Wheaton Aston: Worthies of Wheaton Aston, Staffordshire
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Albert A. Birchenough
If the man who causes two blades of grass to grow in the meadows where only a solitary one grew before is a benefactor of humanity, how much more are the men who are successful in transforming a moral wilderness into a paradise of God. In Wheaton or “wicked” Aston as it was formerly termed, such a change was largely produced in the inhabitants by the powerful preaching of the Primitive Methodists and the leavening influences of the transformed lives that the converts exhibited before the world.
Wheaton Aston is a small, compact out-of-the-world agricultural village of some four to five hundred inhabitants. It is situated about three miles from the historic mansion of Boscobel, where fugitive King Charles, after his defeat at Worcester, was befriended by the Penderels, and where he hid from the Parliamentarians in the wide-spreading branches of the famous oak tree. It is ten miles distant from the county town of Stafford and over five miles away from the nearest railway station.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, and until the coming of the Primitive Methodists, the inhabitants of Wheaton Aston were steeped in ignorance and vice. Drunken-ness, immorality, and brutality prevailed to an alarming degree. The people were fond of practical joking, which caused great personal annoyance; such as the removal of farmers’ cattle or pigs, and driving them in the silence of the night to a field or lane some four or six miles away; the stripping of little children and hiding their clothes behind a hedge, and allowing them to go home clad in the original suit in which they were born. Rustic hooliganism prevailed to such an extent that young people, and especially unprotected females were afraid to venture out in the village streets after dark. It was the rendezvous of a gang of village robbers ,who, during the darkness of the night plundered the solitary farms for miles around, and brought home their spoils of stolen cheeses, hams, sides of bacon, and other commodities in a cart with muffled wheels. On the Sabbath hundreds of miners came from the Cannock coalfield and spent the hours of the sacred day in indulging in cock-fighting, bull, bear, and badger baiting, and other brutal sports on the village green, in which the inhabitants also greatly delighted. In those so-called “good old times,” prior to the early closing movement, the village public-houses were kept open all through the hours of the night. Drinking, fighting, and lewdness turned the place into a noisy pandemonium, and even the village constables were afraid to interfere with the rioters. These vicious pastimes, along with the general wickedness of the villagers secured for the place a bad name, and for miles around it was generally known as “wicked” Aston.
At that time the village could boast of its Established Church and its Zion Chapel. Few of the parishioners, however, attended the Anglican services, which were cold and lifeless. The Congregational or Zion Chapel, built in 1814 – the year before Waterloo – was practically deserted. The Rev. Mr. Macdonald, a returned missionary from the foreign field who had retired from active service and had settled in the village, was regarded as the pastor of Zion. A respectable farmer named Tolfree, from whom the Rev. James Tolfree Parr derives his second Christian name, was the leading official, and assisted his aged minister by announcing the hymns. Mr. Macdonald had formed the habit of preaching long, prosy discourses, which were not -appreciated by the people, and consequently the congregation gradually decreased until the chapel was nearly emptied of its usual worshippers. The reverend gentleman became greatly annoyed with the aspect of the empty pews, and one Sunday evening, at the close of his usual lengthy address, he stated that as the attendance was so meagre, and the people were so unappreciative he would never preach in that chapel again. As soon as Mr Macdonald had sat down, Mr Tolfree, who sat in the reading-desk at a lower level than the pulpit, and who had heard the anaethema of his venerable pastor, instantly rose., and significantly said: “Let us sing together ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.‘ ”
About the beginning of the Victorian era Primitive Methodism gained a permanent foothold in the village. Through the earnest preaching of the Gospel a number of men and women were genuinely converted, whose sons and daughters, along with the children of a later generation, are in church fellowship with us to-day. The more prominent families of the great spiritual awakening of sixty to seventy years ago included the Baileys, the Peakes, and the Weates. The early preachers were cruelly treated by the inhabitants. While faithfully delivering the word of God they were pelted with stones, rotten eggs, and filth of every description, and their clothing was besmeared. The new converts were subjected to many annoyances. After dark their doors and windows were coated with road-scrapings and sludge. Although they were persecuted and boycotted they “overcame evil with good.”
Mr. James Bailey, of Wheaton Aston Corn Mill, who also followed the occupation of village wheelwright, was one of the first converts. One Sabbath morning while out for a day’s carousal, and accompanied by his dogs, he listened to one of the ministers of the far-stretching Wrockwardine Wood Circuit as he faithfully delivered the message of mercy in the open air. Mr. Bailey was conscience-stricken, and determined to lead a changed life. A few Sabbaths later a preacher from the same Salopian Circuit delivered the “good tidings” of salvation upon Bailey’s native village green. At the close of the service he and his wife invited the man of God to accept their hospitality. After conversion James Bailey became the factotum of the infant society, and the Mill House was the Obed-Edom for the newly-formed church. As the preachers frequently stayed from Saturday evening until Monday morning, he fitted up a small bedroom as a “prophet’s chamber,” which was furnished with bed, chair, and candlestick. After living to a good old age he died through receiving a chill while riding in an open conveyance a distance of over twenty miles in windy weather on His Masters business.
The Rev. Joseph Harper served his apprenticeship with the Baileys, and was converted in his master’s kitchen. Having experienced a change of heart he became a local preacher and church worker. Being possessed of the necessary qualifications of “grace and fruitfulness” he was called to serve the people of his choice as a Christian minister. After forty years of successful toil he has the joy of knowing that his work will be continued by his two sons – the Rev. Frederick W. Harper and Mr. F. J. Harper, who is being trained for the ministry at the Manchester College.
Mr. James Bailey’s son Timothy became the leading official at the Congregational church, and remained in fellowship with them until his death. He was a lover of Christian men, and a great reader of religious books. His sister Matilda was born at the Mill House, converted in girlhood, and in early womanhood became the wife of the Rev. Thomas Parr. She “travelled” with him in many Circuits, and as a devoted church worker she was greatly beloved by the people. After a lingering illness, her husband died at Wheaton Aston, and his remains were laid to rest in the neighbouring churchyard of Lapley. She was the mother of a large family. Two of her sons have become distinguished ministers of our church. The Rev. Theophilus Parr, M.A., has faithfully served the church of his fathers in important home Circuits, including Edinburgh, Manchester, and West Bromwich. He has also accomplished good work for the Connexion by a term of African service at Fernando Po, and ten years’ labours in the distant mission field of Australia. His brother, the Rev. James Tolfree Parr, is one of the most godly and cultured of our younger ministers. After twenty-seven years successful service in the commercial cities of Leicester, Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, and other important centres of activity, and a lengthy term at Surrey Chapel, London, some two years ago our church was honoured by his being invited by the National Council of the Free Churches to be one of their special missioners. In serving this wider Primitive Methodism he has conducted evangelistic campaigns in many parts of the land, and has won hundreds of souls for Jesus. Other members of the late Mrs. Parr’s family are church workers, and their children are specially interested in the welfare of Zion. In her widowhood Mrs. T. Parr returned to Wheaton Aston, and was “a mother in Israel” to the church of her girlhood. For some years she resided at “Providence Cottage” which had been bequeathed to her by her father. In July, 1902, she quietly joined the church of the first-born, and her remains were laid to rest in Lapley Churchyard.
The noted Peake family belonged to the religious worthies of Wheaton Aston. Mr. Benjamin Peake was one of the pioneers and a local preacher of considerable acceptance. As heredity helps in the formation of character, it is interesting to note that Mr. Benjamin Peake’s mother was a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Wase, of Madeley Wood, Salop. Mr. Wase was a godly Methodist and a man of means. He was a co-worker with the seraphic John Fletcher, of Madeley, and his wife was a personal friend and a member of Mrs. Fletcher‘s Society Class. In 1777 Mr. Wase wanted to be employed by the Anglican Church as a clergyman in America. Fletcher disapproved, and reminded him that his “family and estate” bound him to Salop. In the year 1787 Miss Wase was married to Mr. Peake, and they removed to Wheaton Aston. Mr. Benjamin Peake was their first-born. They intended him to be a doctor, and he was accordingly sent to his Uncle _____ to learn the medical profession. Being influenced by evil companions he returned to Wheaton Aston, and was converted. He was a village genius, and made many hundreds of hymns. Seven of his 10 children became actively engaged in the work of the church. His sons, Samuel and George, became ministers; John, Benjamin, and their sister Jane were useful local preachers and class leaders in the Stafford Circuit; and Bessie and Susannah were variously employed in promoting the varied interests of the church. During his active ministry the Rev. Samuel Peake was one of the most plodding ministers of the old Tunstall district. For many years his name was as familiar as a household word in the family circles of our people. After a long term of service he returned to the Salopian town of Ludlow, where he is spending the autumn of life in meditation and prayer. His distinguished son, Mr. Arthur S. Peake, M.A., is a professor at the Alexandra College, Manchester, and also lecturer at the Lancashire Independent College. He had a brilliant career at Oxford, where he held a fellowship at Merton College, and was closely associated with Dr. Fairbairn at Mansfield College. Professor Peake has gained eminent distinction by his contributions to theological literature. He has published a valuable volume on the Epistle to the Hebrews in “The Century Bible Series” “A Guide to Biblical Study.” He has written several important articles for “Hasting’s Bible Dictionary,” and at present he is reviewer of the Current Literature Department of the “Primitive Methodist Quarterly.” The Rev. George Peake after twenty-two years ministry, owing to affliction, was reluctantly compelled to retire from active work. As a supernumerary he lived for many years in the town of Crewe. He was a consistent Christian, and at his death left behind the blessed memory that he had gone to be with Jesus.
From its commencement the Weates have been prominently connected with Wheaton Aston Primitive Methodism. They are the direct descendants of one of the former vicars of Lapley, who held the living during the eighteenth century. Old Parson Weate was a noted character in his day. He followed the hounds, and was a regular frequenter at the public-house. He was notoriously pugilistic. After a drunken brawl, while preaching with discoloured eyes and a swollen face, tradition says that he advised his parishioners “to do as he said, and not as he did!” Old Grandfather Weate differed from his reverend sire, as he lived his Christianity. He was not a great talker, but by precept and example he influenced several members of his numerous family to immediate decision for Christ. Several of his sons and daughters became useful local preachers and faithful church workers. The Weates have been distinguished for their original and quaint pulpit sayings. The love for the Old Book is manifested by giving Scriptural names to their children. Mr. Abraham Weate married the youngest daughter of the late Rev. Thomas Parr, and is faithfully allied with the varied activities of Wheaton Aston Church.
After worshipping for some time in Mr. James Bailey’s kitchen at the Mill House, the society built a small chapel which soon became too small for the needs of the growing congregation and increasing Sabbath school. The present galleried chapel was built in the year 1857, on a site generously given by the late Mr. Reuben Weate. The opening services were conducted by the eccentric Henry Higginson, who preached two characteristic sermons on “The Queen of Sheba” and “The Everlasting Gospel.” At the evening service Mr. John Peake, who for some time had been in “Doubting Castle” was savingly converted. The chapel occupies a conspicuous position, and fronts the village green. During the ministry of the Rev. Albert A. Birchenough this time-honoured sanctuary was re-seated, the whole amount being raised by the enterprising society in a few months.
An American who stood looking with feelings of admiration at the humble dwelling of John Bunyan, at Elstow, and referring to the Bedfordshire tinker’s labours and writings, significantly said: “What a lot has come out of that cottage!” As we stand and gaze at this unpretentious village sanctuary and think of the families that were converted in the great revival, and of the great things God has done for their descendants, we can truly say that streams of remarkable influences have originated here that have blessed humanity in various parts of the world. Very few village chapels have a more romantic or remarkable history than that of sequestered Wheaton Aston.
At the present time Wheaton Aston is one of the best conducted villages in the British realm. Primitive Methodism has largely contributed to the change of morals and the upbuilding of religious character. Anglicans and Free Churchmen dwell together in unity. The people are thrifty and prosperous. They have abundantly realised that “Godliness is profitable unto all things.”
Christian Messenger 1904/45