the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

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'When I Was a Child' - autobiography of Charles Shaw
a first hand account of life as a child worker in the North Staffordshire
Potteries in the I840's


Chapter 25
Closing Incidents 

previous: Local Preachers: How I became one


Up to the time of my visit to Scotland I had rarely had the privilege of hearing much preaching, excepting from local preachers. Our church was one of those feeble ones which, but for their labours, could not have existed.

Some of these local preachers were men of mark in their sphere, and for working men, as most of them were, I have often wondered how they prepared to do what they did, considering their lack of time and the few opportunities of culture they had enjoyed. But some of them had a refreshing individuality, and in this feature they stand in contrast to the same class of men to-day. Two men stand out in my recollection as preachers of " high degree " —Dr Newton and Dr Beaumont. These celebrated men came occasionally to preach at the Wesleyan Chapel at Tunstall.

Of Dr Newton all has faded from my memory except his great presence in the pulpit, and his voice, which rolled like subdued thunder through the chapel. I have the memory of the sound, but of nothing of what was said. I have the feeling that if the voice had been " let go " it could have shaken the place where we were assembled.

Of Dr Beaumont I have a much more vivid recollection. He, too, had a fine presence, but there was the play upon his face of far more varied emotions. His voice was peculiar at times, but it was a reservoir of many intonations which gave remarkable effects to many things he said. I heard him afterwards, and it seemed sometimes when these variations of voice came as if two or three men were in the pulpit.

Jubilee Chapel, Wesley Street, Tunstall - "the Mother Church"

I remember the text the first time I heard him. " Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool," etc. I shall never forget the delivery of the words, " Thus saith the Lord," and then the marvellous change of voice in giving the following words. The first words were given in a loud tone of dominant proclamation, as if you must and should hear. The words which followed were delivered with a quiet, sustained majesty, which seemed to fill the congregation with awe, as if God Himself were in the " place," and " they knew it not" until that moment. From that moment, too, the preacher had the congregation in the hollow of his hand. I remember when I returned home I was asked what I thought of the preacher, and I instantly avowed I had never heard a preacher before. I found out afterwards, on several occasions, that Dr Beaumont captured his congregation in a few moments. 

I remember one striking occasion of this in the Wesleyan Chapel at Burslem. The words of the text were, " And when He was come into Jerusalem all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?" He asked the question of the people in the body of the chapel, then of those to his right hand in the gallery, then of those in the front of the gallery, and then of those to the left of the gallery. This was done in changing voices, and with such eagerness that they seemed to come " like a rushing mighty wind " from a moving multitude. Then there was a pause. The stillness both astonished and awed, and from that moment the congregation was as clay in the hands of the potter.

We have got beyond these oratorical triumphs now, but all is not loss. We have our gains. Those "great sermons " in delivery in those days were often "poor stuff" to read, whereas now we may have the poorest delivery, and yet pearls and gems of thought to read in quiet hours. It seems a pity the best elements of the two periods cannot be blended.

We have oratory, too, in these times—what I should call vocative oratory, a blend of blatancy and egotism, and " the people will have it so." The louder the noise and the self-inflation, the more garish the pomp and show heralding the oratorical exploitations, the larger the crowds.

We have, too, and never more so, pearls quietly thrown out, which are not only symbolic of the Kingdom of Heaven, but are of its very grace and beauty. We have a great and suggestive counsel as to where these pearls are not to be "cast," and so as long as "the fit" are "the few " the many will follow the noisy. 

With this Scotch journey before me my mind was full of expectation, but I was fortunate enough to realise more than I expected.

My first Sunday was spent in Glasgow. I failed to hear Dr Ralph Wardlaw, then one of the celebrities of that city. I heard, however, a Dr William Anderson, also a celebrity. I was specially struck with his mastery of his subject. He seemed to have it, as the saying is, at his finger ends. I was struck most, however, with the number and nicety of his divisions, and the circumstance that with each division and sub-division he took up a snuff-box which lay on the pulpit at his right hand. For the moment the preaching was suspended. The lid of the snuff-box was deliberately and gendy rapped, and as deliberately a pinch of snuff was taken with a soft hushing sound. When this was done, the theme or argument was resumed until another division came, with the deliberate details of the snuff-taking ceremony.

This was all very strange to my "Southron" ideas, and to my simple Methodist notions. Still I was not shocked, and have even the memory of a charm resting upon me from the sermon. I say from the sermon, for the service was so bald, so rigid, and the psalms sounded to me so uncouth that the service itself cast no element of grace upon my mind, I can imagine how a perfectly similar strangeness would fall upon a Highlander who should hear the hymns of a Methodist service for the first time. 

The following Sunday I was in Edinburgh. I must say nothing here of the wonder which fell upon me when I first beheld that picturesque old city with its enchanting contrast of old and new. Princes Street, with the towering heights of the old part of the city opposite, crowned by the castle, to a youth who had lived mainly among the dingy towns of the Potteries, was a thrilling marvel.

But Dr Guthrie was then in the height of his fame, and as a preacher was then the great attraction of the city. He was its most immediate and commanding attraction to me. On Sunday morning, with two friends, I was early at his kirk. But there was a momentary disappointment when I learned that his co-pastor, Dr Hanna, was the preacher. But the disappointment passed away as a light cloud when I came under the spell of the preacher. There was to me the same baldness in the service as I had experienced in Glasgow the Sunday before. But the preacher soon gripped me with his thoughtfulness and simplicity combined. These gave both inspiration and refreshment, and left upon me an unusual sense of elevation. I had never heard a sermon so well compacted and so full of suggestion, and all done with intense quietness.

My friends and I were told that Dr Guthrie would preach in the afternoon, and that if we wanted to secure seats, we must be back in half an hour after the morning service. We just took a walk into the cemetery to see Dr Chalmers's grave, eating a bun each, which one of my friends had provided. When we returned the kirkyard was full of people. Soon after the doors were opened, and we were, fortunately, able to secure good seats. The kirk was soon full, and it was full too of the hum of a great expectation. There was not the silence I had been accustomed to even in a great congregation in England. I noticed especially the free conversation which went on in what I suppose was the elders' pew, just under the pulpit.

I was very much struck by the entrance into this pew of a tall, powerful-looking man, who walked into it with his hat on, and who sat down before taking it off. He seemed to survey the great audience with interest, and seemed as if he had forgotten that he had his hat on. This gave a little shock to my Southern notions. He had, too, a walking stick which seemed big enough for a shepherd's crook. When he sat down he rested his chin on his hands, looking intently at his congregation. Then he put one of his hands into his waistcoat pocket and brought out a big snuff-box, and from this took what seemed to me a mighty pinch of snuff for each nostril. This made my first shock much deeper on account of the prominence given to the whole process.

The service was opened by Dr Hanna, and during this period the big man, who had so attracted my attention, disappeared. Soon after this I saw, with a start, this man ascending the pulpit stairs in his gown. Then for the first time I knew he was Dr Guthrie. I had conceived a slight repugnance for him as I had seen him at first, but not many words passed from his lips before all this was changed into an absorbing wonder.

He preached on Peter in prison, and gave a thrilling account of Peter's courage in standing up in the very city in which he had so recently denied his Lord. The climax of his sermon, however, came when he described Peter sleeping on the prison floor, chained between two soldiers, and the angel touching him, his chains falling off his hands. 

All this was done with such vividness, with such intensity, that all eyes were turned towards the elders' pew, to which the great preacher pointed, as if all had taken place there. As far as I could see, there was an involuntary rising from seats and craning of necks on the part of the congregation to see the living wonder the preacher's imagination had created. Then there was a falling back to the seats and a loud breathing after some moments of strong suspense. I never saw or heard anything approaching this before or since. That prison scene has lived in my mind ever since, and when I read the narative yet, it comes to me with all the vividness with which Dr Guthrie described it. 

I saw him the next day in the city with a number of children following him, taking hold of his hand, and if I had seen the angel who liberated Peter I could not have felt more of awe and of gratitude.

That week had a store of unexpected events and privileges for me. On the following evening, I think, I heard Sheridan Knowles, the dramatist, preach. I don't remember much about his sermon, except the robust earnestness with which it was delivered, but the dramatist was infinitely away from Dr Guthrie in dramatic action.

The night following, I believe, I attended a great meeting called to protest against the imprisonment of a Scotch lady, a Miss Cunningham, I think, by the Duke of Tuscany, for reading the Bible to some poor Italian peasants. I don't remember where the meeting was held, but it was in a very large hall. This was densely crowded, and the spirit of John Knox seemed to throb in every man and woman present.

It was well for the Duke of Tuscany that the thunder and lightning in that protest and in that meeting did not reach him at once. If it had, his poor throne would have gone down tumbling into contempt and confusion a few years sooner than it did. This was nearly fifty years ago. The wrath then aroused in Scotland and England by the indignity done to a Scotch lady, engaged in a work of mercy, was as terrible as it was august.

But fifty years can dissipate many things. I have lived into a time when Miss Hobhouse, engaged in an equally merciful mission, through the uprising of an abnormal party passion, has been held back from that mission by England's Government, This, too, not only without a national protest, but she has been howled at and denounced even when gently telling the story of her gracious mission. How far we are from the Duke of Tuscany's time ; yet how near the spirit of his time. Truly, Freedom may come to its own and its own receive it not. Wrongs, though modern, can be as grim and terrible as ancient ones. 

The week I spent in Edinburgh proved to be the one in which a great Peace Conference was held there in October 1853. I knew nothing of this until I got there, for newspapers were then comparatively rare, and pennies were not as plentiful as now. Moreover, I knew very little about newspapers then.

I attended several of the sessions of this Conference for two or three days. Men were there whom I have known better since than I knew before. Public life outside the Potteries was then almost unknown to me. The great event of the Conference, however, was its last meeting, held, I think, on the Thursday night. At that time rumours of war were heard, and afterwards there came the Crimean War. 

I am giving matters here as I remember them ; I have read nothing about the meeting I am going to describe, or even the Conference. I am not writing a history, but simply my own recollections. I think the meeting must have been held in the same hall where the meeting to protest against Miss Cunningham's imprisonment was held.
But there was a rare sensation for that meeting in the announcement that Admiral Sir Charles Napier was to appear as an opponent of peace proposals. 

The two other chief speakers were Richard Cobden and John Bright. I don't remember who the chairman was, but I do remember that Mr Samuel Bowly, a staunch member of the Peace Society, made a short speech. I think Mr Cobden made the first principal speech, with the lucidity and persuasiveness and restrained strenuousness I so often heard in after years. He held the meeting in a grip as strong as it was gentle, though hostile elements were present. Then the Admiral came, with all the frankness and bluffness of a sailor. He spoke with vigour and real earnestness. He stormed in his declamation, as he did afterwards with his guns at Bomarsund, and with equal futility. He had the fair play which frankness and sincerity should always command, but the great mass of those present were unconvinced. Then Mr Bright followed. He was then in his prime, in the fulness of his power, and moved evidently by a mighty inspiration. His presence would have been attractive then, if his name had been unknown. His handsome face and massive head and his voice were strong elements in his favour.

I am not going to describe what he said. That can be ascertained elsewhere. I am only going to describe the effect as I saw its living expression. A short time after he began the audience was in his hands. Those peculiar, thrilling tones of his voice, as if a soft, weird, metallic vibration were among them, soon held the people spellbound.

I heard those tones many times afterwards, and never heard them from any other speaker. Humour, argument, the play of fine sarcasm, and high and earnest pleading followed each other, until the intensity of interest seemed almost too great to bear. Then came the peroration, sublime in its restraint, but carrying a most passionate appeal for peace. Then there came a most remarkable coincidence. Just as Mr Bright's peroration excited a storm of applause the guns of the Castle went booming over the city, as if applauding the eloquent apostle of peace. The fact was, that just then the Queen and Prince Albert and the Royal Family were entering the city on their return from Balmoral. It was an incongruous coincidence. Applause for such a purpose and booming of guns. But this is typical of much that goes on every day. 

Things apparently near each other are yet separated by deep and awful gulfs. The resounding acclamations of a peace policy were followed in a few months by the roar of cannons to support a policy of war with Russia. So came the Crimean War, a war now seen to be as useless and as mistaken as it was disastrous. But the disastrousness of it lies fifty years away, though it brought the dread time when you seemed to hear the beating of the wings of the "angel of death" in almost every part of Europe. Distance, however, lends disenchantment to sorrow, and thus we can hear a great statesman of the present day say, that enormous tragedy of error was simply " putting money on the wrong horse." The language of the Turf suits now to pass over to a sort of comical limbo what was once an appalling and wasting conflict.

I am reminded again that the great protest against war was made in Edinburgh fifty years ago. Not only did it fail in its own day, but even with the useless tragedy of the Crimean War before us it has failed to keep us in the paths of peace. I have lived to see a war wildly welcomed mainly, and welcomed too, not against a great power which was clothed with the bad traditions of long hatred and villifying ignorance, as Russia was. There is the saving mercy we did not proclaim this war, but who will say it was not acclaimed as eagerly as if we had spoken the first word.

There is one thing we do proclaim, however, " an unaggressive policy " for our Empire. We want " no territory and no gold." It is somewhat remarkable to see a fair-looking avowal transmuted into what looks like lust of territory and gold, and " unaggressiveness " to show fangs as strong as those of ancient plunder.

Verily, we need to look again into "the law of liberty," to wash our eyes in its beauty and justice, as did our forefathers " in the great days of old."

"England, the lime is come when thou shouldst wean 
Thy heart from its emasculating food ; 
The truth should now be better understood, 
Old things have been unsettled ; we have seen
Fair seed-time, better harvest might have been,
But for thy trespasses...
Therefore the wise pray for thee, tho' the freight
Of thy offences be a heavy weight ;
Oh grief ! that earth's best hopes rest all with thee."



previous: Local Preachers: How I became one




Related Pages..

Jubilee Chapel, Wesley Street, Tunstall - "the Mother Church"

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