Reverend William Birks (1843-1921)

This is the text written by Jane Elliott Stevens, the wife of William Birks, on the life of her husband.  She married him in 1878 in Topsham.  The marriage was celebrated by William’s elder brother, John Birks.  In the ensuing years the couple moved around the country and had eight surviving children.  It could not have been an easy life for Jane, but her narrative in marked by her deep love of her family.  She told her grand-daughter that she had been a much-loved only child but had always wanted to have a big family to make-up for her quiet and solitary childhood.

When the Rev. Wm Birks of Flagg was very ill, he called his son Wm. to his bedside and said ‘You must do my duty’ and though at first he said he could not he was persuaded and coached into reading a sermon.  Everybody was very sympathetic and encouraged him, so he carried on until his father’s death and for some little time after, although he was then only turned 17.  His elder brother John was at College, where he managed to get in, and at the end of his training was sent to Hastings to conduct services in a large room.  The new chapel there was built during his ministry, Sir John Browning (?) helping him a good deal. After two years at Hastings he tired of the place, and it was also too relaxing for his mother, who lived there with him, and he came and preached a Topsham, then a vacant place, was liked and received an invitation to become minister.  There were 2 chapels, Topsham which had an afternoon Sunday School and an evening service, and Gulliford trainstop on the way to Exmouth.  Miss Lee of Elford Barton and Genl. Lee her brother attended regularly in their carriage and were the chief supporters.  He remained at Topsham a little over 2 years then left and went to Gloucester, Barton Street Chapel between 4 and 5 years.  His brother Richard, having managed somehow to get some college preparation for the Ministry in America, followed him to Topsham, Whilst at Gloucester Wm. visited Topsham every year and in 1878 we were married at Guilford Chapel by his brother John.  We went to live at Stannington near Sheffield.  The chapel he took for one year, but it was too countrified (?) for him to stay longer, although the whole congregation begged him to do so; we were the first to occupy the Underbank Parsonage. At Xmas we moved to Wolverhampton where we lived at no.1 Goldthorne Terrace, Penn Rd; the ground in front was a large open field at that time and a lovely view across about 20 miles of country with the Wrekin as background.  We must have been there about 3 years, during which time he raised about £120 for a new organ.  The chapel was then on Snowhill but has since been removed. I have forgotten to mention Kendal where he went after Gloucester, a very old place.  His mother was still with him – she was then about 70 but wished to settle for a time at Ashover, and it was for her sake that he bought ‘The Grove’ and adopted the first house for her needs.  Kendal was the last of his bachelor live and I know very little of it, but is likeness is in the vestry as a previous minister of that Chapel. From Wolverhampton we moved to Stroud in Gloucestershire.  It was a very pretty chapel and a rather select congregation.  It was a very pretty neighbourhood and my uncle said when he came to see us ‘I should think Mr Birks will stay here’.  However, it was too quiet and he was eager for a large town again, and Portsmouth becoming vacant he came a preacher one Sunday and got it, so with Hilda (the 3rd child) a small baby about 6 months old we were off again.  There was an official present and many personal gifts for us both. After that then came High Street, Portsmouth, the oldest non-conformist chapel in the city and at one time a fashionable chapel we have been told, with many carriages drawn up outside.  John Pounds the old cobbler whose name was a household word on account of his philanthropic spirit was a member.  The Rev. Henry Hawkes, who when we knew him was minister emeritus and a great friend of ours, used to tell us a lot about him; indeed he wrote a book of his life which I had.  When we were at High Street there was a good congregation, 2 large school rooms, 1 for boys and 1 for girls, a library of nearly 3,00 books, evening lectures during the winter, a sewing circle, an endowment of £20 a year for the poor sick people, a paid organist, and altogether  plenty to do.  Mr Fraser (Fraser and White Coal Merchants) was a liberal supporter through his wife was a staunch church-woman and attended Vicar Grant’s services at that time in the cathedral, she came regularly to our chapel with her husband every Sunday morning.  At W Fraser’s death many years after we had left Portsmouth, the family asked the Rev William Birks to officiate at the funeral service which he did.  The Governor of the Workhouse W……. and family attended the chapel regularly also and though at the time we were living in Diss they wrote and asked him to come to Portsmouth to bury him, which he did and on his return he told me he had never seen such a service with such numbers attending.  He was very proud of these last wishes of old friends.  After 5 years at Portsmouth we went to Banbury. At Banbury the chapel is directly opposite the Parish Church; a pretty chapel lying back in its own grounds with ornamental gates in front.  The congregations were middle working class.  It was here that Ernest developed severe abscesses and we found that many families suffered in that way. but they became frequent and we had the advice of 3 different doctors we were far from satisfied and at last consulted a very clever doctor we were advised to see.  He said ‘You must take him away from here or the trouble will be serious.’ so off we wrote to Scarborough and Sunderland as both were vacant.  He preached at Scarborough but found they had appointed a minister the previous Sunday.  Soon after he went to Sunderland and was appointed there.  At the farewell service at Banbury the Secretary after the benediction walked quickly to the altar rails and asked all to remain in their places.  He then made a short speech asking the Rev. William Birks to consider if he would return at the end of a year provided it was safe to bring the child back.  However, we would not entertain this idea, so with the youngest child 6 months old and 4 other children we were on the move again. We had very little salary in Sunderland but many good friends, especially a Mrs Bunnup (?) whose house was my children’s second home and Mr Rutherford, the Sunderland editor of The Newcastle Daily Leader and his wife.  I was very happy among them, but the pay being really insufficient William managed to get Aberdeen in about 2 years time so much to my regret were again moved on.  By this time Ernest was strong and full of life and I shall never forget when we moved into May Bank, our new home, his running to me with an armful of rope and shouting ‘Where shall I put this, mama, ready for when we move next time.’ In addition to several gifts we had testimonials from both Banbury and Sunderland but somehow William never would take care of these illuminated addresses and always said ‘oh don’t worry about them, they don’t matter.’ The Scotch people were not so easy to understand.  They were very hard-headed.  I well remember William preaching a sermon, the text was ‘Take no anxious thought for the morrows ect.’ and he was taken severely to task, their point being you must do so or go to the wall.  This he did like and in many little ways there was friction so one day he announced he was going to give it up.  ‘But’ I said ‘we have nowhere else in view.’  ‘I don’t care’ he said ‘I’ll soon get something.’  This greatly disturbed me, as there were o many little mouths to feed.  His notice expired about 5 weeks after John was born and by the end of 6 weeks we were on the way to London 1st class passengers on the steam boat but not knowing what was before us, but with William’s usual hopefulness it was all rosy.  However, he had just then to find it was not so and in London the supplying was not plentiful.  He got as many supplies as it could but rail fare took a lot from the Sundays’ fee in many cases.  Then began the selling of personal property – first Ashover which his brother John bought.  Whilst living at Lee (London S.E.) we sent May to Channing House School as she wanted to be a nurse, but she had never been strong and was not really fit to leave home.  Later she was very ill and the Dr gave her 18 months of life, she ‘wanted to go home’ (meaning Portsmouth) so we moved down to our property Wanstead Villa (Villiers Road).  Then William bought some property in Clarendon Road and Gilbert was born there.  At this time William was in York – a 6 months engagement and as soon as Gilbert was big enough for me to travel we followed him there.  He was there on a 6 months engagement 4 times one after another, as a law suit was on.  A lot of atheists got into the chapel and wanted to oust the Unitarians so they went to law and the trust deeds were so worded that was the only way a minister could be there.  It was a difficult post and I felt sorry for him. On leaving York we came back again to Portsmouth and lived on supply money.  By this time Wanstead Villa was sold and our other property money until it was nearly all gone except a very few pounds. Last of all we went to Diss where we spent nearly 12 years.  Then came May’s death and 3 months in the London Hospital, my bad arm and after that the war and all its horrors and anxieties.  Our chapel principal W. Taylor dead and no sympathy from Mrs Taylor.  William’s breakdown, our removal to Bournemouth, no house to be got, our return to Ernest’s and our new home in Wickham Road, Fareham, 2 boys in France and not knowing from day to day what we might hear, and William partly helpless now with paralysis, Trissie (?) in London with Hilda in all the raids, Ernest at the Crystal Palace with the Air Force.  At last came Peace from War, Williams’s death, and my ill-health – Hilda’s and Gilbert’s operations and finally the shock of Ernest’s passing on.  Among it all the kindness shown me by my old friends and the many pleasures given me by my children and my friends, which I value highly, and helps me pass the time left to with you all.  There have been so many of you and so many anxieties that I have not been able to do half I would have liked to do.  This is just a sketch of the main things, much of which you can fill in yourself.  My wish has always been to do what I could for you all.  A difficult mission so can only ask you all think kindly of me as can and forgive any seeming neglect and be sure that it was not intentional.

William Birks in later life


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