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Edalji, Shapurjifree

(1841/2–1918)
  • Richard Davenport-Hines

Edalji, Shapurji (1841/2–1918), Church of England clergyman and victim of racial harassment, was born in Bombay, in late 1841 or early 1842, son of Doralji Edalji, a Parsi merchant. Educated at Elphinstone College, he was converted to Christianity in 1856, aged fourteen, by the Free Church of Scotland missionary John Wilson. He decided to enter the ministry and in 1859 was admitted to the Free Kirk College in Bombay. He published a Gujarati/English dictionary (1863), a lecture to the Bombay Dialect Society (1864), and a Gujarati grammar (1867). Licensed in 1866, he undertook missionary work among the Warli people, north of Bombay. Contact with missionaries from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) drew him to Anglican Christianity, and on the strength of his publications the SPG offered him a scholarship to study at St Augustine's College, Canterbury.

Completing his theological training at St Augustine's in the summer of 1868, Edalji went to Oxford to join R. M. Benson's Cowley fathers and was ordained deacon by Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, early in 1869. He held a curacy at Burford, Oxfordshire, under a tractarian incumbent, before moving to a curacy at Holy Trinity, St Ebbe's, Oxford (1869–70), where he came under the influence of the evangelical Alfred Christopher. Ordained priest in 1870, he took up a curacy at Farnworth, Bolton, Lancashire, where he claimed to be 'the first ordained native Indian clergyman in England' (Oldfield, 174). He went on to hold curacies at Toxteth (1872–3, 1874–5), St Levan, Cornwall (1873–4), and Bromley St Leonard (1875–6). On 17 June 1874 Edalji married Charlotte Elizabeth Stuart (1842–1924), daughter of Thompson Stoneham, vicar of Ketley, Shropshire. They had two sons and one daughter (Maud Evelyn, who died unmarried in 1961).

G. A. Selwyn, when bishop of Lichfield, appointed Edalji in 1876 as vicar of Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, where he continued as incumbent until his death. Collieries and agriculture provided the chief employment of this parish. An amiable, devoted clergyman, he published his Lectures on St Paul's Epistles to the Galatians in 1879. His misfortunes began when he was pestered by anonymous letters written by a servant (1888). During 1892–5 bogus advertisements were inserted in his name in newspapers, rubbish was strewn on his lawn, and detectives, solicitors, tradesmen, and fellow clergy were sent mischievous or vicious missives over his forged signature: an 'evil business', as he wrote, pursued by a hidden antagonist 'to gratify his own desire for fun or revenge' (The Times, 16 Aug 1895, 12c). Local police (especially Staffordshire's chief constable, the Hon. George Anson) improbably convinced themselves that the vicar's elder son, George Ernest Thompson Edalji (1876–1953), was the miscreant. The Edaljis were not again disturbed until 1903. During that year sixteen sheep, cattle, or horses were horribly mutilated in Edalji's district. Anonymous letters denounced Edalji junior, then working as a solicitor, who was tried (October 1903) at Staffordshire quarter sessions before an ignorant county justice on charges of wounding a horse on the night of 17 August and of having sent a letter to a local policeman threatening to murder him.

The case arrayed against young Edalji was preposterous. As an astigmatic myopic he was incapable of complicated nocturnal excursions; the vicarage was surrounded on the night of 17 August by a cordon of men through which he could not have penetrated; apparently incriminating dirty razors found in a police search of the vicarage were stained with rust, not blood; putatively incriminating mud found on his clothes and boots did not come from the field where the horse was slaughtered; horse hairs which police claimed to have found on his coat were probably threads; his father's sworn oath that they had slept the night in the same room behind a locked door was disregarded. After George Edalji was condemned to seven years' penal servitude, his family was brutally baited.

Shapurji Edalji battled for three years against an intransigent Home Office. Eventually his son was freed from prison with his career ruined (October 1906). The case was taken up by Arthur Conan Doyle, who published a series of cogent investigative articles in the Daily Telegraph, and by Sir George Lewis as part of his campaign for a court of criminal appeal. A Home Office departmental committee exonerated Edalji from the wounding, although implausibly adhering to the theory that he had written anonymous letters; the home secretary, Herbert Gladstone, thereupon granted a free pardon, though in grudging terms, and without compensation (May 1907). The long persecution of the Edaljis, Anson's hostility, the misconduct of police inquiries, the extravagance of local rumour-mongering, the injustice of the trial, and the Home Office attitude were all attributable, in differing degrees, to grievous racial bigotry.

Having been blind for some months, Edalji died five weeks after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage, on 23 May 1918, at Great Wyrley vicarage, and was buried in his parish churchyard. His son George had returned to legal practice in Southwark, south London, before settling in Welwyn Garden City.

Sources

  • A. C. Doyle, The case of Mr George Edalji (1907)
  • R. Oldfield, Outrage: the Edalji five and the shadow of Sherlock Holmes (2010)
  • ‘The Edalji case and the home office’, The Spectator (26 Jan 1907), 131–2
  • The Times (16 Aug 1895)
  • The Times (21–4 Oct 1903)
  • The Times (18 May 1904)
  • The Times (2 June 1904)
  • The Times (13 Oct 1905)
  • The Times (1906–7)
  • report of home office departmental committee on papers relating to the case of George Edalji (session 1907, Cd 3503), TNA: PRO
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • census returns, 1871, ,,1881, ,1891, 1901

Archives

  • LPL

Likenesses

  • photographs, repro. in Oldfield, Outrage

Wealth at Death

£147 19s. 1d.: administration, 2 July 1918, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Crockford's Clerical Directory