Ebenezer Prior was born in 1848 to John Woods Prior and Amelia Prior (nee Underdown).
He lived in Chichester for most of his life. His grandfather, Mr Reeves, and his father, J. W. Prior, were both woolstaplers. Ebenezer took over and re-established the business, which became known as Ebenezer Prior Ltd, becoming one of the two most noteworthy businesses in Chichester, the other being Shippams, the well-known potted meat company.
Ebenezer served as a member of the city council from 1889 to 1896, and was elected mayor in 1895. He was chairman of the then Chichester Rural District Council, and a justice of the peace for the county. He was also chief magistrate for many years, and was chairman of the board of guardians for 13 consecutive years. The board of guardians were responsible for overseeing the workhouse.
Ebenezer Prior was a man of deep Christian conviction, and had a great heart for the poor. As a young man, he would take port wine after his meals, but in his role as chief magistrate he saw first-hand the devastating effects of cheap alcohol, and the widespread drunkenness which led to criminal behaviour.
There were 102 public houses in Chichester, which he attacked as “low in tone” and frequently “houses of ill-repute”, “dens of gambling and drunkenness”. He did all he could to suspend licences and lessen the number of inns in the city. In 1889, Ebenezer achieved considerable unpopularity by challenging the quantity of drink served in the workhouse.
He became uncomfortable when passing sentence on people whose crimes were influenced by alcohol, so to ease his conscience he became an abstainer, and eventually became president of the Total Abstainers Society. Inevitably, his actions aroused the wrath and enmity of those whose livelihoods depended on selling alcohol.
Ebenezer did his utmost to improve the lot of the inmates of the workhouse. He was instrumental in getting trained nurses in the workhouse. He was eventually successful in persuading the board of guardians to allow the inmates to wear ordinary clothing when visiting the outside world instead of their paupers’ uniforms.
Ebenezer was a manager of the Lancastrian Voluntary Schools. Education was under review by the government at the time, and Ebenezer was keen for better use to be made of educational charities. One such was the Oliver Whitby School. Ebenezer was determined to press for better use of the charity.
He wanted the school to expand in order to provide secondary education for Chichester pupils, and imagined that the school could provide education for upwards of 200 scholars.
He was convinced that a larger number of able children could benefit greatly by the sort of education which the Oliver Whitby School could provide. He put huge efforts into his attempt to bring this about, and by the time he was mayor in 1895 he was able to chair a committee to pursue a general inquiry into all the existing charities in Chichester with a view to their being used for public benefit.
A new bishop had been appointed and Ebenezer outlined his plans for the Oliver Whitby School to him.
In essence, his proposal was that the school should provide free education for its 48 foundation scholars, and places for upwards of 200 fee payers, and a new school provided for 125 girls.
Many in Chichester were flabbergasted that any man should dare to propose tampering with the Oliver Whitby school. Least of all should schemes emanate from Prior who was notorious for his strict manner of life. Prior was still unpopular with a large faction because of his victorious campaigns against abuse at the workhouse. There was a public outcry against Prior, reported in the West Sussex Gazette of February 25, 1897, though the newspaper itself remained strongly supportive of him.
Prior countered all arguments with reason and sanity. Chichester’s battle received national coverage. The battle continued into the summer, and culminated in a meeting in July, attended by a commissioner from the Charity Commission. Prior’s supporters were interrupted and shouted down, and the meeting became “one of the most disorderly and unmannerly I have attended for years”, wrote the editor of the Gazette.
“Shouting, booing, hissing, yelling, interruptions, sensible and senseless, all the vocabulary of uncontrolled prejudice blossomed as a thistle for three hours and a half. ” (Sussex Daily News, July 29, 1897). Prior had to be accompanied by the Superintendent of Police and other policemen as he walked home to his house in Tower Street, followed by a yelling crowd.
Within days of the inquiry, there were signs of a change of heart, and there were letters of apology to the Commissioners from all classes of people. Many of Chichester’s best men were supportive of Prior. However, progressing the scheme was impossible.
The trustees of the Oliver Whitby School ‘celebrated’ by erecting iron fencing to enclose the school playground.