Primitive Methodism and the Fisherfolk

Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. J. Bastow Wilson

POETRY and romance are hidden in unlikely places. This is often so in Primitive Methodism. How many have seen it in a fisherman’s prayer-meeting! Yet one of the most striking of modern works of art has unfolded it to us. An eminent artist has made it the fine subject of his skill. Many artists have made “prayer” their occasional theme. They have easily drawn illustrations from the Bible, and have often chosen cathedrals and churches as sympathetic backgrounds. Frequently, however, the act of prayer has been a secondary thought, the chief interest being centred in some romantic figure, as in “The Vigil,” by Pettie. There is no doubt, however, about the subject of Titcombe’s “Primitive Methodists.” Often drawings labelled “Prayer” might just as well have been given some other title. In Titcombe’s picture there is no doubt of the subject. Without noticing the man in the pulpit, so remote from the chief group, the figure of the weather-worn fisherman in “westered frock” kneeling on the plain bench, tells its own story. The bowed head, the closed eyes, the clasped hands have one meaning only. The whole scene speaks of prayer. The company of men and women, rough, plain, simply-garbed, are aware of the Great Presence, and are in converse with Him.

We have spoken of Titcombe’s picture because, as is well known, the artist found his subject in the Primitive Methodist chapel at St. Ives, Cornwall, popularly known as “The Fishermen’s Chapel.” Anyone might well be proud to belong to the same church as these unadorned men who have found access to the Holy of Holies. And it speaks well of a church which has produced such a type.

These independent hardy fishermen whilst at worship do not try to suppress their emotions; they see no reason why they should, and they feel that freedom is good. There can be no doubt about their sincerity. Life is very real to them, and death always at their elbow. They cannot treat religion in any half-hearted way. They cannot play with it. Let it be noted that amongst them the Saturday evening prayer meeting is an honoured institution. Even the wives attend and engage in prayer.

Our work amongst the fishermen of St. Ives dates back to 1829. Mr. Kendall has recorded that our missionary stood alone on a decked boat on the quay and astonished the natives by starting up “Come, 0 come, thou vilest sinner.” A crowd of sailors, fishermen and their wives collected, and were moved so much that a week following two thousand people gathered to hear the missionary. A revival of religion broke out, which lasted for a considerable time and spread to the churches of the town. One result was that a striking reformation took place, and the religious atmosphere was purified. It is significant of much that a clergyman was publicly converted. There was no persecution. In two years the chapel was built, and under its roof the fishermen of St. Ives have found a place in which they may freely exercise their souls in the Eternal Presence, and at the same time, if they feel like it, may exercise their lungs. But let it not be assumed that things end in noise. Far from it, as anyone would find who heard the usual discussion on the wharf following the sermon last heard. Although away out of the main stream of Connexional life these fishermen are loyal Primitive Methodists.

The story of this Cornish fishermen’s church might well stand in its earnestness and virility as typical of the work of our church amongst the men whose livelihood is won from the treacherous deep. The little fishing villages all around our coast did not escape the eyes of the pioneers of our church and proved fruitful soil for their labours. Simplicity, heartiness and intensity found an immediate response.

At the other extreme of our coast, on the eastern side, is Eyemouth, of the Berwick Circuit. Here, in spite of many vicissitudes and a constant drift to the towns, the fishermen have been won and held. A great revival took place in 1859, led by the Ven. John Snaith, and the effects are still to be seen. We ought to say that Dr. Landells, the eminent Baptist preacher, was converted in the Primitive Methodist chapel in this village.

Cullercoats, at the south end of the Northumbrian coast, has been the scene of a very successful work amongst fishermen. One of the “thrills” of the district was to attend the “Fishermen’s Chapel,” but the fishing village has become a popular seaside resort. Once upon a time the folk of Cullercoats were simply fisherfolk and nothing more. The men went to sea, and the women fended, mended and vended; they kept their simple homes, mended the nets, and with creels on their backs hawked the fish in the neighbouring towns and colliery villages. In those days an arrangement existed for combined ministration by several denominations to the spiritual needs of these fishermen, but as some sort of a survival of the fittest, the heartiness, simplicity and intensity of the Primitive Methodism of that day suited these fisherfolk, and in the end we were left to carry on the work. A commodious chapel was built, in which they delighted to worship. To-day, however, a they have a “Fishermen’s Mission” of their own. As in other places, it has been found that the fisherman tends to class-consciousness, and does not easily blend with the landsman. This does not lessen the value of the work done amongst them in other days, and it is a pity a class church has evolved.

So the story goes. Wherever you have fishermen you have Primitive Methodism. Follow along the coast, and you find that as early as 1821 William Clowes preached to the fishermen of Whitby. He met with a little horseplay on the part of a few boisterous souls, who looked upon the “ranter preacher” as a fit target for their fun, but it did not amount to much. Perhaps they thought it wiser to sober down when they found that the chief constable evidently knew Mr. Clowes, and was present and interested in the service.

Passing by Scarborough, where the fishing industry is yet a considerable item, but has long been relegated into the background owing to the popularity of “The Queen of the North”, as a watering place, not far south we come to Filey, now very much reduced as a fishing place and tending to become a holiday resort. Filey has had a romantic history in Primitive Methodism. Our first missionaries could make no impression on the Filey fishermen. No effort or appeal moved them. The case seemed hopeless, and it was decided to give it up But “praying Johnnie” was not convinced, and readily accepted the challenge to mission Filey himself. And Oxtoby went! On Muston Hill, as he sighted the village he knelt and prayed, prayed until an assurance came. “Filey is taken! Flley is taken!” And so it was. A revival began, and soon the village was changed. The moral tone was greatly raised. The testimony of a Wesleyan minister who spoke with knowledge, was that he knew no fishermen equal to the inlay fishermen, and emphatically declared that their superiority was due to the labours of the Primitive Methodists. It was Filey fishermen who first decided, win or lose, that their boats should not go out on Sundays. At least two of them, Richard and Matthew Haxby, are known for deeds of heroism, and Jenkinson Haxby was known in Conference. These and William Freeman, another notable character, have passed away. As far as known now, they are unrepresented in the activities of the church. New methods in the fishing industry have not helped Filey. Nearly all the fishing is done from Scarborough, and the fishermen go there on Monday and return home on Saturday. But although the fishing industry of Filey is practically nil the minister and people are facing the new conditions hopefully. The spirit of religious conservatism delays progress. To mention one fact alone which shows how things have not marched with the times – in eleven years there have been only fourteen marriages at Filey, which is the only place registered in the circuit. The reason is that the people have a deep-rooted idea that all marrying, burying and baptising should be done by the church parson! This will pass. The people are homely and warm-hearted, and present signs are hopeful. They have a good minister, and they will do well to follow him. Patrington, on the south end of the Yorkshire coast, is a very much more pleasing subject. It is manned by an able body of officials, and has some of the finest village causes on the coast.

Grimsby stands out conspicuously because of its importance in the fishing industry, but in 1819 it was “the miserable little port of Grimsby.” That was the very best soil for Primitive Methodism, for the desolation extended to religious conditions. In that year Thomas King, with a wheelbarrow for a pulpit, preached from a piece of waste ground. Farmer William Holt heard him in the “old town” the same afternoon, and took him to his house at Old Clee, where Clowes preached again in the evening. This was the beginning. When in 1849 the construction of the Royal Dock took place, Grimsby Primitive Methodism had a strong hold upon the fisherfolk. As the town grew the fishing trade developed, until to-day it has the premier place in this industry in England. Side by side with the growth of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, Primitive Methodism has grown.

To-day fishing smacks have to a very great extent been replaced by steam trawlers. The country realised their worth as minesweepers during the war, and found the hardy fishermen of the coast ready to take up this dangerous task. Primitive Methodists did their share. In the changes which have taken place our people have moved with the times, and to-day we hold a proud position in the two towns. The days of prosperity have been days of loyalty to our church, of which there have been conspicuous examples. Amongst the fishermen on the fishing smacks there were Thomas Robinson. William Grant and Henry Croft Baker. These men were strenuous and thrifty. From fishermen they rose to be captains and eventually became owners of their own vessels. When steam was applied to the industry they adopted it, and at last entered the markets as fish merchants. One of them has now far-flung business interests. The Government found him worthy of its confidence during the war, and for his services he was knighted and is now known by the honoured title of Sir Thomas Robinson, K.C.B. He is a magistrate and County Councillor. William Grant, J.P. is now an alderman of the borough, and was made O.B.E. for his services. Henry Croft Baker has been made a Justice of the Peace. But these things would not have compensated for loss of spiritual worth, and it is a joy to know that each of these men is devoted to his church, freely acknowledging the debt they owe to her, and not in money only. They are Class leaders and officials, and take their part in the life of their church. Alderman Grant is keenly interested in the £60,000 which is being raised for the Preachers‘ Friendly Society, and is District Treasurer for that fund. Henry Croft Baker has recently given a motor launch to our Fernandian Mission, whilst Sir Thomas is noted for his enthusiasm in raising money for our Orphanages, and for this he has been honoured with the Connexional Treasurership. Another type of ex-fisherman is “Pa,” the name given in affection by the church to George Baker. From the days when he was a fisherman until now, he has laboured zealously for the “cause.” In the Sunday-school, and particularly as a class leader he has been anpower for good, and his way to the throne of grace is a well-worn path. “His power in prayer is something wonderful,” says one who knows. He has been a wonderful man.

This is only a glimpse at the fisherfolk of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Much lies untold. We should have liked to speak of Sheringham and other homes of well-known Primitive Methodist fisherfolk, but must forebear.

We have only space to refer briefly to Bloateropolis, as Yarmouth is nicknamed. The herring shoals come down the east coast, followed by the fishermen of Scotland and England. When the fish reach Yarmouth they are in the pink of condition, and perhaps owing to the richness of the feeding grounds, they are in the prime. Whatever be the reason, Yarmouth bloaters are famous, and deservedly so. Here at the very beginning of our denominational activities we were in touch with the fishermen. Two evangelists from Norwich took their stand with their backs to the Fishermen’s Hospital, and in Row 60 they established their work. But the fishermen had other ties, and these prevailed. Our work as a church in Yarmouth has seen very great success, but except for a few cases we have no fishermen amongst us. They prefer the missions specially directed to them. But Alderman F.J.W. Salmon, J.P., who by hard and constant toil became trawler owner, has worthily kept the connection of his parents with the Temple, and is now one of the circuit stewards, and Councillor James Pitchers is Trust Treasurer, Alderman T.W. Swindell, J .P., Chairman of the Committee of the local Sailors’ Institute of the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society. We are all proud of our fisherfolk members.


Christian Messenger 1921/58


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