Brett, Alfred Bradstreet (1830-1901)
A Reminiscence of an Evangelist
Transcription of Sketch in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Robert Andrews
This tactful and flaming evangelist was one of the first-fruits of our Church at Plumstead, when it was yet in its infancy. In the year 1856 he was arrested by the street-singing of our people – at a time when the Holy Spirit was working on his heart through the anguish of bereavement – and followed them into the small chapel in Deadman’s Lane, in which the Church then worshipped. That night he fully surrendered himself to Christ, and found the peace he had longed to enjoy. For the space of forty-five years he was associated with either the Woolwich or Plumstead Circuit, and contributed much to the enlargement and consolidation of the work of God, not only at the Robert Street Chapel, of which he was an honoured member, but also in the adjacent villages of Erlth, Belvedere and East Wickham. Many things might be written respecting his sturdy and unblemished character and his unquenchable zeal for Christ’s cause, but we desire to give prominence to the magnificent service he rendered in mission work. Having heard himself “the Spirit and Bride say, Come,” he accepted the responsibility to “Let him that heareth say Come.” He was to the manner born for the fine field of service which the street-corner offers and the assemblage of men in the market place affords. Physically, he was endowed with a fine presence, a vigorous constitution and a resonant voice. As a street preacher, he was a man of singular ability and considerable aptitude. With felicity, and yet pungency, he was able to enforce the Gospel message, and oftentimes his spiritual sagacity appeared almost to savour of inspiration. He was able to deal with men on their own side of life – a passing remark, a striking poster and the occupations of his hearers, were in turn laid under contribution to convey spiritual truths. Among his fellow-labourers many a remembrance lingers of sanctified repartee, happy turns given to perplexing situations, and acute wisdom in dealing with all sorts and conditions of men.
He was attracted to Beresford Square, Woolwich, as a place affording unique opportunities on a Saturday evening to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. This popular marketing ground is situated on the fringe of the large parishes of Woolwich and Plumstead. The main gates of the Royal Arsenal are there, and extensive military barracks are not far distant. Thither crowds of men and women wend their way, some bent on pleasure, others to see if there is any new thing under the sun, whilst the greater part are occupied in finding the cheapest market for the necessaries of life. Here for nearly twenty years, undeterred by din and confusion, questionings and persecutions, he gave to men the message of salvation. It was his “extra special ” for Christ,‘ and not until absolute inability, through affliction, mastered his otherwise unconquerable spirit, did he cease his loved work. Ministers, lay helpers, and many godly women, look back with delight to those days, when, led by this dauntless hero of the Cross, the divine love was proclaimed in song and address amid the howlings of men and women maddened with drink, the captivating attractions of conjuror and acrobat, and the ceaseless clamour of the buyer and seller. The day of days will reveal all the good accomplished, but some fruit was gathered in gladdening his heart and the hearts of the faithful who laboured with him.
We cannot better illustrate the tact, holy daring and singular ability of Mr. Brett. than by the following circumstances:—
We have heard him tell with holy glee how he got a beggar to pray in the street. This wandering mendicant had solicited his alms, and, acting on the belief that every man should do something for his living, he said, ‘Well, my friend, I will give you a penny if you will repeat the Lord’s Prayer.”
This he essayed to do, but, after the first sentence, stuck fast.
“ Well,” said he, “now say it after me,” and the instructor and instructed joined together in this sacred formula of prayer, and thus the beggar got the coin.
If there was anything our friend deprecated more than another it was the quantity of cheap, vulgar and sensational literature put on the market to poison young minds; especially was he an uncompromising opponent of that class of publication known as the “penny horrible.” The sagacity and tenderness with which he warned a young errand boy are fresh in our minds. Sitting on the step of a house, with his master’s wares beside him, he was devouring with avidity some of this poisonous trash. Our friend, peering over his shoulder, at once saw his opportunity, and, with a suavity of address he could readily assume, said, “Good afternoon, my boy ”; and, as he attempted to shuffle the paper out of sight, he asked, “What have you got there?”
Question followed question as to home education and Sunday School, and then the warning thus: “My dear boy,” – at the same time pointing to a heap of refuse left by the road scavengers, – “you would not attempt to feed your stomach with those cabbage leaves and potato peelings, would you?
Now let me tell you just as that garbage is unsuitable to your body, so is the paper you are reading unsuitable to your mind and soul.” And with loving words he commended him to higher things, and especially to the Word of God.
I am indebted to his friend, Mr. A. Bastin, of Plumstead, for the following incidents:—
One Sunday afternoon we were missioning in the neighbourhood of Sun Street, Woolwich, and arrived just before closing time in the front of a beer-house known as the “Lord Whitworth.” At the close of the hymn, “ He leadeth me, O blessed thought,” Mr. Brett began to speak. About a dozen men came out, and, attracted by our presence and Brother Brett’s speaking, stayed to see and hear. He told them in his softest tones how pleased he was to see them stop, and then said, “This is an opportunity I have long waited for. You have just come out of that house. I do not frequent those houses myself, but I pass them often enough, and there is one thing about them I do not understand. On Mondays and other evenings I hear great song singing, rapping of tables and cries of ‘Encore,’ but I never hear those things on Sundays. How is this?” Then with a wonderful change of voice and manner, he asked them. “Are the songs you sing on Sunday not fit to sing on Monday? And, by-the-bye, what do you do for singing in your homes on Sunday?”
The men stood on the kerb as though they could not move. “Give your hearts to God, my friends,” he thundered. “Come with us and we will teach you songs fit for Sunday and Monday and all the days of the week, songs fit for earth and songs fit for heaven.”
When he said this I thought Brother Brett had got out of his depth for once, for I could not recall a song fit for heaven until he lifted up his mighty voice and began to sing,—
All hail the power of Jesu’s name,
Let angels prostrate fall:
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown Him Lord of all.
His heart went out to young men, as witness the following from the same friend:
Brother Walton and I were going to preach at Erith, and Brother Brett, who was following on the road, was appointed at Belvedere. It was a wonderfully fine morning, with cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine. A group of young men, six or eight in number, was standing on Lessness Heath as we passed, and, as Brother Brett came up to them, he thus addressed them: “Fine morning, young men. How beautifully the sun shines. The book I have in my hand says, ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.’ Do you know there are some people who worship the sun, and I do not wonder at it, seeing all he is to us and all that he does for us. I think I should do the same if I did not know better. You young men may not be attending a place of worship to-day, I’ll read you a piece out of this book,” and he read a part of the first chapter of the first Epistle of John, commencing, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you,” and then elevating his voice, he read on, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all,” and continued to the end of verse seven, “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth from all sin.” With another “God bless you, and give you understanding in these things,” he passed on to his appointment.
The desecration of the Lord’s Day always constrained him to utter faithful rebuke. One Sunday morning, on his way to Belvedere, he heard the sound of a hammer, and observed a mechanic repairing the fence of his garden. He drew up to the man, and the following dialogue took place:—
Mr. Brett: “Good-morning, my friend.”
Mr. Brett: “I perceive you are a carpenter.”
Mr. Brett: “I am a carpenter by trade, but am now a pattern maker in the Royal Arsenal.”
Carpenter: “Are you!”
Mr. Brett: “By-the-bye, do you know Jesus Christ was a carpenter, but I never read in the New Testament that he mended his garden fence on a Sunday morning, did you?”
And this sagacious remark was followed by an exhortation to keep holy the Day of Rest.
But he was not only swift and apt to seize an opportunity – he would sometimes create one. A few years ago, on the railway bridge at Green’s End, Woolwich, used to stand a ballad singer, who displayed on a kind of framework a copy of the songs he had to sell. With holy guile our friend ventured on a gospel message for this old song seller. He scanned the songs from end to end and from top to bottom. His dilemma was apparent to the man, and stepping up to him, he said, “Cannot you find what you want, sir?”
“No,” said he. “I cannot, but I will sing you a verse of it.” He broke forth in the song commencing, “O seek that beautiful stream,” and closed with the assurance that the songs of Zion were richer far than all the favourite ballads of the day.
The following striking circumstance we remember to have heard from the lips of the sainted Rev. John Phillips. The circumstance transpired in a railway carriage. Mr. Brett found himself in the company of betting men, who were discussing the merits and chances of certain horses about to run. As they weighed the respective merits of their favourites, he was all attention. Presently he rose to his feet, and said, “You will excuse me, gentlemen, interfering with your conversation, but I happen to he in the know, and can tell you which horse will win.“
They were instantly desirous to have the information, and, taking his Testament from his pocket, he read Revelation vi. 8, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” Said he, “That horse, gentlemen, is bound to win,”
Needless to say there was discomfiture among the men at this striking reference to scriptural verities.
It was easy for persons to dismiss Mr. Brett as straight-laced, narrow and angular, and even, as many did, misconstrue his faithful rebukes into censoriousness and chafe under his home-thrusts, but he was a man of the apostolic order whose “spirit was stirred in him when he saw” men greedily following the ways of sin, and for this reason he unceasingly sought to follow the counsel of the Apostle Jude, “Of some have compassion, making a difference; and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” He lives now in his Master’s presence, whom he so unsparingly served, for he ascended February 20th, 1901.
Alfred was baptised on 9 March 1830 at Geldston, Norfolk. His parents were James, a gardener in 1830 and later a footman (1851), and Harriet.
Census returns identify the following occupations for Alfred.
- 1851 carpenter (journeyman)
- 1861 carpenter and local preacher
- 1871 carpenter (Ry Arsenal) and local preacher
- 1881 pattern maker and Methodist local preacher
- 1891 pattern maker and local preacher
Alfred married Elizabeth Lufkin (abt1834-1856) on 20 May 1855 at Cantley, Norfolk. The death of Elizabeth is the bereavement referred to in the above sketch, that led to his conversion experience. Census returns identify one child.
- George Alfred (1856-1920) – a labourer (1881); a police sergeant (1901); police pensioner & timekeeper at restaurant
Alfred married Emma Chalker (abt 1833-1917) in early 1861 in the Greenwich Registration District. Census returns identify four children.
- William Henry (b1862) – an excise & customs supervisor (1911)
- Minnie Fenn (1865-1954) – married William Edward Hoad, a civil servant, in 1889
- Frederic Chalker (1868-1953) – a clerk (1891); an insurance broker’s clerk (1911)
- Frank Percy (1870-1955) – a baker (1911)
Alfred resided at 195 Maxey Road, Plumstead, Kent, at the time of his death.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1902/125
Census Returns and Births, Marriages & Deaths Registers