CLINCH, JOHN, doctor, Church of England clergyman, office holder, and judge; b. 9 Jan. 1748/49 in Cirencester, England, one of twin children of Thomas Clinch of Bere Regis, England; m. 17 June 1784 Hannah Hart of English Harbour, Nfld, and they had seven sons and one daughter; d. 22 Nov. 1819 in Trinity, Nfld.
John Clinch went to school in Cirencester with Edward Jenner, later the discoverer of vaccination, and both moved to London to study medicine under John Hunter, a noted anatomist and surgeon. Clinch then practised medicine in Dorset, where he obtained a knowledge of Newfoundland from Benjamin Lester, merchant of Poole and of Trinity. He also began a Sunday school on the model of that of Robert Raikes, whom he had encountered in Gloucester. An evangelical by conviction, he ignored denominational differences and took the children to worship in a Congregational chapel at Poole.
In 1775 Clinch moved to Bonavista in Newfoundland, where he earned his living as a doctor and acted as a lay reader in the Anglican church. Eight years later he relocated to Trinity, where he married. Being concerned at the “decay of true Religion, and the success of Popery,” in the absence of a clergyman he organized public worship, read sermons, and performed marriages, baptisms, and burials. In 1784 the inhabitants petitioned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to appoint him missionary, and Clinch asked the SPG that he be appointed without having to visit England for ordination. The SPG insisted, however, and after enquiries had been made concerning his character and a personal recommendation received from Richard Routh, collector of customs in Newfoundland, he was ordained in England and appointed as missionary to Trinity Bay in 1787.
During his 32 years as a missionary Clinch constantly complained of a lack of financial support. In 1789 he could collect only £24 to repair the church, and three years later he was forced to do it at his own expense. By 1815 the building was falling down, and even with a gift of £100 from the SPG not enough could be collected to erect a new one. His congregation was poor, its members at times obliged to travel to England to seek relief from their home parishes. The cost of living rose dramatically in 1805 because of the war with Spain, and again in 1809 because of the renewal of the American embargo on British products. Typhus spread, there were outbreaks of smallpox, and in 1799 and again in 1804 “inflammatory fever . . . raged with violence.” The Church of England gradually lost support in the bay to the Methodists. In 1794 George Smith, a Methodist preacher, visited Trinity, and by the following year he had persuaded some people of Bonavista to petition for his appointment as SPG missionary. This attempt failed, but by 1810 William Ward, a Methodist minister from England, had settled at Trinity in competition with Clinch. The latter lamented that Trinity Bay, which a few years previously had been entirely Church of England, had “become a nursery for itinerant fanatic preachers.”
Had he been just a missionary, Clinch might have enjoyed greater success as an evangelist. As it was, he performed a multiplicity of functions. By 1799 he had become a salaried judge of the surrogate court of Newfoundland, and at other times he acted as a magistrate, surveyor, and collector of customs. An active freemason, having been initiated into the Poole Lodge of Amity No. 137 in 1780, he became in 1816 a founder and the first master of the Union Lodge No.6981 of Trinity. Clinch also found the time to compile a glossary of 112 Beothuk words, many of them not previously known.
But most of his energy went into caring for the sick. It is likely that he performed one of the first vaccinations in the New World, in 1798 on his wife’s nephew Joseph Hart. His old friend Jenner had told him about the new procedure and had even sent threads of vaccine. With these, and others supplied through Jenner’s nephew George Charles Jenner, SPG missionary at Harbour Grace, Clinch was soon busy. In January 1802 he reported to Jenner, “I began by innoculating my own children and went on with this salutary work till I had innoculated 700 persons of all ages and descriptions, many opportunities soon offered at St John’s (where the smallpox was making great ravages) which offered convincing proofs of the safety of the practice to the inhabitants and servants in Trinity Bay; they saw (at first, with astonishment) that those who had gone through the Jennerian inoculation, were inoculated with the smallpox, and exposed to the infection without the least inconvenience.” Encouraged by Governor Charles Morice Pole and enthusiastically adopted by Dr John McCurdy of St John’s, the practice spread to Ferryland, Placentia, and Halifax, N.S.
Clinch had a large family; indeed, he joked with the SPG on the yearly arrival of another child. His first three sons were mentally retarded; the fourth, John, became a doctor after serving an apprenticeship to a surgeon and apothecary in Cirencester; the youngest, Joseph Hart, became an Anglican clergyman in Boston, Mass., renowned for his scholarship in Hebrew. Mary Elizabeth, the only daughter, was married in 1823 to William Bullock*, Clinch’s successor in the Trinity mission. Clinch himself died of a stroke after a long illness.
As a missionary John Clinch had little success and his religious endeavours are, perhaps justly, completely ignored by historians. As a medical man, however, he has a good claim to the title of the first Canadian vaccinator.
Dorset Record Office, D365/F7–F8. USPG, C/CAN/Nfl., 1; Journal of SPG, 26–32. William Densham and Joseph Ogle, The story of the Congregational churches of Dorset, from their foundation to the present time ([Bournemouth, Eng., 1899]). H. P. Smith, History of the Lodge of Amity No.137, Poole (Poole, Eng., 1937). J. W. Davies, “A historical note on the Reverend John Clinch, first Canadian vaccinator,” Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 102 (1970): 957–61.