In 1807 George Crabbe, Rector of Muston, published his enormously popular collection of verse tales, The Parish Register. The narrator of the poem is a country parson who reads through the register of births, marriages and deaths for the year and remembers the lives of his parishioners.
‘The year revolves, and I again explore
The simple annals of my parish poor;’
Crabbe admitted that the characters and events in his tales were based on real people and real happenings in the parishes where he had lived. He began the tales while living in Suffolk and finished them when he returned to Muston in1805.
In the 1930s the Reverend J.H. Evans, Vicar of Croxton Kerrial, Rector of Branston-by-Belvoir, attempted to match Crabbe’s characters with the inhabitants of the Vale of Belvoir and drew attention to a footnote in the 1834 edition of Crabbe’s poems:
‘Robin Dingley, the wandering pauper, was suggested by Richard Wilkinson, a parishioner of Muston, who every now and then disappeared, like some migratory birds, no one could conjecture whither, and, just as his existence was forgotten, home came Richard to be again clothed and fed at the expense of the parish.’
Poor Robin is entrapped by an unscrupulous lawyer who promises him that he will inherit a fortune:
‘The rich old Dingley’s dead; – no child has he,
Nor wife, nor will; his all is left to thee:’
Robin spends his promised inheritance:
‘Assured of wealth, this man of simple heart,
To every friend had predisposed a part:
His wife had hopes indulged of various kind;
The three Miss Dingley’s had their school assigned,’
but nothing comes of his expectations,
‘They proved the blood, but were refused the land.’
Robin is ruined and never recovers from the shame and disappointment,
‘the failure touched his brain/And Robin never was himself again.’
He spends the rest of his life wandering , returning at long intervals to his village, but always leaving again, until at last he his brought home in a cart to die,
‘a victim to the snare/That vile attorneys for the weak prepare;’
The Reverend Evans ‘searching through these said documents (the Muston parish registers) failed to discover anything more significant than the name of “Robert Adkinson” in … 1692′. He is reduced to suggesting as a parallel one William Blandley, a servant from Great Ponton, who was run over by a waggon in 1746, on the tenuous grounds that the Robin Dingley of the poem was ‘In cart conveyed and laid supine on straw’.
Richard Wilkinson does not appear in the Muston parish register, though there is a Richard Wilkenson, whose marriage to Alice Lynford was witnessed by William Bray and Thomas Cragg on April 10th 1791. Had the Reverend Evans consulted the Accounts of the Overseers of the Poor, he might have come across a more relevant entry. There are three references to a Robert Wilkison or Wilkisson in the Overseers account book in 1784 which are consistent with the information in the footnote.
October 13th Paid Richard Wilkissons examination 0.1.0 (one shilling)
The ‘examenation’ referred to would have been a settlement examination, where Richard Wilkinson was required to prove that he had a claim on Muston Parish for relief under the Settlement Act. Since he does not appear on the parish register as christened in Muston, he was probably not born in the parish and must have had some other claim to settlement. Unfortunately the record of his examination, which might have provided more details of his life, does not seem to have survived. Whatever the grounds on which Richard Wilkinson claimed poor relief from Muston, he was evidently successful, since later entries refer to sums spent on him:
On March 26th
Paid for Richard Wilkison 1. 4. 5 ½ (one pound, four shillings and fivepence halfpenny)
Paid a Bill for Richard Wilkison 0.9.10 (nine shillings and tenpence)
Richard Wilkison or Wilkinson cost Muston poor rate payers a substantial amount of money.
In 1784 Crabbe was living at Belvoir Castle as chaplain to the Duke of Rutland. He may have heard Richard Wilkinson’s story then, or perhaps he was told it later when he was curate at Stathern, or later still when he became Rector of Muston. It evidently made a strong impression on him.