Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ashworth, John

ASHWORTH, JOHN (1813–1875), preacher, manufacturer, and author, was born on 8 July 1813 at the hamlet of Cutgate near Rochdale, and was the eighth child of his parents, who were poor woollen weavers. He has himself told the story of his mother manufacturing a 'bishop' (pinafore) for him out of a pack-sheet, from which all her exertions could not wash away the indelible word 'Wool,' which therefore formed his breastplate. The poverty of the family was further embittered by the intemperance of the father, who, however, reformed later in life. John Ashworth had no more education than could be gleaned at a Sunday school, and he married before he was twenty. The union, however imprudent, was a happy one, but he and his first wife had years of struggle with poverty and care. His position somewhat improved, and in 1851, when visiting the Great Exhibition, he formed the resolution of founding a chapel for the destitute in Rochdale, but the proposal was so much discouraged by his friends that he abandoned it for a time, and did not put it into execution until 1858. As minister of this chapel he was brought into close contact with the poorest people of a great factory town. He was a vigorous preacher of the orthodox type, and understanding the people's way of life, and speaking a language which they understood, he gathered a great congregation. He was a liberal in politics, a staunch teetotaller, and an uncompromising advocate for the Maine Law and the observance of the Sunday after a rigid puritanical fashion. He visited the United States and the Holy Land, and for many years had a busy life as preacher, manufacturer, lecturer, and author. He wrote 'Walks in Canaan' and 'Back from Canaan,' and had begun an account of his 'Rambles in the New World' when death overtook him; but his chief work was 'Strange Tales,' followed after a time by a similar gathering of 'Simple Records.' These were printed as separate tracts, and have had a circulation that is to be counted by millions. Some have been translated into Welsh, French, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish. Yet the publisher to whom the first one was offered only undertook to print it on being guaranteed from any risk. These narratives have no literary polish, but are good examples of plain straightforward narrative, and are interesting for the glimpses they give of the life of the poor of the manufacturing districts. They mostly relate incidents that had come to his knowledge during his work amongst the poor. The accuracy of one was challenged, but for most of them sufficient vouchers could be adduced. Ashworth's intimate knowledge of the class he describes gives his 'Strange Tales' a value to which most 'religious tracts' have no claim. Ashworth died on 26 Jan. 1875, and was followed to his grave in the Rochdale cemetery by a procession of those amongst whom he had laboured.

[Ashworth's own writings; Calman's Life and Labours of John Ashworth, 2nd edit. (Manchester, 1875).]

W. E. A. A.