In Hinckley, in the nineteenth century, the clergy in the town of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Nonconformist faiths had a great influence on the lives of Hinckleyans. Today, when fewer attend a place of worship, that influence is sadly diminished. In this brief article I can only mention a few clergy but there are many more who made a major contribution to the life of the town for nearly one thousand years.
I begin with a brief mention of the Vicar of Hinckley at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This clerical gentleman was the Rev. John Cole Galloway. He was vicar between 1778 and 1804 and was a remarkably absent-minded cleric who, it is said, remained a bachelor after forgetting to attend his own wedding ceremony. His absent-minded conduct regarding the parish of Dadlington resulted in a petition to the Bishop of Lincoln at the end of the eighteenth century,. Rev. Galloway had appointed a curate to look after the needs of the Dadlington parish whose conduct was the cause of considerable disquiet as the words of the following petition indicated:
"On 1st March last the said John Cole Galloway never attended the duty of the said church, but in the afternoon sent a curate of his of the name of Morgan to perform the duty of the said church, who came there intoxicated and totally unable to perform the said duty. That a corpse was to be interred and that after waiting for some time the said Morgan read over the burial service in a shameful and disgraceful manner, and called the deceased throughout Brother instead of Sister".
The petition continued to relate how the Rev. Galloway had gone to christen a child in Dadlington but, after dining with the parents, had gone home to Hinckley forgetting to conduct the service of baptism. He also frequently conducted services which did not follow the Book of Common Prayer and which sometimes only lasted thirty-five minutes. Not surprisingly the petitioners recorded that, "Dissenters are gaining ground". In June 1804 the Rev. John Ashpinshaw, Doctor of Law, became Vicar of Hinckley and established a reputation for his close adherence to Canon Law. Other nineteenth century Vicars of Hinckley were less eccentric than John Cole Galloway and more highly regarded by their parishioners, as we shall see.
A figure who died in 1800 and made a considerable contribution to the lives of the people of Hinckley was Father Matthew Norton. He was the first Roman Catholic priest to be appointed to the town of Hinckley since the Reformation. On 21st April 1765 he celebrated his first mass in Hinckley in a building at the top of Castle Street, near the site of the present St Peter's Roman Catholic School, He briefly returned to the Dominican House at Bornhem in Fanders, later becoming Rector of the Theological College in Louvain and a Doctor of Theology. He returned to Hinckley in 1780 and served the Catholic community until his death twenty years later. An example of his devotion to his flock was indicated by the way in which he attended to the needs of Catholics in Leicester, Hinckley, Coventry and Atherstone. On one occasion he walked from Hinckley to Leicester, visiting the sick and then walked back to Coventry, returning to Hinckley at a very late hour having walked a total of fifty-four miles that day. His example did much to' strengthen the growth of Catholicism in the area.
The strength of Nonconformity in Hinckley was considerable in the nineteenth century and its collective influence on the life of the town was certainly as great as that of the denominations already mentioned. A selection from amongst the various ministers of nonconformist congregations gives an interesting insight into clergy of character in the town.
The Rev. James Taylor was perhaps one of the most eccentric ministers with whom a "Hinckley congregation was blessed. He came to Hinckley as the Baptist minister in 1822. The Baptist faith had come to the town from Barton in the Beans in the previous century. In 1806 the handsome brick Baptist Chapel, which still stands in the town, was completed nt a cost of £1,800. Sixteen years later, James Taylor took up his post as minister at the chapel having made a very deliberate choice to come to Hinckley and in which "Divine Guidance" had no doubt played a vital part. Rev. Taylor's stipend was only £40 per annum and he had turned down more lucrative posts elsewhere. It was known that he had a small private income and he used this to aid poor framework-knitters., even making bobbins for them.
The sermons preached by James Taylor were powerful and a wonder to behold according to contemporaries in his congregation. He would often bind a black handkerchief about his head and wear black gloves whilst preaching. He gave firm guidance to his flock and emphasised the major points of his teaching by magnificent gesticulations. He was a man who emphasised the importance of paying debts to others. Whilst he was having his house constructed he took good care to practice what he preached, paying the builder every night when he finished work. His services lacked musk for his congregation passed a resolution stating; "We disapprove of the use of instrumental music in the public worship of God and cannot therefore allow it in our assemblies". Doubtless a "Joyful Noise was made to the Lord" with unaccompanied singing.
Hinckley in the Hungry Forties relied on its clergy for spiritual and material sustenance. All the clergy in the town played a major part in trying to assist the poor during Hinckley's worst period of deprivation in the last five centuries. In 1844, Richard Muggeridge conducted an inquiry into the, "Conditions of the Framework Knitters in the Midlands", and took some eighty pages of evidence from people in Hinckley. His clerk was John Gent Brooks who had been born in Hinckley in 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo. He began work in the 1820s as a seamer and was later, 'put to the frame', like most young lads in the town. At the age of nineteen John joined two of his friends in the purchase of magazines and later the boys rented a room where they arranged discussions and from this developed a Mutual Instruction Society. Rev. Nutter, the Unitarian Minister, encouraged the group and allowed them to use the Great Meeting Schoolroom.
In the 1840s John joined the host of unemployed framework knitters who had been forced into the new Hinckley Workhouse. It was here that he was found by Richard Muggeridge who was searching for a secretary during his visit to Hinckley. He offered to buy John Gent Brooks a suit of clothes to wear but John said he would only act as secretary if he was permitted to wear his workhouse clothes because he felt no disgrace in a misfortune induced by poor health and depressed trade. The evidence duly noted by John was later printed by the government in its official report. How does all this accord with the subject of this article? Quite simply by the fact that after living in Hinckley John Brooks decided to train as a Unitarian minister and served in Birmingham in the 1850s.
Some of the most poignant evidence recorded by John Gent Brooks came from the Rev. Salt who was minister at the Congregational Chapel on Stockwell Head. He had come to Hinckley in 1837 from Erdington in Birmingham, finding a congregation whose outlook was said to be "low and distracted”. William Salt had been born in Cannock and first trained as a porcelain-potter before becoming a minister. During his time as minister in Hinckley he presided over what the late Rev. C. Thomas has described as, “happier and fruitful days" for the congregation, particularly remarkable since so much of his ministry was in the frightful eighteen forties. He ensured that sound accounting was applied to the chapel funds and generally improved the conditions of the chapel.
Extracts from his evidence to the "Commission on the Conditions of the Framework Knitters* paint a grim picture of Hinckley as the following will indicate:
"I have a decided conviction that there is not a town in England worse off than this as to the general state of the poor... I went to a house where there was a husband and wife and seven children, and they said that that day they had had a feast: they had raised a quarter of a pound of bacon for provision for this whole family". "The staple diet of many became a meal of turnips. Help was received from outside sources and the better-off townspeople were generous with gifts.... From March to July of 1842 out of a population of 6,450 some 2,457 were receiving parish relief".
"The condition of the mass of the people is certainly most wretched... Many have no clothes (in which to attend church or chapel), their clothes are wretched, only one dress and that is old and filthy often".
The Rev. Salt worked tirelessly for the people of Hinckley and was employed on many committees to assist the poor. He was particularly active in the support of allotments. In 1849 Rev. Salt left Hinckley and was long remembered for his work on behalf of the poor in the town, even into the next century.
In the second half of the nineteenth century extensive rebuilding and restoration work took place with regard to St. Mary's Church. The Rev. Disney, Vicar of Hinckley, not only made considerable efforts to restore the material fabric of the church between 1875 and 1878 but also involved himself in other matters which affected the wellbeing of his parishioners and the people of Hinckley.
One area of particular note was that of the Church of England Mutual Improvement Association. The Third Annual Soiree of the Association in 1877 was described in detail in the Hinckley Parish Magazine. On Easter Thursday over 100 people were provided with 'a substantial repast' in the National School-rooms and 400 people attended an entertainment which followed, where there were performances of anthems, readings, recitations and piano duets. The Rev. Disney presided over the proceedings.
The Vicar of Hinckley was not one who sympathised with Hinckley's reputation as a place for good ale and he was a leading temperance advocate. The Rev. Disney, who was vicar from 1874-1884, made references to 'the demon drink' in his sermons and sought to provide an alternative to the public house. This was achieved, in March 1878 when the Hinckley Coffee House opened to the public. The Parish Magazine described it as one of the few places of public resort of which the town can boast". The Coffee House was set up as a limited liability company with registered capital of £1,000 and shares of a value of £1 each. The Rev, Disney was called upon to preside over the opening ceremonies which not only involved the Coffee House but also a meeting in the Town Hall Support for the Coffee House came from a variety of denominations and Mr. Atkins, Unitarian and hosiery manufacturer, agreed to be treasurer.
This account of local clergy of many denominations must not omit the Salvation Army which was established in Hinckley in 1880. In that year the first Hinckley Army Corps was formed by Captain Ireson, a Birmingham lady. First meetings were held in a room at Grewcock's factory on Stockwell Head but in 1883 the meetings were taking place at the Old Malt House in New Buildings. Efforts by the Salvationists to hold processions through the town, complete with band, resulted in attacks by troublemakers and a police escort. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Salvation Army had become a popular denomination in Hinckley and its founder, General Booth, presided over a peaceful but packed meeting in the Market Place in August 1905.
One thing is certain. Clergy, of whatever denomination in Hinckley in the nineteenth century, were clerics of character and I have described but a few of them. They all made a major contribution not only to the lives of their congregations but to the wellbeing of Hinckley as a whole.
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine