John Merewether (1797-1850), Dean of Hereford (Fig 1.), was born, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, son of John Merewether of Blackland in Wiltshire. Details of his early life are sparse, although the dedication of one of his books, The Diary of a Dean, on a Wiltshire Antiquarian Sojourn is inscribed "as a legacy to my native County, whose antiquities I began in early life to study" and must cast doubts on his official place of birth. Information gleaned from notes in published records shows that he was interested in barrow digging and the pursuit of antiquities from an early age. He revealed that his first lessons in practical excavation were taught in the company of Sir Richard Colt Hoare "in whose presence the first barrow I ever saw opened produced a beautiful early British vase" (probably an Early Bronze Age beaker). He subsequently tried delving on his own account, noting on a much later visit to the impressive Dark Age ditch-and-bank at Wansdyke, that he had relocated a tumulus that he had once dug meis manibus (with my own hands) to a depth of some seven or eight feet, turning up "one solitary glass bead, which I still possess."
Merewether was educated at Queen's College, Oxford, where he graduated BA in 1818. He subsequently received his BD and DD 14 years later. He was ordained in 1820 by the Bishop of Salisbury, and served as curate in livings in Dorset and Middlesex. In the latter curacy, at Hampton, he was instrumental in building a chapel of ease at Hampton Wick. This, and other good works brought him to the favorable attention of the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, then residing at nearby Bushey. Merewether became chaplain to the Duchess of Clarence, afterwards Queen Adelaide, in 1824. Four years later he was presented by the Lord Chancellor to the living of New Radnor, and in 1832 he succeeded the Hon. Edward Grey as Dean of Hereford. His path to advancement in the Established Church seemed assured, and in 1833 the king appointed him one of the deputy clerks of the closet, and asked the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to have a care for his advancement. In 1836 Merewether was given the living of Madeley in Shropshire, but the death of William IV in the following year seemed to signal an end to his hopes for high ecclesiastical advancement.
To his bitter disappointment a number of vacancies occurred on the Episcopal bench but Merewether's applications for office were turned down again and again. In 1847, no doubt soured by these experiences, he strenuously opposed the election of Renn Dickson Hampden to the see of Hereford, for his apparent unorthodoxy, which had led to bitter controversy when he had been appointed to a Regius Professorship in Divinity at Oxford University in 1837. The Dean sent a fruitless memorial to Queen Victoria, and followed this by forwarding an ultra-long letter to the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, on 22 December, indicating his decision to vote against Hampden's election in the chapter meeting at the cathedral. In reply to this exhaustive missive, he received a laconic note from Russell which read "Sir, I had the honour to receive your letter of the 22nd inst. in which you intimate to me your intention of violating the law." Merewether finally refused to affix the seal of the Dean and Chapter to the document recording the Bishop's formal election, justifying his decision in a letter sent to The Times in early January 1848.
The question of the Bishopric led to a long running paper war and over 30 works on the matter were issued from the press. This division must have caused many problems in the administration of the see, and must also have signaled an emphatic end to any of his hopes for future promotion in the church. Incidentally, Hampden faithfully administered the affairs of his diocese for 20 years, and it was said of him that "No one through life less courted and less deserved the observations and attacks of which he was the object. He never retaliated or referred to the opposition which had been raised against him, and in his life and conduct was an exemplary prelate."
The Dean, who married Mary Ann Baker of Wiley, Wiltshire, by whom he had nine children, subsequently took his consolation in antiquarian pursuits. Described as "an enthusiastic local antiquary" he was elected FSA in 1836 and pursued a leading and valuable interest in the history of the cathedral, communicating to the Society of Antiquaries' journal Archaeologia details of discoveries made during the restoration of the edifice. He described and illustrated the fabric and effigies of the building, and contributed £500 to the restoration fund. He became a vice-president of the British Archaeological Association on its formation in 1843, and took an important part in its early congresses at Canterbury and Gloucester. When the hierarchy of the BAA split in 1845, he joined the seceding group, who called themselves the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. It was as an active member of this organisation that Merewether's greatest claim to fame, or notoriety depending on one's point of view, came to pass.
In 1849 the Archaeological Institute planned a congress to take place at Salisbury in Wiltshire.