Project Canterbury

Bryan King and the Riots at St. George's-in-the-East

By William Crouch

London: Methuen, [1904]

Chapter I. Boyhood

BRYAN KING was born at Liverpool on Holy Innocents' Day, 1811, a most fitting day for the beginning of the life of one who, in spite of much sad experience, never seemed to have attained to the knowledge of the evil so prevalent in the world, and which caused him so much suffering; whose public life was the record of sufferings patiently and undeservedly endured for supposed faults quite alien from his true character, which was essentially that of a single-minded and chivalrously courteous English gentleman with an absorbing sense of Christian duty. The one weak point in his character, judging it from a worldly point of view, but a weakness which most people might well envy, was his apparent inability to [1/2] suspect anyone of evil. For one's own peace of mind such a disposition would be cheaply purchased at the cost of being sometimes deceived by those whom one trusts. Beneath what appears to the worldly mind as the irony of fate in making such a man the most prominent figure in such a social convulsion as the St. George's-in-the-East Riots, it is not difficult to trace the Providence of God choosing His instruments for His own work in His own mysterious way.

At the time of Bryan's birth, his father, Mr. George King, a Liverpool merchant, was residing at Cazneau Street, Liverpool, then in a retired neighbourhood and scarcely used as a thoroughfare, the houses having strips of garden in front and large gardens at the back.

His mother's great-grandfather was Lewis Morris, Governor of the State of New Jersey, U.S., who was descended from Richard Morris, an adherent of Oliver Cromwell, who held a commission as captain in a regiment commanded by his elder brother, Lewis, who was second in command of the troops by which Chepstow Castle was taken in 1645. These two brothers took refuge in the United States soon after the Restoration of Charles II. An uncle of his mother was Gouverneur Morris, Ambassador of the United States at the Court of the Tuileries during the French Revolution, and one of the framers of the Constitution of the United States. A sister of Gouverneur Morris named Catherine, after whom [2/3] Bryan King's mother was named, once preserved the liberty, if not the life, of her father by her strict truthfulness. A body of the royal troops went to Morrisania in order to apprehend her father, who had adopted the popular side in the struggle for independence. They asked her if her father was at home, and although she had been strictly warned to deny the fact, she replied, "Yes, he is in the house." The soldiers, utterly distrusting the statement of a daughter under the circumstances, and supposing that he had left, and that she wished to delay their pursuit of him, went on at once, without searching the house.

His grandfather, Vincent Pearce Ashfield, left America shortly after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, partly on the ground of his dislike of that Act, and settled in Liverpool. His name appears, with those of many other inhabitants of Liverpool, in an Act of Parliament of the year 1802 "for enabling certain persons in the town and port of Liverpool in the County Palatine of Lancaster to erect an Exchange there."

When Catherine Ashfield, who had spent the first nine years of her life in America, having remained with her grandmother when her widowed father removed to Liverpool, married George King and bore him five children--Vincent Ashfield, Bryan, George Smith, Ellen, and Catherine--the principle of heredity asserted itself, and the offspring of the [3/4] enterprising Liverpool merchant and of the descendant of distinguished American soldiers and statesmen showed in various ways remarkable force of character. The eldest son, Vincent Ashfield King, who was very successful as a Bombay merchant, was well known in Liverpool and in the neighbourhood of Oxton, where he lived on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, as a sportsman and volunteer commanding officer. He was of an independent character verging on eccentricity, and his wide popularity was testified by the presence of some 5,000 people at his funeral. George Smith King, having been apprenticed to the mercantile firm of Messrs. Charles Horsefall and Son, showed such early promise that he was entrusted by them with the management of their business in Bombay when scarcely twenty-one years of age. His early death cut short a life of great promise. He combined in his character an intense seriousness in religious matters with a wide sympathy and a remarkable originality in telling anecdotes. During a visit to Woodchurch, when invalided home from India, he effected, without the help of an architect, the partial restoration of the church, doing a great deal of the work with his own hands. The story is told that he had to be hastily called down from the ladder on which he was at work on the church wall for his own marriage. Ellen married Harvey Goodwin, then Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, who became Dean of Ely, and subsequently Bishop of Carlisle. [4/5] She was intellectually, as in other ways, a fit partner for that accomplished scholar and deep thinker. Catherine suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, and was a confirmed invalid throughout her life. Bryan himself was no less than his brothers and sisters remarkable for force of character, combining a somewhat austere severity of life, which may perhaps be traced to his Puritan ancestors, with a keen sense of humour and the courtliness of a gentleman of the old school.

Shortly after the birth of his son Bryan, Mr. George King bought a cottage with some land on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, about two miles from Birkenhead Ferry. At this cottage, which he enlarged to meet the needs of his growing family, and which was called Heath Cottage from its situation on the east side of Oxton Heath, he lived with his family from about the middle of April to the middle of November every year, the only other house in the neighbourhood being a labourer's cottage. Sunday was as a rule spent at Woodchurch, where Mr. George King's father was at that time Rector, who was remembered by his grandson as a grave and kindly old man, exercising considerable influence for good amongst his parishioners, and conducting the services at his church with a care and reverence which were only too uncommon in those days. He was in the habit of catechising some of the elder children in the service after the second lesson. At St. Anne's [5/6] Church, Liverpool, which the family attended when in the town for the winter months, and where Bryan was baptised, a mahogany three-decker was the prominent object, and Bryan King stated long afterwards that, to the best of his recollection, he never saw the altar, whilst the services were of the dreariest type. His opinion, however, in later life was that, calling to mind such facts as that of his mother walking a long distance each day to attend the service at St. Nicholas' Church in Holy Week, in spite of the unattractive character of the services, we have in the present day something to learn in the way of a deep sense of religious duty from Church people of those less-favoured times. As an instance of his mother's reverential treatment of holy things, he always remembered the deep impression made upon him by her requesting him, soon after he was ordained, always to close the Bible after reading the lessons, "Such little things being," as she said, "of some importance in all minds, and of very great importance in some."

It is difficult to understand at the present time the isolation of rural places in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The village of Woodchurch now has two postal deliveries daily. At that time, although its population was about the same, it had no postal delivery at all. Its post office was at Neston, a village some six miles away, and letters used to be brought to the Rectory by any casual [6/7] friend or neighbour who happened to pass through Neston in that direction. The visits of friends were very few and far between, and the Rector scarcely ever slept a night away from home. The simplicity of the Woodchurch rustics is well illustrated by the story of a lame man, whose wife said to him as he lay on his death-bed, "Now, Samuel, you'll be sure to seek out our Bessie" (who died some years before) "and tell her how we are all going on," and who replied, "How dost thou think I can go lommerin' all o'er heaven on my crutches to hunt after our Bessie?" Even in 1848, when the old Rector had been succeeded by his son Joshua, an old man said to his niece, who was visiting him one day, "Eh! Miss King, I've been reading in the paper about these doings in foreign parts. Why they seem to be murderin' and slaughterin' each other like mad. I reckon that the divil is hard at work among 'em a'," and then after a pause, "why, I thought he was to be bound i' chains for a thousand year. Rot him!"

Bryan King's remembrance of Church matters in Liverpool was that very few of the clergy showed any real earnestness or zeal in their ministry, though he was impressed by the regularity and punctuality with which a Mr. Stafford, incumbent of St. Paul's Church, passed the house in Cazneau Street every day on his way to his church and district, his house being at a distance from his parish, there being at [7/8] that time scarcely one Liverpool church, if one, that had a parsonage house belonging to it. Liverpool was originally a chapelry of Walton-on-the-Hill, and had been created a district parish by Act of Parliament, at the instance, as it would seem, of the municipal body. They executed the duties of their trust in a peculiar manner. For instance, they appointed two rectors of the parish; and this odd arrangement was repeated in the case of the daughter churches of St. Paul's, St. Luke's, St. Michael's, and St. Martin's, as they were built for the continually increasing population. Other churches, as St. Anne's, were built as a speculation by the owners of property, and were naturally so fitted up with galleries and pews as to ensure a good return for the outlay, and being at first without even conventional districts, they were little more than mere preaching houses. It must be partly to this state of things that the want of earnest Church life in Liverpool, so often noticed and deplored, is to be attributed.

Dr. Fearon, the master of the first school to which Bryan King was sent with his elder brother, was an instance of the want of pastoral connection of most of the Liverpool clergy of that time with their flocks. He was incumbent of St. John's Church, and kept a school at his house in Rodney Street, at the corner of Hardman Street. Though highly respected and popular with his congregation, his pupil could not recall a single instance on which he was [8/9] summoned from his school to attend to any parochial duty.

The school was subsequently moved to Pembroke Place, near London Road, where it was carried on by Mr. Thornborough, who had been assistant to Dr. Fearon. Bryan was then about eleven years old, and with his brother used to attend this school daily during some seven months of the year, with the exception of the midsummer holidays, from Heath Cottage, his father's Cheshire home. They left home soon after 7 a.m., walked to Tranmere Ferry, distant about one mile and a half, crossed the river in an open sailing-boat, which landed them at "New Wall," a little south of the present St. George's pier, and then walked about a mile to the school, returning by the same route in the evening. The ferry boat was only built to accommodate ten or twelve persons, there being but few passengers besides Mr. King, on his way to his office in Liverpool, and his sons, as there were at that time very few inhabitants in Birkenhead and the neighbourhood. The passage was very unpleasant in stormy weather, and sometimes, with unfavourable wind and tide, occupied more than an hour, a striking contrast to the speedy transit of the present day, either by the large crowded steam ferry boats, or the underground railway route through the Mersey tunnel. This and similar experience in "enduring hardness," which would seem very hard to schoolboys of the present day, as he [9/10] himself often thought in looking back over the past, was excellent training for what the future Rector of St. George's-in-the-East had to go through in later years.

At the age of fourteen Bryan King went to Shrewsbury School, then under the headmastership of Dr. Butler, one of the most able and successful masters of the day, not only being remarkable for his classical scholarship, and his power of imparting such knowledge to his boys, but also possessing considerable tact in the management of schoolboy nature. One day, as he was on his way into school, a boy, whose back was turned to the headmaster's, asked in a loud voice," Has Butler gone into school?" to which the Doctor quietly replied in the politest tone, "No, Mr. ------, he is just going in." The success of his boys in examinations for scholarships at the Universities was attributed by Dr. Bateson, late Master of St. John's College, Cambridge, who was a contemporary of Bryan King at Shrewsbury, to the fact that the half-yearly examinations for promotion were held after instead of before the holidays. Another circumstance, which also probably contributed to the same result, was the system of regulating the amount of pocket-money supplied to the boys by the weekly totals of lesson marks.

One of the notable events of Bryan King's school-time at Shrewsbury was the winning of the "Ireland" University Scholarship at Oxford by a schoolfellow [10/11] of his, named Brancker, who had the proud distinction of beating a man who, not only became the most remarkable political character of the century, but was also one of the most accomplished classical scholars, W. E. Gladstone.

On the occasion of Daniel O'Connell passing through Shrewsbury, on his way to London to claim his seat in the House of Commons, to which he had been elected before the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act, Bryan King was one of some half-dozen boys who, with schoolboy audacity, obtained an interview with him at the Talbot Hotel, where he was staying, on the pretence of getting franks for their letters; but was not favourably impressed with that Irish hero.

In one of his school vacations Bryan accompanied his father on the trial trip on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the beginning of a revolution in travelling, which can be best estimated when comparing the present rate of travelling with the account contained in a letter to his brother of a journey to school in bad weather, in which he congratulated himself on getting to Shrewsbury only two hours after the usual time, that is, in accomplishing a journey of somewhat less than sixty miles in twelve hours instead of the customary ten.

When any theatrical star appeared at Shrewsbury the boys were allowed to go to the theatre, provided that one of the masters undertook to accompany [11/12] them. To his great delight Bryan was thus fortunate enough to see, amongst other celebrities, Charles Matthews the elder, Macready, and Miss Foote.

The happiness of his schooldays was somewhat marred by ill health, and especially by a severe attack of rheumatic fever, which, together with extreme sensitiveness, made the roughness of the schoolboys of that time, and the hardness of school life as compared with that of the present day, somewhat trying to him. On the occasion of his illness he was attended by Dr. Darwin, father of Shrewsbury's greatest citizen, the celebrated naturalist, and the most eminent physician of the town in his day, whose treatment impressed his patient with a lifelong respect for his tact and judgment. On the occasion of his first visit he said to his young patient, "Now, if I were in your place, and you were the doctor, what would you give me?" On receiving the reply, "I think that I should give some calomel," he immediately said, "You shall have some," probably seeing that his patient was in a precarious state, in which a mental effort, combined with the belief that this prescribed medicine was the proper remedy, would probably be the turning-point between life and death.

The hardening process of the rough treatment which schoolboys of those days often experienced at the hands of their schoolfellows was, perhaps, a [12/13] useful discipline for those who were strong enough to endure it; but in the case of Bryan King, if it helped to prepare him for his later sufferings, it certainly intensified the reserve and shyness which made it difficult for strangers on first acquaintance to recognise and appreciate the warm-heartedness and sympathy which were such strong features of his character.

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