Hannah More (British edition 1888)/Chapter 8

Hannah More  (1888)  by Charlotte Mary Yonge
Chapter VIII.

CHAPTER VIII.

CHEDDAR.


We are come to the great and distinctive work of Hannah More's life. The undertaking was facilitated by the fact that at the end of thirty-two years' diligence, the sisters had realised a sufficient competence to venture on resigning their school to their assistant, Miss Mills. They had built for themselves a house in Pulteney Street, Bath, which they intended to serve as their winter home, the summers being passed with Hannah at Cowslip Green. Bishop Horne wrote this appropriate congratulation: "May they have raised up a succession of daughters who may prove hereafter firm in principle as corner-stones to support the honour of their respective families; and in accomplishments polished after the similitude of a palace."

Hannah, at forty-four years old, was becoming somewhat weary of London talk; was yearning for something deeper and calmer, and was only held to her old habits by her friendships with Mrs. Garrick and the other ladies whom she had learnt to love. She meant to spend more time in the country, in study and literary labour, while at the same time she and Patty attended to the various needs of the poor at Wrington, their own parish.

However, a new task was set before her. Mr. Wilberforce, who usually spent part of the Parliamentary recess at Bath for the sake of his health, came, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, to make a short stay with his sister at Cowslip Green. The ladies there talked to him about the beauties of the Cheddar cliffs and caves, about ten miles distant. He drove over thither in his chaise, intending to spend the day in roaming about, lunching on the provisions sent by his hostesses, and enjoying alternately his book and the scenery.

To the surprise and dismay of the good sisters, he scarcely spoke when he came back, but at once shut himself up in his room, and they found their cold chicken and wine untasted in the carriage. They feared that he was unwell; but he came down to supper (at what, a century later, is dinner-time), and as soon as the servant had left the room, he exclaimed:

"Miss Hannah More, something must be done for Cheddar!"

On those beautiful rocks the solitary visitor had been beset at every step by a miserable population, begging so pertinaciously that the quiet enjoyment that he had hoped for was impossible; but instead of impatience or vexation, he had talked to the people, given them something, for which, he said, "they were grateful beyond measure," and had discovered that their poverty was frightful, and their spiritual destitution still greater. The Vicar of Cheddar was nonresident, and his curate lived at Wells, twelve miles off, only riding over to the place for a Sunday service, supplemented on occasion by baptisms, weddings, or funerals, while absolutely no religious or secular instruction, and no charities at all were provided for.

The same state of affairs seemed to prevail throughout the Mendip Hills, the ridge of limestone, rich in minerals, extending from Wells to the Bristol Channel. They had always been inhabited by miners and colliers, naturally a rough population. The great Abbeys of Wells and Glastonbury had sent missions among them, and churches had been built, some remarkably fine; but the people seem always to have been lawless, and at war with the Bishops and Abbots, and after the suppression of the monasteries absolutely nothing seems to have been done. The livings were poor vicarages, held by pluralists who never dreamt of residence in so savage a district, but left curates to undertake as many charges as it was possible to combine in a single Sunday. Things had come to such a pass that no decent person could walk on the cliffs at Cheddar without being assaulted, no constable durst execute a warrant at Shipham, lest he should be hurled down some yawning pit; and at Blagdon, the magistrate, who was also the curate, hardly sat down to dinner without being called away to hear of some act of violence.

Such were the descriptions that the quiet sisterhood at Cowslip Green gave the young Member of Parliament, who in those hours of retirement had been praying for the wretched beings that he had seen at Cheddar. To begin what we should call in these days a Mission was the only thing to be done; but missions had not then been invented, and the clergy were worse than useless in the matter. There was nobody to depend on but the ladies themselves; and at last, when Hannah and Patty had volunteered, Mr. Wilberforce said: "If you will be at the trouble, I will be at the expense."

Be it remembered that, though Mr. Raikes had begun Sunday-schools at Gloucester, and Mrs. Trimmer was in the forefront of the work at Brentford, they both had a comparatively civilized race to deal with, and Mrs. Trimmer had the farther advantage of her husband being a large employer of labour; whereas the work these ladies—both in frail health—undertook was ten miles from their home, where they were utterly unknown, and in one of the wildest districts in England, whose inhabitants were a terror to the neighbourhood.

Well might Mr. Wilberforce compare these two brave ladies to Spenser's "Britomart," all unknowing that they were wont, among themselves, to term him "the Red Cross Knight." In addition to moral difficulties, the state of the roads—or no roads—was dreadful when, in the end of September 1789, five or six weeks after the consultation at Cowslip Green, Hannah and Patty started on a reconnoitring expedition in a chaise. Patty kept a journal which has since been published under the title of Mendip Annals. At a place called Cross they halted to make inquiries from a rabbit-catcher how the land lay. He was a Quaker, and a pious man; and his eyes filled with tears of joy at the hope that something was to be done for Cheddar. "You will have much difficulty," he said, "but let not the enemy tempt you to go back, and God bless the work."

He told them nothing could be done without the concurrence of a rich farmer ten miles beyond, so on they plodded, through shocking roads, to his house, arriving half starved. He was hospitable enough as to food, but when they unfolded their business he was very much shocked, declaring that religion would be the ruin of agriculture, and had done nothing but mischief ever since it had been brought in by the monks at Glastonbury. They had to change the subject. As Hannah wrote: "Miss Wilberforce would have been shocked could she have seen the petty tyrants whose insolence we stroked and tamed, the ugly children we fondled, the pointers and spaniels we caressed, the cider we commended, and the wine we swallowed." This put the farmer in good humour, and he was further mollified on finding that no subscription was asked, assuring these strange visitors that it was a pity that they should take the trouble, since the Cheddar people were extremely well off, there being a large legacy to be given in time of distress, though to be sure they had not received any for the last seven-and-thirty years, it having been thrown into Chancery on a dispute of the two churchwardens; but now he believed it might soon be settled, as he was appointed a trustee!

Feeling that they had gained some ground, the two ladies returned to their inn at Cross, and drove to Cheddar before eight the next morning to begin their canvass. They made about eleven or twelve calls, generally being offered brandy and water, and finding the most intelligent persons of opinion that it might be well to have the children shut up in school, as there was a deal of robbery of orchards. They gave a fearful account of the poor (as is the wont of the farmer), but even among themselves, Martha says, "there is as much knowledge of Christ as in the wilds of Africa."

Hannah wrote to Mr. Wilberforce an account of her work from the George Inn, Cheddar, a mere public-house. She proceeds:—

"If effect be the best proof of eloquence, then mine was a good speech, for I gained at length the hearty concurrence of the whole people, and their promise to discourage or favour the poor in proportion as they were attentive or negligent in sending their children. Patty, who is with me, says she has good hope that the hearts of some of these rich poor wretches may be touched. They are as ignorant as the beasts that perish, intoxicated every day before dinner, and plunged in such vice that I begin to think London a virtuous place. By their assistance I procured immediately a good house, which, when a partition is taken down and a window added, will receive a great number of children. The house, and an excellent garden of almost an acre of ground, I have taken at once for six guineas and a half per year. I have ventured to take it for seven years. There's courage for you! It is to be put in order immediately, 'for the night cometh'; and it is a comfort to think that though I may be dust and ashes in a few weeks, yet by that time the business will be in actual motion. I have written to different manufacturing towns for a mistress, but can get nothing hitherto. As for the mistress of the Sunday-school and the religious part, I have employed Mrs. Easterbrook, of whose judgment I have a good opinion. I hope Miss Wilberforce will not be frightened, but I am afraid she must be called a Methodist.

"I asked the farmers if they had no resident curate. They told me they had a right to insist on one, which right, they confessed, they had never ventured to exercise for fear their tithes should be raised. I blushed for my species. The Glebe House is good for any purpose. The Vicarage of Cheddar is in the gift of the Dean of Wells, the value nearly £50 per annum. The incumbent, a Mr. R——, who has something to do—I cannot here find out what—in the University of Oxford, where he resides. The curate lives at Wells, twelve miles distant. They have only service once a week, and there is hardly an instance of a poor person being visited or prayed with. The living of Axbridge belongs to the Prebendary of Winchscombe in the Cathedral of Wells; the annual value is about £50. . . . . Mr. G—— is intoxicated about six times a week, and very frequently is prevented from preaching by two black eyes, honestly earned by fighting."

The reason of writing to a manufacturing town was that the school was, as far as possible, to be made selfsupporting by setting the girls to spin flax and wool for the numerous factories of Gloucestershire and Somersetshire. Mrs. Trimmer had established this plan, and the good Ladies Bountiful had declared that thus work could never be wanting, since spinning could never go out of fashion. The difficulty of getting clothes was immense among the poor in those days. At Brentford, close to London, the most thrifty parents dressed their children in rags bought by the pound and patched together, and brushes and combs were utterly unknown; so what must the average child of the Mendips have been? Spinning and knitting would, it was hoped, be a step to enabling the girls to clothe themselves decently.

A spinning mistress was secured, and likewise an excellent widow who had seen better days, and had forty pounds a year of her own, Mrs. Baker, with her daughter, who were to conduct the school in the cottage that had been hired. When all was ready the two sisters, with their mistresses, took rooms at the "George" at Cheddar, and proceeded thither on Saturday, the 24th of October, taking a leg of mutton as their provision, and finding no room but the kitchen to sit in.

On Sunday, the 25th of October, 140 children assembled at the school, and the little mission party took them to church, which they found more crowded than it had been for forty years, except on a club day. The curate preached for twelve minutes on the laws of the land and the divine right of Kings, but the divine right of the King of Kings seemed to be a law above his comprehension. The farmers looked on in armed neutrality, with the prevailing sentiment that reading never did good to anyone, and that religion would be the ruin of agriculture. The school was opened on the Monday, when there was a display of utter ignorance.

But when, five weeks later, Patty went to inspect proceedings before the removal to Bath for the winter, she found thirty children perfect in the Catechism, forty able to say three Psalms, and a few elder ones showing some knowledge of the Bible, the village altogether in a more decent state, the church gradually filling, and not a child on the cliffs on Sunday.

On Sunday evenings, the parents of the children were induced to come for an hour of instruction in the very foundations of religion. This was not attempted without much consideration; but the rector, on making his annual visit to receive his tithes, approved all that was done, gave half-a-guinea among the children, and left this encouragement.

Yet these exertions of the two sisters were made while "poor Patty had a wretched summer, in almost constant pain" from rheumatism in the head, and Hannah was often disabled by the same complaint. They had "ferretted about" in others of the neglected parishes during these autumn months, and had further designs for some of the "thirteen without even a resident curate"; but winter made the Mendips inaccessible, and Cowslip Green was but a "thin-walled cottage," so that the whole sisterhood migrated to their new house at Bath, whence Hannah wrote to Mr. Wilberforce to beg for a supply of New Testaments, Prayer-Books, and a few hymn-books.

After recruiting herself with the waters at Bath, Hannah proceeded to pay her yearly visit to London, where anecdotes of the revolutionary doings in France were current.

Once a lady was astonished by her maid walking into her room with a pamphlet in her hand, and sitting down to read it, explaining "C'est que nous allons tous devenir égaux et je me prepare pour l'égalité." Also, when a duel was expected, so many spectators went to it that il y avait trente whiskeys remplis de dames.

The Duke of Grafton had put forth a pamphlet of a latitudinarian character entitled, Hints to an Association for preventing Vice and Immorality, and this called forth an answer from Miss More, by name An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World.

Judging by this reply, there must have been a great deal in His Grace's paper like complaints we are familiar with. It affirmed and asserted that people absented themselves from church from objections to the Liturgy, and Miss More replies, in a spirit of evident affection to the Prayer-Book: "If we do not find a suitable humiliation in the Confession, a becoming earnestness in the petitions, a congenial joy in the Adoration, a corresponding gratitude in the thanksgivings, it is because our hearts do not accompany our words!" Moreover, she demonstrates that conscientious objections to the Litany or the Athanasian Creed could hardly be the real cause of absence from church, since there were all the Sunday afternoons free from either, and eight-and-forty Sunday mornings without the Quicumque.

The Duke seems to have declared that religion was in a highly flourishing state, and he is answered by references to the Elizabethan and early Stuart days, when statesmen were far more openly zealous in piety. Miss More accepts, however, his praise of the period as "the Age of Benevolence," but argues most soundly that lavish gifts are of no avail without efforts at reforming the vices that cause poverty and misery; and then she plunges into a subject she afterwards pursued more fully, that of religious education, ending with drawing a beautiful picture of a true Christian life.

So much did it delight Bishop Porteous that, in allusion to Sir Thomas More's exclamation: "Aut Erasmus aut Diabolus," he wrote "Aut Morus aut Angelus."

Just after her return to Somersetshire, Miss More was greatly shocked. On a Sunday, in the midst of morning service, the congregations in the Bristol churches were startled by the bell and voice of the crier, proclaiming the reward of a guinea for a poor negro girl who had run away. "To my great grief and indignation," Hannah wrote to Horace Walpole, "the poor trembling wretch was dragged out from a hole at the top of a house where she had hid herself, and forced on board ship. Alas! I did not know it till too late, or I would have run the risk of buying her, and made you and the rest of my humane—I had almost said human—friends, help me out, if the cost had been considerable."