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New book traces life in a mining village and its rector

By This is Somerset  |  Posted: September 15, 2009

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Rarely has the Wild West atmosphere of a 19th century mining village been portrayed so vividly as through the journal of John Skinner, Rector of Camerton until 1834.

When he arrived at his rectory to take on the parish, fresh from a quiet life in a lawyer's office, he felt that he had come to a frontier settlement, full of drunken and immoral coal miners and their women.

He had left a world of law and order and come to a Somerset village where men carved out their reputations with their fists, where miners were treated as expendable manual labourers by their bosses, and where children faced no better future than going underground.

This is how Camerton was seen through the eyes of a man, described by author Virginia Woolf in her study on him entitled Two Parsons as "tormented and querulous ... unwilling to yield an inch."

He was fixed in his views, she said, that the people of Camerton "are more corrupt even than the mass of men," – a race violently set apart from the gentility of nearby Bath.

The life of John Skinner is now the subject of a novel by Durham-based author Gillian Garnham, The Good Man Of Camerton.

It is inspired by Skinner's journal currently preserved in the British Museum – in which he wrote with frankness about his feelings for his parish.

Mrs Garnham believes the Reverend had anticipated a comfortable and intellectually productive life as a country parson with his new wife and a young family to complete domestic bliss.

But when confronted by turmoil and tragedies all about him, including the deaths of his beloved wife and two of his children, and clashes with Methodists and Catholics, as well as colliers and farmer, he went to pieces and one morning in October 1839, he took his gun, walked into beech woods near his home, and shot himself dead.

Gillian Garnham has used novel form to question whether Skinner was a good man.

She believes he wanted to do what he believed to be right, and for others to follow his example but that his personality and mind set were completely at odds with the life of a village immersed in hard and dangerous work and hard play.

The Good Man Of Camerton is published by Biscuit Publishing Ltd at £9.99, and can be found on the shelves of Radstock Museum bookshop along other literature about mining in Somerset.

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