Petticrew, Alexander (1819-1900)
The Billy Bray of Cullercoats
Transcription of Sketch in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Rev. S. Horton
In the grey light of an early Sabbath morning, upwards of ten years ago, an old man might have been seen standing in the middle of a street of the picturesque village of Cullercoats, and in a loud voice, warning the inhabitants to flee from the wrath to come. He spoke with all the earnestness and directness of one of the old Hebrew prophets, and many a one awakened out of a late slumber must have had a serious moment as they listened to his words. Having delivered his message, he moved on to the next street, and there repeated it until he had compassed the whole of the village. There was something prophet-like in his appearance; his tall, lithe frame, crowned with a massive head, and strong plastic face added to the impressiveness of his message. Like another Jonah, warning Nineveh, he proclaimed the Word of the Lord in a voice that was loud and clear as a trumpet’s blast. This man was one I deem it a privilege to have called friend. Alec Petticrew – the Billy Bray of Cullercoats. He was out thus early on the Sabbath morning in performance of a self-imposed vow. For some days he had been suffering from rheumatic pains. Alec had the simple faith of a child, the gift George Müller possessed in such an eminent degree – and he believed in praying about everything. And he had told the Lord that “if He would take the pains away, he would go round the village and warn all the people living there to prepare for death and the Judgment.” The pains went and the vow was fulfilled.
That vow was indicative of the man. To judge him by the ordinary standards of practical, matter-of-fact life would be to misjudge him. He did many things that would not commend themselves to the man who makes reason his guide, and who does not recognise that faith has paths of her own.
Alec was born at Old Hartley, Northumberland, on the 12th of February, 1819. His parents seem to have been religious, and the atmosphere of the home such as to encourage the growth of the spiritual instincts of the children. For there was a brother and sister in the miner’s cottage, and as we can well believe, times were sometimes very hard, and bread difficult to procure, for the days of Trades’ Union wages were not yet. Thomas, the brother, was for many years a member of our Church, and was of quite a different type from Alec, whose marked individuality, and love of pleasure, soon led him into questionable paths. He sowed his wild oats with two hands earnestly, as he did everything else, and was often found at the public-house with his violin amusing and entertaining the company. His great regret in after years was that life’s morning was thus wasted, and that he had robbed the Lord of the brightness of his youth. But the promise, “I will restore unto you the years the locusts have eaten,” was surely fulfilled in his case, for when he was converted he served the Lord in the same whole-hearted fashion. This happy event occurred when he was twenty-five years of age. ln his own graphic phraseology, “The Lord knocked the devil out of him; made a new man of him, and set his face towards the skies.” So far as can be gathered, he was first led to think seriously by an incident related by his father. A young woman had fallen into a trance, and while in that condition had seen, so she related, two persons die. When their souls left their bodies one went to the abode of the blessed, and the other to the place of the lost. Whatever may be thought of the incident itself, the idea of that lost soul, wending its sorrowful way to the caverns of despair, haunted the imaginative mind of Alec, and caused him to consider his own latter end. A few words from the Rev. Mr. Calvert deepened the conviction that he was on the wrong way, and in 1844, at an open-air service at Briar Dene, he was converted. It was no gradual change with him, but as he was wont to say, “It came like an electric shock, only quicker.” Confession followed conversion, for Alec had none of the shame-facedness which hides God’s work in the soul. He told everywhere he went that “he was saved.” It is said that the average Englishman would “rather he caught stealing than saying his prayers,” but he neither understood nor sympathised with this extreme reticence in Divine things. “ Go and tell what great things the Lord has done for thee,” was a command he most cheerfully obeyed. “Who is you man? asked a stranger one day at a Northumbrian colliery, pointing to it figure kneeling against the wall. Something had gone wrong with the gear, and the men were sitting round waiting to go down, and many of them were engaged in card-playing. “ Oh! it’s Alec Petticrew,” said one of those addressed. “ He is saying his prayers. He is always like that if we have to wait.” The moments were too precious to be wasted, and as he would sometimes say, “If men are not ashamed of card-playing, why should I be ashamed of praying? My Master is better than theirs.” Few Christians ever lived more in the spirit of the threefold injunction, “Rejoice evermore; Pray without ceasing; In everything give thanks.” Mr. John Parker, a well-known evangelist in the North of England, relates how, when he was a boy, Alec stayed one night at his father’s house and shared his bed. They had not been long asleep before the boy was awakened by Alec calling upon him to get up and pray. This was repeated several times through the night, and John felt before morning that he would prefer a bed-fellow who practised his devotions at more seasonable hours. But prayer was his vital breath. Anywhere, everywhere, he found a way to the Throne of Grace. He had a peculiar fancy for climbing trees for the purpose of praying; the origin of which it would be interesting to know. When living at Cramlington he would frequently go out at night into the Bedlington woods, and then climb a tree, and remain in prayer for hours amidst the branches. Whether this was for securing privacy, or from a greater sense of security, I cannot tell. Once when some of the North Shields preachers were returning home from an appointment they heard a great noise ahead of them, and they wondered from whence it proceeded, as they could see no one. When near enough to locate the sound they found that it proceeded from a tree whose branches covered the way. On getting under it they perceived Alec amid the branches praying with all his might. On calling him down they wanted to know why he got up there to pray. “Because it is nearer heaven,” was the prompt retort. He then walked along with them, and they had not proceeded far ere he proposed that they should have a prayer meeting, and before any objection could he raised he was on his knees and pleading with heaven. The place was very unsuitable, for just at that spot there was a good deal of mud, but he waited not to consider such matters. To be allowed to pray he considered the Christian’s greatest privilege, as well as duty, and was never to be neglected or deferred when the soul was in the mood for it. He lived in a back street in Cullercoats, and the door of a beer shop opened into the same yard. He was often stirred into earnest prayer for the souls of those whom he saw drinking, and many a one has been made to feel very uncomfortable at the ale-bench by hearing Alec’s prayers going up to heaven on his behalf. One day when one of the ministers visited him he was sitting outside, mournfully watching the men at their cups. After a few moments’ conversation, he pointed to the little group of boozers, and said, “Down on your knees, sir, and clear your soul of their blood.” And there, in the open yard, the two knelt and prayed together while the men, not wholly indifferent to what was going on, listened. All this sprang from a very keen sense of his responsibility to God for the welfare of others. I never met a man who had such a strong abiding sense of duty towards the unsaved as he had. He carried the burden of souls, and had caught the spirit of his Master in the passion he had to save some. Heaven and Hell were realities with him; he never spoke as one who but half believed.
But not only was he prayerful, but praiseful as well. His religion shone in his face. Payson declared that, “If men only knew the honour and glory that awaited them in Christ, they would go about the streets crying out, ‘I am a Christian!’ ‘I am a Christian!’ that others might rejoice with them in the blessedness of which they were so soon to partake.” Alec did this always; his religion boiled up in him and bubbled over in fervent ejaculation, in song, and in prayer. His emotional nature sometimes expressed itself in violent forms. I have seen him suddenly spring into the air in the midst of a service, four or five feet high, and then dance for joy. David danced before the Lord, and in this he always found his justification. His “Hallelujahs” were something to remember once you heard them. They were like the explosion of a cannon. Many a time when preaching I have been greatly startled when Alec has given one of his full-throated shouts, and I have seen members of the congregation jump as though they had been shot. It came without warning, and rang through the building with a startling suddenness. Poverty, pain, bereavement, all alike failed to destroy the joy of his religious life. I called to see him one day in his old age, and found him penniless, with a foodless cupboard, but he was playing his violin, and singing with all the joyousness and freedom from anxiety of the lark, for he had told his Heavenly Father about it, and was just waiting for Him to send supplies. He had the faith that breaks the teeth of adversity with the promises of God, and somehow his needs all seemed to be supplied.
Soon after his conversion he came to the conclusion that some of God’s children enjoyed something that he did not possess, and that he had not got all that blessing of soul that was his privilege to possess. He became convinced that the will of God was not only his salvation, but his sanctification as well. He therefore set himself earnestly to seek this second blessing. He says, “There was a place under the Cullercoats banks where I occasionally retired to pray, and one day when I was praying for the baptism of power, the Almighty rent the heavens, and the glory struck my head and went through my whole body, and levelled me on the rocks, where I lay for some time like a dead man. Then the peace of God passing understanding filled my soul, the body of sin was destroyed, and henceforth I was Christ’s only.” Then came also power for service, and a gracious willinghood to do the Lord’s will and work. Whatever may be thought of this dramatic experience as related in his own words, there is no doubt that he did enjoy a greater measure of spiritual blessedness, and that into his veins there was poured the new wine of a diviner life. The cave under the banks washed by the waves of the Northumbrian Sea was his place of transfiguration, his Bethel, for there he met with God. About the year 1850 he appears to have gone to live at West Cramlington, and obtained employment at the pit. Joining the Primitive Methodist Church there he was put on the plan and commenced to preach. He was associated with two other stalwart North Country Methodists whose names were at one time household words from the Tweed to the Wear, Thomas Wandlass and James Barrass. The presence of these three at a Camp Meeting ensured its success. Wandlass had a rich store of quaint sayings, he coined them indeed as he needed them. His sermon on The Prodigal Son is still talked of around the fireside of many a miner’s cottage in the counties of Northumberland and Durham. Barrass, perhaps, had not the creative power of his comrade, but he was a notable man, powerful in speech and mighty in prayer. The youngest recruit, Petticrew, had a quick receptive nature, an original mind, and more passion and fire than either of the others. It is a great pity that no attempt has been made to gather up the history that gathers round these men. They were among the makers of Primitive Methodism, and deserve to live in the hagiography of their Church. The best to be found in Methodism is not in its Conferences, where often deadly dulness sits enthroned, and the official is more in evidence than the saint, but in its cottage-homes. We have seen godliness in drab, and are by no means inclined to indulge in cheap sneers at it. The old-fashioned Methodist, who, to use his own phrase, lived by faith and walked by rule – wh0o believed in the class meeting and the prayer meeting as the best means of cultivating the spiritual life – whose library consisted of the Bible, the Hymn Book and “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and who brought every thought and action to the test of the written Word of God, will soon be as extinct as the Megatherium or the Plesiosaurus. Our modem church-life does not leave the same room for the play of individuality as in former times. Certain it is that we look in vain among the younger generation for men of the Wandlass type. We have far more education and refinement, but far less originality.
Wherever Alec went there was soon a stir. His enthusiasm sometimes carried him to excess, and often he indulged in extravagances of words and actions that were soon reported all over the country-side, and which brought him conflict with the officials of the circuit. Once when planned at New Hartley, where it was difficult to get a congregation, after partaking of tea he went out without saying a word to anybody, and climbed up on a hedge. Then, pulling off his coat and turning it inside out, he put it on again. Soon a crowd gathered wondering what the strange man was doing. Then he commenced to sing, and marching down to the chapel, he was followed by the crowd, which soon filled the place. The service that followed was a very remarkable one, and about a dozen persons that night decided for Christ.
A delightful anachronism in Wandlass’ sermon on the Prodigal was that when the old father saw his son returning, he said to his wife, “He’s coming, hinney! He’s coming! Put on the kettle and have a cup of tea ready.” A North Country welcome would be nothing without the cup of tea, and most vividly did it bring home to the minds of the hearers the warm homeliness of the welcome. In like manner Alec, when preaching on the Rich Man and Lazarus, went into a minute description of the luxurious fare of the former, including roast beef and currant dumplings for dinner, and spice loaf at tea time. This was made the ground for a charge being preferred against him at the Quarterly Meeting, and a resolution was passed that he be no longer allowed to preach at any of the places on the circuit.
But Alec heeded not the mandate of the Ecclesiastical Court. He held his commission to preach, he believed, from a higher authority, and for the rest they could not silence his tongue. The story runs, that the very next Sunday night after being dropped from the plan, directly after tea he was impressed that he ought to go to Benton Square, a little mining hamlet on the road from Shields to Newcastle. So off he set, to find when he got there the congregation waiting, but no preacher had turned up. So, without saying anything to anybody, he marched into the vacant pulpit and commenced the service. He preached mightily that night, and a revival broke out which lasted many weeks. Sunday after Sunday, following impressions of this sort, he went from place to place, either to find the preacher had neglected his appointment, or else, directly he entered, inviting him to take the service, It is a matter of history that he preached oftener that Quarter than any other man on the plan, and saw more conversions than perhaps all the others put together. The seal of God was so manifestly on his work, that in spite of his extravagances, the Quarterly Meeting rescinded the Minute prohibiting him from preaching, and he again did his work in the full odour of sanctity. While at Cramlington he got the impression that he ought to visit every house on the Colliery and speak to the people personally about their soul. Following this up he went, missing neither rich nor poor, and it is believed much good was done by his faithful words.
In the year 1860, or thereabout, he removed to Ryhope and rendered valuable assistance to the Rev. W. Gelley, under whose labours a most remarkable revival broke out. Alec was here in his element. The story of that revival would stir our hearts in these days of common, prosaic experiences, when conversions come so seldom, and the cry of the penitent no longer is heard in our sanctuaries.
From Ryhope he removed to Blyth. Here, for some reason, he for a time severed his connection with the Methodists, and joined the Salvation Army, and after a while commenced a mission of his own. But again he removed to Cullercoats, and once more joined the Church of his early choice. In the circuit there were many who were the converts of his youthful preaching days, notably Mr. John Joplin and Mr. John Barnard, both of them stalwart men of fine powers and great usefulness.
I met him first at a camp meeting at North Shields. In the lovefeast at night he gave his experience, and at the end of it commenced to dance. In the after-meeting he prayed. It was a remarkable prayer. It seemed to lift the lagging meeting into a new atmosphere; it was like a breath of heaven. He was short; in all his exercises. He believed in short prayers and sermons. Once at the commencement of some special services I planned him at Saville Street. On my way home I met him after the service. “You will have no revival there,” he said, “they pray over long.” On another occasion, when conducting a lovefeast, one man was wandering off in a long dissertation about his mother, when Alec jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “Finish it in heaven, my brother, finish it in heaven! Now the next!”
He had a great faith in the old Methodist doctrines, and clung tenaciously to the old methods of presenting them. He had made a special study of the doctrine of the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was extremely sensitive to the slightest departure from what he considered the orthodox view. But his method of dealing with those whom he believed were in error on doctrinal matters was very different from that of the conventional heresy-hunter. Believing that all light comes by the gift of the Holy Ghost, he set himself strenuously to pray for those he thought were intellectually gone astray. One morning he called on me in a very perturbed condition. On the Sabbath a popular, young, local preacher had occupied the Cullercoats’ pulpit, in whom Alec was deeply interested. But during the sermon there had been a statement of doctrine that the old man thought dangerously new. He had prayed for many hours during the night for the young preacher, and then came round to ask that I would join him in prayer, so that his young friend might be saved from going astray. Directly he had stated the case he was down on his knees. He had a habit when praying of hitting with the palm of his hand whatever was before him with great violence. In this case he commenced beating the preacher’s best arm-chair, which suffered greatly from his vigorous blows. He prayed with great fervour at the top of his voice, and my wife who was upstairs ran down in great alarm, wondering what had happened. Opening the parlour-door, she was surprised to see Alec on his knees, beating the seat of the chair, and she began to tremble for the circuit furniture. Fortunately it was soon over, and he rose from his knees and greeted her with a loud “Hallelujah,” and a short dance on the carpet.
On one occasion I was conducting a Special Mission at Cullercoats, and Alec attended every night, and his prayers were mighty. One night the meeting got, as he would say, “on fire.” He was praying and beating the form before him when, with a loud shout of “Glory!” he sprang several feet into the air. On alighting, his foot slipped, for he had a weak ankle, and he fell on the top of a burly fisherman. He in his turn knocked down the next man, and he the next, until the whole row was lying on a heap. Alec continued shouting, “Glory!” and hitting with his hands as before, only now he was battering the head of the man beneath him. “Glory!” he shouted, “the Lord will level them! The Lord will level them!” “Stop!” I cried, “Alec. It seems to me you are not waiting for the Lord to level them. You are doing it yourself.” On another occasion, when I was preaching, he sprang up in like manner and then fell full length, his head striking the floor with a thud that alarmed me. For a few seconds he lay quite still, and then as some of the congregation went to assist him, he rose and exclaimed, “Bless the Lord, He will not let us be killed yet.” But these extravagances were but seldom; the simple, earnest, faithful witnessing for Christ was continual. He was always and everywhere a saint. He not only served God, but, to use the words of an old Catechism, “he enjoyed Him.” Few men could say that they have seen as many of their prayers answered as Alec. The reason for this may be found in a characteristic expression which burst from him in a prayer meeting one night. Somebody was praying “that the Lord would increase his faith.” “Let them pray for faith that want it,” said Alec, “l can believe for owt,” (anything). He was indeed a man of faith. His arguments were God’s promises; his resources the unfailing loving-kindness of the Heavenly Father.
Some years before his death he lost his wife, and life would have been a very lonely thing but for his constant communion with Heaven. As it was he missed her much, and there were times when he longed to be gone. His last years were also darkened by poverty. When he got beyond work he had mainly to depend upon the benevolence of his friends. Mr. Joplin, and others of his converts, never forgot the debt they owed to him, and did their utmost to brighten his lot. The Necessitous Local Preachers’ Fund also assisted him. The Connexion did a very just thing when it commenced that Fund, for it is only repaying back in many cases services that have been without price. The pity is that the Fund is not more liberally supported.
When the Rev. R.S. Blair, with his usual generous feeling for the aged and helpless, formulated a scheme some time ago to provide a home for worn-out local preachers somewhere in the South, Alec was communicated with. But while appreciating to the full the kindly feeling that made the offer, very pathetically he wrote, “That he would like to end his days amang his ain people.” The folk of Cullercoats were dear to his heart, and so he stayed on in the cottage in the backyard till the end came. But he always spoke of this offer with great feeling, and of Mr. Blair as the Gude man fra’ Lundun.”
It was very characteristic of him that whenever help was sent him he always used it for the purpose for which it was given, no matter how much he might need it in other ways. On one occasion he prayed for a fiddle, for he took every want to God. Shortly after a friend called and gave him ten shillings. This he believed was the answer to his prayers, and though he had not a penny in the world to buy bread, he forthwith spent it on buying the fiddle. He thus kept strict account with Heaven. Childlike in his simplicity, he expected always the answer to come in exactly the form he prayed for it, and on one occasion, when praying for a cap, he told the Lord that It was a cap; and not a hat, that he wanted; for he, a little while before, had asked for a pair of shoes and a pair of boots had, been sent instead.
His death came after a short illness and was a great shock to all his old friends. About a week before was the General Election, and he went to the polling-booth to vote. He said to Mr. John Jefferson, “I think the Lord Jesus would vote Liberal this time, John, eh?” And he went and did as he believed his Lord would have done. A day or two after he was smitten down, and the end soon came. His last words were, “Doon to death, and up ta glory,” and then, “Come, Lord Jesus! ” As the silent wave breaks on the shore on which so many times he walked holding communion with his God, so he passed to his reward. His religious life was one long passion for souls. Had he been an educated man the world would have heard of him as a great evangelist, as it was he did his work manfully and fell asleep. To me his memory will always be an inspiration. Others may laugh at his oddities, I can only wonder at his goodness.
A memorial service was held in the new and beautiful sanctuary that has recently been erected at Cullercoats, and the building was crowded. Mr. J.H. Joplin and Mr. T. Nightengale were the preachers, and the service was one to be for ever remembered by those privileged to be present. He sleeps within sound of the great sea, side by side with man a brave fisherman – comrades of past years – until the great morning of the resurrection. But the sweet sanctity of his life remains. He has again taught us the lesson that he “who would be great in the Kingdom of Heaven must become as a little child.”
Alec was baptised on 10 April 1819 at Earsdon, Northumberland. He was born at Hartley, Northumberland to parents Stephen and Mary.
Alec worked as a coal miner.
He married Ann Story (b1819) in the spring of 1841 in the Tynemouth Registration District. Census returns identify six children.
- Ann (b abt1842) – married Thomas Robson in 1864
- John (1844-1891) – a coal miner
- Mary (b1848)
- Francis (1850-1918) – a coal trimmer (1911)
- Stephen (1856-1985) – a coal miner
- Charles (1861-1940) – a coal miner
Alec died in late 1900 at Cullercoats, Northumberland.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1901/212
Census Returns and Births, Marriages & Deaths Registers