Revd Henry Beresford Martin 1808-1844: a remarkable young Victorian Minister

  • This is an updated version of an article “Revd Henry Beresford Martin 1808-1844: a remarkable young Victorian Minister” by Peter Flower, which originally appeared in Richmond History 38, published in 2017.

 Henry Martin, the Vineyard Congregational Chapel’s first pastor, died in 1844 aged 36. Little is known about his early life before he came to Richmond in 1835. It was his first and only role as a church Minister. No portrait survives and no description of what he looked like has been found. The only personal records are some notes in his handwriting that he made of sermons[i] to which he had listened as a student and a list of the Richmond church members that he revised a year before he died.

He suffered debilitating ill health in the last three years of his short ministry. But, despite this setback, this remarkable young man provided wise spiritual leadership, bound together a divided and fractious fellowship, saw the congregation grow to some 500 souls and laid the firm foundations of a growing congregation in what was then little more than the village of Richmond. This is an account of the impact that he made on Richmond and the legacy that he left.

The first congregation met in 1831 in a well-appointed chapel built by a wealthy benefactor called Thomas Wilson to accommodate 500-600 people.  His story is told in Richmond History 23 (2002). The vision of the first congregation was “a Missionary effort by carrying the preaching of the Gospel into the midst of a forgetful and slumbering people”.  There were just nine people to begin with – six women and three men. It must have seemed a daunting task for the nine who assembled.

The congregation was too small to support a paid Minister so various local independent dissenting Ministers helped with preaching and leading services. Students from Highbury College, a theological college in north London, also came to lead services. Wilson was the College’s Treasurer and kept a close eye on the 40 or so students and their future potential.  After a year, the church congregation numbered 26. Steps were taken to approach one of the visiting students, a Mr Bevis, to become the Minister. However, there were some in the church who had reservations about him and his appointment became a bone of contention, with factions forming in the congregation. Sadly, tensions also emerged over finances and personal relationships. Outside Ministers were brought in to chair the church meetings and attempt reconciliation during the latter part of 1833.

After only 18 months, deep divisions had split the small congregation and few new members joined. The church was in danger of imploding. Thankfully, the rancour seemed to abate and it became unnecessary for meetings to be chaired by local Ministers. But the need for a permanent Minister remained. Wilson was often on the lookout for suitable candidates for churches seeking incumbents and one was identified in the autumn of 1834 – Henry Martin.  Little is known about him apart from being a student at Highbury College and that in 1831 he spent time attending Independent and Wesleyan churches in Birmingham, Worcester and London as his handwritten notes of the sermons attest. The Revd Robert Ashton from Putney recommended him as he had been a member of his own old church in Warminster as well as previously in a congregation in Silver Street, east London.

At a Special Church Meeting held in February 1835 it was unanimously agreed to invite Martin to be the pastor of the church. The letter given to him was signed by 20 members of the church and 73 members of the congregation. This meant that those worshipping at the Vineyard regularly numbered just under 100 at the end of 1834. Martin’s stipend was set at £100 per annum.

On 9 June 1835 Revd Martin was inducted as the Minister and just eight days later, aged 25, he married Louisa Peach Buckler in Warminster, where she lived and where Henry had first met her. She was two years older than him. It is not known where the newlyweds lived initially but at the time of the 1841 Census the Martin family was living at 12 St John’s Grove, off Kew Foot Road, Richmond.

The Revd Henry Martin and his family lived at 12 St Johns Grove, Richmond

The new Mrs Martin became the 41st person listed in the records as a member of the church. Her first son, John Buckler Martin, was born the year after her marriage and was christened in Warminster in October 1836; presumably this was because of Louisa’s family connections there. Three other children arrived in short succession. Their Georgian house in St John’s Grove still stands today. It is a solid four- bedroom detached property that they probably rented.

Martin’s influence on the direction of the church soon began to be felt. At the same meeting that Louisa Martin became a member it was decided to actively reach out to those in poverty in the surrounding area. The surplus from collections was set aside to be used by those appointed as Almoners of the Church to help the poor in the congregation and then, after their needs had been met, to those elsewhere in Richmond. The proportion of those who might be considered in need is not known, but it has been calculated that 10 per cent of the congregation were classified as “poor” in the 1850s[ii].

The appointment of Henry Wardley as a Home Missionary was made some time during the same year. As part of his role was outreach to the needy in the neighbourhood it is possible that his appointment was linked to the decision about alms being distributed to the sick and needy.

At a church meeting on 3 March 1836 it was agreed that the “Minister, instead of having £100 guaranteed to him as a salary as for the past year should receive the product of the following sources: viz the regular contributions of the Friends and Subscribers (the quarterly collections for incidental expenses of course not included), any occasional donations from visitors and others, the proceeds of the burial ground (after deducting the necessary expenses of digging graves) and the balance of an Anniversary”. As the church income was derived from those attending, this was a novel form of remuneration – payment by results.

A period of consolidation followed during 1836, with steady and quiet growth. An interesting development took place in the summer of 1837 as Martin began to lead the church into a deeper spiritual journey; instead of the usual discussions about “church business” he spoke of religious revival and suggested that a day should be set apart for special prayer for this purpose. The general feeling of all there was that they ought to “humble themselves and pray more earnestly for the enlargement and prosperity of the church”. The seed had been planted. A day of prayer was then held three weeks later and Martin reported that “God’s blessing appeared to have been on the amens”; he had afterwards met with several people who had said that they wanted to join the fellowship. Seven new members were welcomed in December and Martin prayed for them at the end of the meeting. By the end of 1837 the Vineyard had 13 new members.

Martin again encouraged the church to set aside another day of prayer in 1838. On 4 January, starting at 10 am, individuals meditated during the day and prayed privately then met up again at 6 pm to renew their covenant with God and one another and be refreshed “in the presence of the Lord”. It was reported that “the attendance was very full”. After singing and prayer, Martin spoke with thanksgiving of what had occurred within the church since his appointment. The congregation left with the conviction that they had “enjoyed a season of refreshment from the presence of the Lord”. It was a good start to the New Year.

The first marriage took place in the church on 1 October 1838 although the names of the couple are not recorded. Further encouragement came in November when three young persons, Ellen Hawkes, Anny Gregory and Rebecca Lewis joined. Their youthfulness was a cause of celebration and the sentiment was expressed that “may many more such Lambs of the flock brought unto the Lord!” The fruit of this was that the following year, in April 1839, seven more young people became members, one of whom was a young man, Richard Hawkes, presumably brother to Ellen.  Towards the end of 1838 Henry Wardley left as a Home Missionary. “His labours in visiting the poor and preaching in the cottages were much prized and no doubt the last great day will declare that much good was done through his instrumentality”.

The year ended with a total of 23 new members having been added.

Another time of reflection and celebration took place on 2 January 1840; Robert Ashton, Martin’s mentor, took part in the evening service. Martin looked back over the years since 1831 and was encouraged that, taking account of those who had come and those who had moved away, there were about 80 who were either members or part of the wider congregation.

Other good news was that Wilson had decided to invest the land and building of the Chapel into the hands of Trustees without requiring any return of his investment or interest that might have accrued. The assembled members were delighted at this news and passed a special resolution thanking Wilson which they asked Martin to pass on to him adding any words of his own. Clearly, Wilson was confident that he could leave matters now in the hands of those appointed as Trustees. (He died three years later, aged 79.)

During 1840, 12 new members joined.

In the spring and summer of 1841 Martin was suddenly laid low by illness for some months; the nature of his illness was not disclosed but a medical report recommended that he should go to Torquay in Devon for the winter to benefit from the milder climate. Church members agreed that they would continue to pay their subscriptions to his ministry so money would not be a worry for him or his family and they agreed to raise funds to help him meet his expenses in “so distant a part of the Kingdom”. They also said they would pray for his recovery. In April the following year it was reported that Martin would benefit from a further few months in Devon and it was agreed that he should stay there until the end of June. Martin returned in the summer and a Special Meeting was held at the beginning of September 1842 to give thanks for his partial recovery and his return to Richmond. His health had improved and he was able to take the occasional service.

Martin thanked the fellowship for their support, kindness and sympathy but asked for their patience as he was only able to take occasional services during the winter. He was able to carry out administrative work and was asked to go through the list of church members and update it to take into account those who had moved or were no longer involved. He rewrote the list, taking off 14, which then left 93 names.

That the church continued to thrive during 1843 was seen by the initiation of a Christian Instruction Society with Martin as President. Its purpose was to address the “ignorance and impiety which prevailed around them”. The instruction of children in the Sunday Schools was formalised and Martin was appointed as President, with the Superintendent elected annually by the teachers.  But, during May and June, Martin was again seriously ill and no church meetings took place. However, he was well enough to chair the meeting in August but noted that only two peoplehad joined the church since the beginning of the year.

Martin’s health deteriorated rapidly early in 1844; the testimony of his friends was that his faith kept strong and unwavering. He was calm, tranquil and full of hope to the last moment of his life. He died on 2 March and was buried six days later on 8 March. His funeral was attended by many local ministers.

The only mention of the nature of his illness is a passing reference made in an obituary to “fatal pulmonary symptoms”. With the length of his illness, the reference to his symptoms and the fact that he spent many months at the seaside to rest, it is likely that he died from tuberculosis or a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as chronic bronchitis[iii]. Consumption, as TB was then known, was a virulent and often fatal disease in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Martin’s death is recorded in the Church Book: “‘It is now the duty of the Officers of this Xtian Church to record the solemn truth that the hand which its proceedings have been these eight years past inscribed within this book is now cold in death – the Revd Henry B Martin the first pastor, after a short but happy pastorate, has been called to realise the blessedness of that heavenly state toward which he so zealously labored (sic) to direct the people of his charge”.

His tragic death at the early age of 36 left a widow and four children, John aged 8, Eliza aged 6, Henry aged 5 and Charles aged 4; there was no pension and Louisa Martin was left without any means of support. Pension provision for the widows of Ministers was not set up until 30 years later with the establishment of the Pastors’ Widows Fund. An appeal was therefore set up to raise funds for her but no record survives as to what was given.

Louisa Martin remained in the church until August 1845[iv].  Little is known of what happened to her after the death of her husband but she never remarried. Some time after 1845 she and her children moved to Lambeth where the 1851 Census records her living at 16 Brunswick Crescent with John and Eliza. There were three servants and two visitors staying. Ten years later, in 1861 she was living at 7 Priory Grove, Lambeth and was recorded as being a “Freeholder”. Her other son, Henry was living with her and was a “Silk Maker”. In 1871 Louisa was 63 and living in Hackney St John. Retreat Cottages, in accommodation provided for the widows of Congregational Ministers. and she was deemed to be an “annuitant” – a beneficiary of the charity. She was still there when she died in 1884 aged 76.

Plaque on Revd. Martin’s coffin

Martin’s coffin was discovered when the foundations for an extension to the Church were being excavated in July 2004 and a workman broke through into an unknown burial vault containing five coffins. One was that of Revd Henry Beresford Martin. His coffin was marked by a lead plaque inscribed with his name.

But much more remained after his death than his coffin.

Wilson deemed young Martin his friend and was delighted that his confidence in him had been justified. Foundations had been laid for Sunday School work as well as instruction for adults with the Christian Instruction Society. Church finances were sound. Outreach to the needy in the neighbourhood took place. Divisions had been healed. The congregation had increased from 93 to approximately 500.

Martin was remembered with great affection by his flock. His personal example of prayer and his firm faith inspired them through his remarkable ministry during the early years of the church.  Richmond’s population was only 5,000 in 1830 but this grew rapidly 16 years later with the building of the station and railway line in 1846; this gave quick and easy access to London resulting in the growth of the town into a significant suburb. By then the church was poised for growth and the Independent Chapel of Congregationalists was able to provide a spiritual home to many who settled in the expanding town.

As his obituary said: “His labours live in the faith and piety of many whom he blessed in bringing to God”.

Henry Beresford Martin was a remarkable young Minister.

The author

Peter Flower BA Hons (History) and an Associate of King’s College, London University, is a member of the Vineyard Life Church and the archivist of the church records.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank: his wife, Sandra, for her research into the Martin family in the National Census Records; Dr Alan Argent for his advice on nineteenth century Congregationalism; Dr Jenny Eades for information about TB and pulmonary diseases; and the staff at Dr William’s Library and the Congregational Library, Gordon Square, London.

Sources

Electoral Registers 1834–1842

English and Welsh Census Returns 1841–1881

Minute book of the Vineyard Congregational Church 1831–1857

Various documents and letters in the Vineyard Church archives

The Centenary of the Vineyard Congregational Church 1830–1930

Vineyard Congregational Church 150 Year Celebration booklet, 1980

Notes of Sermons taken by Henry Martin. 1830 and 1831, Congregational Library, London

Minutes and Trust Deeds of the Pastors Widows Fund 1871-1884 Congregational Library, London

Bibliography

Congregational Year Book 1846

Cleal, Edward. The Story of Congregationalism in Surrey (1908)

Peel, Albert. A brief history of congregationalism (1945)

Tudor Jones, R. Congregationalism in England 1662–1962. (1962)

Sellers, Ian. Nineteenth Century Nonconformity (1997)

Wilson, Josiah. Memoirs of the Life and Character of Thomas Wilson Esq. by his son (1849)

King, J. “From riots in a rural retreat to salvation in a Surrey suburb”. Open University dissertation, 1999

Notes

[i] Martin’s notes are in two booklets written in 1830 and 1831 in Birmingham, London and Worcester, and held at the Congregational Library.

[ii] The breakdown in 1851 was 10% working class; 24% lower middle class; 62% middle class; 3.5% upper class. See King, J. “From riots in a rural retreat to salvation in a Surrey suburb”. Open University dissertation, 1999

[iii] Martin endured a lengthy illness which proved fatal, but there was no death certificate. His symptoms suggest he may have had latent TB. With this disease, after the initial infection, the disease lies dormant. It can then be reactivated by a weakened immune system due to other illness. Or he may have had an underlying respiratory condition such as asthma, or perhaps a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema) involving damage to the lungs over time.

[iv] The record of her attendance at Communion ceased after August 1835.