop took a very serious view of this and wrote to the Archdeacon asking him if he would agree to the man being deprived of his Orders. The Archdeacon did not reply, and after a while the Bishop wrote again. This time Kewley replied in Latin, knowing well that the Bishop, though a saintly and beloved man, was no scholar, and would not wish to admit that he did not understand Latin. Nothing further was done.

The tributes paid to Kewley after his death showed how much he was valued and respected in the diocese for his great knowledge of all things Manx, and especially of the Manx church. He had collected all this information, dating back to about 1880, in a series of black notebooks, one of which he always carried with him to jot down any new fact which he had learned. He had intended these to go to the Manx Museum, but did not put this wish in writing, and when, after a decent interval following his death, the then director of the Manx Museum asked if the museum could have them he was told that they had been burned. Bishop Stanton Jones, speaking after the Archdeacon's death, said that it was only after he retired that it was realised how much he did for the Manx church, and he remarked that his unique knowledge of Manx church law had been invaluable. His successor as Archdeacon, the Revd C.V. Stockwood, said that the Manx church, in the course of her long history, had never had a more far-seeing person than Archdeacon Kewley, nor one who was held in higher esteem. Canon Rushworth, the Vicar of Braddan, said that Kewley had become a Manx institution, and the Revd J.H.B. Sewell, Vicar of Castletown, said how much he was a part of Island life and that he would always remain an outstanding figure, a great scholar, a wise counsellor and one who loved above all things his church and his Island home.

Soon after his retirement Kewley's health began to fail, and some of the infirmities of age became visible. He liked to sit on a seat in Castletown Square, with Castle Rushen in the background, smoking his pipe and talking to those around him, and though it grieved him that he could no longer work for the church it was a great comfort to him to know that he had a place in the hearts of clergy and people and that he was universally respected. His retirement in his boyhood home was on the whole happy, and a final blessing was that his last illness was only short.

Biography written by John Gelling.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.259-60.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 1 May 1860

Date of death: 6 November 1941

Name Variant: Venerable John Kewley


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