A visit to Fishponds Church in 1847
(Adapted from "The Church Goer. Rural Rides or Calls at Country Churches", by Joseph Leach, proprietor of the Bristol Times, 1847)
Fishponds (so called, it is shrewdly conjectured by some eminent philologist, from its having been once the residence of fish) is a most miserable looking place - so cold and cheerless, indeed, that a man instinctively buttons his coat and quickens his pace as he passes through it.
The day was "frosty but kindly", and as I felt John's gait rather slow for a quick circulation I dismounted and walked by his side. This would have been pleasant enough on any other road, but I looked round me in vain for the characteristics of English life and comfort, which can be seen as well in winter as in summer. I met nothing whatever to interest me on the road, save two detachments of the rising generation proceeding with a pair of bull-terriers to regale themselves with a dog fight, and indulging by the way in anything but delectable conversation.
The manner in which the spire of Fishponds is placed in its present pre-eminence is, however, enough to elicit an epic in its praise, and that of its architect also. I perceive, too, to preserve so rare a design for the benefit of "future and imitative ages", they have constructed a lightning conductor, which is ingeniously carried down outside the edifice from apex to base - a somewhat singular circumstance, from which I conclude that the parish authorities - apprehensive lest the electric fluid, in envy of so fair a structure, should entertain a pointed and particular spite against the spire of Fishponds - have taken every possible means in their power to protect so sublime and symmetrical an object from the effects of "oak-cleaving thunderbolts".
The Church is a plain, poor structure, naked both within and without: but it serves the great purpose for which it was built - namely, to afford spiritual accommodation for a large and populous district; and it is particularly gratifying to find that the wants of the poor have been the first consideration in the structure. It was dedicated in August 1821, and consists of a nave and small chancel: there is some stained glass in the east window, through which the cold white light of winter entered with a little prismatic warmth. At the east end is a gallery, inhabited by the children of the charity-school.
Fishponds Church is capable of containing between seven and eight hundred and there are out of that nearly six hundred unappropriated sittings. Indeed, I could only count about sixteen pews, which, being placed closely together, at the east end, accommodated the elite of Fishponds - yes, elite, for, poor as Fishponds is, it cannot be without its elite.
The rest of the building is occupied by the non-elite of that place, and the pauper children and old women of Stapleton Workhouse. It was one of the simplest and humblest congregations (with the exception of the sixteen pews) I have ever seen. I sat on a form with several old women, and paid as much attention to the service as two or three hundred children with colds in their heads would permit me to do. Pocket handkerchiefs, I perceive, are not provided under the Gilbert Union Act: but I think at this inclement season they are indispensable: most of the foundlings, caught cold on the first night of their exposure, and have never since recovered from it.
As I have found it the case in most country churches which I have visited, the congregation turned round to loll and listen; so that half the audience, namely, the children were looking eastward, while the other half, by confronting them, had quite an opposite aspect. Not to be singular, I did the same as my neighbours, and had, therefore, an opportunity of examining the various lineaments of the little boys and girls - the latter in their grey frieze cloaks, and the former in jackets of a like material - and I think I never saw such a epitome of the human face in all its diversity of features: eyes all colours, noses of all shapes, hair of all hues - some would be well-looking, others threatened to be positively ugly - some showed intellect, some evidence of obdurate stolidity - some promised to be agreeable, others were positively repulsive. I believe the principle portion of them are foundlings, or illegitimate children.
Fishponds is a "plain and unaccommodated" place of worship: there is no sexton; no robing-room; the Rev. William Mirehouse changed his surplice for his gown in the reading-desk, and opened the pulpit door, and performed other little minutiae for himself. Mr. Mirehouse is a magistrate as well as a minister, and "doubly armed" against vice - with the Bible in one hand and the Statute Book in the other - he makes the treadmill sometimes second his moral admonitions, and his flock are less inclined to break the Commandments, when they know that breaking stones at Lawford's Gate is likely to follow.
He had hardly given out the text - the 4th verse of the 144th Psalm, "Man is like to vanity; his days are as a shadow that passeth away" - when two or three old gentlemen immediately commenced muffling themselves up with much assiduity, buttoning their great coats, pulling on their gloves, and making such other preparations, seemingly for a long sermon, that I began to grow apprehensive. But it was not a long sermon; and I do not know when I have heard a much better one; some parts of it were positively eloquent; and the pervading characteristics of his style were forcible and figurative. His manner, however, was more open to exception than his matter: it was free, and at times far from ungraceful; but it was for the most part infinitely more magisterial than ministerial, and accompanied with a tone and a look so authoritative that you would have thought he was reading malefactors a moral lesson from the bench at Lawford's Gate, instead of addressing a congregation from the pulpit of Fishponds. I could never for a moment separate the Justice of the Peace from the Parson.
The churchyard seems to be almost wholly used as a Golgotha for the neighbouring poor-house, as the long ranks of little red clay-mounds, with a small inscribed footstone to each, indicated. I seldom saw a more desolate and cheerless looking resting place for the dead in my life; not a shrub or alter-tomb, that I could see, rose to vary the dismal and monotonous dreariness and flatness of the place. I walked round it after service, and there were two old women standing by a patch of newly-broken earth, which had lately received some mortal remains; though little was the care devoted to other graves, this had evidently received less.
"Whose grave is this, my good folks?" said I. "The poor young woman who was buried at midnight, without prayer said for her poor soul", said the elder of the two, slightly shuddering. It appears that her name was Esther Tilly: she was the daughter of a farmer living in the adjoining parish, or somewhere on the borders of Horfield and Stapleton, and having fallen in love with a young man, a kind of farm-servant named Williams, her father forbade her the house, and she went to reside with a relative, still continuing her love, for the young man. Some flaw, however, some trifling interruption to their mutual attachment took place, which, joined perhaps to her other troubles, had the effect of "driving her to desperate terms", and one evening, after writing a letter informing her lover of her determination, she proceeded to a little pond in her parent's orchard, and throwing herself in, she was seen by some one at a distance to float for a moment, until "her garments heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch to muddy death".
An inquest was held, and the jury, arguing I suppose according to the clown's logic, "If I drown myself wittingly it argues an act, and an act has three branches - it is to act, to do, to perform; argal, she drowned herself wittingly," found a verdict of 'felo de se' and the body was buried that same night by torchlight, between the hours of 11 and 12 o'clock, without the solemn rite of Christian sepulture. On the body being lowered into the ground, the young man, Williams, bursting through the circle of torch bearers, was so excited with grief that he could with difficulty be prevented by the bystanders from throwing himself into the grave above the body.
The story appeared to me a peculiarly sad one; and I confess I could not help wishing with the old women that the jury had charitably interpreted the act as one of temporary insanity. "They threw quick lime too, into the grave", said the old woman, seeing me gaze down on the rough red cheerless-looking earth at my feet; "and cast her body in as if she were a dog instead of a poor distraught girl". I said nothing but turned away, for the cold began to creep up my legs; the cutting blast came across the bleak churchyard, and, whistling through the loose stones of the ill-built wall close by, piped an appropriate dirge above the grave of the poor suicide.
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See also the website of St.Mary's Parish Church, Fishponds