Rev. George Millers (1775-1852)

Rev. George Millers

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupations: Clergyman and Historian

Background and early life

George Millers was baptised at Holy Trinity Church, Kendal on the 9th October 1775, the fifth and youngest child of Thomas Millers of Market Place, Kendal, a hatter, who had married Mrs Esther Cragg, the widow of Thomas Cragg of Kendal (d.1752), at the same church on the 22nd September 1761. Mrs Cragg (1728-1803) was a daughter of John Abbot of Underbarrow, near Kendal. Her sister Mary Abbot (1725-1823) had married the celebrated artist George Romney (1734-1802) in 1756.

Both George and his elder brother William (1767-1843) were educated at Hawkshead Grammar School under the Revd Thomas Bowman (1761-1829), although William soon went on to Sedbergh School. At Hawkshead they were near contemporaries of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), and like him, went on afterwards to St John's College, Cambridge. However, after that the poet spent much of his life in the Lake District whilst William and George Millers took Holy Orders and were for many years priests in Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely.

William Millers was eight years older than his brother George and showed the greater promise. He was described by Thompson as the 'brilliant contemporary of Wordsworth at St John's', which he entered in 1784, won the Lupton Scholarship in 1788 and, in the following year, was 1st Smith's prizeman and Senior Wrangler (M.A. 1792; B.D. 1800). He was a Fellow of his College between 1791 and 1808 and Steward from 1802 to 1808. Ordained priest in 1794 he was Vicar of Madingley from 1805-1807, then Rector of Hardwick from 1807-1825, both near Cambridge and in the gift of the Bishop of Ely. Between 1807 and 1843 he was also the sinecure Rector of Aberdaron, Carnarvonshire, a College living. In 1808 he married Margaret Towers, the daughter of Thomas Towers, an Ulverston shoemaker and the niece of John Robinson (1738-1803), a wealthy Ulverston attorney-at-law. Her brother Richard Towers was left Duddon Grove, later Duddon Hall, a substantial estate near Broughton-in-Furness, by Robinson. Towers died childless in 1831 leaving the estate to his niece Frances Esther Millers (1813-1847), only child of the Revd William Millers.

The diarist James Losh of Newcastle was at Sedbergh School with William Millers and recounts that in 1828, when Millers was visiting north Lancashire, 'we saw Mr Millers whom I knew 44 or 45 years ago, a raw, bashful lad at Sedbergh. After that he became a Cambridge Senior Wrangler, not certainly of the highest order but still that is a situation not to be attained without considerable talents as well as great industry. He afterwards married an uneducated country girl who, by the death of some relations, got a fortune of £50,000 or £60,000 and he is now a kind of half parson and half squire and his manners exhibiting a curious mixture of awkward shyness and conscious self-importance.'

 Mrs Millers was the co-heir of Attorney Robinson, who died five years before her marriage, so she was a good catch for the Revd William Millers whose Cambridgeshire livings only produced modest stipends. William Millers resigned Hardwick in 1825 in favour of his brother George, who was non-resident, and  then retired to Springfield, Ulverston, a large house of about this date, possibly designed by Webster of Kendal. His wife died in 1828 and, when his daughter Frances Esther inherited Duddon Grove in 1831, Millers moved there with her. The 1841 Census return shows them still living in the house with a farm bailiff, footman and six indoor servants but in 1843 the Revd William Millers died. The exquisite Corinthian temple in the grounds is also dated 1843, bears the bogus arms of Millers impaling Towers and was perhaps erected by Miss Millers in memory of her father. This fine building, surmounted by a stag, is a mystery and may have been commissioned or moved from elsewhere under the auspices of her erudite uncle, the Revd George Millers. Miss Millers busied herself with local charitable works and gave £2,000 in 1845 to found Buckman's Brow School, Thwaites for the education of girls aged between five and sixteen in the three Rs and religious education. This school had eighty pupils in its heyday but closed down in the 1920s.

George Millers’s clerical career

William Millers's younger brother George, after Hawkshead Grammar School, was admitted sizar at St John's College,Cambridge in 1793, (Scholar 1787, B.A. 1798, M.A, 1801). He was ordained deacon in 1798 and priest in 1800 and preferment soon followed thanks to his Cumbrian connections and also the Bishop and the Dean and Chapter of Ely. His first appointment in 1798, by his fellow Cumbrian, was as curate of Brinkley, Cambridgeshire by the Rector, the non-resident Revd Reginald Brathwaite (1740?-1809), who was also Vicar of Hawkshead from 1762 until 1809.George must have known him at Hawkshead, where Brathwaite lived in some style at Belmount, a large Georgian mansion which he had built for himself in 1774. This house was later owned by Beatrix Potter who gave it to the National Trust. On his ordination as priest in 1800 George Millers was appointed a Minor Canon of Ely Cathedral and perpetual curate of Chettisham near Ely, by the Dean and Chapter of Ely Cathedral, thus beginning an association with the Cathedral which lasted for fifty-one years, the rest of his life. He also held many other appointments both within the Cathedral and elsewhere. For example from 1800  he was the Cathedral’s Epistoler, sacrist and from1822 he was also registrar of the Dean and Chapter, divinity lecturer, Librarian for forty-seven years and Precentor from 1833. As Precentor he was responsible for the singing of the psalms, anthems and hymns but was not expected to sing a note himself, either because, since 1730, it had been laid down that most of the Cathedral services should be said not sung or because Millers was incapable of doing so. In addition, between 1809 to 1812, he was the Hypodidasculus or Under-Master of the Cathedral Grammar School, later known as the King’s School Ely, and from about 1822 he lived at the Queen’s Hall, which formed part of the pre-Reformation monastic buildings. He remained the Cathedral’s Precentor until 1848. All these appointments meant that he became the foremost resident clergyman in Ely during the first half of the 19th Century and the permanent representative of the peripatetic Dean and Chapter as they came and went. Even the Bishop never occupied his Palace in Ely for more than a few months a year. 

Apart from his numerous internal appointments at Ely Cathedral, George Millers enjoyed further preferments elsewhere. In 1803 he was presented to the vicarage of Winston, near Debenham, Suffolk by the Dean and Chapter of Ely and, as mentioned above, succeeded his brother William as Rector of Hardwick, Cambridgeshire in 1825, a living in the gift of Bishop Sparke of Ely, which he held for the rest of his life. In 1808 the Bishop of Ely appointed him Vicar of Stanford, Norfolk, which he held until 1845 and, in addition, presented him to the vicarage of Runham, Norfolk in 1811, holding this also for the rest of his life .George Millers was non-resident in all his parishes, living in Ely until his death.

Apart from his clerical appointments George Millers was for many years a J.P. for the Isle of Ely. As Bishop Sparke enjoyed temporal as well as ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Isle he was able to pack the bench of magistrates with a majority of clerical appointments In 1816 the magistrates had to deal with the Littleport riots which were caused by high unemployment and rising grain prices. About a hundred agricultural labourers in the town, carrying pitchforks, cleavers and other weapons, smashed windows and broke down doors and stole money and goods from their wealthier neighbours, including ransacking the home of the Vicar, the Revd John Vachell. The Riot Act was read, troops summoned and the ring-leaders arrested but not before the magistrates were humiliatingly forced to concede to the rioters' demands. Later, at a special Assize Court sentences of death and transportation were handed down by two London judges and the ineffectual Edward Christian, Chief Justice of Ely; he was the brother of Fletcher Christian, who lead the famous Bounty Mutiny, members of the well- known Cumbrian family of Christian of Ewanrigg, Maryport,Cumbria.

His history of Ely Cathedral

George Millers’s chief claim to fame rests with A Guide to the Cathedral Church and Collegiate buildings of Ely, first published anonymously in 1805, but naming him as the author in later editions, the fifth and last edition appearing in1838. In 1771 the Revd James Bentham had published his weighty and expensive history of the Cathedral but Millers’s intention was to produce a brief history in a cheap and portable form for visitors to Ely. He was encouraged by its favourable reception and wide circulation which enabled him to include engravings in later editions, all of which were given by benefactors.

Professor E.A.Freeman (1823-1892), the distinguished Victorian historian, wrote of Millers that ‘he was an observer of English architecture who deserves more honour than has fallen to his share. Millers certainly traced out all the varieties of English architecture far more clearly than anyone before him. Whilst the trumpet of Rickman has been loudly blown, no one that I know of has ever said a word for Millers.’ In the last century Pevsner credited Millers as the first person to use the term ‘Early English’.

Nor did Millers remain silent about the state of the Cathedral even though he must have known that his remarks would offend the Dean and Chapter and probably Bishop Sparke. In the 1834 edition he roundly condemned the ‘mean, squalid and neglected state of our magnificent Church, to which he had devoted his life. His sentiments were echoed by both William Cobbett and  A.N.W.Pugin, both of whom visited the Cathedral in the 1830s and recorded their horror at its poor condition.

Family life

In 1801 George Millers was married at Fincham, Norfolk to Mary ( 1765 -1845), daughter of Thomas Forby of Stoke Ferry, Norfolk, grocer and younger sister of the Revd Robert Forby (1759-1825), J.P., D.L., Rector of Fincham, an eminent philologist and author of The Vocabulary of East Anglia. There were no children of the marriage but the couple adopted Catherine Meliora Alexander (1796-1864) who married Captain William Muriel (1794-1876), R.N. M.R.C.S of Wickham Market, Suffolk in 1829 at St Mary’s, Ely. Dr William Muriel, described in Millers’s Will as ‘my old and valued friend’, was the son of Dr Robert Muriel of The Chantry House, the Green Ely, who came from from a well-known Ely medical family. Their descendants included the Suffolk author ‘Simon Dewes' (John Muriel) and Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989).

The Duddon Grove estate

As shown earlier, this estate in the beautiful Duddon Valley of the Lake District, had been inherited by the Revd William Millers, elder brother of George of Ely, and then by his unmarried daughter Frances Esther, but she died aged thirty- four in 1847 leaving the estate to ‘my dear uncle George’. George Millers, then aged seventy-two, thus inherited the Duddon Grove estate, which included the substantial mansion-house, the lordship of the manor of Dunnerdale-with-Seathwaite, and about 1,500 acres, but he was too attached to Ely to go and live there permanently. By 1851 he had arranged for his cousin, the Revd John Romney ( 1817-1875), grandson of George Romney the artist, to occupy the house. On Millers’s death in 1852 he left the Duddon Grove estate to another cousin, William Sawrey Rawlinson, whose mother, Mary was married to John Job Rawlinson of Graythwaite Hall and was the sister of the Revd John Romney.

His death and benefactions to Ely Cathedral

George Miller’s wife, who was ten years his senior, died in 1845 and when he made his Will in 1848 Millers refers to ‘my young friend Frances Alexander Muriel, the daughter of William Muriel (‘ my old and valued friend’) now resident with me’, who probably ran the house for him after his wife’s death. He died at Ely on the 3rd January 1852 in his seventy-seventh year.

The Cambridge Chronicle for the 10th January 1852 described him as ‘the kindest of masters… and of a cheerful and liberal character. His funeral in the Cathedral on the 17th January was impressively conducted by the Dean and attracted a large gathering. He had served Ely Cathedral in many different ways for over fifty years and died a rich man. Apart from his landed estate in Cumbria Millers's personal estate was sworn at just under £100,000, about £4.5 million in modern money. He had probably given generous donations to Ely Cathedral in his lifetime, left the Cathedral £100 by codicil and, after his death, his personal representatives made a further contribution of £400 towards the completion of the newly painted nave ceiling in the Cathedral, which remains a much admired feature.

There is a modest wall tablet in the south aisle, to George Millers and his wife which refers to him as the 'Historian of this Cathedral', and stained glass windows by William Wailes of Newcastle to both of them in the north and south aisles of the Cathedral.

The Ely Dean and Chapter archive at Cambridge University Library contains a photograph of the Revd George Millers (c.1850), holding his history of Ely Cathedral.


  • Cockerill, Timothy, The Rev. George Millers, Historian of Ely Cathedral,  Cambridgeshire Local History Review, New Series No.11, Sept. 2002, 21-30
  • Meadows, Peter and Ramsay, Nigel (Editors), A History of Ely Cathedral, Cambridge, 2003, 288-289
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus and Hyde, Matthew, The Buldings of England, Cumbria, Yale, 2020, 400
  • Scott, Robert Forsyth, Admissions to the College of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge, Cambridge, 1931, 385-386
  • Sedbergh School Register 1546-1909, Leeds, 1909, 202
  • Thompson, T.W. and Woof, Robert (Editor), Wordsworth's Hawkshead, Oxford, 1970, 357-358
  • CW2, lxiv, 341-343 and CW3, ii, 253-260