Richard Elliott Birks (1846-1925)

The three Birks brothers William, John and Richard all followed their father and became Unitarian Ministers, but each had very different careers. William restlessly moved around the country rarely staying long with one congregation; John had a much more stable career and remained for a considerable time in Derby; while Richard was far more adventurous.  Of the three, Richard appears the most confident, focussed and ambitious.  He was prepared to take risks but unlike his brother William he did not lose heart when things went wrong.  It is not surprising that such a confident, capable man ended up in America.

Richard was the youngest of the brothers, born in 1846 in Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire.   He was named for his grandmother’s ‘saintly brother’ Richard Elliott (1768-1813), a druggist and Methodist preacher who had perhaps cared more for the earthly needs of the poor than their spiritual needs.    In 1851 the young Richard Birks is living with his parents, William and Mary (born Else) Birks in Green Vale, Whitfield near Glossop.  William is described as a ‘general teacher’ and his wife as ‘schoolmistress.’  William died in 1863, with the wish that his sons would follow him into the Unitarian Ministry.

In his autobiography Richard states he believed his vocation as a minister should be supported by a useful trade, a belief that would serve him well as he established himself in life.  So, in 1861 he is living in Chesterfield in South Street as an apprentice to a master painter, Frederick Horton.  Although he developed useful skills this does not seem to have been a very happy period of his life and it is not perhaps surprising that he decided to go to Canada in 1865, the year after his father’s death.

He took a passage in steerage on the S.S. Moravia, a new ship that travelled between Liverpool and Portland, Maine.  On his arrival in Montreal he was virtually penniless but soon found work.  Later that year he moved on to Boston, but the large number of troops returning from the American Civil War made obtaining work difficult, so he returned to England where he lived in London and Manchester. He must have made an impression in Boston for he was offered a post with a company called Haverstroh and Needham and in spring 1867 he returned to work in Boston as book-keeper and high-class decorator.   There he met Margaret Ann White Lang, born in Boston in 1849 of Scottish parents.  The couple married 10th Sept 1867 in Warren St Chapel, Boston and they settled in Beacon Street.

By 1869 they had a daughter, Mary Christine Birks born in Meadsville, Pennsylvania.  Meadsville has associations with the Unitarians since Meadsville Theological School trained Ministers and it is possible the Richard was there because of this link.  Much later, in 1902. his only surving son, Alfred, graduated from the School.  In 1870 Richard is noted in the US Census as a ‘fine painter’ in Dayton, Ohio.

In 1871 Richard and his growing family returned to England.  While visiting his brother William in Gloucestershire Richard’s baby son, John William, died of dysentery, an event which deeply affected him.  In the following year he was ordained as a Minister in Topsham, where his brother William had been a Minister.  He appears to have been close to William’s wife, Jane Stevens, who had been born and brought up to Topsham.  Richard’s second daughter Matilda was born there in 1873.  By 1876 the family had moved to Northampton where a son, Alfred was born.  In 1881 they are living  in an area just outside Tamworth.  In the following few years they move to a number of places – Chichester, Gloucester, the Isle of Man where Richard was Minister in Douglas and finally Rawtenstall in Lancashire.  Two more daughters were born, Ellen Sinclair in 1881 and Florence in 1883.   Ellen appears to have had a serious illness which led to partial paralysis and the need, a little later in her life, for surgery.  This was one of the reasons that the family moved to Douglas as they were advised the sea air and healthy environment would be a benefit to her fragile health.

In March 1892 the family returned to America.  They landed at Portland, Maine where they were met by Margaret’s brother, Andrew Lang.  They lived for a while in Rich Street in Boston. Two of the children found work – Alfred with Cambridge University Press and Matilda as a dressmaker;  this was essential for the finances of the family since Richard did not find a post as a Minister and for a while worked as a sign writer.  During this period he seems to have developed his own fairly successful painting and decorating business.  He appears to have kept his vocation as a Minister separate from his work as a tradesman, only revealing it to a local Minister who noticed mail addressed to him as “Rev. R.E. Birks.”

His eldest daughter Mary had married in Lancashire in 1892 to Stanley Clague who came from the Isle of Man (maybe they had met during her father’s Ministery).  Stanley and Mary moved to America with her parents.    Their first child, Stanley Richard Clague, was born in Pittsfield.

Richard returned to the Ministry in 1896 when he became Minister at Bernardston, Massachusetts.  There can be little doubt that his positive attitudes, his energy and drive were factors in him being offered this post.  At around this time he joined the Masons which probably benefited his career; he certainly took his membership seriously and moved up through the Order. While he was at Bernardston there was a National Conference of the Unitarian Church in Saratoga to which Richard and his wife were delegates; it was at this Conference that the two wings of Unitarianism were reunited.  He was very active during his period at Bernardston, including acting as librarian for the Cushman Library, a role he clearly enjoyed.  He saw the six years he served there as among the happiest in his vocation.

In 1902 Lucy Jane Cutler Kellogg described Richard and his role in the local church

Rev. Richard Elliott Birks, the present pastor of this society, was born at Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire, England, in 1846, the son of Rev. William Birks, whose busy parochial life furnished a worthy example to the three sons, all of whom became Unitarian ministers. Originally the Birks family were Scotch, but during the days of the first Stuarts, settled in England, “Being always liberal in Theology and politics.” The Elliotts were a well-known puritan family, and Richard Elliott, the ancestor of Richard Elliott Birks, was a contemporary of John Wesley, and entered the ministry at the personally expressed wish of the latter. ” The Unitarian Chapels or Meeting houses in the county of Derby, were mostly founded by the old English Presbyterians, who might be justly called the liberals of the Puritans. They built their churches and left them free from fetters of creed or covenant, in trust for the worship of Almighty God. Many of the first pastors were of the noble 2000 — ministers who were ejected from the parish churches in 1662 (Charles the Second’s Reign) because they objected to swear to be loyal to a ‘bad’ King (not believing in the divine rights of kings) and also refused to give their assent and consent to everything in the book of common prayer. It was of such stock and in the old meeting houses and manses still largely supported by the descendants of those sturdy and independent puritans,” that Mr. Birks was reared and it is evident that he freely imbibed of the spirit of intelligence, thrift and manly independence of the people of that locality. From his father, a disciple of Dr. Channing, he received his early education and teachings in Unitarianism.

When just ready for the university, his father’s death obliged him to change his plans, and his later education was obtained wholly by his own efforts, but by self-sacrificing perseverance he was enabled to prepare himself for the ministry, and was ordained at Topsham, Devon, England, in 1872. He was afterwards minister at Northampton, Tamworth, Chichester, Gloucester, Douglas, Isle of Man and finally at Rawtenstall, near Manchester, in all of which places he rendered good work, being especially successful in building up and restoring societies in those parishes where there had existed a lack of religious enthusiasm and life. He was in this country during the last years of the civil war, returning for a brief season to London in 1866. His marriage occurred in Boston in 1867, and he kept his residence there until 1871, when he again crossed the water, returning in 1892, and coming to Bernardston 1896. Besides his ministerial labors, Mr. Birks has always taken an active interest and part in all matters pertaining to improvement and education, being always found upon the liberal, progressive side, and his record since coming among the people of Bernardston is but a rounding out and completion of the busy, useful life he spent in England. He numbers among his transatlantic acquaintances some of the foremost writers and leaders in reform, who hold him in grateful remembrance. Although having been here but a short time, the society has recognized his sterling qualities and is glad to thus number him among their cherished pastors.

History of the town of Bernardston, Franklin County, Massachusetts. 1736-1900 (Hall, 1902)

assuming that some of this information was provided by Richard himself, it is notable that he set himself in the tradition of the English Puritans; something that might have appealed to Boston although does not appear to have much foundation in the reality of his family history.

In 1901 he asserted his commitment to the United States, he was nationalised in the Court District of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont on 22 Mar 1901.  In the same year he moved to Deerfield, to the historic Deerfield First Church.  As usual he took on a range of duties and activities, including re-organising the library and improving its funding, along with an involvement in the local museum.  He also became increasingly active in the Masons, rising within the organisation.  Towards the end of his period in Deerfield he seems to have lost in a plan to upgrade the church.  After this setback his health became less good, and he was granted an extra holiday.  He mentions his increasing deafness and rheumatism, factors which led him to seek a smaller church, moving to Montague.  Here he could undertake less strenuous duties while befitting from the Service Pension Fund.  A few years later, he decided, at 70, to retire completely.  In August 1916 the family returned to Bernardston, where Alfred Birks had bought a house for them.  A female pastor Margaret B. Barnard, was working there.

Although he still undertook some preaching and other duties, his deafness and eyesight problems hindered him.  At the same time the effects of the First World War were apparent in his family.  His son, Alfred, Minister at Natick, went to Europe with the Y.M.C.A. and his grandson Stanley Clague was serving the Artillery.  Alfred was an ‘international secretary’ in the organisation and appears to have been employed to provide books to the troops and based in Paris.  His father hints at the stress he son had experienced during this period.  Alfred was a widower from an early marriage to an American girl, Irene Dexter McManus, in Paris he met a pen friend of one of his sisters and returned to France to marry her after the war.   Yvonne Josephine Vittu, almost twenty years her husband’s junior, became part of a family that included sons-in-laws and grandchildren.  Alfred continued to work as a Minister and died in 1954, his wife died in 1985.

Richard Elliott Birks died in Bernardston in 1925 and is buried there in the family plot.  His wife died in 1928.  In the papers of Frank Elliott Birks, his nephew there is typescript copy of a letter from Alfred Birks dated 28th January 1925

Sorrow has entered our hearts again and this time it is our father who has entered the gates of a new life…Soon after New Year he was assailed by a complication of diseases, erysipelas, mumps, pneumonia, neuritis, and although he straggled hard it was too much for him, and he gradually failed.  He suffered a good deal, but his mind was clear to the end.  We all reached home a few days before he died, and he knew that his children were about him.  He spoke us occasionally, and he was always conscious of our presence.  If his body had been equal to his mind he would have lived many years longer.  But physically he was worn out.  He died as noon of Wednesday January 21st.  He was buried at Bernardston Cemetery on the 23rd.

He was great honoured in death by all the churches he had served, and by the many organisations to which he had belonged.  The Free Classes had the final rites…

Names associated with Richard Elliott Birks descendents include Mansir and Clague.  His son had no children.  Florence and Ellen did not marry, they kept in contact with their English cousins and, in the 1930s, visited England.


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