Phelps, George Thomas (1820-1911)
A veteran of Berkshire Primitive Methodism
Transcription of Sketch in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by T. Graham
It may seem a far cry to the first camp meeting held in Berkshire, but we have one still with us who witnessed that gathering in 1832. We refer to Mr. G.T. Phelps, of Hungerford, whose portrait is here reproduced. Where out of Berkshire, and near to the first centre of influence, Shefford, may you still see the “Primitive” dress? The coal scuttle bonnet has quite gone. Mr. Phelps retains the single-breasted coat, velvet waistcoat, and white choker of the genuine and original pattern. In appearance he combines the early Primitive Methodist and the fine old English gentleman. Although at the advanced age of eighty-six he is alert and active. Only recently has he ceased to take regular appointments; he still preaches as health allows. A talk with him is a means of grace. One moment you laugh at some pawky story, the next a vivid description of an early revival scene moistens the eye, and you feel like dropping on your knees in the hope that the like power may fall upon you.
His first acquaintance with Primitive Methodism, then universally known by another name, came about through Thomas Russell. Mr. Russell required to walk to Salisbury to procure a preacher’s licence. He must needs pass through Hungerford, where he called at a barber’s for a shave. The barber was a kind man and asked the missionary to take tea. It was a godly home. Besides caring for his neighbour’s polls the barber kept in order the razors of the gentry for miles around. On his journeys he carried and distributed tracts in the hope of casting seed on some good soil. He and the open-air preacher at once discovered in each other kindred spirits. Shortly afterwards the barber’s home at Hungerford became the unofficial centre for the operations of the Shefford mission. The preachers lived at Shefford when they were at home. Hungerford was the centre of the circuit, and this house was the official address of the missionaries to which their letters and book parcels came.
At that time Mr. Phelps was a boy living with his uncle and assisting him in his business. Already he gave promise of that piety that has refreshed so many, for his nickname among the boys was “Godly.”
Seven or eight years after this time Mr. Phelps became a member of the Church, and the same year was called into active service. The young man was not inclined to exercise in public, judging by the method of his induction. It was his first visit to Shefford Chapel. When he declined to speak Mr. Ford said he must speak, and straightway Messrs. Obern and Bell, the two travelling preachers, forcibly hoisted him up, all the time the preachers and the people shouting “glory.” A speech was made and two were converted in the prayer meeting. A year after this he became a regular preacher. The old preachers knew what they were about when they laid hands on this young prophet, for he was destined to become a mighty man in Israel. He is the old man eloquent. To listen to him is to hear again the men who made the market places and village greens ring with their message and to understand why crowds listened spellbound to the word. The marks of his speech are those indicated by the use of the word “boldness” as applied to the apostles, which are frankness, fearlessness, force and fluency. The passion of the preacher first impresses us. As we listen we find that the intellectual element is as strong as the emotional. In the days of his strength his voice would reach the farthest hearer on a large camp field – and sometimes a little further. He has throughout his life been a reader and a thinker, and old age finds him with the open mind that can assimilate and enjoy the current thought of the day. In theology he is quite liberal.
Mr. Phelps’ official life has been very varied. He was made the circuit steward of the Shefford mission in 1848, and filled the same position in the Newbury circuit when that was made. One of his literary treasures is a beautifully bound copy of the History of the Connexion given to him by the Newbury officials when the making of the Hungerford circuit brought his more intimate relation with them to a close. How long he has been society steward of the Hungerford Church no one knows, he himself does not know! He is a prominent figure still in the district courts. He has frequently been to District Meeting, and four times has been elected delegate to Conference. Among his Connexional recollections is that of the Hull Conference in 1865.
For many years he gave himself so completely to the work of the church that he almost counted as one of the travelling preachers. Every Sunday, almost without exception, and often a good portion of the week, he would be assisting the missionaries in the extension and establishment of the churches over the large areas the circuits then covered. It seems incredible to-day that a small band of men should travel twenty-eight miles and conduct a series of revival services indoors and out on one day. As a matter of fact the days were made to overlap. In this work he came into contact with all the preachers who travelled the southern circuits. Some strange tales too, he can tell of them. In a recent conversation he said that once Richard Jukes arrived at the superintendent’s at Wootton Bassett in the middle of the night. Having gained admittance he confessed that he could not stay on the Mission (Berks.). The super (either Mr. Preston or Mr. Petty) teased the young man so unmercifully about quitting his post, that Mr. Jukes begged to be allowed to escape from the village and return before the day broke.
At Aldermaster the roughs of the village drew a cord round the group of missioners with the intention of hauling them to the pond. One of the band whipped out a knife and cut the rope. When Thomas Russell first visited Hungerford for a service Mr. Hurd brought a horse a farmer had kindly lent to help them on their way. Excitement in the street brought out the people to find Hurd leading a white horse and Russell riding its back face-to-tail and preaching as they went along. Before this, Richard Jukes had held a service, assisted by a Baptist minister. The stones flew so thick and fast that the service could not be finished.
Mr. Phelps has some good stories of early revival work. Some of these he tells with a merry twinkle of the eye. He recounts Mr. Ford’s story of his contest with the devil, and how they rolled over and over until, to put it briefly, Mr. Ford came out on the top. Another, Jacob Boulton, talking to new converts said he was “only really done once.” He was planned at a camp meeting. His donkey carried him there all right, but on the way home he refused to cross the stream. “So I just took him on my shoulders,” he said, “with his fore and hind legs in each arm, and went across singing, ‘l’m bound for the Kingdom, will you go to glory with me?’ ” The most delightful talk of the old gentleman is about “the Glory.” How much is covered by the twinkle and what parts are serious it is difficult to say. When Mrs. Dobson, of Ramsbury, was saved and her long penitence issued in conscious pardon, a brilliant light shone from her face. Two young men who scoffed were taken in by Mr. Phelps to see for themselves, and were awed. How frequently in those days “the glory came down!” It was the crowning blessing of a meeting. As we have said, Mr. Phelps attended the first camp meeting in Berkshire. It was held at Shefford in a field which rose on each side and could well accommodate the large concourse of people that came from many miles around. He remembered seeing Mr. Hurd moving among the people to induce them to enter the “prayer ring.” The day closed with a lovefeast in the half-finished chapel. The feeling was so intense that men jumped through the windows. In the prayer meeting, he avers, in which fifteen were converted, the “glory” hovered over the people and was a marvel to beholders. Shefford is a dear place to him. He says that a preacher has never been known to have a hard time in that chapel. The old place still stands. The lower part forms the chapel. Above were the apartments of the superintendent preacher, with a room scarcely large enough to hold a single bed set apart for “the young man.” A new church has just been opened.
Few roofs have sheltered more preachers of all ranks than that of Mr. Phelps at Hungerford. One room is called “the preachers’ room.” Around its walls are portraits of the pioneers. It is a sacred place and more than one young minister has there sunk upon his knees in self-abasement and prayed for the power that crowned the fathers’ labours with such signal success. Among the last words of Mrs. Phelps as she passed away eight years ago were, “Always make room for the preacher.” During the forty-eight years of their married life that had been the practice. The coming and going of the preachers was one of the factors that made the happiness of the home. But chief of course was the unfeigned piety of father and mother. Mrs. Phelps was a lady of deep spirituality and gifted in prayer. She recited Wesley’s hymns as she went about her household duties. The atmosphere of the home was such that the children grew up in the fear of the Lord and early began to work in the church. It was not a motto, but a maxim unconsciously applied, to put the “cause” first. The sons and daughters have followed closely in the parents’ footsteps. The eldest son is the Rev. T. Phelps, of Poole. Called out by the Andover circuit, adjoining his home, he has spent the thirty years of his ministry in his native district. His passionate devotion to the villages led to an eloquent and almost dramatic defence of rural Methodism in the Chester Conference, that few who were present are likely to forget. Rev. John Phelps is the pastor of the Solihull Congregational Church, Birmingham. The youngest son went out to Canada just prior to the union of the Methodist Churches there. He is an able preacher and reflects honour on the church, from which he sprung. The three daughters are wives of ministers, the fortunate brethren being the Rev. T. Whitehead, of Walsall, Rev. W. Dinning, of Newton, and Rev. T. Graham, of Southport. One son has succeeded his father in business and is associated with the Hungerford Church.
Mr. Phelps has not entirely restricted his public service to the Church. He has filled every office in the administration of the town in which he lives except that of mayor, an honour he has twice declined. When the sporting fraternity thought to appropriate the beautiful Downs adjoining the town for a racecourse, he was like one of the old prophets risen again. The victory was due largely to his contention for a high ideal of town life. After a strenuous life he now rests. He can still read out the notices in service without glasses. But his health has become much impaired during the last two or three years. His loyalty rings true as ever. His best service for the Connexion can scarcely be determined. How much the interests of the work in these Southern counties is due to his generosity, personal service, and especially to the succour given to the early labourers in the field no one can possibly tell. All help has been unstintedly given, and the service has returned in ample blessing in personal and home life.
George was baptised on 24 May 1820 at Hungerford, Berkshire. His parents were Thomas and Anne.
George was a grocer and baker.
George married Eleanor Gosling (1824-1898) in the spring of 1850 in the Marlborough Registration District. Census returns identify seven children.
- Ellen (abt1851-1922) – married Thomas Whitehead, a PM Minister, in 1883
- Thomas (1852-1924) – a PM Minister
- George (1854-1922) – a grocer
- John (1856-1954) – a Congregational minister
- Annie (b1859) – married William Dinning, a PM Minister, in 1881
- Leonard (b1861) – a Methodist minister in Canada, emigrated 1882
- Elizabeth (1863-1931) – married Thomas Graham, a PM Minister, in 1894
George died in late 1911 at Hungerford, Berkshire.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1906/985; 1912/326
Census Returns and Births, Marriages & Deaths Registers