Hill, Bramwell (1897 - 1963)
A sort of walking encyclopaedia of Primitive Methodism
This obituary was found in the papers of Bramwell Hill’s sister Frances. Its author is not identified, but it probably was written by Rev Dr. Fred Fuller of St Luke’s College, Exeter and Stratton St Margaret local historian. There are examples of Bramwell Hill’s writing on this website; to find them use the search box.
Bramwell Hill was born at Stratton Park Cross Roads on 12th September 1897. He was christened William Charles Bramwell Hill in the then Primitive Methodist Chapel in Lower Stratton. The name Bramwell was after Bramwell Booth, the son of the founder of the Salvation Army. W.C.B. Hill was known as Bramwell Hill or Bram throughout his life. Although he travelled widely for preaching and speaking appointments, his permanent homes were all within a few hundred yards of his birthplace.
The house in which he was born, The Laurels, is a villa built by Thomas Colbourn, a former stalwart of Primitive Methodism in Stratton and the surrounding district. Standing close to this house is the very much altered former two storied stone building, originally a forge, later a carpenter’s shop. This building was the first to be licensed in Stratton St Margaret, by John Habgood in 1824, for the worship of “Protestant dissenters called Primitive Methodists!”
The house on the other side of Stratton Park Cross Roads where Bramwell Hill set up home with his bride, formerly Nora Barnes of an old Primitive Methodist family from Aldbourne, whom he married in 1926 was originally the home of John Habgood, one of the earliest Primitive Methodists of Stratton. This house, as was the carpenter’s shop, was visited several times by Hugh Bourne, one of the two founders of Primitive Methodism.
It is no small wonder that Bramwell Hill had Primitive Methodism in his blood. He was born into a Primitive Methodist family. His father, William Henry Hill, had been converted as a youth, mainly through George Eatwell, a Stratton blacksmith, to whom he had been apprenticed. Like St. Andrew in the new testament, W.H. Hill first converted his parents and his family. W.H. Hill’s father, Bramwell’s grandfather, was Edward Hill, a master tiler who had emigrated from Banwell, near Weston super Mare, so that he could work in the Stratton Cross Roads Brickyards.
He had married Jane Iles, a member of an old Stratton family who had past distant links with the Kembles, who three centuries before had held the manorial rights of Stratton. Her family had been owners of a few barges on the Wilts and Berks canal, and were connected with the coal trade. Other distant members of the Iles family had been non-conformist, Baptist or Independent. So it was through his maternal grandmother that Bramwell Hill was rooted in Stratton and in non-conformity. Granny Hill herself became a great supporter of Primitive Methodism, and until her death at a good old age was a great collector for missionary funds.
Bramwell Hill’s mother’s family, the Phillips also originated in Somerset. They were part of a farming community from Worle , also near Weston Super Mare, who came to farm at Studley, near Hay Lane, between Swindon and Wootton Bassett. The family had been Bible Christians, a brand of non-conformity which had much in common with Primitive Methodism. The theology was similar, both bodies allowed women to preach, and both practised open air preaching and Camp Meeting Services.
The Phillips family found their spiritual home with the Primitive Methodists of Wootton Bassett. It was not very long before they built the tiny corrugated iron Primitive Methodist chapel at Hay Lane, close to the then Hay Lane Wharf of the Wilts. and Berks. Canal. This was one of the first Primitive Methodist chapels to be licensed for marriages, and it was here that Bramwell Hill’s father, W.H. Hill, married Lucy Phillips. The families were further united by W.H. Hill’s brother, Edward, marrying Laura, Lucy Phillips’ sister. The old Wilts. and Berks. Canal made an almost direct communication between the farm at Studley and Stratton Park Cross Roads, by barge for most of the year and by skating when the canal was frozen.
Bramwell Hill as a child had the family timber yard and sawmills at Stratton Park Cross Roads as his early playground, with visits to relatives, to Hay Lane, and later to the Wesleyan Chapel in Percy Street, Rodbourne, where his aunt, Mrs Bessie Wise, was active.
His education was at the Board Infant School under Governess “Gubby” Vowles, and then at the National (Church) School in Swindon Road, Stratton, where “Gaffer” Gilbert was Master. Sundays evolved around the Lower Stratton Primitive Methodist chapel, which had a very flourishing Sunday School, Band of Hope, Camp Meetings and School Treats at that time.
When he left school at 14, Bramwell worked in his father’s business as a blacksmith’s helper and at the same time taught himself signwriting. He was soon able to paint and line the various waggons which came to be repaired. Many signs in the village were painted by him, including one over his father’s blacksmith’s shop which proclaimed that the business had been established in 1798 and a large proclamation in red and white, which for years hung high in the Methodist chapel -“Sing unto the Lord”.
He was converted and began preaching at the age of sixteen. When the was came a year or so later, he was a member of a Mission Band which more or less took over the services at the small Primitive Methodist chapel at Bishopstone, a small downland village some miles away. His father, when a boy, had ‘lead’ the horses and waggon conveying the bricks from Stratton Brickyard to Bishopstone for the building of this chapel. Towards the end of the war, when ministers were scarce, he was appointed to administer the country circuit of Chinnor, Oxfordshire, as “lay superintendent”.
As a youth, Bramwell played football and formed a club under the name of Stratton Park. His main contribution to this club was to organise its fixtures and to act as Secretary. His great love was cricket and he played for and was Captain of Stratton Prims Cricket Club for years. When this club, which was attached to the Primitive Methodist Church folded up, he played with Stratton Reading Room Cricket Club.
It was when the Great War was on that he decided to do some freelance sports reporting for the local newspaper, the Swindon Evening Advertiser, the North Wilts Herald and the Football Pink. He continued so to report almost to the end of his life and had a ticket for the press box at the County Ground, Swindon. For many years he reported on football and cricket, including a long spell when he reported for the Daily Express.
He was asked to report general news, and for a long time was a reporter for the North Wilts Herald and other Wiltshire newspapers, and he also supplied information to the B.B.C. West of England radio news service. For the North Wilts Herald he had a weekly column called “Church Causerie” into which went news and views and all denominations. At the same time he began writing general articles for newspapers and magazines on a variety of subjects, religious, historical, sporting and temperance. He had mastered the art of using a camera, and the articles and items were frequently illustrated with his own photographs. Although his father was a good shorthand writer, Bramwell never mastered the art, and all his articles and reporting was done in a personal abbreviated long-hand which he developed.
Immediately after the War, Bramwell Hill began to accept preaching engagements outside the Swindon Primitive Methodist Circuit, firstly in the adjoining area, such as Banbury (Oxon), Stewkley (Bucks), Hurstbourne Tarrant and Andover (Hants). It was the wide travelling necessary to meet these engagements that made him resign as Circuit Steward of the Swindon Primitive Methodist First Circuit. It was not long before he was further afield, Doncaster, Scunthorpe, Melton Mowbray, Sheffield, Radstock and indeed all over the Primitive Methodist Connexion. Sometimes he was billed for a week’s mission, and many places invited him back year after year for such services as Chapel or Sunday School Anniversaries.
It was not only the Primitive Methodist Connexion (and the Methodist Church after re-union in 1932) but other free-church denominations which welcomed Bramwell Hill as a preacher. He was at home in pulpits of the Moravian, Baptist, Congregational and Countess of Huntingdon Connexion’s Churches. Occasionally he preached by request at special Anglican services.
There was a stage when Bramwell Hill thought of the Primitive Methodist ministry, but ill-health prevented any real progress. At a later date, he was invited to consider the ministry of the Moravian Church.
After their marriage, Bramwell and Nora Hill lived at Stratton Park Post Office and General Stores. Mrs Hill ran the shop, Bramwell carried on his reporting, journalism and preachment preparation from his “den” in the house. In addition to his writing and preaching, Bramwell Hill found time to serve for periods in local government, at district council and parish level, he was sometime Chairman of the Stratton St Margaret Parish Council. Each year in the 1930’s until the War, he organised the Stratton section of the Swindon Evening Advertiser “Poor Kiddies Outing”. This involved collecting the large numbers of children for a day at Weymouth, the issuing of tickets, organising of buses and finally accompanying the children on the special train.
Bramwell was one of the few men on the official panel of the Women’s Institutes. He lectured in Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset and Shropshire. He had a good library and amongst his books were those of Alfred Williams, autographed by the author for his friend. He was quite an expert on hymnology, and wrote some hymns himself. He wrote up local Methodist history for Synod Handbooks and collected old circuit plans and other souvenirs of past days.
His other collection was one of old farm stones, pump basins, staddle stones, even the old stone doorstep of the first Primitive Methodist chapel in Stratton. He knew the stories behind all his exhibits, as he did of his collection of farm vehicle wheels, carriage lanterns and various collections of things appertaining to the Wesley family.
Bramwell was most happy when visiting and talking to people. and met many in his travels. He met almost every minister and leading layman of the old Primitive Methodist Connexion, but was also completely at home with obscure worthies, who he called “Village Valiants”. Much of the substance of his conversation was never recorded properly, Bramwell tended to carry so much in his own memory.
Although he preached dozens of sermons and gave dozens of talks, most were prepared for the specific occasion, although frameworks and anecdotes were used over and over again. There was next to nothing on paper of these sermons and talks: hardly any notes are extant, although he had vast quantities of newspaper and magazine cuttings and not a few interesting photographs of the village of Stratton as it has been at different times over the last century.
After the early death of his wife in 1947, Bramwell Hill stayed on in Stratton Park Post Office until it was demolished to make Stratton Park Cross Roads safer. He then moved to a new bungalow a couple of hundred yards along the Oxford Road towards Swindon, built on a part of the old Cross Roads Brickworks. He named his home Tegula – Latin for tiles – his father, a master tiler, had worked on the site of his bungalow.
Bramwell attempted some sort of sort out of his many papers, but he was not really interested in office work, and his filing system was poor. His method of storing was worse, and much has been lost through dampness. He still continued to travel for preaching and speaking, although during the last few years of his life he did not enjoy particularly good health. It was on a preaching engagement in Stow on the Wold that he caught a chill, which caused his death on 6th February 1963. His funeral service in the packed Church at Lower Stratton was conducted by two Methodist ministers, an Anglican priest and a Methodist lay preacher.
Bramwell Hill was a sort of walking encyclopaedia of Primitive Methodism. He seemed to have his religious roots in a kind of Puritan Methodism, and the simplicity of the early “Ranters” attracted him and probably influenced him.