William Hitchens: A Forgotten Pioneer

Posted on 27 March 2008

The third study in the Ferndale Studies in Cornish Christian History. It is a new piece of research by Stephen into the life of one of their brothers, William, who was one of the very first Methodist itinerant ministers.

Ferndale Studies in Cornish Christian History No. 3

William Hitchens: A Forgotten Pioneer

Rev. Dr. Stephen Dray

The much publicised lives and deaths of his two older brothers, Thomas and Samuel,1 and the paucity of documentary information for the early years of Methodism, have led to the neglect of one of Cornwall’s earliest itinerants, William Hitchens. The present article is an attempt to rectify this omission and to clarify some of the confusion that exists in interpreting the existing and available data.

William was the third son of James Hitchens and Julian nee Magor. James was a relatively well-to-do Gwennap blacksmith/tinner.2 The parish records note that William was baptised at Gwennap parish church on the 19th of August, 1727. He followed the family business and his father recounts the following incident in which he was involved in 1744.3 In his A Short Account of the Death of Thomas Hitchens, he states:

“About eighteen Months ago, while his Brother William and he were working in the Pit4 with another Man, the Earth caved in upon the Man, who cried out for Help, and Thomas ran toward the Place where he was. In running his Light went out; but he found the Man by his Voice, tho’ not till he was almost covered in. Before he had cleared him, the Earth calv’d in again, and he was very near covered himself. And but that it stopt, they knew not how, in one Minute more they must both have perished together. William hearing the Noise, made to the place, and in some Time relieved them both. Of this Thomas often made Mention, praising GOD for his wonderful Deliverance.“5

William’s teenage years coincided with the early (and often violent) emergence of Methodism in Gwennap, centred as it was (and to a considerable extent) around his own family and the small chapel they built at Busveal, near the present Gwennap Pit.6 He witnessed what his great niece’s husband subsequently described as ‘a severe season of the most brutal persecution’ in these early days.7 A fuller account of one incident is provided in the letter written to John Wesley by a young Cornish convert by the name of Henry Millard on the 11th September 1744. He says,

“On the Wednesday after [brother Westall, one of the early itinerants] came home, he went to Gwennap: while he was preaching, the mob rushed into the house, beat the candles out, and then came up to the desk; but, it being dark, they could not find the way into it. At last, when they had broken it down, they found a little boy in it instead of the preacher: they gave him two or three blows, and let him go. Brother Westell stood by them for some time in the dark, with an old woman’s hat upon his head, till some of our friends at the window took him out. He then went over the hedge; but the mob soon overtook him, and brought him back again. They cried out, “We’ve got the preacher.“ Captain Hitchin’s two Sons8 hearing them, ran to them, and bid them let him go. There being but two that had hold of him, they let him go; and while they went to call more of the mob to their assistance, brother Westell ran over two hedges into a standing field of oats and there he lay. The mob, being busy in breaking the partition and seats to pieces did not follow him presently; and when they did, they could not find him: so they went away for that time. The Saturday following, which was Saturday last, it being my turn to go, I met one of Captain Hitchin’s sons, and one of the Gwennap brethren: they told me it was not best for me to come there, for the mob said they would have me, if they pulled down every house in the town. About three o’clock I went to preach at Stithian’s. When I was going to preach, I was told the mob was coming down from Gwennap after me; but I preached very peaceably and met the Society; and the Lord was with us of a truth. As we were going to Gwennap, We saw the mob at the top of the Downs. They had been to Gwennap, and pulled down the house where the society was kept. When they found me not there, they pursued after me, thinking to meet me on the way, or to catch me at Stithian’s. Meantime we went over a friend’s hedge into his garden. It was but a short time before the mob came down, horsemen and footmen; speaking moderately, they were betwixt three and four hundred. One in the village told them that I was gone forward: so they went on in haste. When they were gone, we went over the hedge, and crossed the fields, and so escaped out of their hands.
“They said they had orders from the gentlemen to pull down any house I was in; and they do swear they will kill them that receive us. So preaching is over for a season, until there is something done in this matter.“9

Another, similar, incident is recorded by James Hitchens. Referring to his son Thomas, he commented,

“He had no fear in the hottest of the Persecution. While the Mob were pulling down the House in which we used to meet, he stood at a small Distance, all the Time, being nothing terrified; encouraged his Brother and said, “GOD will deliver us; Only let us trust in Him.“ Nor was he at all moved, when Showers of Stones obliged us to stop up all the Windows with whole Deals. One Night we heard a great Tumult and Noise as of many People and many Cries. And it was told us, they were at the House of one of the Brethren, who lived about a Quarter of a Mile off: Thomas did not take Time to go the Road Way, (tho’ it was exceeding dark;) but ran directly through the Grounds and over the Hedges, till he came to the House. The Mob, hearing the Sound of Feet, ran away, not one being left behind. So, said Thomas, the Scripture is fulfilled, One of you shall chase a Thousand. As he came to the House, the Family too were preparing to run out of it. But he soon convinced them, they had no cause to fear, and they mightily rejoiced together, and praised GOD who had delivered them out of the Hands of unreasonable and cruel Men. All the Windows and Doors were dashed in Pieces; but none of the Family hurt and all notwithstanding the vast Quantities of Stones, which had fallen on all Sides of them. One very large Stone they found in the Cradle, close by a little Child. But the Child was not hurt: So that in all Things they saw the Hand of GOD was over them for Good.“10

William was, therefore, as a teenager, thrown into the heart of all the thrust and counter-thrust as the Methodist movement took its earliest steps in Gwennap and west Cornwall.11

1. An Early Itinerant

William appears to have embraced Methodism with his family. By his early twenties (at the latest) he had become one of the earliest of the bands of Wesleyan itinerant preachers. Shaw suggests that this may have been as early as 1745 (when he would have been only sixteen). Tyerman, living far nearer the time, thought he had commenced by 1751.12

Shaw’s view is based upon the absence of a reference to William in the Bishop’s Returns of 1745,13 which record that

“A sect called Methodist came among us of late, of which there are forty or fifty who follow them. They have an unlicensed meeting house and a succession of teachers yt. Run up and down the countrey. Three of their followers belonging to this parish have of late set up for Public Teachers, viz. James and Samuel Hitchens and Henry Youren.“14

Nevertheless, the account of the pit collapse detailed above, however dated, suggests he had been recently in the area. More likely the non-reference is due to the fact that he had not begun to preach. Possibly he was spurred into the work as a result of the deaths of his brothers. It appears more likely that he commenced itinerancy later in the decade.

While evidence of the locations of his work are generally obscure,15 he certainly appears to have laboured in Cheshire/Manchester, Bristol and, most latterly, in 1759, seems to have been associated with Wiltshire.16 The evidence for this is as follows.

In the Journal’s Wesley records, for the 4th April 1751, preaching at Alpraham near Nantwich. He comments, ‘we overtook some people going to the preaching at Alpraham, who guided us straight to the house. William Hitchens had not begun, so I took his place’.17

Subsequently, Lenton notes his involvement in Bristol (1753, 1755) and Cornwall (1758)18 without offering evidence. However, 1757, (see below) found him in Wiltshire: probably, in view of the following reference, as a visiting preacher rather than circuit staff. Thus, Dyson, notes that the records of the Wiltshire circuit available to him indicated that ‘at the Conference of 1759 [Thomas Johnson and his two colleagues were succeeded] by a staff of four men - Thomas Hanby, Thomas or Wm. Hitchings, Robert Roberts, and George Box.‘19 At an early stage the older brother’s name and fame could lead to William being given the wrong name!

Pawson, whose evidence has caused difficulty through his transcribers rendering Hitchings as Kitchings, confirms that he ‘travelled for some time’ and ‘suffered a good deal of persecution’ in so doing.20 One such incident is recorded in Wesley’s Journals. He records on the 20th March 1757, having received a letter dated 28th of February 1757 from William Hitchens. He quotes:

“Rev. and dear sir,

When I was at Freshford, on January 30th, in the morning, I scrupled singing those words:-

‘Ye now afflicted are,
And hated for his name,
And in your bodies bear
The token of the Lamb.‘

I thought I was not afflicted or hated for the name of Christ. But this scruple was soon removed; for at Bradford, in the evening, I was pressed for a soldier, and carried to the inn where the gentlemen were. Mr. Pearse21 offered bail for my appearance the next day. They said, ‘They would take his word for ten thousand pounds, but not for me; I must go to the round-house’ - the little stone room on the side of the bridge. So thither I was conveyed by five soldiers. There I found nothing to sit on but a stone, and nothing to lie on but a little straw; but soon after a friend sent me a chair, on which I sat all night. I had a double guard, twelve soldiers in all, two without, one in the door, and the rest within. I passed the night without sleep, but not without rest, for blessed be God, my peace was not broken a moment. My body was in prison: but I was Christ’s freeman; my soul was at liberty. And even there I found some work to do for God. I had opportunity of speaking to them that durst not leave me; and I hope it was not in vain.

In the morning I had leave to go to a private house, with only one soldier to guard me. About three in the afternoon, I was carried before the Commissioners, and part of the Act read, which empowered them to take ‘Such able-bodied men as followed no business, and had no lawful or sufficient maintenance’. Then I said, ‘If these are the men you are to take, I am not a proper person; for I do follow a lawful calling, being in partnership with my brother, and have also an estate.‘ The Justice said, ‘If you will make an oath of that, I think we must let you go’; but the Commissioners said, ‘No man could swear for himself.‘ I said, ‘Gentlemen, give me the time, and you shall have full proof.‘ After a long debate, they took a fifty pound bond for my appearance on that day three weeks. All that time I could bless God that he counted me worthy to suffer for his name’s sake.


Figure 1: The lock-up at Bradford-on-Avon today.

The next day I set out for Cornwall. I tarried at home four days and then setting out with my brother, James, came to Bradford last Saturday. On Monday, in the afternoon, I appeared before the Commissioners, with the writings of my estate.22 When the Justice had perused them, and my brother had taken his oath, I was set at liberty: so the fierceness of man turns to God’s praise, and all this for the furtherance of the Gospel. I hope you will give thanks to God for my deliverance out of the hands of unreasonable and wicked men.“23

Pawson’s comments imply this was far from the only occasion William experienced opposition. 24

2. Marriage and Retirement from the Itinerancy

Probably while located in Bristol he ‘wooed and won’ a young widow several years his senior.25 Thus, on the 20th November 1757 the St. Thomas parish records refer to the marriage of ‘William Hitchens of this parish, Tinner’ and ‘Mary Harding, ... widow’.26 Both William and Mary signed the register in clear hands that suggest their full literacy.27 The marriage brought with it two step-children: William (aged about 15) and his younger sister, Ann. Mary was the widow of James Harding, a hatter.28

It may be that responsibility for the young family prompted William to leave the itinerant ministry and settle in Bristol, apparently, in 1760, adopting the trade of his wife and family.29 Thus in late 1760 he leased with Mary and William (now about 18) a property from the Trinity Hall Almshouses in St. Thomas Street. Bristol trade directories subsequently record the existence of the hatting business at 151, St. Thomas Street up to nearly the end of the century.30

St Thomas’ Street was almost totally destroyed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and its ancient medieval tenements cleared in subsequent re-development. St. Thomas’ church (see the photograph) remained largely unscathed (unlike other churches in central Bristol) and still stands, though now redundant and boarded up.

Figure 2: St Thomas’ Church today.

We can, however, get some idea of St. Thomas’ Street from drawings made by Samuel Loxton in the last years of the nineteenth century. While it is impossible with the present state of the evidence to be certain, examination of his collection of drawings suggests that the illustration provided here may well be of the west side of St. Thomas’ Street, south of the Church: the most likely location, in the present author’s opinion, for the Hitchens’ home and business.

Figure 3: St. Thomas’ Street; near the Hitchens’ home.
Meanwhile, while William Harding largely passes out of view,31 Ann married Thomas Naish at St. Thomas’ on the 8th May 1768: her step-father standing as witness alongside her. Two grandchildren of William were born to the young couple before his death: Mary (baptised at St. Thomas’ on 9th April 1770) and Thomas (also baptised at St. Thomas’ on the 6th April 1773).

3. The Lay Preacher

After leaving the itinerancy, William remained active in the Methodist cause as a local preacher. Pawson notes, correctly, that he settled in Bristol as a hatter in Bristol and adds that he ‘acted as a Local preacher for many years’.32 Evidence for this is further provided in John Wesley’s letters. In a letter from London to John Whitehead dated the 27th January 1770 he notes William ‘complains you broke through the preaching plan which I had fixed and did not allow him his turn’ in preaching at the New Rooms.33 Atmore comments that he was a ‘sensible, pious, good man’.34
5. ‘Dying Well’

While (presumably) visiting his family in Gwennap, and still relatively young,35 he died leaving behind him fond memories of his service for the LORD and happy reports of his death. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that Charles Wesley wrote an uncompleted and unpublished poem ‘On the Death of W Hitchin, Oct. 29, 1773’. That this is the present William (and the above supposition is true) would seem to be confirmed by the Gwennap register containing a reference to the burial of a William Hitchens on buried on the 31st October 1773.36

Wesley’s poem, scarcely reaches the heights of ‘And can it be’ but is a worthy tribute to a journeyman preacher. He says,

Rejoice, who bow in Jesus’ Name
The righteous man by God approv’d
Meek follower of the patient Lamb
If from our Vale of tears remov’d;
His days of pain and grief are o’er:
Rejoice for Him who weeps no more.

Void of offence tow[ard] God & man
With care he kept his con[science] here,
Good works industrious to maintain,
A simple Israelite sincere
Thro’ life he Israel’s King conf[ess’]d
God over all for ever blest.

Faithful to death he own’d his Lord,
An heir of sure salvation seal’d,
The kingdom to his soul restor’d
The earnest of his heart reveal’d
By more than works he testifies,
And gasps for Jesus in the skies.

Come my beloved Saviour, come,
Thou seest me to thy will resign’d
Made ready for my heavenly home,
Lover of Thee & all mankind,
Conqueror of hell & death & sin,
Open thine arms and take me in.

Bright kindred saints around his bed
To catch his parting spirit stay,
Angels their golden pinions spread
And Jesus beckons him away:

I come, I come, with smiles he cries
[ ] dies!

He lives to God, he greatly lives,
And thro’ the merits of his Lord
According to his works receives
The labourer’s hire, the full reward,
The promis’d crown, the purchas’d grace,
The heaven of heavens - in Jesus’ face.37

If one may mirror-read Charles, what emerges is the picture of a solid, perhaps one-talented, lover of his Saviour whose life as much as his words aroused the affection of those who knew him: certainly inspiring Methodism’s greatest bard (who would have known him well through residence in the same city) to speak tenderly of him. It is tempting, too, behind the rhetoric of the poet, to discern a reference to beatific vision in the fifth verse. Such may be confirmed in Pawson’s comment: ‘I believe he died well.‘38

As for his widow, Mary reached a great age in widowhood (eventually dying in 1807, well into her eighties).39

Rev. Dr. Stephen Dray, is a member of the Cornwall Methodist Historical Society and minister of Ferndale Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea and Visiting Scholar at Sarum College, Salisbury. His wife, Anne, is a direct descendant of William’s uncle, Thomas. In July 2002 he preached at Gwennap Pit.

1 The two accounts of the deaths of Thomas and Samuel by their father James were published by John and Charles Wesley in 1746/7 and they went to several editions and are often cited in the secondary literature. In addition to the reference cited in full below see also J. Hitchens, A Short Account of the Death of Samuel Hitchens (London: John & Charles Wesley), 1747. They are separately re-published in the present series.
2 This is confirmed by the terms of his will.
3 This date is estimated back from the time of Thomas death in 1746 or soon thereafter.
4 It is tempting to identify this with the present Gwennap Pit, and assume the reference is to when it was still an active mine. However, no evidence exists to support it. Nevertheless, the association of the family with Busveal, the active role they had in the provision of the first meeting place and the strong family connection with the work at Carharrack makes it quite possible that they made available the location and the reference is to what, subsequently, became known as Gwennap Pit. Members of the family continued to own the surrounding land for some time thereafter.
5 J. Hitchens, A Short Account of the Death of Thomas Hitchens,4th Edition (Dublin: S. Powell, 1748), 5.
6 The exact location seems lost in the mists of antiquity and the various family wills examined by the present writer cast no light upon the matter.
7 James M Byron, ‘The Grace of God Manifested’, in Methodist Magazine, vol 27, 1804, 42.
8 Probably, Thomas and Samuel. Mine owners were often described as ‘captain’ at the time.
9 As recorded in L. F. Church, More About the Early Methodist People (London: Epworth Press, 1974), 77f.
10 Hitchens, Thomas Hitchens, 4f.
11 I am indebted to my wife for pointing out that ongoing family commitment to the same cause is demonstrated by the fact that in 1767 the list of 63 members of the society at Gwennap includes (at the least) his mother, Julian, his brother Ebenezer, his sister and brother-in-law, Sarah and William Watts, his sister Mary Skewes, his aunts, Grace Hitchens, Alice Hitchens and Frances Roskrow, his uncle Robert Dennis and, in view of his mothers maiden name, near relations in John and Grace Magor.
12 L.Tyerman, The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., vol. 2, 2nd Edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1876), 127.
13 T. Shaw, Gwennap Pit, Truro: Busveal Methodist Church Council, 1992, 51.
14 Cited in a number of places, e.g. C. C. James, The History of Gwennap, privately published, 19.
15 Conference records (and others) were often not kept in these early years.
16 Shaw, Gwennap Pit, 51, includes Yorkshire but he offers no evidence and one suspects he may have confused Bradford-on-Avon for Bradford, Yorks. There is nothing to illuminate his claims in the Shaw papers in the Courtenay Library, Truro.
17 John Wesley’s Journal, vol. 2 (London: J. M. Dent, 1906), 382.
18 The reference is to John Lenton’s database on early Methodist preachers.
19 J. B. Dyson, Methodism in the Isle of Wight (Ventnor: George M Burt, 1865), 55.
20 E. C. Bowmer & J. A. Vickers, eds, Letters of John Pawson, vol 3 (Peterborough, WMHS, 1995), 35.
21 Richard Pearse, in the days before Methodist teetotalism was the publican of the Cross Keys outside Bradford on the Trowbridge road and the Methodists met in a whitewashed room behind the bar. Presumably William was supplying the preaching when arrested. See S. W. Christophers, Class Meetings in relation to the Design and Success of Methodism (London: Wesleyan Central Office, 1773), 47. The Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, 6, 116, offer more information on Pearse.
22 Under the terms of his father James will of 18th July 1750 (Cornwall Record Office AP/H/6038/1) William was bequeathed ‘all that quarter part of the north Busveal in the parish of Gwennap and lately in the possession of John Allen’ from which he was instructed to pay the sum of œ4 per annum to his sister Ann and œ2 13s 4d to his sister Sarah. His bequests of land in north Busveal were also made to his brothers James and Ebenezer and James was instructed to ‘let the society house to Will Thomas (that is the steward) long as he enjoys the same and for the same rent’ and to make provision for repairs to the house.
23 The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, vol. 2, London: J. M. Dent, 1906, 360f.
24 Such experiences were not untypical. See L. F. Church, More About the Early Methodist People (London: Epworth Press, 1974), 82f.
25 The parish records document a William Hitchens who married Ann Philip on the 13th January 1759 at Gwennap. This William is not to be confused with the subject of this account. There were several William Hitchens’ in the parish at the time where the surname was common.
26 The present writer has been unable, so far, to discover anything further about Mary’s past than this.
27 William’s literacy is confirmed by the above letter.
28 This information is collated from a lease of property to William in St Thomas’ Street in 1760, from Mary’s will and William’s witnessing his step-daughter’s marriage; see further below. All are to be found located in the Bristol Record Office.
29 Since he was appointed to Wiltshire at the Conference of 1759, his work would have continued into the following year. The purchase of the property in St. Thomas Street in 1760, thus offers a coherent picture.
30 The earliest reference traced by the present writer is in Sketchley’s Bristol Directory, 1775 (Bath: Kingswood Reprints, 1971). It is this source that locates the business at 151. However, while the earliest detailed maps of Bristol are from the early nineteenth century they record only about 140 homes. Since St. Thomas Street comprised old medieval buildings this suggests the number may be a typographical error. The numbering of the properties ran down one side and up the other, the middle numbers being in that part of the street that was in St. Mary, Redcliffe parish. Perhaps the correct reference is 121 or 131. Either way, this places the property on the west side of the street somewhere near the only remaining medieval structures next to St Thomas’ church. Surprisingly the 1768 directory does not mention the business but subsequent references (usually under Mary’s name) are to be found in Bailey’s Western and Midland Directory, 1783 (Birmingham: Pearson & Rollason, 1783), The Bristol Directory, 1785 (Bristol: Routh, 1785), the Bristol and Bath Directory, 1787 (Bristol: Routh, 1787), the Bristol Directories of 1792 and 1793-4 (Bristol: Read, 1792 & 1793/4) and Matthew’s Bristol Directories of 1793-4 and 1797 (Bristol: Matthews, 1794 & 1797). It appears that by this stage Mary’s health was failing. Her will was drafted in 1794 and reflects a sense of life’s impermanence. Its terms suggest that her daughter Ann, herself now a widow, had assumed a large part in the running of the business.
31 He was still alive in 1794, being allowed 3 shillings a week under the terms of the will to be executed by his sister. This was presumably a wage since the total value of the estate was under œ20. He appears to have been eclipsed by Ann.
32 Pawson, 35. See also C. Atmore, The Methodist Memorial (Bristol: Edwards, 1801), 190.
33 J. Telford, ed, The Letters of John Wesley, vol. V, 1766-1772 (London: Epworth Press, 1931), 178.
34 Atmore,190. Pawson, 35, adds, he was ‘a sensible, serious man’.
35 He was only 46. This fact may well have led to the loss of his memory when Methodist historians or those leaders with an historical consciousness began to reflect on the early years.
36 W. Myles, A Chronological History of the People called Methodists, 3rd Edition (Liverpool: Nuttal, 1803), 297, quite incorrectly, considered he died in the work in 1758.
37 Space was left at the end for further verses. The poem is to be found in S. T. Kimborough & O. A. Beckerlegge, The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley, vol. 3 (Nashville: Kingswood, 1992), 340f.
38 Pawson, 35.
39 While the present writer has not found a record of her death, her will was proved in 1808 and contains a note to the effect that she died about January (or is it July?) 1807. Assuming she was about twenty when her son William was born, she would have been 35 when she married the younger William Hitchens (he was 30). This places her birth somewhere around 1722. She must, therefore, have been about 85 at her death.