Phillipson, John : Some reminiscences of winter weather in the life of a Primitive Methodist minister

From an unpublished article written for his family, 1916

First page of John Phillipson's article for his children in the Household Annual, 1916
Englesea Brook Museum
'In the teeth of the storm to Llay', watercolour by John Phillipson to illustrate his article
Englesea Brook Museum

‘Winter Storms’

Every year, at Christmas, the Phillipson family produced a ‘Household Annual’ with articles by each member of the family.   So far five of these fascinating notebooks have been found. In 1916, this article by ‘Father’, John Phillipson, gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of a 19th century itinerant preacher.

‘There are some people who think that a minister’s life is sheltered from every stormy blast. This is not true of our church – I say this after 43 years in the full work of the ministry; indeed before coming into the full work I knew something of what comes from severe weather. In the upper reaches of Weardale (where I was born, and lived until I reached 7 years of age) often you would see snow on the hills in June. Since then I have dwelt amid Canadian lakes in the land of the maple and the pine, albeit the land of stormy blizzards and frozen lakes. I have lived in North Wales, in the counties of the north country – in Lancashire, in the plains of Cheshire, and in the heart of Yorkshire, and having large circuits to minister to, you may be sure I ought to know something of weather in its most bitter and trying conditions.

Of course in my Christmas paper in this year of 1916 (amid the world wide war … in which three of our loved ones are in active service – Harold, Dryden and Sydney) it is not my aim to give a general view of the many trying times I have had, in doing battle with wind and weather, but to tell you of three special experiences that stand out vividly in mind and memory as times of great trial and even danger – this will take me back to days when I was young and when the world was young, days that may not come again.

My ‘Jubilee’

Talking of the past reminds me that this year is the jubilee of my membership with the Primitive Methodists. It is just 50 years since, about this time of the year in Weardale, at Wearhead Chapel, I sought and found peace. Since that day, whether dim or clear, I have never lost my witness. Let me say also, that while I trust I have grown in knowledge of spiritual truth and breadth of human sympathy, yet the great principles of religion, of Divine love, and human need, of redemption through Jesus Christ, are deeper and more vital to me than they were 50 years ago.

‘In the teeth of the storm’

In 1866 I was converted and soon after came on the Local Preacher’s plan in the Westgate Circuit. I was a star to shine in the circuit with Joseph Harrison, a veteran local preacher and in our journeys together we met with the Experience. We were appointed to Rookhope on a Sunday in 1867 – what month I forget, but it was in winter time, we had a journey of six miles over the fells to this village, which lies in a hollow among the mighty hills; we had fair weather in going and had a good time with our people that day. We were made comfortable by the kind hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Fairless. We found that one of our local preachers, John Rutherford, was supplying for the Wesleyans at the same place, so we arranged to go back all three together. In the meantime the sky had become dark and leaden – the winds moaned as if laden with storm and tempest, just as we started on our homeward journey. The snow began to fall; the six miles of the way was in the face of the North Wind. At the beginning we thought little of the wind and storm and tried to beguile the way by talk – carried on at the top of our voices. My fellow workers were well worth listening to, for they were both remarkable men; Joseph Harrison, a dreamer, a teacher, was an inspiration to me; Joseph Rutherford, a truth seeker, a mystic, one that was searching in deep waters, and bringing up pearls that made his preaching so rich and helpful, but as we faced the steep hill and the sweeping snowstorm, there was no more talk; it took us all our time to do battle with the wind and drifting snow. If we had been separate and alone, the great probability was we should have perished; as it was it took us all our time to struggle through. Sometimes, after a forward move, breathless we would stop and huddle together with our backs to the wind, would try to regain our breath and a little warmth…

We got over the hills of snow in the teeth of the storm after being over 3 hours on the way – for as we got near the Wear Valley we were sheltered, and found the road more passable. I need not say what relief it was when I almost done up, more dead than alive, knocked at our door at Lane Hill. Father and Mother had thought I must have stayed all night in Rookhope, but there was some joy in my heart at the thought that if I had had to do battle with the elements I had been victor – after trial, triumph; after storm calm, and so one’s life gains in fibre and force.

‘Like sheeted ghosts’

In 1870 I left Sunderland Institute after 12 months tuition, under William Antliff. My first station was Chester – here I spent two years; we had thirty three places on the plan and you may be sure I was not a great deal at my lodgings. I was much in the open air, both in summer heat and winter cold. Here I met with my second bitter experience of wintry weather. One Sunday I was planned at Llay – about 8 miles from Chester. It was a cold, frosty morning, snow had fallen freely some days before, but the roads had been opened, and it bade fair to be a fine winter’s day. As one of the local preachers was at Rosset we were favoured with a horse and trap, Rosset being about 6 miles from Chester on the way to Llay.

We started early after dinner. I had charge of the driving department. All went well with us until we had passed down Northgate Street and Bridge Street, and crossed the wonderful bridge over the Dee, and out a mile into the open country. Then we had to face the cold fury of a winter storm; not that much snow fell, but the wind, frost laden from the Welsh Hills and from Bala Lake beat upon us, until we were like sheeted ghosts in the trap, almost ready to depart this life, but we had a spirited pony that faced the storm bravely; my companion was glad to get out at Rosset, but I had two miles more of a hill journey to get to Llay – the worst and most trying part of all the journey. I leave you to imagine what state I was in when I got to Llay, and to the kind and welcome shelter of Mrs.Tiliston’s house, but it took me over half an hour to get normal. The housekeeper took my hands and worked with them some time before I felt I had any hands at all – but I had youth and strength on my side – that and the services in a warm chapel, and the comfort of my host’s home, the storm and wind now being less. And when on the homeward journey I picked up my fellow worker at Rosset the world had taken on a brighter aspect, and when I got back to Chester I could well say of that day “Something attempted. Something done has earned a night’s repose.”

‘A rare little mare’

I now pass on a great many years until 1896. I was stationed at Buckley in North Wales. I found it a wide circuit extending from Broughton to Mold one way, and from Connahs Quay to Penyffordd the other. As there was a stable connected to the manse, I bought a little Welsh pony and trap. The pony was a rare little mare called Bessie and she had her own peculiar moods and ways, suffice it to say we travelled many thousands of miles together, in all kinds of weather, but the one night’s experience which is most vivid to me was a journey from Buckley to Mold during the first week of the New Year in 1898. United Prayer Meetings were held in Mold that week, and I was appointed to take the Tuesday night’s meeting. The day was stormy, hail, sleet and rain came down fearfully. My wife said “John don’t attempt to go, it is not fit” – but the spirit of those lines “Where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there.” But when I had yoked up and lit the lamps and made everything as snug as possible I turned my pony’s head up the main street on our four miles journey to Mold, but what a night! …

We struggled through the storm until we got past Bod Offa and the top of the Brynn, and then it seemed as if all the forces of a wild tempest beating down from the summit of the Moel Famman range were let loose upon us. The pony stopped and it took all my strength to keep her from turning round to go back home. In the meantime both lights were blown out, and it was impossible to relight – so there amid snow and sleet and rain, draggled and all but frozen, I battled with it, and in spite of all got down Mold Hill, and found myself at the door of our Society Steward, John Arrowsmith, in Mold, Bridge Street. My pony and I were in a woebegone condition, but they did all they could for us. The wind had blown the sleet up my sleeves, so that I was wet within, as well as without, but a strong cup of tea and the rubbing of hands and arms brought feeling and strength. Then Arrowsmith insisted on me going home at once and he would see after the Prayer Meeting – so I yielded, and our in-coming was much better than our out-going – for the wind was at our back and both horse and man were homeward bound – arrived at home we both had due attention and next morning were neither of us much worse for the adventure.

‘We were in a pitiable plight’

As the preachers say I must now bring my remarks to a close, but I cannot finish without bringing in one other little experience which occurred not in fulfilling any ministerial duty … but of sufficient interest to my readers. Your Mother and I were married in 1874. It was our privilege and pleasure to spend the first two years of married life in the Preston Brook Circuit for Alvanley was in this circuit, and your mother’s mother – Mrs Jepson lived there and had preaching at her house for 40 years. You may be sure it was a great joy for us to go there for a week every month, as my duties lay on that side of the circuit. We were always more than welcome – it was going home.

One Thursday in February 1875, I believe it was, your mother and I made up our minds to pay your grandmother a visit – so after dinner we made our way to Warrington Station, but found the train did not stop at Helsby, so we booked to Frodsham, making up our minds to walk the distance from Alvanley to Frodsham, over four miles. The day was wintely and cold when we started but when we faced the Alvanley Road a great change had come; a sweeping storm of wind and sleet was meeting us in the face and we were both of us feeling its effects; but we struggled on cheering and helping each other, till we got to the bottom of Alvanley Hill – when we took the field path instead of the road. Here in the fields your Mother’s courage gave way when we were in sight of home, and truly we were in a pitiable plight, especially your mother. Umbrellas were of no use – her skirts were frozen and she stopped and said “I can’t go a step further, I’m done for.” “But,” said I, “we are nearly home, there is a fire, and tea and shelter,” so half leading, half carrying her, after a painful struggle with the elements we staggered into the house like two drunken people, but we were at home and safe.

So the battle is not always to the strong nor the race to the swift, but as such as endure to the end.’

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