The Devil is a Jackass

The Devil is a Jackass
The Devil is a Jackass

The Devil is a Jackass

The Autobiographical of William Bernard Ullathorne

collated by Leo Madigan


SBN: 0 85244 2513

Publication Date: 1995

Binding: Quality Softcover

Size: 23.5cm X 16cm

Pages: 385

Content suitability (Age): 16-up

 Publisher: Gracewing (November 1995)


Avalable from:



Information from the back cover

Reading more like an adventure story than an ecclesiastic’s autobiography, The Devil is a Jackass plots the course of William Ullathorne from cabin boy on the high seas to the establishment of the Catholic Bishopric of Birmingham.


A direct descendant of St. Thomas More, Ullathorne spent four years before the mast before seeking to become a monk of the English Benedictine Congregation, entering the monastery at Downside.


He volunteered for the Australian mission, of which he was made first Vicar-General at the astonishingly young age of 26, playing a major part in bringing transportation to an end and publishing the first popular attacks on the convict system.


The key figure behind the establishment of a Catholic Hierarchy in Australia, as the last of the English Vicars-Apostolic, he was later able to use his Australian experience to pilot the reintroduction of the Hierarchy in England.

Here for is the full story of his life told in the Archbishop’s own words. The editor, Leo Madigan, has produced a rich and fascinating account by conflating the two versions of the autobiography produced by Ullathorne.

Ullathorne’s spiritual heirs in the Archdiocese of Birmingham and the Catholics of Australia will find this compelling story of particular interest, but general readers interested in the history of the 19th century will also find it an historical and spiritual document of the widest significance.


“...a striking narrative...” David Twiston Davies in The Daily Telegraph.

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I was born at Pocklington in Yorkshire, on the 7th of May in the year 1806, as the old bible entry used to tell me, at 6 o’clock in the morning. I was the eldest of ten children. My father was a grocer, draper, spirit merchant etc, in short he did half the business of the town, supplying it with coal before it had a canal and, in the absence of a bank, discounting bills.


His father had descended from gentle birth, but owing to a singular incident, he became a shoe-maker, and afterwards a farmer. For his father was a gentleman of landed estate in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which estate he acquired through his marriage with Miss Binks to whom it came as heiress of Mr. Binks, who had married Miss More, a lineal descendent of Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor and martyr, and the sister of Mrs. Waterton, who is commemorated by her grandson, the late celebrated traveller and naturalist of Waterton Hall in his autobiography.


The estate was lost through the insurrection of 1745 in favour of the claims of the Stuarts, after which my grandfather and his brother Francis were taken in charge by Dr. Lawrence, a Catholic physician of York, whose descendant succeeded to an ancient baronetcy. The two boys, however, were so terrified at the discovery of a skeleton in a cupboard in their bedroom, that they both ran away. My grandfather apprenticed himself to a shoe-maker, his brother fled to London, and there engaged himself to a chemist, and thus the turn of the fortunes of the family was completed. Yet the traditions cherished in the family had the effect, as in similar cases, of sustaining a certain tone and self respect which was not without its influence on mind and manners.


My dear mother was a native of Spilsby in Lincolnshire, of which county her father was Chief Constable, Sir John Franklin, the Arctic navigator, and next door neighbour in their childhood and youth. She remembered Dr. Banks of Captain Cook’s expedition, under whose influence Franklin went to sea.


My father met my mother in London, when they were both engaged in Townshend’s great drapery business in Holborn; he converted her to the faith and then married her, after which they commenced business in Pocklington on their own account.


My father, a man of considerable humour and cleverness, used to delight in provoking his Protestant friends by saying that he had married twice though he never had but one wife. Catholics in those days were compelled to go through a Protestant ceremony in order to legalise their Catholic marriage. My father was so popular a character, and my mother, who managed the drapery business, was so much beloved and respected for her kindness, gentleness and good sense, that their children were much noticed and every house was open to them.


I was sent to learn my first letters from a Miss Plummer, the daughter of a Protestant clergyman, who was still living but a few years ago. At home I learned to say my prayers, morning and night, at my mother’s knee. But though she was engaged the long day in business, with the aid of a confidential servant, devoted until old age to the family, she contrived to keep us in good order and discipline.


My imagination as a child was extremely vivid, and communicated a portion of its life and vivacity to all that it looked upon in nature. I can recollect being led by the hand as a little child past a garden in which the snow lay, but the snowdrop and yellow crocus were there in a group, and seemed to me to be mysterious creatures of life that had just come up out of the earth to live in this world. The corn, too, in the fields seemed to me a great mystery, something inexplicable, and especially when it turned from green to brown, and was gathered into sheaves. It seemed to me that they had killed the corn to make bread of.


Another childish recollection that set my mind awondering was the exercising of the militia on the public green in those warlike times, to see all those red-coated, black gaitered, beplumed men, moving as if with one soul and one will at the voice of another man with a different shaped hat. Of course our nurse subdued us into good behaviour with the threat that Buonaparte was coming; and I pictured him to my infantile mind as a little man with a great cocked hat, a red coat and a big sword, going in his solitary strength and sternness from house to house and killing all the people.


Now and then a sailor would pass through the place, deprived of a leg or an arm, holding in his one hand, or dragging on wheels, a little ship, and singing with brazen lungs about how, “We boarded the Frenchman”, which led to talk among our elders about the wars, and set the child’s mind upon its first wanderings into the great world abroad.


After being first rigged in a suit of cloth, that great tradition of childhood, my father took me with him to York, and the walk by his side into the Cathedral gave me an impression of awe and of grandeur, a sense of the power of religion, which to my childish mind was like a revelation and many a long day did my imagination feed itself upon that wonderful recollection. Of course I was told that this marvellous structure was made by Catholics long ago. It did not astonish me, it elevated me and I could write an essay upon the influence which that combination of size, symmetry, grandeur and sublimity produced upon my opening sense.


But the city walls and Clifford’s Tower puzzled me completely. Of course, I appealed to my father for information, and he satisfied me in a very simple way. He said, “If Buonaparte comes, they will get in there and fight him out”. I recall as if it was yesterday the tender tones with which he replied to all my questionings. He seemed to feel all that was passing within me, on that great day of my education.


York Minster was visible as a conspicuous object from a hill near our residence, a spur of the Wolds, though some ten miles distant, so I now could animate that pointed mass of mysterious stone, and could recall its lofty arches, its gorgeous windows, and the figures in their mysterious sleep, of Kings and Bishops, standing in their niches or lying on their tombs. Who can say how much of our future tastes and mental tendencies are

unconsciously derived from those earliest impressions made upon us by the greater and more elevating forms of art.


I remember also the impression first made on me by a Greek statue. It was a Flora, standing amongst rich foliage, and it literally dropped honey, for the bees had formed their combs with her wreath. The colourless creature seemed to sleep with open eyes, in her beauty, as she stood, and I suppose it was one of my earliest lessons in mental abstraction, for she seemed to me to be a spirit of a different world from that I lived in, a spirit with whom one could have no communication of speech, though she seemed to think even in her sleep. She simply made me very silent.


But how shall I recall the joys of my first remembered Christmas, joys not of the eye or the palate, but of the imagination? The being awakened at night to listen to the playing and the singing of the waits. Rude strumming they might seem to other ears, but to the child awakened out of sleep, it was little less than celestial harmony. And then the imagination peopled all the heavens with beautiful angels flying so happily amongst the falling flakes of snow, and singing the coming of our little Saviour. And then, next day, came the expected visitor, old Nanny Cabbage, a Protestant woman, going from house to house in her red cloak and black bonnet, producing her little house from under her cloak, with its holly, its two red apples stuck on pegs, and the Child Jesus between them in his cradle as if it had been in Spain or Italy; then, curtseying to the family, she sang The Seven Joys of Mary to the delight of the children - a relic this of Catholic times which I fear has passed away. These things were educating me, if we attend to the sense of the term, far more than Miss Plummer’s first lessons in reading and spelling.


We had a little chapel at Pocklington with its two windows, but recently enlarged, a small priest’s house, and a long strip of garden. The priest was the Abbe Fidele, a venerable French emigrant, long remembered there and at York for his piety, simplicity and charity. He used to kneel long before the altar in a Welsh or worsted wig at his prayers, until Miss Constable, the patroness of the mission, arrived in the vestry, which was also his parlour and dining room; then he went there himself to vest, took off his wig, powdered his head, and came in vested for Mass. I was told at a later period that he had four written sermons, and that when he had read the first line of his discourse the little flock knew all the rest by heart. Other French emigrant priests occasionally came and visited our house, and I remember one was Dr. Gilbert, a man of great dignity and bearing, who told dreadful narratives of his escape from the guillotine. He was afterwards raised to an important prelacy in France.


It is very odd that our old nurse who was so fond of us, and had often to hear us say our prayers when our mother was engaged, was a bitter Methodist, and used sometimes to express in our hearing her contempt for priests and “their trumpery”.


As soon as I was able to read, I got hold of a pictorial book of bible stories, lent me by a Protestant young lady, in which pictures of things were substituted for the words expressing them, amidst the texts. This gave me an early interest in the scripture history, and as I grew a little older I used to read the Book of Genesis and, what delighted me still more, the descriptions in the Book of Revelations in the Bible itself, that is, in the Protestant version, for I do not suppose that my parents then knew that we had a Catholic version in our language.


My father had an intimate friend, a Mr. Holmes, a solicitor, a man of a bright face and who had a cheerful ringing laugh, who was fond of reading good literature aloud. He was quite a character and was passionately fond of the drama. He lent me the Arabian Nights and Gulliver’s Travels, and other books of that stamp which fostered whilst they enlarged the imaginative tendency of my mind.


I was a heavy, clumsy urchin, with what a Protestant clergyman’s daughter described as “large, blobbing eyes”, silent when not asked to give an account of what I had been reading, and then always ready to give an account. I cared not for play, and my parents did not know whatever they could make of me. My second brother was quick and agile and this made me look all the more lumpy in the eyes of my neighbours, and awoke many a joke at my expense. But my first great literary rapture was when my father got for me a copy of Robinson Crusoe. I never tired of reading it, and of talking of it to everyone who chose to draw me out. I believe it had a great influence in giving me a taste for the sea at a later period; and when in the course of my missionary life I sailed in fine weather past Juan Fernandez, all the dreams of my early life were reawakened.


We could not have been more than seven and eight years old respectively when my father sent me and my next brother Owen to school at the village of Burnby, some two miles or so from our home. The master of the school in that quiet little village was a character, and had a reputation, and my father himself had learnt English grammar under him. We went on the Monday morning and returned on the Saturday afternoon, lodging at the village blacksmith’s, whose wife had been my nurse - not the Methodist nurse of the whole family, but another, whose conversion from Church of Englandism with her whole family to Methodism I witnessed, with all its accompaniments.


We slept in a dark attic under the thatch of their cottage, which only two or three panes of glass ever illuminated. As we sat in the winter evenings by the fire in the brick-floored room which served for kitchen, parlour and hall, we heard a good deal of pious sentiment uttered with an unctuous drawl, much agricultural talk in more vigorous and natural style, and all the gossip and small scandal of the village, of which the blacksmith shop was the focus.


Sometimes we got the privilege of taking a turn at the great bellows; or at hitting the cold chisel with the hammer that cut the glowing horseshoe nail from the cold iron; of which my brother was much fonder than I was. And sometimes we got a half holiday to help plant the family potatoes.


The schoolmaster, I have said, was a character. He was a grave, self-contained man, who when he unbended at the fireside of the farmers could talk of many things, which to them and to us, left the impression of learning beyond our aspirations. He was not only the oracle but the man of business of the village; made up his neighbours’ accounts, surveyed their land, at which time we boys were called upon to drag the measuring chains and plant the staffs with their little flags. All the village had been at school to “The Master”, and he lived at all their houses in turn, week and week about. When he came to a house, the blacksmith’s among the rest, it was a festive time; neighbours looked in the evening. He had his special armchair, his glass and generally on invitation sang one of his three songs in a grave sweet voice or, between the puffs of his pipe, told us stories of the wars, or of other men’s travels.


We had our annual barring out and our annual school feast, to which the fathers and mothers, the young men and the young women were invited. It was the great event of the year. The school house had mud walls, a thatched roof and a clay floor, but it turned out good accountants and land surveyors.


The 5th of November was a high day for the school. After dinner the pupils got the keys of the church, rang the bells, sported among the pews, and fired off little cannon in the church until twilight came, when they were succeeded by the farm lads and lasses, who carried on saturnalia until late in the night.


Another custom savoured more of the old Catholic times. A funeral was rare, but when it occurred the whole population assembled, sang the psalms in procession to the old chants, and afterwards received a distribution of bread and beer at the house of the deceased.


We were by express arrangement not to learn the Protestant Catechism, but by sitting in the school over our books whilst it was said, we knew every word by memory.


The “Master” had more than one stiff bout to conquer my hard stiff pride, in which unfortunately he failed, for the more he thrashed me the more I quietly but desperately stiffened my spirit to endure, and boasted afterwards that he had not conquered.


Still dreamy and clumsy, getting a fair amount of jibes for it, and living in my imagination; I remember going al the way back to school for my task book, and searching about for it, when the Master said, “What are you looking for?”“For my book, I fear I have lost it somewhere.“What is that under your arm?” And there, sure enough, it had been all the while.


After a certain time we passed from the blacksmith’s cottage to lodge at the wheelwright’s, whose wife was the daughter of the old village clergyman, and who had a brother who was the clergyman of the neighbouring village. I still bear the marks on my fingers of the chops I got bungling with the great axe in the wheelwright’s shop. Here we saw a certain amount of Protestant clerical society from time to time, of the high and dry school, which gave us no idea of there being much religion in it, and which strangely contrasted with the spirit of the good, old, pious and charitable Abbe Fidele. I remember that when the annual Sacrament Sunday came round, I think on Easter Day, it was preceded by a good deal of talk as an event like that of the annual Christmas party given in the house, but there was no other special preparation. One of the daughters asked her mother, “Mother, is Jim to go to the Sacrament?” She replied, “Oh, no! Jim must not go, he would eat all the Sacrament. You know it is only a little taste!” Poor Jim was the big apprentice to the wheelwright.


Burnby was a lonely little place; we seldom saw a stranger, and if one rode through it on horseback at rare intervals, he seemed to me to come out of some unknown world, and to pass into another. Yet, a great crisis came upon the village, hitherto so peaceful, and united as one family. A group of Methodists appeared one evening upon the green and began to preach and sing hymns; and amongst the group was an uncle of my own, one who had early left the Faith and become a dissenter, and this reminds me that his mother, my grandmother, was a Protestant. I never knew a man who pulled a longer face than he did, and he turned out very unfortunately. Week after week this group appeared on the green. Sundry convictions of sin and conversion took place; and amongst the rest one that made a great sensation.


It was the case of a particularly steady young man, son of the chief farmer. He got his conviction whilst sitting on a style, and becoming a Methodist. And when Christmas approached, it was a great subject of discussion in the village circles as to whether he would ever again attend any of the Christmas parties or, as he sang a good song, would ever sing again, or play at cards. He came to his friends’ parties, but did not sing, or play at cards.


At last the blacksmith received the Methodists to preach and pray in his house, which thus became their chapel; but we had already left it for the wheelwright’s.


From this time the village was divided, and got uncomfortable in its social relations. Its old simplicity was sadly marred by the introduction of this sour principle. As to the old schoolmaster, I never knew until after years that he was devoid of religion of any kind. I saw him in the year 1850, just before he died, in his decay, and at the interview were also Bishop Briggs, Gillis and Brown, on our way through Pocklington to visit Lord Herries. The poor old man had lost all his savings by the failure of a bank, and was supported by a subscription of his old pupils. I asked him if he had done his best to make his peace with God and, weeping all the interview, he said that he had done so.


The things I have described were not without their practical influence in opening my intelligence to the then existing state of Protestant and sectarian life. They awakened my curiosity, but certainly presented no attraction to my youthful mind. We had our Sundays at home, but in the weekdays I fear our prayers were short and limited to the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father, Hail Mary and Creed.


Author’s note.

This book was suggested by the late Fr Douglas Carter who at the time lived in the dower house of Castle Howard in Yorkshire. He pointed out that Shane Leslie’s edition of Ullathorne’s autobiography, From Cabin Boy to Archbishop, though popular when it was published in the early forties, was nevertheless all over the place. Admittedly Shane Leslie was in London and the Blitz was disrupting life at the time but it doesn’t take an expert to see that the papers were published as he found them, that no effort had been made to arrange them chronologically, or any other way. Furthermore Ullathorne wrote his autobiography twice. Cabin Boy to Archbishop made no reference to the earlier effort. Fr Carter’s brief was to collate the two as a single, flowing narrative. I hope that’s what I did here, though I must point out that every word is Ullathorne’s own. I took no liberties with what he had written except to arrange it.


It is a pity that Ullathorne has become merely a figure in the wings when one thinks of 19th century English Catholic history. He is virtually the father of Catholicism in Australia; he negotiated the return of the Catholic Hierarchy in Rome in the 1850s, he was Blessed Cardinal Newman’s bishop all Newman’s life as a Catholic and his, Ullathorne’s, books are as fresh, and as sound, as when they were written. But the biographies of pop stars and tv soap stars seem more to the taste of the public in the 21st century. Ah well, I can only hope that when the tide turns the old worth-whiles will still be found to people the shelves.

Father Edwin Gordon. R.I.P.

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