These are the Preface and first two chapters of my narrative history book telling the story of a long-forgotten scandal within the Methodist community in the north of England in the 1820s. Any comments are more than welcome. (I apologise, by the way, for the various infelicities introduced -- absence of page numbers, non-consecutive footnotes, variable fonts, etc -- by the act of uploading here. I'd sort them if I could.)
A DREADFUL PIT IN SHIELDS
The Libelling of Miss Jane Bell by the Rev. Thomas Hill
On February the Second 1826, Sir Walter Scott received an unexpected visitor at his Edinburgh home. As he records the event in his journal:
An odd visit this morning from Miss Jane Bell of North Shields, whose law-suit with a Methodist parson of the name of Hill made some noise. The worthy divine had in the basest manner interfered to prevent this lady's marriage by two anonymous letters, in which he contrived to refer the lover, to whom they were addressed, for further corroboration to himself. The whole imposition makes the subject of a little pamphlet published by Marshall, Newcastle. The lady ventured for redress into the thicket of English law -- lost one suit -- gained another, with £300 damages, and was ruined. The appearance and person of Miss Bell are prepossessing. She is about thirty years old, a brunette, with regular and pleasing features, marked with melancholy, – an enthusiast in literature, and probably in religion. She had been at Abbotsford to see me, and made her way to me here, in the vain hope that she could get her story worked up into a novel.
To say that the visit was ‘odd’ is something of an understatement. To arrive unannounced at the door of the most famous writer of the day on such an errand was surely unprecedented. It was also, looked at rationally, the longest of long-shots. Nothing in Scott’s output suggests for a moment that he would have been interested in fictionalising contemporary events. The overwhelming majority of his novels were historical, and on the rare occasions he set stories in his own times he drew on his personal experience for locale and favoured plots of romantic action and adventure. To think that he would even consider writing about a series of happenings whose interest would be predominately psychological, occurring in a place he had never been, amongst a Methodist community whose mores were unfamiliar, suggests a substantial degree of ignorance or desperation or both.
Ignorance is certainly possible. Although Scott describes Miss Bell as ‘an enthusiast in literature’, the meaning of the phrase is not entirely straightforward. ‘Enthusiast’ was a slippery word at the time, still carrying many of the predominantly negative connotations of religious enthusiasm (i.e. fanaticism) from previous centuries. As opposed to how we would read it now, the suggestion is one of narrowness rather than breadth in literary appreciation. Methodists of the time were notorious for their cultural philistinism, and not without reason. Their reading was largely prescribed for them by their ministers and leaders from the approved list of Methodism’s own publications, consisting predominantly of theological and devotional works. Novels were considered a frivolous waste of time, as well as being morally dubious in terms of both content and ideology. Of course, one cannot draw absolute conclusions about the reading habits of any particular individual, but given the fact that constant supervision of one’s thoughts and actions was built into the Methodist way of life, and that, whatever other moral failings Jane Bell was accused of, frittering away her time on selfish pleasure was never part of the indictment, it is hard to believe that she would have had any more than the most casual acquaintance with Scott’s works. It is more likely that he would have been the only contemporary novelist that she would actually have heard of.
Geography too would have been a factor. There is some uncertainty as to whether Jane Bell was still living in North Shields at this time, or whether she had moved further south to the vicinity of Hull, but in either case a journey (as she initially assumed) into the Scottish borders was a less arduous undertaking than one to the more natural literary centres of London. Not that the journey, even as originally planned, was an easy one. The most natural route would have been through Newcastle, but since all coaches from there into Scotland had Edinburgh as their final destination, and that was a trip of around 16 hours, they left in the early morning in order to be able to complete the journey in a day. This meant that one had to travel to Newcastle on the previous day. On day two then, at six in the morning, she would have caught the coach (The ‘Wellington’ from the Turf Hotel, Collingwood Street) with the aim of disembarking as close to Abbotsford as possible. Abbotsford is only two miles from the town of Melrose, but Melrose was not on the coach route. The nearest stop available would have been Kelso, a further 11 miles away, which she would have reached at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, by which time darkness would already have been falling. It is unlikely that she would have been able to find any carrier to transport her across country in the dark, and even if she had done so, etiquette would have precluded calling at Abbotsford in the evening. Most probably she would have stayed in Kelso overnight, then made her way on the morning of day three. Having been told that Sir Walter was in Edinburgh, she would then have to have gone back to Kelso to catch that day’s four o’clock coach, which would have landed her in Edinburgh at ten o’clock at night, again too late to permit an immediate visit to Scott’s house. Having necessarily had to find overnight accommodation, it would therefore have been on the fourth day after setting out that she was finally able to meet the object of her expedition. The degree of determination and sheer physical effort required for such a journey in the depths of winter is not to be underestimated, and nor is the financial outlay for travel and lodgings.
Of course, Jane Bell’s mistaken belief that Scott would be at Abbotsford had added a day to her travels. The fact that she believed this, however, shows that there was no appointment made in advance. A letter beforehand asking for an interview would almost certainly have been met with a rejection, so she was at least realistic enough to understand this, but must have calculated that an appeal in person would have some prospect of success. And Scott was obviously taken with her, as well as being sympathetic towards her situation and intrigued by her story. His journal entry continues:
... and certainly the thing is capable of interesting situations. It throws a curious light upon the aristocratic or rather hieratic influence exercised by the Methodist preachers within the ‘connection’, as it is called. Admirable food this would be for the ‘Quarterly’, or any other reviewers who might desire to feed fat their grudge against these sectarians. But there are two reasons against such a publication. First, it would do the poor sufferer no good. Secondly, it might hurt the Methodistic connection very much, which I for one would not like to injure.
Scott himself wrote frequently for the Quarterly Review, and what he appears to be meditating here – before rejecting it – is the alternative possibility of publicising her case in non-fictional form. Whether he actually outlined his reasons against this with Jane Bell is unclear, though if he did so he would presumably have stressed the unlikelihood of any success, rather than his disinclination to harm Methodism itself. For Miss Bell’s grievance was precisely with Methodism, or rather the Methodist hierarchy, as Scott goes on to explain.
It is much to the discredit of the Methodist clergy, that when this calumniator was actually convicted of guilt morally worse than many men are hanged for, they only degraded him from the first to the second class of their preachers,– leaving a man who from mere hatred at Miss Bell's brother, who was a preacher like himself, had proceeded in such a deep and infamous scheme to ruin the character and destroy the happiness of an innocent person, in possession of the pulpit, and an authorised teacher of others. If they believed him innocent they did too much – if guilty, far too little.
Jane Bell wished her story to be novelised, not out of vanity or as a cautionary tale, but in order to have a weapon to use in her continuing and incomplete campaign for the vindication of her character. She had been vindicated by the courts: Thomas Hill – the minister in question – had been convicted of defamation of character and ordered to pay £300 in damages. The Methodist authorities, however, as constituted in the annual Methodist Conference, had, by their administration of a mere slap on the wrist, essentially dismissed that verdict and thus left Miss Bell’s reputation still under question. She had herself left the connexion* as a result of the affair, but having been a member for more than a dozen years, it remained the community within which she most valued her name and self-respect. There was, however, no constitutional way within the rules of that community by which she could now move forward. The Conference’s decision had been made and they considered the matter closed. The only course open to her, it must have seemed, was to apply external pressure by appealing to the court of public opinion.
*The spelling is that used by the Methodists themselves.
This strategy, born out of desperation though it was, may have had its merits, but unfortunately, in her attempt to implement it, Miss Bell had chosen the wrong man at the wrong time. Scott, as we have seen, would have been an unlikely chronicler of her troubles at any point in his career, but she had also unwittingly turned up at one of the darkest moments of his life. Barely a fortnight before, he had learned that, as a result of the collapse of his printing and publishing houses, he faced complete financial ruin. The very day after Jane Bell’s visit, he was due to have a meeting with his creditors, one of a series which would culminate in his signing a trust deed by which, in exchange for not being made bankrupt, he agreed that all his future earnings from writing should go directly to paying off the debt (which was over £100,000). As a result of this arrangement, Scott was to write himself into exhaustion over the next six years, dying worn-out at the age of 51. The house at 39 North Castle Street, where the meeting with Jane Bell took place, and where Scott had lived since 1802 would have to be sold the following month. To add to this, Charlotte, his wife of 28 years, had fallen seriously ill and would die that May.
Whether, under these desperate circumstances, Jane Bell’s visit was seen as a welcome or unwelcome distraction is impossible to know. Scott was renowned for his manners, and would have let no hint of his own situation slip. Nevertheless, the prospect before him, of having to write at an even more prodigious rate than his already astounding output had required, would have made him all the less inclined to devote time to anything outside his normal compass.
Jane Bell’s mission, then, was a failure, but Scott seems to have let her down gently. Too gently, in fact, since she turned up on his doorstep again on the 6th of June the following year. The occasion, or pretext, for this second visit was no doubt the new and expanded pamphlet she had had produced about the affair, which she wished to present. Scott, of course, was no more likely to be moved to action than before, and one can detect a note of impatience in his journal entry recording this second meeting.
After noon a Miss Bell broke in upon me, who bothered me some time since about a book of hers, explaining and exposing the conduct of a Methodist Tartuffe, who had broken off (by anonymous letters) a match betwixt her and an accepted admirer. Tried in vain to make her comprehend how little the Edinburgh people would care about her wrongs, since there was no knowledge of the parties to make the scandal acceptable. I believe she has suffered great wrong.
The door was irrevocably closed. Miss Bell left Edinburgh and, to all intents and purposes, disappeared from history.
The decision to tell Jane Bell’s story, to take on a mission that Sir Walter Scott turned down, requires some justification. After all, if the people of Edinburgh knew and cared little about her in 1827, the wider reading public of today certainly knows even less – in fact, she and her story are completely forgotten. It is customary when resurrecting such minor historical events for the writer to claim that these disregarded incidents are, in fact, of immense significance, and will alter forever our view of the period or culture within which they occurred. I make no such claim. Her story will never be anything but a footnote in the history of early 19th century Methodism, itself hardly a field of wide popular interest. Alternatively, a forgotten sequence of events may be claimed to uncannily prefigure contemporary concerns, casting light on what matters to us now from an unexpected angle. But here again, this is not really the case. Such wider lessons as may be drawn from the story – women fare badly in male-dominated societies, religious certainty can shade into self-righteousness, power corrupts, organisations under outside pressure close ranks and protect their own, it’s grim up North; there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this.
So why then? To what purpose disturbing the dust? Well, first of all, what happened to Jane Bell is simply a good tale. It involves love, jealousy, betrayal and political machination; it is a whodunnit, a courtroom drama, a psychological study, and a portrait of community dynamics. It is a story both challengingly complicated and satisfyingly complex. But beyond that is the fact that it actually happened, long ago, in a place and time strange to us. The current vogue for genealogy has many wellsprings, but surely one of the strongest is the desire to have some link with history. The idea that there can be any true personal connection with our five times great-grandfather is essentially an illusion, but he is nevertheless real to us in a way that his contemporaries are not. He offers a gateway into that past world and helps us understand that it was populated by men and women very much like ourselves. Unfortunately, detailed documentation of the lives of ordinary people is hard to come by. That five times great-grandfather is likely to exist only in half-a-dozen lines in the parish records. If he was a weaver, we have to build up his life from that of contemporary weavers in general; we do not have what we really desire – access to him as he was in himself. By the accidental fact of its being so freakishly well-documented, Jane Bell’s story provides what we so often seek in our ancestors and fail to find – that direct connection to individuals in a bygone world.
One final word here about that documentation. Enumeration of sources is generally relegated to the modest obscurity of a book’s latter pages, and there, indeed, more extensive details will be found. In this case, however, it is almost impossible to understand the story itself and the choices made in telling it, without some preliminary knowledge of the provenance of the information on which it is based. Although there are newspaper reports and various other records, the story would be unrecoverable and this book would not exist were it not for the fact that, first of all, a sequence of 18 letters written by Hill to William Sissison, Jane Bell’s quondam fiancé, was read out in evidence at the second trial, thus making the texts available in court transcripts and elsewhere; and, even more importantly, that the parties in the dispute entered into something of a pamphlet war in attempting to make their case before the public and the Methodist authorities.
The main pamphlets in question – ‘A Plain Statement of Facts’ (1823) and ‘The Cause of Truth Defended’ (1827) on the Bell side, ‘A Statement of the Cause’ (1826) put out by Thomas Hill – are of extended length and filled with novelistic detail. At times they record events almost on a day-to-day basis. They are an extraordinary resource. The problem is that they are not neutral accounts – they are polemics, designed to demonstrate Hill’s guilt on one side, his innocence on the other. As such, they constantly contradict each other, even on the most basic matters of fact*. It would be verging on the fraudulent for a writer to attempt to construct a seamless and apparently objective narrative from these materials, without acknowledging the sheer evidentiary difficulty of doing so. In what follows, therefore, the weighing of evidence, probability, credibility, the likelihood of account A as against account B – these all become crucial elements of the story itself. What may be lost thereby in terms of narrative smoothness is, I believe, made up for by insight gained. Why, after all, does one lie, except to conceal? And the particular form of the lie often offers, in itself, the best clue to what is hidden.
* Hill claimed to have found ‘one hundred and twenty three falsehoods or mis-statements’ in the first Bell pamphlet and between two and three hundred in the second.
In the year 1819 the town of North Shields lay along the North bank of the River Tyne like a three-dimensional diagram of the English class system. There had been some kind of settlement on the spot since the 13th century, but its growth had always been restricted by both geography and the presence of its swollen neighbour, Newcastle, 8 miles upriver. Geographically, the town was confined to a narrow strip of land along the shore, unable to expand inland because of the 60 foot high bank which had formed the original river border. Economically, it was stifled because of the unwillingness of the Newcastle authorities to tolerate a rival port in their immediate vicinity, this unwillingness being displayed by periodic sackings in the mediaeval period and a more civilized choking to death by commercial regulation in later eras. It was only from the 1760s onwards that the town’s fortunes began to turn.
The catalyst for this was the decision to build on the top of the bank, a process that started with the construction of the imposing Dockwray Square in 1763. The rapid subsequent growth of the upper town, coinciding, as it did, with the golden age of British domestic architecture, resulted in an elegant and salubrious urban landscape, much admired by visitors. Here lived the doctors, lawyers, merchants, shipowners and their families. Their presence, and that of the upper town itself, was a reflection of economic circumstances. North Shields grew primarily because of a late 18th century shipbuilding boom. The many overseas wars of the period – the Seven Years War of 1756-63, the American War of Independence of 1776-83, and the various conflicts with France beginning in 1792 – demanded an unprecedented growth in the navy, and since ships in war have, by definition, an uncertain life-span, constant replacement and refurbishment were also required. In addition, the industrial revolution was gathering speed, with a growing need for means of transporting the goods it produced and the raw materials it required. North Shields, with its large deep-water harbour and easy access to the North Sea, was ideally placed to take advantage of the commercial opportunities. In its wake ship-building brought ancillary industries, rope-makers, block-makers, sail-makers, chain makers. And, as prosperity and the labour force grew, the commercial balance began to tip from simply building the ships to owning and trading with them. Newcastle, after the domination of centuries, was overtaken as the Tyne’s main trading port, and the ships of North Shields – at some estimates more than 500 of them – carried their cargoes, principally of coal, not just around the British coast, but to continental Europe and beyond.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the town was essentially two towns. The lower was a busy working port, with all that then implied in terms of dirt, poverty, disease, raucousness and crime. Fifty drinking houses jostled each other within a single quarter-mile stretch of its only significant thoroughfare, the aptly, if unoriginally, named Low Street. Meanwhile, above, the inhabitants of the upper town – reachable from below only by steep and perilous flights of steps – enjoyed all the benefits of late-Georgian civilization. The streets were ‘spacious and well paved, the shops large and tastefully displayed’. By 1819, there was a theatre – visited that autumn by the great Edmund Kean himself, though to a certain amount of discontented muttering over the rise in ticket prices for the occasion; a circulating library and reading room; a newly-opened bank. There were balls in one or more of the several elegant assembly rooms of the George Tavern, and the Commercial Hotel provided accommodation for travellers. Mindful of their civic responsibilities, the residents had constructed a dispensary, ‘for the relief of the lame and sick poor’ and built, by subscription, a free school supporting the education of 75 girls and 200 boys through annual charitable contributions. On the outskirts of the town there was also, for differently circumstanced unfortunates, a private lunatic asylum run by Dr Oxley, of whom we shall hear more.
The spiritual needs of the community were also richly catered for. Aside from the Church of England parish church, there was a Roman Catholic Chapel, three Scots Presbyterian churches (of different affiliations), a Baptist Chapel, two Methodist Chapels (Wesleyan and New Connexion), a Friends’ Meeting-house and a Synagogue.
Among the adherents to Wesleyan Methodism in the upper town were the Bell family. In 1819 this comprised Jacob Bell, the father, and his four adult children, John, Jane, Mary and Margaret. Jacob is always referred to as a shipbuilder, but the word, in our contemporary usage, probably carries over-grand connotations to describe him accurately. “Boat-builder” is the term we would be more likely to use. Certainly, he was an employer, rather than an artisan, but everything about the Bells’ social status and financial circumstances suggests it was on a relatively modest scale. He was, in any case, now 67 years old and in poor health, so would have been retired, probably for some years. In fact, we can possibly be more accurate than that, since it was in 1815 that he set up his son John and daughter Jane in business for themselves as wholesale and retail dealers in china and glass on Tyne Street in the upper town, and it was also around this time that the family moved to North Shields from South Shields, where Jacob’s business had been based.
Of the children, John was (at the beginning of the year) 36 years old, Jane 34, Mary 31 and Margaret 29. All, apart from Mary, lived with their father. She had married 11 years earlier, and played no part in the events that followed – indeed, she is scarcely mentioned in the various accounts, apart from passing suggestions that her marriage was disapproved of, or unhappy, or both. Margaret, too, is a shadowy figure, though she appears to have been of fragile health, both mentally and physically. In a trade directory for North Shields in 1820, “J. & M. Bell” of Tyne Street are listed as milliners, and one assumes, with Jane being additionally involved in the china shop, that Margaret was the principle hat-maker, Jane perhaps handling the business side.
John, apart from his share in the china and glass concern, also worked as a ship surveyor, that is, one who inspected ships for seaworthiness and general condition, either on behalf of the owners or for insurance purposes. He was also active within the Wesleyan Methodist community as a local preacher and class leader. Local preachers played a vital part in Methodist organisation. A Methodist ‘circuit’ – the administrative grouping of different congregations within a particular geographic area – would normally be under the pastoral charge of two or three ordained professional ministers. Within any circuit, however, there would be many more individual congregations than that, and Wesley and his successors had always seen it as essential that no member of the connexion should be without the weekly succour of a formal Sabbath act of worship. Local preachers were the answer, laymen without formal training, but with acknowledged spiritual or inspirational gifts, who would hold the services in the outlying communities. There were around a dozen of these men in the North Shields community at this time, and they were organised on a rota system, according to the circuit ‘preaching plan’, devised so that no individual should become unduly associated with any particular congregation. Class leaders played an equally important role, indeed could be regarded as being at the heart of what commitment to Methodism meant. Each member of a Methodist society had to attend a ‘class meeting’ on a weekly basis. These gatherings can be seen as a combination of prayer meeting, Bible Class, confessional and group therapy session. Here each individual publically examined their conscience, measured their own conduct against the unyielding Christian standard, and received guidance on how to walk more closely with God in the future. In such an environment, the class leader, as director of the meeting and ultimate authority within it, wielded enormous spiritual influence over the eight to a dozen ordinary class members attending. Class leaders as a body, moreover, meeting amongst themselves on a weekly basis, were effectively responsible for the day-to-day running of the circuit, although ultimately under the controlling aegis of the resident preachers. Holding such positions speaks highly of John Bell’s piety and diligence – it was, after all, no sinecure to devote what would otherwise be one’s leisure time to travelling and preaching on a weekly basis, not to mention the additional duties class leadership entailed – as well as the trust placed in him by the local authorities. Unfortunately, however, this does not represent the complete picture. John had a weakness for drink. No doubt his work as a surveyor was a contributing factor, taking him down among the ships and temptations of the lower town, in a role where a degree of hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie would be a valuable professional asset. Clearly, too, on all the evidence, he was a binge drinker, rather than a habitual soak, able to refrain for months or even years at a time, before giving in. Nevertheless, it was inevitable that at some point his two worlds would collide, as indeed they were to do in the following year.
John’s sister, Jane – who drank only water – was, as stated, 34 at the beginning of 1819. As we have seen, Walter Scott, meeting her a full seven years later, guessed her age at ‘around thirty’, so she would clearly tend to be taken, by casual acquaintances, for younger, and possibly considerably younger, than she was, a fact of some potential significance in what was to follow. The course of her life would, in many ways, not have been easy. Her father had gone bankrupt when she was only two years old, and it must have taken years of financial struggle and austerity for the family to reach a level of comparative comfort. The defining event of her life, however, would surely have been the death of her mother Alice when she was nine, almost certainly from complications in childbirth. Leaving aside the immediate and continuing emotional repercussions, what this did was to completely change her role within the family. A domestic establishment of the time required a woman as its head, and she – however young - was the only candidate for the post. Her life would henceforward be defined by the fact of her duty of care towards her father and siblings and it is therefore hardly a complete surprise that she was still unmarried in her middle thirties.
Like the rest of her family, Jane was a Methodist, and the community appears to have been her only source of social interaction outside the house. Literally everyone who she is reported as having any personal contact with at all belonged to the connexion. She seems to have been particularly good at gaining the friendship of the Methodist ministers assigned to the area, and sustaining that friendship after they moved away, and it was to their circuits that she travelled on her infrequent excursions from home. So it was that in the late summer of 1819 that she went for an extended stay in Hull, 150 miles to the south, to visit the Reverend Abraham Farrar and his wife, who had been stationed in South Shields from 1813 to 1815. While there, she met for the first time a Mr William Sissison. Sissison was 30, a Wesleyan Methodist – of course – and a currier by trade. Since this is an occupation that has virtually ceased to exist, it will be well to quote a description and explanation from the 1882 Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Leather as it leaves the tannery is a comparatively rough, harsh and intractable substance, and the duty of the currier is to dress and otherwise fit it for the use of the shoemaker, coachbuilder, saddler and the numerous other tradesmen who work on it. The currier has to smooth the leather, so to pare it down as to reduce inequalities of thickness, to impregnate it with fatty matter in order to render it soft and pliable, and to give it such a surface dressing, colour and finish as please the eye and suit the purposes of its consumers.
It was physically hard, dirty and smelly work, but it was also extremely skilled. Curriers had had their own Guild since the 17th century, and Sissison would have had to serve a seven year apprenticeship before being allowed to set up on his own. He still, however, lived at home with his mother and sister.
By the time Jane returned to North Shields in October, what contemporaries referred to as ‘an understanding’ existed between them, and Sissison wrote a letter to Jacob Bell which merits quoting in full:
Honored and Dear Sir,
It is not without a feeling of very great diffidence that I take up my pen to address you on a subject in which you must feel very deeply concerned as well as myself. I have no hesitation in saying, that I was led by a special interposition of Divine Providence, to form an acquaintance with your amiable and inestimable daughter, (Miss Jane) of which you will e'er this have been informed: an acquaintance, for which I feel I shall have cause to be thankful, as long as I live, even if I should never have the pleasure of seeing her again.
The impression made upon my mind of her superiority, (not only to the generality, but, even to the higher classes of females with whom I am acquainted,) is such, as I feel myself quite inadequate to convey an idea of; when I look at the natural and acquired mental possessions, and, above all, the exalted piety of Miss Bell, I feel so sunk in my own esteem, and so very unworthy of such a person, that nothing but the most ardent affection, combined with a conviction that I was acting under the influence of heaven, could have prompted me to presume to solicit her hand; and the only plea I have to offer in justification of my conduct, is, the fixed determination I feel, in my own breast, (in humble dependence on the grace of God) to spend my life in proving the ardency of my affection for her, and the high sense I entertain of her incalculable worth, (providing it should please my Heavenly Father to bestow this greatest of earthly blessings upon me, and circumstances can be made agreeable.)
I am not quite ignorant of the difficulties that present themselves to our connexion, and I feel acutely sensible how great a sacrifice, you, my dear Sir, will be called to make in giving up such a daughter, should you ever see it your duty to grant your consent to our union. But, sir, I trust you daily experience that divine assistance is always proportioned to the trials we are called to bear, if earnestly sought, and, in the present instance, I feel a humble hope that the trial will be lightened, by the satisfaction of knowing that your daughter is united to one who is devoting his life to her happiness; I thank God, I can appeal to him, that by his grace, this is the pure intention of my heart.
My principal view, in writing to you, sir, at present, is, to solicit your permission to visit Miss Bell, when I shall be happy to have an opportunity of conversing with you at large, on the various circumstances connected with so important a step, which cannot be fully entered upon in a letter.
In conclusion, I have only to say, that the relationship in which you stand to the dearest object of my heart, must be my apology for addressing you in the familiar manner which I have done, and hope you will accept the assurance of the sincere regard of
Your's, most respectfully,
Hull, 15th October, 1819.
P. S. Be pleased to present my kindest love to my dear Jane, as also my respects to the other members of your family, all of whom I feel interested in. Mr. Farrar desired me to mention their love to yourself and family.
A letter such as this is peculiarly difficult to interpret almost two centuries later, when formality tends to be read as insincerity. Taking into account, however, that this is certainly the kind of letter that Mr Bell would expect to receive and Sissison feel duty-bound to write, one can try to tease out what are its individual, as opposed to its generic, elements. Overall, it strikes what one will come to recognise as the authentic Sissisonian note – that of a man desperate not just to do the right thing, but to be acknowledged as doing the right thing. The following years were to provide him with rich and varied occasions for justifying his actions, all of which he would utilise to explain how, in every instance, his conduct had been completely unimpeachable. This need to be in the right, not just in his own eyes but in those of others, was to have a profound effect on the events to come.
More immediately noticeable here, of course, are the pervasive appeals to God and Providence. While neither this kind of vocabulary, nor the kind of ideological orientation which will automatically see all events from a theological perspective, were uncommon among Methodists at the time, it is unusual to see them so prominent in a letter from one layman to another on an essentially secular topic. Several alternative, though not necessarily incompatible, explanations suggest themselves. Sissison may well have been an exceptionally pious man. Certainly, other letters of his display some of the same characteristics, although not with the same density. He may have regarded Jane Bell (as he states) and therefore her family, as exceptionally pious, in which case he is merely addressing her father as he is assumed to prefer being addressed. But there is also the point that the romance had been somewhat of a whirlwind one, and explaining the pair’s conjunction as ‘a special interposition of Divine Providence’ would be a way of staving off awkward questions about undue haste.
The concentration on Miss Bell’s virtues and attainments can be seen as both necessary flattery, and as an adjunct to the tone of heightened religious idealism that Sissison is clearly striving to achieve, while the derogatory references to himself, though arguably overdone, are a familiar trope in such circumstances. It must be remembered too, that Sissison, while perfectly capable of communicating fluently on paper in ordinary circumstances, is a man more comfortable with a currying knife in his hand than a pen, and the sense one has of him writing on stilts may be nothing more than a reflection of his discomfort with an unfamiliar style.
And yet...and yet... It is surely not completely anachronistic to feel a slight sense of queasiness on reading this letter. Where in it is there any sense of Jane Bell as a personality, any sense of liking or attraction? Her virtues are all mental or spiritual ones. There is nothing to give any feeling of engagement with her on a human level. Sissison may twice state the ardency of his affection, but ardour and affection are precisely what the letter lacks.
Buried within it, also, are some disconcertingly practical concerns. The extraordinary paragraph-long sentence beginning ‘The impression made upon my mind...’ can be seen as merely leading up to (or descending towards) its businesslike final clause, ‘and circumstances can be made agreeable’. And, as Sissison himself makes clear, the actual purpose of the letter is to arrange a meeting with Jacob Bell, a meeting at least one of whose main purposes will be the sorting-out of the marriage contract in bald financial terms.
Financial prudence does not preclude passion, but it is not entirely one’s knowledge that this marriage was never to take place which leads to the conclusion that it was not primarily, if at all, a love match. The fact is, both sides had much to gain from the arrangement. Like almost all women of her time, Jane Bell would have regarded the married state as her natural destiny, and opportunities for attaining it were growing sparser as the years went by. From her father’s point of view, whether or not he was aware of how ill he in fact was – he would be dead within a year – the wish to have his daughter settled and protected for the future must have weighed strongly on his mind. As for Sissison, he was still, at 30, living in the family home with his sister and widowed mother, a situation that he cannot fail to have found occasionally irksome. This was, moreover, a worrying time financially. Curriers almost invariably went in for their trade because of some sort of family connection in the leather business generally, and in William’s case it would have been because of his father’s profession as a shoemaker. The concern had been passed on to William’s elder brother John a few years previously, but whether it was his cobbling or commercial skills that were lacking, it thereafter rapidly sank, and it was only a matter of weeks before Jane’s arrival in Hull that it had been wound up completely. Apart from the dent to the overall Sissison family income, this also meant that William’s own business was less secure, since a guaranteed market for any finished leather he might produce had been removed. In this situation, a wife, with a suitable dowry, could offer a solution to both economic and domestic difficulties.
With a Methodist in North Shields in need of a husband, and a Methodist in Hull in need of a wife, the question arises whether their conjunction can have been entirely a matter of chance. Given his acquaintanceship with both families, the invitation to visit from the Reverend Farrar may well have been made, to put it at its most tentative, in the knowledge that such an outcome was not outside the bounds of possibility. This, of course, is speculation. The fact is that the engagement took place, and was acknowledged by Jacob Bell in a letter replying to Sissison’s:
North-Shields, October 21, 1819.
Previous to your's of the 15th inst. I was informed by my daughter Jane of your attatchment (sic) to her; I wrote to our esteemed friend, Mr. Farrar on the subject, and received a very satisfactory account of you; I have had many serious conversations with Jane concerning you, and having great confidence in her judgment and conduct, am led to think favorably of you, by her report.
As her happiness is inseparably connected with my own, I have no wish (indeed I durst not attempt) to control her, if she sees 'tis her providential path, as I am firmly persuaded she will be clear in, before she takes such a step. I decline, sir, saying what is due to my daughter, or name the loss, we, as a family, shall sustain in parting with her. I cannot but say, you have my full permission to visit her.
I hope you, as well as Jane, constantly make it a subject of prayer, that you may be led and guided by the Spirit of God into that way he would have you to go.
Your's, most respectfully,
P. S. Jane desires her love to you and Mr. and Mrs. Farrar, and my family present their respects.
While religious preoccupation is certainly present here, the tone is notably more sober and controlled than that of his correspondent.
So, Sissison visited North Shields – in fact he made at least two visits over the next few months. He would have met family and friends, attended church services, and been introduced to the community in general as Miss Bell’s fiancé. The marriage was due to take place in the autumn of 1820, and in preparation for this, Jane and John formally dissolved their business partnership in July of that year. This would have enabled Jane’s share in the firm to be released as cash for her marriage portion.
Previous to this, however, John Bell had run into trouble. In March 1820 his drinking had spun temporarily out of control. To his credit, he recognised the problem, and laid the situation before the Reverend Robert Pilter, the North Shields Superintendent. They agreed that he should be suspended as a preacher (or ‘taken off the plan’) for a probationary period of twelve months, with his reinstatement, subject to proof of renewed sobriety, to be decided on at the Quarterly Meeting.* By March 1821, however, as we shall see, circumstances within the community had altered, and the decision on his reinstatement would be made on the basis of other factors entirely.
*The Quarterly Meeting was the overall administrative body for the circuit, consisting of the preachers, the circuit stewards and the leaders and stewards from the various individual societies.
Meanwhile, the marriage itself had had to be postponed, for tragic reasons. Jacob Bell fell ill, or more gravely ill, we must assume some time after July, and Jane inevitably became his nurse. She tended him, unable and unwilling to leave, until his death in October. By this time the marriage date had passed, but any hasty rearrangement was out of the question. Apart from the impropriety of such a thing, Jane herself was prostrated both physically and emotionally and required time to recuperate. It took her into the early spring of the following year to do so, at which point the wedding was provisionally set for an as yet unspecified date some time in late July. Jane began making her arrangements for moving to Hull, as well as for the arrival of Sissison in North Shields for the ceremony, and no doubt the posts were busy between the two.
It was from around the middle of June that, out of the blue, there arose cause for disquiet. Without explanation, Sissison ceased writing regularly, and, when he did write, in reply to Jane Bell’s own increasingly concerned letters, it was in guarded and evasive terms. It was only after two weeks of this, on July the second, that there came the bombshell. Sissison wrote breaking off the engagement.
The background to this, from Sissison’s point of view, was as follows. On the 13th of June he had received this anonymous letter:
Excuse haste, brevity, obscurity.
you are engaged in an afair in this place which will prove your ruin, except providence prevent. As a friend, I warn you of your danger. May God help you!—you are cruelly deceived—
Instantly break off the connexion—better spend your days in a prison than continue it. A prudent man forseeth the evil and hideth himself." Ask the methodist preachers,—ask any respectable person in North or South Shields for the truth of this letter, except Dr. O.—O my friend be advised – I could end this with a name that would easily convince you; but I forbear—pray make further enquiry.
June 12th, 1821.
(Addressed to) Mr John Sission (sic), Shoemaker or Currier.
" Rev. Mr Walmsley's, Methodist Preacher, Hull.
To be delivered immediately.
Sissison had barely, one imagines, finished reeling from this, when, the following day, a second letter arrived, clearly from the same correspondent.
Is it you for whom this dreadful pit is dug in Shields. O Sir, for God's sake make enquiry before you take such a desperate step. What a Methodist join himself to infamy and poverty! ask the methodist preachers whether you ought to take such a step, ask any body in North or South Shields, except Dr. O—l—y.
Fly, fly, from danger – bury yourself in a prison rather than take a----a----a---- & a---- for better for worse
your sincere friend.
June 12th, 1821
Do make enquiry
(Addressed to) Mr. Sissison, Currier.
Rev. Mr. Smith, Methodist Preacher, Hull.
To be delivered immediately.
These letters would be subject to much detailed forensic inquiry in the following months, and we shall deal with all the conclusions drawn as they arise, but for the moment a few basic points should be made. First of all, the writer does not, in fact, know Sissison. He gets his Christian name wrong, misspells his surname, is unsure of his profession, and does not know where he lives. Secondly, he (or she) is familiar with the names of the Methodist ministers resident in Hull. Third, Dr Oxley (for it is he) is particularly singled out, even more explicitly in the second letter than the first, in case there might be any mistake as to identity. (Although even there, the writer cannot bring himself to spell the name out in full, a stylistic – or psychological – trait we shall come across again.)
More broadly, the most striking element is the vagueness of the charges. Sissison has been ‘deceived’. In what way? He should not join himself to ‘infamy’. Of what sort? He should not marry ‘a----a----a---- & a---- ‘. A what, a what, a what, and a what? The only specific charge, in fact, is that of poverty – admittedly something which, if true, might indeed give Sissison pause for thought, but hardly sufficient in itself to account for the hysterical venom and desperation displayed. What the letters are, are a baited hook, soliciting – indeed demanding – further inquiry. The only question for Sissison was whether he would swallow it.
In fact, Sissison was in something of a difficult position. No doubt the proper and correct thing to do – and, to be fair, probably his first impulse – would have been to inform Miss Bell immediately of these slurs to her reputation, swear undying trust, and carry on with the wedding preparations as before. The problem was that Sissison simply did not know his fiancée particularly well. He had spent little time in her company, knew few of her friends, and, crucially, had no acquaintance with anyone in the communities where she had spent her life. That she could be completely other than she had presented herself to him was, of course, difficult to believe, but it was certainly not, in purely practical terms, impossible. Sissison dithered. He talked to his mother. Then, after two days, on the fifteenth, he took action. First, he sent the second anonymous letter to the Reverend Farrar, now resident in York, asking whether he had any idea of who the writer might be, and if it might be appropriate to contact someone in North Shields for information. Farrar‘s reply partially* reads as follows:
My dear Friend,—I have not the least idea to what the extraordinary letter you forwarded, refers, nor who can be its author, but it is calculated to produce very painful impressions; and you can neither do yourself nor Miss Bell justice, without making the inquiries directed. By all means consult Mr. Hill [...] Dr. Oxley, I know to be intimate at Miss B.'s, this may be the reason why he is excepted. I have lately been down at Newcastle, and, in passing through Shields, my wife and I spent the night at Miss Bell's, but neither saw nor heard any thing improper.
Your's, very affectionately,
A. E. Farrar.
York, June 18, 1821.
*Only the Bells’ first pamphlet gives the text, not indicating that it is incomplete. Sissison, however, states in his second letter to Hill that Farrar advised him to consult ‘C. Wawn Esq., South Shields’ and this is the only letter in which he could have done so.
As will be seen from this, Sissison did not simply ask about the propriety of making inquiries to North Shields, he specifically named the person he was considering writing to, although, in fact, Farrar has it slightly wrong. Sissison’s difficulty was that he did not actually know anyone native to North Shields, apart from those members of Miss Bell’s inner circle – including Dr Oxley – to whom he would have been introduced during his visits there, and inquiry to them would hardly have solicited objective information. He did, however, have some kind of connection to the wife of the Reverend Thomas Hill, the lately appointed Methodist Superintendent of the area. She was originally from Hull herself, had known Sissison’s father, and been acquainted with William and his brother during their childhood. Writing to her on this rather flimsy basis – there is no evidence that they had had any contact for years, if not decades – may seem to smack of desperation, but Sissison was, at this point a desperate man. In fact, he did not even wait for Mr Farrar’s reply, but wrote to Mrs Hill on the same day, enclosing copies of the anonymous letters.
DEAR CHRISTIAN FRIEND—I trust the remembrance of my father's friendship will be a sufficient apology for my troubling you on this occasion, which is to me of infinite importance—Rather more than a year and a half ago, I formed an acquaintance with Miss Jane Bell, of the China Warehouse in Tyne Street, during a visit she paid to Mr. Farrar's, when at Hull, since which a correspondence has been kept up between us, which had every probability of terminating in a union of the most serious character, until the 3d Instant*, when I received the following most extraordinary communication, dated North Shields, 12th June 1821.(There follows a copy of the letter beginning—"Sir, excuse brevity and obscurity")
The following day, I received another letter, written in the same hand, likewise anonymous, of which the following is an exact copy- (The letter beginning—"Dear Sir, is It you for whom this dreadful pit is dug," &c.)
Now, it so happens, that I am not acquainted with a single individual in either of the Shields, except yourself. I certainly have never had an opportunity of making such enquiries as ought to be made on such occasions. I therefore throw myself on your generosity, either to supply or procure me all the information you possibly can, that I may not take a step in the dark, which may cause repentance for life.— The writer of these two letters must be actuated either by a very good motive or a very bad one, but In either case my duty is to make enquiry; for slighted warnings have sometimes proved dreadful curses. I pledge myself, whatever Information is communicated, the source shall not be revealed. I have only to request your indulgence and forgiveness for this intrusion; and, praying that every blessing may attend you and yours, for time and for eternity, I am, with the greatest respect, yours, &c.
He could then, no doubt in prayerful trepidation, only sit back and await the reply, which, when it came, was not from the wife but from the husband, the Reverend Thomas Hill himself.
*Clearly a mistake, either by Sissison or the transcriber, for the 13th.
When Thomas Hill arrived in North Shields in August 1820 to take up his position as circuit superintendent, he was 45 and had been in the Methodist ministry for 12 years. His life before that appears unrecoverable – his official church obituary states that he was born near Stourbridge, Worcestershire, and this is confirmed by Hill’s 1851 census record giving his birthplace as Oldswinford, the parish within which Stourbridge is situated. It is possible that he was a relation of the Hill family of opulent industrialists based in that area, although he says himself that ‘it was late in life before I became a student’, so the implied lack of formal education may point to humbler origins. The obituary states that he ‘was converted to God in early life’ and ‘for the sake of devoting himself to the work of the ministry, he cheerfully gave up worldly prospects which were very promising.’ His marriage certificate of 1814 has him as a widower, but we know nothing of his first marriage, the entire course of which almost certainly predated his entry into the ministry in 1808, since the Methodist connexion would only accept the already married for training and ordination under exceptional circumstances. The second marriage, which took place in Dewsbury, was to Susanna Chapman, herself a widow and 4 years his junior, and, by the time they came to North Shields, they had three children, all under 6 years old.
Hill was, in Methodist parlance, an itinerant preacher. Itinerancy was central and peculiar to Methodist organisation. Unlike in the Church of England, where a clergyman – unless ambitious for promotion – might expect to remain in the same parish for his entire working life, Methodist ministers were always moved from one circuit to another at regular intervals. Two years in one place was standard, three the maximum, and a single year far from unknown. In his career, Hill had already been stationed in Bridlington, Holderness, Howden, Sunderland, Dewsbury, Bradford, Preston and Bolton. Methodist itinerancy, in functional terms, played a role analogous to that of celibacy in the Catholic Church. It separated the minister from the laity and created a kind of hierarchy of holiness. Itinerancy demonstrated that the preacher was not bound or distracted by the ties to places and people dear to ordinary men – his loyalty was solely to God, his focus entirely on his pastoral mission. Conducive to spiritual purity and concentration though it may have been, however, itinerancy had its human cost. All friendships were provisional, all roots shallow. This must have been particularly hard on the preachers’ families, lacking their sense of vocation and without the daily absorption of work. Women at home with their children depend on networks of friends, but these are hard to build up and sustain when one is continually arriving in places as a stranger and with a ticket of departure, so to speak, already in one’s pocket.
For the preacher himself there were other difficulties. Continually changing location could lead to a constitutional tone-deafness to the nuances and particularities of any individual local situation; the constant knowledge that everyone in the community knew each other better than they knew you was a recipe for paranoia; and the inevitable degree of isolation encouraged both spiritual pride and self-pity. From none of these, as we shall see, was Thomas Hill exempt.
His arrival in North Shields came in the wake of something of a crisis in its Methodist community, reflecting a broader crisis in the country at large. We have looked at the year 1819 purely from individual viewpoints, but, from a broader historical perspective, it was a year of national emergency and potential disaster. This was the year when the growing tide of radical challenge to the constitutional status quo reached its height with the great mass meeting calling for parliamentary reform at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, infamously broken up by sword-wielding cavalrymen. After Peterloo there seemed to many to be an imminent threat of violent revolution.
With the country divided, there was no question where the Wesleyan Methodist hierarchy stood. Methodism had never been a radical movement politically – Wesley himself was a staunch Tory – and, as it grew in numbers and respectability through the early years of the nineteenth century, its conservatism became more and more entrenched. This is not entirely surprising. The very fact of Methodism being anti-establishment in ecclesiastical terms – particularly after the definitive split from the Church of England in 1795 – had always left it open to the charge that it was, by its very nature, an enemy to authority. In an era where authority felt itself increasingly on the defensive, this was a dangerous reputation to have, and the Methodist leadership cannot altogether be blamed for bending over backwards to emphasise their loyalty and political trustworthiness. Jabez Bunting, the dominant Methodist figure of the first half of the century, has not endeared himself to posterity with his robust statement that “Methodism hates democracy as it hates sin”, but, at the time, it was the politically savvy line to take.
The political beliefs of the Methodist authorities, however, were not unanimously those of the Methodist laity, as events in North Shields itself were to prove.
On the eleventh of October 1819, less than a month after Peterloo, a huge open-air protest meeting took place on the Town Moor in Newcastle. By some estimates, 75,000 people attended, though the event was peaceful and passed off without incident. Among the speakers was a schoolteacher called William Stephenson. On the matter of Peterloo, he lambasted the ‘cruel magistrates’ and the ‘barbarous and cruel yeomanry’, claimed that their offences merited capital punishment, and wound up by asserting “I would rather die with Pompey in the cause of liberty than be enthroned with Caesar on its ruins”. Quite what the pitmen of Blyth among his audience made of this is neither here nor there, but in any case the details of his speech are less significant than the fact that he gave it at all, since he was, at the time, a Methodist local preacher from the North Shields circuit.
Complaints about this were brought to Robert Pilter, the North Shields superintendent, on the basis that so blatant an abrogation of political neutrality was incompatible with Stephenson’s role as a preacher. Pilter absolutely concurred, and spoke to him about the advisability of resigning his position. Stephenson, however, did not see things in this light, flatly refusing to resign, but wishing to have his case debated and voted on by his peers at a meeting of all the local preachers. He warned, moreover, that should a decision be taken to expel him, the consequences would be dire for the local Methodist community, since three-quarters of the members were radical reformers like himself. Pilter had little choice but to call the meeting; however, he also wrote immediately to Jonathan Crowther, that year’s president of the Methodist conference, the connexion’s overall governing body, in search of guidance. Crowther, in a surprisingly measured and statesmanlike reply, advised moderation, suggesting that a simple admonition would be sufficient, together with a promise from Stephenson not to indulge in such conduct in the future. Attempts to implement this advice, however, were fruitless, since, at the meeting, Stephenson stood firmly on his right of freedom of speech, stating that he ‘was an Englishman and would not give up his liberty and his conscience’, and could not therefore pledge himself not to repeat the offence. He also made a point of repeating his warning that ‘immense mischief would result from his expulsion’. Pilter considered the lack of a pledge demanded that very thing, but the other preachers were concerned about the potential damage to the circuit. A temporising compromise was arrived at – the trial would be adjourned for a fortnight, while advice was sought from the central Committee of Privileges, the connexion’s voice on legal matters. So, the next day, Pilter addressed Jabez Bunting himself, the guiding light of the committee, in a letter that positively breathes panic. In truth, Pilter was in an almost impossible situation. On the one hand, Methodist orthodoxy and discipline demanded Stephenson’s removal; failure to implement it would not only give ammunition to the connexion’s conservative enemies, it would also fatally undermine Pilter’s own authority as head of the circuit: on the other, expulsion seemed likely to lead to a massive haemorrhaging of membership, not to mention, from Pilter’s point of view, more direct and personal consequences. He writes that the preachers feared expelling Stephenson could ‘ruin the circuit and subject themselves, but especially me, to assassination’.
This may seem extreme and even ludicrous, but it was not entirely without foundation. The keelmen of the Tyne – men who transported coal up and down the river in small vessels – had been on strike since the end of September and had blocked the river to trade. Only a week before the preachers’ meeting, the Mayor of Newcastle himself had led a flotilla of boats, with Royal Navy backup, down the river to break the blockade by loading coal at North Shields. A small crowd, mainly of local youths, gathered on the quayside as the work began, booing and throwing stones at those loading the boats. The Mayor and his accompanying dignitaries, seeing this as unlikely to hinder the operation, landed and went to dine at the Northumberland Arms by the quay. In their absence, however, the stone-throwing became more severe, to the point where those affected called on the assistance of a company of marines, who fired 3 shots into the crowd from their boat on the water. Two were blanks, designed merely to intimidate, but the third – probably more by accident than design – was live, and killed an innocent bystander. This led to a full-scale riot. The marines and other boatmen having pulled off from the renewed and increasingly deadly hail of missiles directed at them, the mob turned its attention – with cries of ‘Manchester over again’ and ‘Blood for blood’ – to the Northumberland Arms, where it was rumoured (wrongly) that the marine officer in charge had taken refuge. The windows and window-frames on the two lower stories were smashed, and the doors had just been broken in, when the arrival of the High Constable of Shields, with a detachment of the 6th Dragoon Guards, dispersed the crowd and saved the Mayor, arguably, from a lynching. Nor was this the end of the matter. After a coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of Justifiable Homicide on the unfortunate bystander, the foreman of the jury had shots fired through his house windows, and two other jury members had their windows smashed.
In this fervid atmosphere, Pilter’s fears seem less unreasonable. Of course, he conflates the anger of the working-class mob with the more intellectual radicalism of the schoolteacher, but then this was exactly the kind of alliance the establishment feared, and while clearly Stephenson was coming to relish his position as a figurehead and potential martyr for reform, the role of figurehead for reaction and repression could all too easily be assigned to his persecutors.
Pilter’s fears and dilemmas – indeed the entire community complexity of the matter – were not, however, Jabez Bunting’s primary concern. In fact, he was already aware of the broad outlines of the situation, having previously received a letter from Christopher Wawn, an influential lay figure in the South Shields Methodist community and himself a member of the Committee of Privileges, informing him of Stephenson’s prominent participation in the Newcastle demonstration and the divisions of opinion locally as to what action should be taken against him. Having now received confirmation and amplification from the preacher directly in charge, Bunting must have seen the affair as offering an ideal opportunity to put down a definitive marker in terms of Methodism’s stance on radical dissent generally. The Committee of Privileges immediately brought out its verdict in two resolutions –
(1) That, under all the circumstances of the case, and considering the peculiar character of the Political Assembly lately held at Newcastle, this committee are of opinion, that it was highly improper that any Member of our Body should take any part in such a meeting, and much more so, that he should officiate as a Speaker; and that we think that any person who has thus acted should be immediately suspended from all public employment among us as a Local Preacher or Class Leader, and should not even be allowed to be a Member of our Society, unless he promise to abstain from such conduct in future.
(2) That it is the opinion of this committee that no persons who are enrolled as members of those dangerous Private Political Associations which are now prevalent in the Disturbed Districts of our Country, should be allowed to be Members of our Society, because, without adverting to the legal and political objections against such Associations it is, on Christian grounds, obviously improper for Members of a Religious Society to expose themselves to such scenes of temptation and turbulence.
These resolutions were expanded and generalised to apply across the Methodist board and published to all Methodist circuits a few weeks later.
Such an unambiguous statement might have been expected to make life easier for Mr Pilter, but unfortunately it did not. Armed with it, as he was, at the reconvened preachers’ meeting, he was unable to convince a majority of those present to take the required action. Stephenson, while refusing to actually pledge that he would not do so, stated that it was ‘very probable’ that he would never attend another meeting, and this was sufficient for the preachers, swayed by sympathy for a colleague (he had been fired from his teaching job as a consequence of his actions) and no doubt still concerned about broader ramifications, to vote 7 to 4 against removing him from the plan. It is more than probable that amongst the majority would have been both John Bell and Dr William Oxley.*
*Bell and Oxley were both local preachers at the time, and would therefore have voted at the meetings. It is later stated that Bell and Pilter’s ‘intercourse was, at one time, a little interrupted, owing to a difference of opinion’, and the Stephenson affair is overwhelmingly the most likely occasion for this to have occurred. Dr Oxley was not only John Bell’s friend, he was also a self-confessed radical.
One can almost hear Bunting’s sigh of irritated impatience on receiving the news of this in another hand-wringing letter from Pilter, before rousing himself to swat the problem aside like a fly. He returned to the Committee of Privileges, who swiftly resolved 'that Mr. Stephenson should be immediately suspended from the local Preachers' Plan, and from all official duties in the Methodist Connexion and also, that unless he unequivocally pledge himself to abstain from taking part in the public and private meetings of what are denominated the Radical Reformers, he be forthwith expelled from the Methodist Society'.
The word having come down to North Shields, Stephenson was duly removed, and although he had considerably over-estimated the number of his sympathisers, took a noticeable minority of the local Wesleyans with him. Fourteen Independent Methodist Chapels were established in the Newcastle area within the next year.
This could be seen as either a disaster or a salutary cleansing, but whichever view one took, it was clear that Robert Pilter had not emerged from the affair with any great credit. His authority had been damaged and his ability to control the members of his circuit thrown into question. The moving of preachers from one circuit to another was decided upon during the annual Methodist Conference, but this had already taken place, so Pilter, by default, was to retain his position in North Shields for a further year. By the time of the next conference in July 1820, however, he would have been in North Shields for the maximum permitted period of three years, so would be due to be transferred elsewhere in any case, even had his time in the circuit been more of a success than it proved. His successor, whoever it might be, would clearly have a difficult inheritance, so making the correct choice became a matter of some importance. Pilter had his own ideas on the subject. Writing again to Bunting in July 1820 he stated his preference for David M’Nicoll, with Thomas Moss as his assistant. Moss, who was indeed appointed, was young and inexperienced, but, as events would prove, a reliable and pugnacious yes-man for any actions of his superiors. M’Nicoll is a more interesting and substantial figure. He was an urbane, benign and bookish man, unconcerned with politics, which suggests that Pilter felt the circuit required a time of respite from confrontation. On the other hand, he was also a close friend of Thomas Allan, Bunting’s right-hand man at Methodist headquarters, and was seen as something of a rising star in the movement, so Pilter may simply have been ingratiating himself with Bunting, while at the same time hoping to achieve something of a coup for his circuit by the appointment. In the event, M’Nicoll gained a higher position, that of Chairman of the entire Newcastle district, which included North Shields among the circuits it directed,* though his congenital dislike for administration made his time there not altogether a comfortable one.
*The Newcastle District consisted of the circuits of Newcastle, Gateshead, North Shields, Sunderland, Durham, Wolsingham, Hexham, Alston, Alnwick and Berwick.
The process by which any particular preacher was assigned to any particular circuit had always been shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Circuits could petition, as Pilter did; preachers could request; but the ultimate decision was made by the Stationing Committee, which sat annually and included a representative of each Methodist district, as well as the President and Secretary of the previous year’s conference. Like many other Methodist institutions of the time, this was widely and correctly assumed to be under the control of Jabez Bunting, who in 1820 was the Secretary in question, as he had been for several years previously. Bunting would hardly have had the desire or information to micromanage all preaching appointments, but it is impossible to believe, given his close involvement with the events of the previous year, that he would have failed to afford the question of who to appoint to North Shields his particular attention. That the choice fell on Thomas Hill was, therefore, far from accidental. Notice, specifically, would have been taken of his performance in his two previous postings at Preston and Bolton.
In Preston in 1816, Hill and his deputy William Arnott had presided over a significant religious revival which bolstered local Wesleyan Methodist membership by almost a third in a matter of months, necessitating the building of a new larger chapel which opened the following year. This spurt in Methodist enthusiasm sufficiently alarmed some local Anglicans for them to have reprinted and widely distributed an anti-Methodist pamphlet entitled ‘A Caveat Against Unsound Doctrines’ by the Reverend Augustus Toplady. Toplady, who is mainly remembered today, if at all, for his authorship of the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’, was more widely known in his lifetime and for many years subsequently as a theologian and religious controversialist. In particular, he was a fervent proponent of Calvinism, both as a doctrine in its own right, and as the essential basic tenet of Anglican theology. As such, he was bitterly opposed to the Arminianism of John Wesley and his followers, whom he attacked constantly in print. What is interesting is that the pamphlet in question – the text of one of his sermons – had originally been published in 1770, with Toplady himself dying in 1778. That the Preston Anglicans should have chosen such a venerable weapon against resurgent Methodism says much about the continuing cachet of Toplady’s reputation, and perhaps a little about the lack of contemporary polemical expertise available locally. In any case, what matters for our purposes is that the publication provoked Thomas Hill’s first recorded venture into print. “A Brief Vindication of Evangelical Arminianism in reply to A Caveat Against Unsound Doctrines […]” is not the kind of work that intrinsically recommends itself to today’s tastes, but as a defence of Wesleyan doctrine it is efficiently written, clearly argued, and displays an impressive familiarity with both Biblical texts and the theological issues involved.
Overall, then, his time in Preston would have marked Hill as a man to watch. Not only had he displayed exemplary evangelical energy in boosting membership, he had also himself entered the public arena against Methodism’s opponents, demonstrating not only his combativeness in support of the connexion, but also an impeccable doctrinal orthodoxy combined with substantial scriptural erudition. What would have made him more particularly stand out as a candidate for the North Shields appointment, however, were the events in Bolton in that year of events, 1819.
Political agitation does not arise in a vacuum. The radical movements of the age were, to a substantial extent, the product of the extended period of economic depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Rising prices and falling wages led to understandable dissatisfaction with the political system which produced them, a system which denied those most affected any say in its operation. The Wesleyan Methodist Connexion had a difficult line to tread in this situation, maintaining sympathy with the genuine suffering of many of its members, while distancing itself forcefully from their political aspirations. This task was made harder by the economic impact of the downturn on the organisation itself. Lacking the entrenched wealth of the established church, Methodism had always had to be self-supporting, dependent on contributions from its members. To be a member of the connexion, one had, as we have seen, to attend a class meeting on a weekly basis. Attendance was rewarded with a class ticket, essentially a membership card for the connexion. But, as well as making time to be present, one also had to make a financial contribution. At this period it was set at one penny (at least) per week, plus an additional shilling (at least) per quarter. The monies thus collected would go to support the preachers’ salaries, the interest on loans for chapel buildings, and administration generally. Besides such mandatory payments there were also regular, if unscheduled, extra collections made according to what was deemed necessary to maintain the work of the circuit at any particular juncture. In times of economic stringency, however, even small sums could be beyond some members’ reach. This created several difficulties. By the letter of the law, anyone who did not pay could not be a member. But denying someone spiritual sustenance simply on grounds of poverty was not exactly what Jesus (or Wesley) had had in mind. On the other hand, Methodism had to be financially sustained. There was also the point that, simplistic as the analysis might have been, the appearance of the thing was that the preachers, all middle-class men in comfortable circumstances, were scraping money out of the hands of the poor in order to line their own pockets. William Stephenson, in North Shields, still seething at his expulsion, made his view clear:
“The people are groaning under the pecuniary burdens which are imposed upon them from time to time. One collection follows another in rapid succession, and they never know where the misery will end. There are more than seventy collections every year, either public or private - was this always the case? We answer, it was not; a time was, when Methodist preachers had little more than fifty pounds per annum; their wants then were few, they laboured for souls, and success in their labours was to them a sufficient recompense. Superfine coats, water-proof hats, silk stockings and gold watches were never the object of their pursuits - Surely, Sir this cannot be said for the present race of Methodist Preachers.”
One can see from this how easily such an issue could be assimilated to the radical agenda of poverty against privilege. Nevertheless, it is clear from the frequency of the somewhat plaintive resolutions passed and promulgated by the Conference, requiring the rules to be rigidly applied, that many preachers must simply have played things by ear, turning a blind eye to infractions where there was nothing to be gained by not doing so. This, however, was not Thomas Hill’s way.
The economic recession was particularly severe in the cotton industry, and Bolton, a mill town, suffered accordingly. Despite the straitened circumstances of many members of his congregation, however, Hill, then superintendent of the circuit, insisted on a rigid application of the rules. Those who defaulted on their payments were ruthlessly struck off the class lists. Moreover, he harangued the congregation continually on the spiritual evils of non-payment and the Christian necessity of ‘supporting the ministry’. Many among the community had radical sympathies, but such views he treated with scorn and preached against them on a regular basis. This ‘bringing of politics into the pulpit’ was much resented, and events came to a head at a class leaders’ meeting early in 1819. Some members were accustomed to indicating their radical sympathies by wearing white felt hats in imitation of the radical leader Henry Hunt. Several of these were placed on a table prior to the start of the meeting, and Hill knocked them to the floor with a sweep of his arm. This direct display of contempt appears to have marked the point of no return, with ten senior members leaving the connexion shortly afterwards to form their own independent church.
The parallels between these events and those in North Shields later in the year are obvious. In both cases, a secession took place, ostensibly on the issue of radicalism. The real issue, however, was that of authority. What were the limits that the Methodist church felt entitled to impose on its members’ beliefs and behaviour, and how were these limits to be enforced? Pilter, though disapproving of Stephenson’s actions, was willing to go to some lengths to retain him and those like him within the community. Hill, on the other hand, appears to have regarded radicals as simply bad apples whom the connexion would be better off without, a view that Bunting undoubtedly shared. Pilter’s strategy of appeasement – admittedly somewhat forced upon him – would, without central intervention, have left the North Shields radicals in place. Hill’s proactive confrontations had forced the Bolton radicals out. In appointing Hill to North Shields, therefore, Bunting was both addressing a perceived problem and making a clear statement. Here was a circuit where lingering disaffection was still likely to exist, and further trouble to be looked for. Should it arise, it would be dealt with rigorously.
Hill would have been well aware of his assigned role as enforcer, and must have taken up his appointment in the expectation of opposition. After all, had Stephenson not said that three-quarters of the circuit’s members shared his opinions? Since nothing like that number had left with him, the obvious assumption was that many had stayed to continue spreading their poison from within. Certainly, at least some of the local preachers who had actually voted for his retention, against the wishes of Conference and the local superintendent, were still in place. It is inconceivable that Hill should not have been informed that John Bell and Dr Oxley, among others, were not entirely to be trusted to follow the party line.
The historical irony of this is that, by August 1820, when Thomas Hill arrived in North Shields prepared to smite rampant radicalism hip and thigh, the radical moment had, in fact, passed. Peterloo and its immediate aftermath would prove to have been the high-water mark of mass popular discontent. Draconian government laws against assembly and organisation were sufficient to suffocate radical reform movements for a generation. That we now know this to be the case, however, does not mean that this is how it was perceived at the time, particularly not so soon after the traumatic events of 1819. Certainly, radicalism had become less overt, but did this not simply mean that its forces were organising clandestinely, in preparation for a yet mightier assault? Clandestine organisation is, by definition, not easily discernible, so those believing in its extensive existence are always in danger of seeing a hidden hand in events susceptible to simpler explanation. Even in 1819, opposition to Hill in Bolton had been as much to do with his inflexible and insensitive attitude to monetary contributions as with broader political differences, but Hill would always believe his opponents to be politically motivated, and, in consequence, that his own actions justified themselves by the magnitude of threat he was confronting.
It was not long after his arrival in North Shields that issues began to arise. The first was what was to be rather over-grandly described as the Oxley controversy. William Oxley was a prominent, perhaps over-prominent, member of the Methodist community, a class leader and local preacher. He was born, apparently illegitimately, in Allerthorpe in the east Riding of Yorkshire in 1779, and had been resident in the Shields area for around 20 years. At this point in his career and subsequently he is universally referred to as Dr Oxley, but there has to be some doubt as to whether he actually possessed what we would now recognise as formal medical qualifications. He is Mr Oxley in ‘The First Report of the Methodist Missionary Society for the Newcastle-upon-Tyne District’ in 1815 (where he is named as treasurer of the North Shields Circuit Society), and, more tellingly, in various newspaper advertisements of the same year, also titling him Mr, he is stated to be a surgeon and chemist. Later in his career, when he was running a private lunatic asylum in London, he is again referred to in official records as ‘William Oxley, surgeon’. Surgeons traditionally trained by serving an apprenticeship, rather than through a set course of study, but even this, particularly in the provinces, was not always a formal arrangement but could be a matter of simply picking up the knowledge required over time in a conducive environment. This may well have applied to Oxley, since a properly licensed apprenticeship was an expensive business, and one has to assume that, as an illegitimate child, he was unlikely to have grown up in affluent circumstances.
The fact that, in present day terms, Oxley was probably neither properly a doctor nor a surgeon is by no means to suggest that he was a quack or charlatan. Rigid codification of medical qualifications did not exist at the time, and it was perfectly legitimate for anyone to simply hang up his sign and commence to practice; the proof was in the pudding and Oxley was to sustain a medical career of more than 50 years without any querying of his abilities or credentials. In this he was no doubt aided by the nature of his two particular specialisations, midwifery and the care of the insane, the first being generally the province of the self-taught in any case, and the latter an area for which no definitive clinical templates existed. Nor would his lack of qualified training necessarily have handicapped either himself or his patients in the field of general practice, in an era when even the most advanced medical science remained very much a matter of hit and miss.
What is certainly true is that he was financially successful. Apart from his private asylum in Tynemouth and his personal residence in the same area – he had been married since 1805 and had at least three living children – he also owned property in North Shields itself, among his tenants being the Bell family. Looking at his career as a whole, what is perhaps most obvious is his sheer busyness and desire to be involved to the hilt in any organisation with which he was connected. (His particular enthusiasm was for teetotalism, of which he was an early pioneer, and by the end of his long life he had associated himself, generally at executive level, with virtually every major temperance organisation in the country.) As far as the North Shields Methodists were concerned there is at least a hint that this activist instinct could be found intrusive. Reversing the usual dictum regarding history, the high seriousness of the William Stephenson affair had been rehearsed as farce five years previously, when James Douglas, a bankrupted shoemaker, who had switched allegiance from the North Shields Wesleyans to the New Connection, published a pamphlet entitled “Methodism Condemned” a swingeing attack on Wesleyan Methodism and all its works, with particular reference to the conduct of the North Shields circuit. In it ‘Mr O---y’ is painted as the resident preachers’ fixer and general go-to man for any of the abundant dirty work they undertake. Douglas’s critique is, admittedly, hyperbolic to the point of derangement, but it fits the general picture of Oxley’s vigorous and assertive character to see him as someone able to establish himself as a vital cog in the wheel of the circuit’s management and a trusted lay lieutenant to the official hierarchy. It is equally easy to see why this kind of cosy relationship might have been brought to a halt with Thomas Hill’s arrival in the district. Hill would have seen the North Shields circuit as essentially dysfunctional due to appeasement of radical fifth-columnists in the community’s ranks by the previous regime. He would therefore have wanted to distance himself from all aspects of that regime as rapidly and definitively as possible. Oxley was not only deeply implicated by the general extent of his past influence, he had also probably been one of the men to vote for Stephenson’s retention in direct and rebellious contradiction to the stated wishes of central command. He was, moreover, himself a confessed radical. His necessary banishment from any access to the levers of local power was therefore a tactical and political necessity. Beyond this, it is likely that the two men simply rubbed each other the wrong way. Hill, narrow, saturnine, doctrinaire and driven, would always have been liable to find someone like Oxley, an outgoing, sanguine, self-confident man of the world, particularly irksome.
The particular trigger for open conflict was the fact that Oxley, a class leader, had become in the habit of absenting himself from the weekly administrative leaders’ meetings. As a doctor, he was, of course, on call, and occasional emergency disruptions of his schedule were only to be expected. His absenteeism, however, was something of a regular occurrence, to the point of clearly being against both the rules and spirit of his position. Whatever the reason for this behaviour might have been – Oxley may have been taking advantage of his privileged position in the community in this way for years and not realised the wind had changed; alternatively, it may have been a display of pique at his marginalisation by the new regime – it was not the kind of thing that Hill, a known stickler for regulations, was likely to let pass. Nor, to be fair, was his attitude unreasonable. It is hard not to read a degree of arrogance into Oxley’s conduct, a belief that rules were only to be obeyed by lesser men than he. And significantly, on this occasion, Hill was not without support. Even William Little, one of the circuit stewards, who was subsequently to be amongst the most vociferous of Hill’s opponents, agreed with him on the justice of calling Oxley to account. He also stated that ‘there had been ... differences of opinion in the society on the subject of Dr Oxley.’ So it is worth remembering, when we read Hill’s later attacks on the doctor, that he was not universally admired, and Hill’s opinion of him cannot entirely be dismissed as grounded in personal animus. Since Oxley remained a leader we can assume some concession was made on his part, it being impossible to imagine Hill not taking things further if the rules had continued to be flouted. The incident, however, can only have confirmed his predisposition to think of Oxley as someone inveterately liable to oppose ministerial authority.*
*This did not prevent him retaining Oxley as his family physician, but then he appears to have been the most prominent, if not the only, Wesleyan doctor in the town.
But the Oxley business was only a storm in a tea-cup compared to the dispute that arose around the same time, one which brought Hill into conflict with the leading members of the Methodist community in Blyth, a mining town about 8 miles to the north. The matter at issue was the status of the Methodist Chapel there. Such questions had, in fact, bedevilled Methodism generally, since the days of Wesley. Methodists needed places to worship in, but, unlike the Church of England, they had no architectural heritage ready-made. Chapels needed to be built, and in order to be built, required paying for. Methodism, as an organisation, had no such funds, so responsibility devolved down to the local level. Money would be raised in the local community, often predominantly from a few wealthier members. Once the building existed, however, a further problem arose, that of ownership. Legally, this was vested in named members of the community, but Wesley and his successors found this unsatisfactory. What, after all, was to stop these men, or their inheritors, from using the building for their own ends? What if they strayed from the true Wesleyan path? The place, after all, had been built specifically for Methodist purposes – a handful of unrepresentative individuals should surely not have the potential power to pervert this. The answer arrived at was to put the future of the building into the hands of trustees. They would be bound by a trust deed, defining precisely what was and was not allowed to happen to it and within it, in perpetuity. A model deed, for use in all such circumstances, was drawn up by the Methodist Conference. It specified, amongst other things, that no activities were to take place in a chapel, other than those mandated by the rules of the Connexion.
The chapel in Blyth had trustees and a trust deed, but unfortunately it was not the right one. Crucially, it failed to define precisely what activities were and were not permitted within the building. Since the chapel was of relatively recent construction, one suspects that the deed was tailored in this way to the wishes of the local community. What went on in the chapel was, of course, innocence and piety personified, but it does appear to have hosted local events other than purely religious services. More to the point, as it turned out, collections at these events were not passed up the line for distribution by the circuit headquarters in North Shields, but disbursed locally.
Thomas Hill’s original impulse for interfering in these arrangements may have been relatively benign. The trust deed situation was an anomaly, and one clearly counter to established Methodist policy. One could go as far as to say that he was doing nothing more than his duty in drawing the matter to Blyth’s attention and wishing for the deed to be revised along more appropriate lines. On the other hand, he appears to have initiated the business within a very short time after his arrival in the district, so the suspicion exists that he was looking for an opportunity to set down a marker in terms of ministerial authority. Diplomacy was, in any case, never Hill’s strong suit, and it seems clear that he put his proposals as a demand rather than a request. Constitutionally, he was no doubt on impeccably firm ground, but unfortunately perceptions worked against him. The fact was that the consequences of the change would benefit no-one more directly than Hill himself. The circuit hierarchy being what it was, he would now have the final and definitive say over what was permitted within the chapel. Not only that, but the monies collected in Blyth would now go to him rather than the local community, and the first call on collections within any circuit was always towards the payment of the minister’s salary. It also seems likely that extra collections were set to be imposed in order to pay for the actual legal business entailed in the setting-up of the new deed. Given all this, it can easily be understood how the Blyth leaders saw Hill’s actions as an attempt to crush them with his authority, while diverting funds destined for local charitable purposes into his own pocket. They reacted with concerted and determined opposition. From Hill’s point of view, it is equally clear that he would perceive such opposition as open rebellion, and a disinclination to hand over collections as financial blackmail.
It is unclear how the matter was finally resolved, whether Hill got his way through imposition of his authority, leading to seething resentment, or whether the men of Blyth, in completely legal possession after all, simply refused to budge. The issue was, in any case, to rumble on throughout Hill’s tenure in North Shields, peaking occasionally in bouts of accusation and counter accusation, threat and counter-threat, settling finally into a sullen truce in the months before his departure, with the Blyth leaders barring Hill from the chapel in question, and Hill, for once, allowing sleeping dogs to lie. For him, the affair can only have confirmed his preconceptions about those under his pastoral care. North Shields did indeed contain enemies within, and a minister’s authority could not be taken for granted, but must be actively employed.
It was in January 1821, by which time battle lines had already been drawn between Hill and the Blyth community, that John Bell became involved. Up until this point the relationship between Hill and the Bell family had been cordial and even friendly. He and Moss called at their home frequently, and on Jacob Bell’s death Hill asked Jane to draw up an account of her father’s last illness and pious passing for him to use in the funeral sermon.* Both preachers visited at Christmas with their wives. In particular, Hill often stated his hope that John would be restored as a preacher after his probationary period was over. This all changed as a result of the Blyth affair.
*Accounts of ‘happy deaths’ were a Methodist tradition, and occur in virtually every biography or obituary.
The Bell family had past connections with the Blyth area – in fact, both John and Jane had been baptised in the parish of Earsden within which Blyth was situated – so it is reasonable to assume that they may still have had relatives there, or, at the least, old family friends. In any case, the Blyth leaders in dispute with Hill were in the habit of visiting John Bell when they were in North Shields. That January, John happened to be at Thomas Moss’s house when Hill called in after one of his trips to Blyth. Hill expressed himself vehemently on the rascality of his opponents there, to which John replied that he was sorry to hear him talk in such terms, since he himself particularly respected the members of the Blyth society. Hill is reported to have been extremely displeased at this, and to have regarded John with suspicion, if not enmity, from then on. He remarked to several people subsequently, on the basis of their visits to John’s house, that he believed the Blyth leaders had their
‘attorney general’ in Shields.*
*Hill was later to deny that he knew of any connection between John Bell and Blyth until after the sending of the anonymous letters, but it is difficult to take this claim seriously. Even apart from the extensive third-party evidence, the only motive the Bells could ever come up with to explain Hill’s animosity towards them, and his subsequent behaviour, was precisely the rift between John and Hill over the Blyth affair, and it is impossible to believe they would build their entire case on a factual error.
In March, John Bell’s year of suspension came to an end, and his reinstatement as a preacher was duly proposed at the Quarterly Meeting. All the evidence suggests that he had managed to sustain sobriety over the period, but nevertheless Hill, who was president of the meeting, objected strongly to having him back on the plan, stating that he was highly offended at Bell’s having taken "a decided part against him on the subject of difference at Blyth," a matter in which, he said, his own continuing in the ministry was involved. After some debate, his view was accepted, and Bell’s reinstatement did not take place.
Amongst the expected duties of Methodist women was the collection of money from members in their immediate neighbourhoods in order to support the activities of Methodist missionary societies abroad. Jane Bell was delivering her proceeds from this at the Hills’ house a few weeks later when she raised the question of the change in Hill’s behaviour towards her brother. Hill replied: "It is not the getting drunk, Ma'am; but I believe he is one who will oppose superintendents and pinch them of their pence".
Despite this, it was not long afterwards that John received a letter from Hill couched in unexpectedly friendly terms. After what had gone before it was difficult for him to take this at face value, and, given what we know about Hill’s opinion of him as stated in letters only a couple of months later, we are surely entitled to share that scepticism. What appears to have been the case is that the Blyth leaders had reached such a level of disaffection around this time, that they announced their intention of writing a letter to Conference outlining their grievances and asking for Hill’s removal from North Shields, if not dismissal from the ministry itself. This kind of appeal by lay members over the heads of the local authorities was exceptionally unlikely, of course, to cut any ice with a Bunting-dominated Conference, and, in the event, the letter was never sent, but the threat of it seems to have put Hill into a state of some panic. His communication to John Bell can therefore best be seen as, on the one hand, an attempt at a divide and conquer strategy with regard to his perceived opponents, and, on the other, as future evidence, if required, of his good will, emollience and willingness to compromise.
In any event, the olive branch – if such it was – was rejected, and relations between Hill and the Bells were still distant by the time of the anonymous letters in mid-June. Meanwhile, events at Blyth had reached crisis point. With the threat to report Hill to the Methodist Conference in August still on the table, the Blyth faction increased the pressure by announcing their intention of opening a new front at local level by calling him to account at the imminent quarterly meeting. It was in the very week between the sending of the anonymous letters and Hill receiving Sissison’s plea for information, that Hill wrote in response to Mr Heppel, the Blyth ringleader, in part as follows:*
...and infamy to ruin your poor minister & his family – Is it generous, will it sweeten the cup of life which a wise and inscrutable providence is mixing for you? will it gild the evening of your days with one cheering recollection, or add one gem to the crown which you hope to wear ah! no – Then stop, for Christs sake stop, -- However if you & your friends are determined to proceed in this bad work & to come forward & impeach me at our quarterly Meeting be sure and count the cost – Remember I shall have to defend myself, – and, mean & incompetent as you think me, I can do it,
Be advised then in time and take your paper, & you & your friends go on in the name of the Lord – It is probable you may have done with me whom you think such a nuisance, much sooner than you anticipate – At all events none of you will ever have a wrong word from me any more, except you compel me to defend my wife & children, my life & what is still dearer my character
Yours affectly Tho Hill
‘A prudent man foreseeth the evil & hideth himself’ Solomon’
*The full text of this letter has not survived, but both Hill and the Bells included a facsimile of its final page in their pamphlets, in order to provide an example of Hill’s handwriting to compare with the anonymous letters.
This extraordinary outpouring, with its mixture of pleading, bravado and self-pity – calling to mind Max Beerbohm’s image of a man crawling on his knees while shaking his fist – certainly shows someone under stress, feeling himself persecuted by his enemies, and determined to fight back. It was in this state of mind that he was to reply to Sissison’s letter.