Early Recollections of Primitive Methodist Hymns and Tunes, and other matters
Includes memories of Nelson Street Chapel, Newcastle upon Tyne
Transcription of Articles in the Christian Messenger by Mrs. J.K. Snowdon
MY earliest recollections connected with Primitive Methodist hymns and tunes date from about the year 1836, when I should be a child of about three or four years of age. I have a dim recollection of the chapel in Silver-street, Newcastle-on-Tyne. I can remember sitting taking care of my father’s fiddle-bag while he led the singing. The most striking features of this locality were not at all in keeping with the name it bore, since they were the very reverse of silvern. Costermongers, old-clothes women, and other vendors – sturdy, loud-voiced – plied their trade with vigour on Sunday mornings.
However interesting, and even unique, the locality, from some points of view might be, it was deemed not quite the place for a Primitive Methodist chapel. And so my next remembrance is connected with the new chapel at Nelson-street. This was in 1838, when my father, John Kidd, composed a tune which he called ‘Nelson-street chapel.’ There were composed during this period many of the tunes destined to become popular in Primitive Methodism and that were to be an important factor in extending the Connexion in the North of England. The lively, spirited singing of the Primitives drew large congregations to hear the preached word, which was pointed and heart-searching, the result being that conversions took place at most of the services.
The hymn connected with my earliest recollections of Primitive Methodism is
‘Christ He sits on Zion’s hill,’ &c.
The tune ‘Eternity’ was mixed up in my childish mind with the High Forth a place where the soldiers exercised on special occasions to the music of the bands. The High and Low Forth were the people’s recreation-grounds. The Low Forth is now taken up by the Central Station, the High Forth by the Roman Catholic Cathedral and its grounds. The present Infirmary site was originally part of the people’s grounds, and the Cattle Market, now adjoining, was then unknown in the locality, being held at more distant Morpeth. I never hear ‘Eternity’ without thinking of that parade-ground and the soldiers exercising there.
My home was in Forth Terrace, opposite the Forths aforesaid. It was here Billy Purvis, a noted character of the time, set up his show. Billy will be remembered by some as having once attempted a contest for precedence with Joseph Spoors, and as having been defeated. Billy’s show attracted all sorts and conditions of men aye, and women too, and drew wandering tribes of vendors to set up their stalls in the neighbourhood. These spice-stalls and lotteries for ‘bullets’ and candy were the source of a great deal of trouble to the writer. She felt she ought to be obedient to her father and ‘keep away from Billy’s show;’ but she was often lured away, along with her two elder sisters, into the forbidden paths. Purvis used to say: ‘If yer frightened to come up by the front door for fear the Ranters sees ye, come to the back door. Billy keeps the back door clean.’ Often we three youngsters took longing looks at that back door, but never transgressed to the extent of going inside; indeed we were never rich enough to do that. Retribution in the shape of pangs of conscience often overtook us after these wanderings.
My father’s house being a small one, an elder sister and myself were often put to bed early, to be out of the way of the people who came for lessons on the fiddle and to practise the hymns for Sunday’s services. After one of our escapades at Billy’s Show I remember suffering agonies while the singing of the hymn below was being practised:—
‘How happy is the pilgrim‘s lot;
How free from every anxious thought,
From worldly hope and fear.
Confin’d to neither court nor cell,
His soul disdains on earth to dwell,
He only sojourns here.’
The singing of this hymn to a very plaintive tune in the monor key caused us to reflect on our wanderings after forbidden pleasures, and I felt that I was a wicked little girl in going to Billy’s show and ‘them lottery stalls.’ Although I had said my ‘Our Father,’ I felt I must kneel again in my bed and say it a second time. After this I was awake some time listening to the violin lessons. ‘One on the first string; two on the second,’ being mixed up with ‘One down, who makes two?’ of the lottery stalls. I did not go to the Show for some time after that.
My father was a man to endear himself to his children. His genial, kind nature made him beloved by all who knew him. Nothing gave his children more pleasure than to be taken on his knee and to listen to his Bible stories and the ditties of his own composing. Many of the tunes, which were afterwards set to the old hymns, were first composed for children’s ditties. I remember one my father set to ‘Let Satan rage and boast no more,’ being a tune he often used while dandling the little ones on his knee. He never used a rod; indeed he seldom used a cross word. His sweet, musical nature seemed incapable of enduring jarring sounds. He lived always on a high plane – that of ‘singing to God.’ This spirit of continual praise sweetened a life not without its misfortunes. My father was the youngest of a large family who were well-to-do farmers in Cumberland. He was the Benjamin of the household, and his mother spoke of him as ‘her little John,’ even when he was grown to man’s estate. ‘
My father lost all his money in a lead mine. He was obliged to sell his shares, and six weeks after doing so they came upon the ore. ‘As rich as Hudgill Burn’ afterwards became a saying in the district. But my father always remained a poor, though a happy man. He often used to quote the sayings, and refer to the doings of the mistress of Tynehead House, who must have been a disciple of the school of the parson of Seathwaite. This worthy tilled his ground, spun, wove, and fashioned his own garments, dug his own peat, and dipped his own rushlights; yet he was no niggard, for he took care to have broth for his parishioners on Sunday, who came from afar to worship. This wonderful priest had a living at Seathwaite worth thirteen pounds a year, with a cottage. Here he brought up a family of ten children, and refused the living of Ulpha with fifty pounds a year, for fear he would be deemed covetous!
The old homestead at Tyne Head, Garrigill, Alston Moor, was the preaching-place or meeting-house, before the Methodists had any chapel in the Dales. Closely connected with this home are the Bainbridges, Muschamps, Slacks, and Fenwicks – names honoured in the annals of Methodism.
Thomas Kidd, my grandfather, was a Cumberland ‘statesman,’ who had inherited his lands from ancestors who had gained them for service rendered to the Lord of the Manor during the border wars.
It is strange how the associations of childhood cling to the old familiar hymns. In ‘Blow ye the trumpet, blow,’ the returning the ransomed was always linked to the thought of going back to Tyne Head House, the home of my father’s childhood. We looked upon that home as situated in a very ‘land of Goshen.’ The old homestead is so closely connected with the old hymns and tunes of early Methodism that I find the memory of it coming up to the mind’s eye as each hymn comes before me.
(To be continued.)
I HAVE alluded to the fact that the old homestead at Tyne Head, Garragill, was the early Methodist Meeting-house. Now the most prominent figure in the Homestead is perhaps the mother, at any rate it was so in this case. She was as the central light round which the lesser lights revolved, and must have combined the qualities of both Martha and Mary. ‘She looked well to her household;’ yet she had her ‘treasure in heaven.’ When the preacher appointed for any service did not come, the mother filled the vacancy. She gave out the hymn, started the tune, engaged in prayer, took her text, and preached to the friends gathered together, many of whom had come long distances to the service. During the service a huge pot was on the fire with puddings boiling for dinner, and in front of the fire a joint, also destined for the table, was roasting.
The womenfolk of the early community were very interesting figures. Their Quaker bonnets, frilled caps, white spun silk shawls and drab silk dresses were described to us by our father, and we received the impression that they were the most important part of the congregation. A favourite hymn of this home was:—
Come away to the skies,
My beloved, arise
And rejoice in the day thou wert born.
On that festival day,
Come exulting away.
And with singing to Zion return.
We have laid up our love
And our treasure above,
Though our bodies continue below.
The redeemed of the Lord,
We remember His word,
And with singing to Paradise go.
The tune to this was exulting, yet it had a mournful ring with it. The women sang the tenor, the men the air. This method must have obtained in other localities, since Frances Ridley Havergal mentions having visited some moorland district with her father, and how pleased they were with the women singing the higher or tenor part of the tunes.
When training-homes for Sisters of the Methodist community are being established, it might be well to know more about the homes which were the cradles of Methodism. The success of the training in the old times was largely owing to the mother of the home. Who can doubt that Susannah Wesley had a large share in the founding of Methodism?
My aunt, Nancy Stanger, told an incident of her mother, which proclaimed her a true disciple of the Master. A party of gipsies (‘ganning-bodies,’ they are called in the Dales), passed Tynehead House on their road to the Fell, where they were to camp for the night and make besoms for sale. Among the women there was one who it was clear to see was not fit to be out on the fells on a winter’s night. This so troubled my grandmother‘s mind that she had ‘visions in the night.’ She was told she must rise up and go to the Fell, for she was needed there. Without hesitation she obeyed the call. Although it was in the middle of the night, she got up, filled a wallet with ‘needments,’ got a horse saddled, and set off to the Fell with the wallet on beside her. She found the call was a genuine one. Before she left a baby was born on the cold bleak Fell. Without her help both mother and child would probably have died. For this kindly deed she would, no doubt, receive the Master’s ‘Forasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these my little ones, ye did it unto Me.’ No wonder this brave woman should be the mother of so many that did yeoman service to Methodism.
The eldest son gave us a family who were eminently useful in Allendale, his son being cashier at the mine. The Rev. John Worsnop was fortunate in taking to wife a daughter of this gentleman. The eldest daughter gave several sons who were useful local preachers at Nelson Street, Newcastle. The third daughter married Mr. Spottiswood, who was successful in America. The next daughter married Mr. Slack, a name eminent in Methodism. Another daughter married Mr. Stanger, whose son John was for many years connected with the ‘Newcastle Chronicle,’ and who was a competent and useful member of Nelson-street society. A son married Miss Pearson, of Lea House, Tynehead. Moving into Swaledale, he there built the first Primitive Methodist chapel in the district.
And now to take a leap from the sweet, fresh Fells, to coaly Tyne: for Cumbrians who left the Dales generally found their way to Newcastle, and many of them attended Nelson Street chapel. One of these, I remember, named Nathaniel Yeats, who prided himself on being able to take ‘high notes.’ When the hymn ‘How beauteous are their feet’ was first arranged, Nathaniel took especial care to sound out the high notes of ‘He reigns and triumphs here.’ On one occasion my father had to attend a meeting at St. Peter’s Quay. On the way there, as he was suffering from a cold, he said to Nathaniel, ‘I am afraid I can’t give those high notes.’ ‘Oh, leave her to me, John,’ said N. ‘I’ll hoist her cannily ower’t high place; then thoo can let her down easy, thoo knaws.’ The hymn was sung with success, though perhaps not quite on the lines laid down by Nathaniel.
As the Nelson Street choir freely gave their services to aid in raising money for new chapels, etc., by means of concerts, they had many trips into the country. These trips were a source of amusement as well as profit. Generally the double bass fiddle, ‘Big Ben’ as it was called, was taken and often carried shoulder-high, and rousing considerable speculation among the country folk, who had not seen one, as to what it could be. On one occasion a youngster, who had been following us for some time, shouted out, ‘Oh, I know what it is. It’s a funeral; but its a queer one.’ Very often the march with Big Ben was made to the accompaniment of one of the popular hymns, such as :-
His Spirit now is pouring out
To set poor captives tree,
The day of wonder now is com,
The year of Jubilee.
THESE reminiscences would be incomplete were we to forbear any mention of Richard Rayne, who was in very truth a ‘leading singer’ of the early days, and as such was hard to beat, especially when heading a procession or acting as precentor at a camp meeting. It was a treat to hear him sing ‘Haste again, ye days of grace,’ or ‘Hark, listen to the trumpeters.’ When in his prime he had a powerful voice and was a ‘chorus’ in himself. In later years, probably as the result of working in a lead factory, his voice became somewhat shaky. But he retained all his old enthusiasm for the songs of Zion. How his face lighted up as he sang the old hymns, and how his hands beat time to the music! We are glad to know that his employers dealt kindly with him and that in his declining days he enjoyed a pension.
He had a soul full of music and, as we once jocosely told him, ‘It was meet that he should be good here, for if he were not, then the most dreadful of all punishments would befall him – he would be banished to a world full of discords.’ He was one of the men who helped on the Connexion by the effective way he sang the gospel. Peace to his ashes!
It has been our privilege to be on terms of familiarity and friendship with many well-known and eminent ministers who have travelled in Newcastle. Amongst those whom we thus knew intimately were Revs. Henry Hebbron, C.C. M’Kechnie, Ralph Fenwick, Thos. Smith, W. Clemitson and R. Clemitson (uncle and nephew), Thomas Greenfield, Henry Phillips, and James Jackson. In later times we were familiar with Revs. H.B. Kendall, B.A., our present Editor, Henry Yooll, and John Hallam. Of our intercourse with these we have many pleasant reminiscences, some of which we should like to tell.
It was while living in Blackett Street (close to Nelson Street) that we had from Mr. Joseph Cowen the ‘Northern Tribune’ to make up every month into parts. As our readers will know, Mr. Cowen is the proprietor of that influential paper The Newcastle Daily Chronicle, and was for some years in the House of Commons, and noted as a Parliamentary speaker; The business referred to brought Mr. Cowen occasionally to our house. During one of these visits he mentioned having heard the Rev. Ralph Fenwick preach, and intimated how pleased he was to find him so liberal – more so he imagined than many Methodist ministers. The ‘Northern Tribune‘ was a publication brought out in the interests of what was regarded as true patriotism. It was conjointly edited by Mr. W.J. Linton and Joseph Cowen. Mr. Linton died recently at the advanced age of 85. He had a remarkable career, and played many parts in his time, being wood-engraver, printer, agriculturist, etc. He was the friend and helper of the Polish refugees and Italian patriots; intimate with Thomas Carlyle, the Howitts, Dr. Birkbeck, founder of the first Mechanics’ Institute, Arthur Toynbee, founder of Toynbee Hall, Leigh Hunt; he was a visitor at the home of Fox, the Unitarian preacher, where he met Eliza Howe and her sister, Mrs. Bridges, the authoress of the celebrated hymn, ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee.’* Mrs. Elizabeth Lynn Linton, the famous novelist and uncompromising foe of the ‘New Woman ’ movement, was Linton’s second wife, and died only last year. Their home was Brantwood, on Coniston Water, at one time let to Gerald Massey, and now the home of John Ruskin. Here the ‘Northern Tribune’ was printed as well as many other Republican books.
* We have always understood that Mrs. Sarah (Flower) Adams was the composer of this hymn.-(ED)
Christian Messenger 1899/35; 1899/70; 1899/103