ON an autumn day at the end of October 1837, amid the excitement caused by the accession of the young Queen Victoria to the throne of Great Britain, there occurred an event which brought great joy into a house on the outskirts of the ancient city of Worcester. This house, named "The Cedars," was charmingly situated, overlooking the Severn, and over the waters of this noblest of England's rivers there was borne at times the faint sound of the bells of the Cathedral, which could just be seen in the distance.
Here lived William and Sarah Rowlands, and the event which had brought them such supreme happiness was the birth to them of a son, whom they named William Edward, and who is the subject of this memoir.
William Rowlands, the father, was a prosperous merchant, with his business in the city of Worcester. He was an upright, godly man, adhering to the Evangelical views of his day with a tenacity born of his Puritan ancestry. At the same time, he is described as being somewhat stern and unapproachable, and ruling his little household with a Spartan simplicity.
The mother, on the other hand, was gentle and loving, the confidante of all her children.
Other children were born from time to time in the pleasant home on the banks of the Severn. There was a younger brother, John, with whom William, his elder brother, spent long happy hours during the summer holidays, boating and fishing on the river. Then there came a sister, who only lived to be sixteen, and who was very dear to her elder brother, William, and her early death was his first great sorrow. A younger sister, fourteen years younger than William, was born after he had left home to continue his education, and was a great pet with all the family.
The boyhood that our hero spent in the Worcester home on the banks of the Severn was a very happy one, although, according to present-day ideas, his upbringing was decidedly Spartan. But, no doubt, this had something to do with the love of the "simple life" which was so decided a feature in his character, and which was to stand him in such good stead, in after years, in the mission field.
In addition to summer days spent by the brothers on their beloved Severn, each shared a common hobby in gardening, and wherever, in later years, William Rowlands found himself stationed, he always sought a relaxation in the hobby, in which he excelled. In summer there were family picnics in the hayfields, and in winter there were carpentry and leather-work within doors, which trained hand and eye in accuracy and thoroughness.
The mother's influence for good in the training of her little family was very marked, and her prayers lingered in the memories of her children throughout their lives. One of the prayers which she prayed with them and for them, and which William Rowlands loved to recall, long years afterwards, was, "I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil," a prayer so abundantly fulfilled in his case.
Family prayers, morning and evening, was the old Evangelical rule strictly observed in the household. We are given a glimpse of this feature of the daily routine in a Christian family of the early Victorian days. The family and the servants are gathered together, morning and evening. The father reads the appointed portion for the day, and afterwards his strong calm voice is heard, as he offers up the daily prayers and petitions for the household.
Another great influence in the early life of William Rowlands was that of the Rev. C. Davis, the Vicar of St. Clement's, in whose parish the home of the Rowlands family was situated. He was one of the old Evangelical school, and a man of quiet saintliness, whose life and ministry left a deep impression upon the heart and mind of the young boy. The portrait of this saintly man hung in William Rowlands' bedroom up to the end of his life. During his last illness the veteran would often refer to him, and would recall how much it meant to him to have the hand of this servant of God laid upon his head, with the words, "God bless you, my boy," as he passed him in the street.
Thus passed the early days of William Rowlands, and in after years these home scenes, and the sound of the Cathedral bells across the water, were memories he loved to recall, although in the days of his great weakness, when other bells brought back old scenes, it was almost too much for him.
It was an historic year, and a still more notable generation, in which the boy had been born. The life of England was throbbing with renewed energy, and vast and important changes were taking place in the life of the nation. Methods of transportation and communication were being revolutionised by the new discoveries of steam power and electricity. The parents of William Rowlands could not communicate the interesting fact of his birth to their friends by telegram for no telegraph offices were open until 1843. Nor was the post a cheap and easy method of conveying the news, for the Penny Post was not introduced until 1840, superseding the old rates which ranged, according to distance and weight, up to many shillings.
In 1837, the picturesque coaches of the period still travelled the turnpike roads of the English countryside, although they were fighting a losing battle with the new railway construction, in spite of the fact that the average pace of the new railways was only eight miles an hour--a pace easily beaten by the crack coaches.
In the same year, steamships were beginning steadily to supersede the sailing ship for ordinary commercial purposes, but it was only in the following year that the first steamship crossed the Atlantic.
The fair England which lay around the home of the boy had also its dark places. The factory system was cruel in its oppression. Mines and collieries were worked in great measure by women and children, and for long hours. Bakers, sailors, and chimney-sweeps were unprotected by legislation, these trades being those which absorbed many of the wretched boys from Poor-law institutions, from which they were obtained by purchase. A pamphlet published about the time expresses the horror of West Indian slave-owners at what they saw in "England's dark Satanic mills."
Not that the condition of the slave was anything to boast of. Although the Act of 1807 had abolished the actual participation of Great Britain in the infamous traffic, French, Spanish, and American slave-traders were still robbing West Africa of thousands of its people, and in the West Indian Islands belonging to Great Britain there were nearly a million of black slaves doomed to interminable bondage. Brighter days were dawning, however, for all sorts and conditions of labour, whether at home or abroad, mainly due to the exertions of those great men of the Evangelical school--Grant, Macaulay, Sharp, the Thorntons, the Venns, and, above all, Wilberforce--whose names were honoured in the home of William Rowlands, and in many another Evangelical household.
Abroad, the period was one in which the British Empire was beginning a career of rapid expansion, but in a world which was as yet considerably restricted. The well-thumbed school maps of the time showed the continent of Africa with a blank space and the words "Unknown" printed across the void, for the travels of Burton, Speke, Grant, Livingstone, and Stanley were still in the future.
Such was the home and the age in which William Rowlands began his long life of devoted service to God and his fellow-men.