Part I - The Preparation of the Heart
1 - Beginning at Pulverback
IN the winter of 1806 the living of Pulverbach in Shropshire was given to the Rev. William Gilpin, M.A., then about forty-eight years old, the retired principal of Cheam School, Surrey. This school had been founded by his father, the first Rev. William Gilpin, known in his energetic retirement to Boldre in Hampshire, as the author of Forest Scenery and a leading artist of the "Picturesque" school. Throughout the arduous years father and son gave to Cheam the school attained a high standing for the education of gentlemen's sons, and indeed was it not the one chosen in 1958 by Royalty for the "Prep" school education of the Prince of Wales?
In his diaries Mr. Gilpin gives his wife much credit for the success of the school. Doubtless in those days when boarders only went home once a year she was as a mother to many of them. (It was through an ex-pupil, Lord Kenyon, that the Pulverbach living was given.) Mrs. Gilpin was a Farish of Stanwix, near Carlisle, a distinguished family. Her father was Canon of Carlisle and a brother was a Professor at Cambridge. That she had such an influence in the school is the more remarkable as she was, during those years, occupied with an ever-increasing family. There were twelve surviving children when the family moved north. Very little emerges about her in these records, but is it far-fetched to see the reflection of a cultured and mature outlook in the fact that the daughters were sent about when occasion required to places as far away in coach miles as Cumberland, Leeds, Somerset, Cambridge, and London? Those were times when a clergyman's daughters did not stir far from home, yet these journeys are mentioned as being undertaken with neither timidity nor excitement.
With parents such as these the daughters would not lack in whatever education was possible for them. At this time there was only one son old enough to have come under his father's scholarship - William, now eighteen and a student at Cambridge.
It was a gloomy time in the history of England. Napoleon was spread-eagled over Europe, winning battle after battle. England had now lost William Pitt the Younger, and was struggling along with an incompetent government. Martello towers were being built along the South coast and fears of an invasion were very real. Frances, one of the Gilpin daughters, never forgot that time, and years later records, "During the years 1804 to 1806, when a national calamity threatened our country, I can truly say that God was my Refuge. The 118th Psalm and the latter part of the 8th of Romans were on this occasion so applied to my heart that I found real support and comfort from them whenever the fear of an invasion came into my mind, which was very, very often". (She was then between ten and twelve years old.)
But they were moving now up into the heart of rural England. News of battles would reach them, true, but we get no more notes about invasion fears. Elizabeth, the eldest, was twenty, then came Margaret, nineteen, Matilda, seventeen and devoted to her brother at Cambridge, Charlotte, fourteen, and Frances, thirteen. Then two close friends, Mercy, aged ten and Jane, eight; two little boys, Charles, seven, and Bernard, four. Last, there was baby Catharine, perhaps in the care of Rebecca Kingwell. Mr. Gilpin had spent two intermediate years in Somerset, and Rebecca was a native of Stoke-under-Ham, near Norton. A young woman of twenty, she remained in their service fourteen more years before marrying John Hughes, of Pulverbach, when thus Shropshire became her home.
Church Pulverbach, locally known as Churton, lies down the Northern slope of the Longmynd, that beautiful tableland rising to sixteen hundred feet high in the west of the county. The little church and its surrounding graveyard take the highest point in the village, and in those days many a pleasant home clustered near. Some are long gone, some remain, as the Elizabethan house, now a farm, the timbered Churton Cottage, and some stone-built cottages. The old rectory was an Elizabethan building, but a new one was built for the Gilpins. Whether they began their life in the old one and saw the new walls rising on their behalf or came into a brand-new house at once we do not know, but the new one certainly catered for a large family. It is a spaciously-built four-square house with large windows, especially to its downstairs rooms. There was a bake-house, laundry, and servants" wing at the back. From the upstairs windows there are fine views of the Wrekin out east, standing alone out of the Severn plain.
A village in those days was a small world of its own, with the gentry, farmers, craftsmen, and peasantry. The social divisions were clear, but no one disputed them and cordiality abounded. The days were full of hand labour, as well for ladies sewing all the household linen as for labourers scything meadows and miners shovelling coal. The coming of night closed down the whole landscape. Indoors the lamp in the parlour or the tallow-dip in the cottage created a world of shadows, and children undressed by candlelight and lay awake in the dark.
Pulverbach was so situated that the rector's daughters, walking or driving, could become acquainted with widely differing types of people. A tranquil dairy-land sloped away to the east, and in this direction they later had as friends the Oakleys, farmers of Moat Farm, Stapleton. Their house was then handsome with black and white timbers, a moat and a causeway across it. It can still be seen and although sadly defaced it contains a lot of finely carved panelling.
Nine miles to the north-east lay Shrewsbury, just far enough away to have the allure of a big city. There was quite an interchange of visiting with urban friends and clerical families.
On the south-west rough roads clung to the side of the Long-mynd and many footpaths wound over the heather and bilberry-clad hills. Here tinkers and gipsy-like families eked out a poor existence in every sheltered hollow or "batch". (Pulverbach, as all the Gilpins called it, was probably spelt with a "t" at one time, and modern maps and signposts have revived that old spelling.) The moor is about nine miles long, and when snowbound in winter has swallowed the life of many a poor man struggling over the tracks against the wind. Indeed, the December fair at Church Stretton was commonly called Deadman's Fair, because of the toll the Longmynd took of benighted, tipsy home-goers.
From the tops range after range of Welsh mountains fill the western horizon, Wenlock Edge the eastern. The immediate foreground is seamed with explorable dells where sheep graze. The hawk hovers here; the peewit calls. In summer it is idyllic, bracing, the air humming Miles of walking over heather on this plateau must have given great pleasure to the Gilpin boys.
Immediately below Pulverbach to the north there lay in those days a stretch of shallow coal-mines, with their attendant cottages, a squalid region called Coal-pit Lane. There were many small hand-worked coal-mines in these regions - fringe areas to the large Welsh mines beginning to develop further west. It was a poor living for the miners. Drink took the wages from wretched wives and hungry children, and the Gilpin girls must often have witnessed disorderly scenes and heard coarse talk as they visited here and there.
"The parish of Pulverbach," writes Dr. Richard Benson, "like most rural parishes in those days, had no school. The children were widely scattered, and some that lived among the hills were almost wild. From the first the Gilpin family took much interest in their welfare, endeavouring to collect and teach them."
How would the classes go? A form or two pulled out and set beside a wooden table - perhaps twice a week at some farm in the hills, twice near the collieries, twice at the Rectory itself? Certainly, in Mercy's day it is schools in the plural that are mentioned, but no description has been left of them. We are left to imagine the scene. The teachers - Elizabeth, Matilda, Charlotte, Frances - in the pleasing dress of the time, high-waisted fichued bodice, long skirt with single flounce (white in summer), moving among the clustered children; the little ones doing pothooks, the older careful copper-plate writing on their slates, then standing together, hands behind back, saying the Commandments, the Creed, the Magnificat, some Psalms. There would be singing, probably from Dr. Watts" Hymns for Children, for there was little else to choose from. At the end of the allotted time the children would be sent running home, one with an apple for a prize, may be, and the young teachers would fold on their capes, set on their bonnets and return home, perhaps in the pony chaise if they were far from home.
"In the case of Matilda especially," we read, "this work became a matter of serious spiritual exercise. Knowing something herself of the true teaching of God, she was made earnestly to seek that He would in the same manner teach them." This must mean that Matilda did not allow it all to become parrot-work, but gently impressed the truths of God's holy Word on her pupils, especially as they grew older. Elizabeth, the oldest daughter, would often be needed as her mother's right hand, Frances married later on, Charlotte died, but Matilda was faithful to this teaching work for twenty-six years. It says of her that at one time when leaving home to go South 'she was especially anxious with regard to leaving the children in whose behalf she had for so long felt such deep interest. While in prayer for them she received a sweet assurance that the Lord Himself would bless them, which enabled her entirely to commit them into His hands". It is therefore interesting to read that years later when the Lord's blessing was shed on many in Pulverbach "this was especially seen in the case of several who years before, when mere children, had been taught by Matilda, and concerning whom she had received the assurance that the Lord would bless them."
What was this "true teaching of God" that Matilda had had? Like Samuel hearing the Word of God in the temple, so she was quite sure she heard the voice of God in her childhood. She wrote the experience down at the time, and reiterated it later with a comment or two. She was eleven years old and was afraid of God, because, she says, she felt that all her thoughts about Him were wicked and she could not stop them. "I opened my Bible," she writes, "and read the words, 'seek ye the Lord while He may be found; call ye upon Him while He is near". I shut the book more unhappy than before, for that verse brought my sin to remembrance, for I wanted to fly from Him, not to seek Him. I ran into the garden frightened at my own thoughts. [It was the garden of Cheam School.] I stood under a large cedar tree there, not knowing what would become of me. But just at that moment I felt all my wicked thoughts were gone, and I only desired to seek and find that God whom I had tried to fly from. I felt He bid me seek Him, and not try to fly from Him, and He spoke the words inwardly upon my heart, 'seek ye the Lord while He may be found; call ye upon Him while He is near". At the same time a cry rose in my heart which brought Him very near. It was as if I heard Jesus Christ say unto God He had taken away my sins and I should go to heaven when I died, for He had died. And I felt He was God. Again He said, "Incline your ear and come unto Me; hear, and your soul shall live". Oh, the happiness I felt! I ran about the garden in an ecstasy of delight, saying, "Now I have found something that can never be taken from me". But it was all a great secret in my heart. I could tell no one, for I knew the Lord had done it. He had put that cry into my heart which none but He could give, for it went straight to Him."
Throughout life the remembrance of that day was several times revived, once especially by the words from the Gospel, "When thou wast under the fig-tree I saw thee".
"But a change came," her later account records, "and my religion became a burden to me. That cry was still in my heart and never really ceased, but I thought it was no prayer. The verses in the Bible against hypocrites used to frighten me, and became a burden for several years."
This seriousness, then, pervaded Matilda's character while she continually looked for the Lord's teaching on her heart. It was the souls of her pupils that she prayed for with much tenderness. Having a clergyman for their father meant that the lives of these daughters followed a religious routine, but it seemed to be a conventional one, nothing more being looked for than a familiarity with the Bible and devotion to their daily work and the Church services. When the Holy Spirit began to move in the heart of one and another His work seemed puzzling to them, and for many years they felt the lack of an interpreter.
Matilda says that she 'scarcely ever heard such things as the Lord's leadings of His people spoken of. .
Jane says, "I had hitherto spoken to no one on the subject".
Mercy says, "Very little that I heard on the subject of religion did strike me as meaning the inward teaching of God." It was this inward teaching that drove each one, independently to commit her thoughts to paper. Do not visualise these girls as absorbed in diary-writing and introspection - their days were too fully occupied - but an accumulation of thoughts would now and then find relief in some upstairs note-book. Sometimes the entry is connected with immediate affairs, sometimes it is a retrospect. Sometimes there is a gap of a few weeks, sometimes of fifteen or twenty years. About this writing Mercy wrote, years later, that one day the Lord's light 'shone back on all His leadings during my life. It was as if He placed a chart before my eyes and pointed out everything to me. The word seemed spoken to me - I guided thee, though thou didst not know Me: and the impression was so clear that on the following day I began writing an account of the Lord's dealings with me, nor can I set aside what I then wrote even if it is covered with confusion so that the true light is obscured".
It is from records such as this, and from letters, that most of the quotations in this book come.
The first sorrow that struck the family was the death at Cambridge of the student, William, at the age of twenty-two. He was Matilda's favourite brother, only about eleven months older than her, and Cambridge was so very, very far away - no hope of seeing him. Again we are shown Matilda's feelings.
It was in February, 1811. She writes (some time later), "I shall never forget the grief of heart that was to me, and the great rebellion of my heart against that stroke. I felt nothing I could do could bring me to submit to it, for he was my favourite brother whom I loved above all. I knew not why the Lord should deal thus with me. It was in my heart as if He had wronged me, and I could not bear to think of it. This went on and on as if all my happiness in this world was for ever cut off. I knew not at that time how to bring this sort of trial to the Lord. I tried to stop my rebellious thoughts. I found this impossible, and thought indeed it was impossible for God also. But at that time He drew near with the word, "Therefore My people shall know My name; therefore they shall know in that day that it is I that speak". But it seemed impossible for God to teach me to know His name. But as I said that word Impossible in that moment He made me to know something of His power. He made me to stand in awe of Him and to receive into my heart the words "Therefore My people shall know My Name" as a promise from Himself to me. For one fortnight I was kept trembling and looking unto Him for the fulfilment of it. At the end of that time He did reveal to me something of the name of the Lord "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, forgiving iniquity and sin". This made me sink lower and lower till He said to me. "The Kingdom of God is within you," and there I felt it. I understood it not, but I felt it. I listened to His voice alone, speaking upon my heart the words of everlasting life, telling me of His great salvation while as yet I knew not what those things were of which He spoke. My soul was filled with His praise, and I thought His praise sounded forth from all the creation of God for that all my sins were pardoned".
Thus was she comforted over her brother's death, and was made willing, she says, "to cast myself and all my concerns at His feet, and the hope came in that He was my God and my Saviour and had done all things well".
She lived in this comfort for almost three months, but then a change came, and she felt that the mercy of the Lord was about to go from her, which it seemed to do to some extent, for she adds, "In my ignorance I thought the Lord could never return when I departed from Him, for my own iniquity led me away. All my prayers and all my righteousnesses were now made abominable to me. This, coming after I had known His mercy, was the cause of great perplexity; for I knew not that the sin that dwells within would remain unto the end, and I thought, how could He return again? I had lost my way to the Lord, and knew not how to find Him".
But the Lord had an instructor in view for Matilda - an unlikely person, we would think, for the cultured girl busy with her teaching and with the interest of the younger sisters growing up round her, friends visiting at the Rectory, and so on. A poor woman aged about thirty came to live in the parish. Her name was Sukey Harley, and Matilda was just twenty-three when she first met her.