Bayliss, Charles (1793-1873)

'Ironsides': the story of an unsung hero

Son of Thunder, Rev G Middleton, 1874
Englesea Brook Museum
Son of Thunder, Rev G Middleton, 1874
Englesea Brook Museum
Son of Thunder, Rev G Middleton, 1874
Englesea Brook Museum

‘A poor man, and uncultivated’ but successful in ‘bringing souls to Jesus’, Charles Bayliss, farm labourer and local preacher, was one of the early heroes of the Primitive Methodist movement.[i]

Early Life

Charles was born in King’s Norton, then a small village, although now indistinguishable from Birmingham.[ii]  His parents attended the parish church, where his mother, Mary, was a Sunday School teacher, for which she received 2s 6d a week.  This seems a little unusual, so perhaps her teaching was not confined to Sundays.

In 1827, Kings Norton was visited by John Ride, one of the great Primitive Methodist missionaries. Charles was then ‘a notorious young man, given up entirely to all the low and intemperate habits which characterised the youth of society.’[iii]  He enjoyed bull baiting, badger baiting, and cock fighting, and was also a champion pugilist, or bare knuckle fighter, a dangerous and risky sport.

Charles worked as a boatman, hauling boats along the canals. He once got into a fight with a fellow boatman, was thrown into the canal and trapped underneath the boat. After nearly drowning, he resolved to get his revenge, and being ‘of an unconquerable will, he hurried off to the man, recommenced the fight, and well nigh killed him in the struggle.’


One morning, seeing John Ride preaching in the open air, Charles and his friend stopped to listen, but dismissed him as a fool.  The following Sunday, Charles was annoyed to find another Primitive Methodist missionary, William Chatman, preaching right outside his own door, and standing on one of his own chairs.  He rushed furiously into the house, and demanded money from his wife to buy beer. He then rushed to the door ‘and with the ferocity of a maniac’ pulled the preacher down from the chair, throwing the crowd into confusion, and ran off to the public house.

Having ordered his beer, Charles had a dramatic experience. Shaken by the realisation of how close he had come to doing the preacher real harm, as he stretched out his hand to pick up his drink he ‘was seized by the Spirit, whose thunder peals startled him’. Leaving his beer, he went back to listen to William Chatman, and ended up inviting him in to his house for some food, and then walking with him part of the way back to Birmingham.

The following week, on 21 December 1827, which was also his 34th birthday, Charles walked six miles from King’s Norton to Birmingham, to go to a lovefeast, led by Thomas Powell. Here, in a room over a blacksmith’s shop, in Hill Street, which was rented by the Primitive Methodists as a place of worship, he came to know the love of Christ.[iv]

This was part of a revival in King’s Norton, and not only was Charles converted, but 14 days later, so were his parents, John and Mary Bayliss.  Their house became the centre of a newly formed Primitive Methodist society, and preaching services were held in their home.  A class was organised, Charles became the class leader, and in just a few weeks there were 20 members.

His big arms got full swing

Although Charles was illiterate, he had a powerful voice, and only three months after his conversion his name was put on the preaching plan of the Birmingham circuit as an ‘exhorter’.

His first attempt at public speaking was at Redhill, a small village in the parish of King’s Norton. There was great excitement among the locals, curious to hear how he would get on.  Some people complained that Charles Bayliss was an awfully noisy speaker, whose voice was ‘so rough and loud that it made their heads ache’. His response was to hope he made ‘their hearts ache’ as well.[v]

One Sunday when he was preaching at Worcester, a round trip of 50 miles, he became so excited during the sermon that ‘his big arms got full swing … and knocked out both the candles, leaving all in darkness’ – which caused some confusion in the congregation![vi]

Down on your knees!

Although Charles was rough and unpolished, he was clearly an effective communicator, particularly with the very poor and uneducated.  This was recognised, and for a while he was employed by the church as a hired preacher, working for several weeks in Tunstall.  This involved not just preaching, but house to house visiting, and praying for people in their own homes.  On one occasion he went into a tailor’s shop, where several men were busy at work. When he started speaking to them they began laughing and jeering, so he said ‘Down on your knees, my lads, down on your knees!’  They were so impressed by his earnest prayers for them that they became changed characters.

In one of his preaching tours he came across a gang of poachers, armed with guns and bludgeons, with savage dogs.  Not one to be intimidated he began speaking to them about their souls, and soon had them down on their knees in the road while he pleaded with God for their conversion!

Many Sundays he walked 40 or 50 miles, preaching several times, leading class meetings and prayer meetings.  Often he would be preaching in the open air, and it was said that his voice could be heard two miles away.

The poverty he encountered is hard to imagine. In one home he visited he found the family sitting on pieces of brick covered with rags, as there was not a stick of furniture.

Rotten eggs and treacle

Charles never knew when going into a place, how he would be welcomed. About 1830, he went to Catshill, a small village near King’s Norton, where he was pelted with rotten eggs and potatoes. Undaunted he went back again, and on his third visit people started to respond.

He was also furiously assaulted at Wildmoor, where the publicans sent some rough and drunken men to drive him out of the village. Despite being beaten with sticks he carried on singing and praying. His young daughter, who was with him at the time, must have been terrified.  Without any food or shelter, a kind hearted cowman gave them a turnip to eat, and at 5 o’clock Charles went back into the village, and again began preaching in the street. This time an old lady was impressed with his message and brought them a cup of tea.  The tea and the turnip were all they had to eat all day, having walked 18 miles, preaching, singing, praying and facing physical attack.

Another place Charles visited was Bromsgrove, where again his preaching in the open air provoked opposition. This time it was the Anglican clergyman who ordered the bells to be rung to drown out his voice.  All the commotion no doubt attracted an even larger crowd, and his loud voice could still be heard, above the cries of his persecutors. On his next visit he was pulled down from the chair on which he was standing and covered in beer and treacle!

It is amazing that Charles had the courage to continue, but he did, encountering persecution at Halesowen too, where flour and treacle were thrown over him while he was preaching.  To walk 30 or 40 miles with only a scrap of bread in his pocket while preaching several times in the day was not unusual. Despite the hardships he faced, people also came to know the love of God through his preaching and praying, and new Primitive Methodist societies were formed, which made a real difference to the poor, giving them hope and something to live for and aspire to.

A glorious charge

Quinton was another place Charles visited in his missionary endeavours. Here he persuaded a local gang, known as ‘snow ballers’ because they used to pelt the preacher with snow, to go into the shed where the service was being held.  He sat them in a row on a bench, and preached his heart out to them.  In his own words:

‘I prepared my ammunition, put it in the gun, and rammed it well, and then fired; and, at the first shot, all the eight young men were smitten and fell from their seats to the floor. It was a glorious charge – eight souls knocked down at one shot, all convicted and saved.[vii]

One day he had been preaching at Wittey, and was returning home in the evening when he came to a place where the road went through a wood. Here he was ambushed by men with sticks and stones, one of the stones cutting his head badly so that he was bleeding profusely. Despite their threats that they would kill him if he ever came to the village again, Charles returned the very next week.  His bravery proved to have a powerful effect on his attackers.

Perhaps the most violent persecution he encountered was at Sow, near Coventry. Here a group of angry miners, armed with pickaxes, tied a rope round his waist and dragged him through a stream. He was lucky to escape with his life, and only did so because one of the miners felt sorry for him and intervened to stop them.

A hired preacher

Hugh Bourne required all his hired preachers to keep a journal, and extracts from these were printed in the Primitive Methodist Magazine.  Charles Bayliss was no exception, and a fascinating glimpse of his life can be found in these extracts, one of which appeared in 1833.

In July 1833, Thomas Russell, one of the greatest evangelists of the movement, and a friend of Hugh Bourne, arrived in the Birmingham circuit. He recognised that Charles had enormous gifts as a missionary, and appointed him as a hired preacher to go to Kenley, 10 miles from his home, with the hope that he would become a Primitive Methodist minister.

A letter from Thomas Russell, gives the reason why this was not to be. ‘But salaries were not in those days anything like sufficient for an increasing family … After a while our brother returned home to his friends and former employment.’

However, this did not stop Charles continuing his missionary work as a local preacher. He maintained that he didn’t believe in ‘dixenaries and ‘ologies’, but despite his rough speech, there was a ‘moral power and earnestness’  about him, and a great concern for the salvation of souls.

Loyal to his faith

Charles was a farm labourer, and on one occasion his faith brought him into conflict with the farmer he was working for at Walker’s Heath, near King’s Norton. It was harvest time, and when the labourers were asked to work on a Sunday to get the grain in while it was dry, Charles refused, quoting the Ten Commandments. He incurred the farmer’s wrath, who promptly sacked him, and declared, ‘being a Ranter would not buy him bread, but would bring him to want.’

His wife was deeply upset that he had lost his job, and very afraid what would become of them, but the very next week he was hired by another farmer, on higher wages.

‘Old Ironsides’

Although Charles was poor, he and his wife welcomed travelling preachers into their home, and he loved talking and sharing their experiences. They called him ‘Old Ironsides’, in admiration for his amazing powers of endurance, through all the hard work and suffering he had gone through to preach the gospel.

He died on 31 August 1873, at the home of his daughter Ann, and an obituary appeared in the Edgbaston and Ladywood Advertiser.  Charles Bayliss was buried on 3 September in WittonCemetery, the funeral service taken by Rev George Middleton, whose final testimony was, ‘He was a good man’.

[i] Son of Thunder: or a Life Sketch of Charles Bayliss, commonly called ‘Ironsides’, by the Rev G Middleton, 2nd ed, London and Birmingham (1874).  George Middleton was a Primitive Methodist minister (1854-1908).

[ii] According to Rev G Middleton, Charles Bayliss was born on 21 December 1793, married in his 21st year, converted to God in his 34th, moved from King’s Norton to Coventry in his 41st, and from Alderman’s Green to Birmingham in his 65th year.  However, Middleton acknowledged that as he ‘had to rely … on verbal statements for information’, some from Charles himself, and others from eye witnesses after his death, there may be some inaccuracies in names and dates.  This may be the case as he was baptised at King’s Norton in 1797, and married Maria Willmore in 1819, although his age at death in 1873 was given as 80.

[iii] Son of Thunder, p11.

[iv] The Memoir notes that the Primitive Methodist movement was only 17 years old at this time.

[v] Son of Thunder, p79.

[vi] Son of Thunder, p87.

[vii] Son of Thunder, p66.

Comments about this page

  • Since my earlier comment, I have traced Charles and his wife (with surname spelt Baylis) in the 1871 census. Please now refer to my Bayliss Family History on my website:


    By A. Michael Dancer (05/01/2016)
  • Charles Bayliss senior was my mother’s great great grandfather. He was apparently the seventh of nine children (of whom at least three died in infancy) of John Bayliss (1762-1833) and his wife Mary (1762-1838, probably nee Hobbs) of Kings Norton; his father was described as a pauper in 1790. Although Charles was baptised in Kings Norton parish church in 1797 March 26, his ages shown in the 1851 and 1861 censuses indicate he was born in 1794 or early 1795. He married Maria Willmore (1798-1864?) at Kings Norton in 1819 May 6, and they had the following children: Eliza, baptised in 1820; Charles (my great great grandfather), baptised in 1824; Caroline, baptised in 1827; Ann, baptised in 1830; and Thomas, who was born in 1840 but may have died in infancy. Charles is recorded in 1841 as an agricultural laborer at Kings Norton, in 1851 as a nail maker (his son Charles’s occupation) at Aldermans Green, Foleshill (his son’s place of residence, near Coventry), and in 1861 as a mason’s laborer living (with his wife) at the home of his daughter Ann and her husband Charles Ward (a police constable) at 2 Paradise Place, Ladywood, Birmingham. His and his daughter’s family are missing from the 1871 census. The family legend that Charles Bayliss junior was the lay preacher called “the Son of Thunder” is clearly in error. There was said to be a family bible designated as belonging to “the Son of Thunder”, but I have been unable to trace its present whereabouts. (Charles Bayliss junior predeceased his father sometime between 1855 and 1861, perhaps in 1858 at Ruabon, Denbighshire, and his widow is said to have walked afterwards with her children and a few articles of furniture all the way from Wales back to her original home near Coventry.)

    By A Michael Dancer (26/06/2012)

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