This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.
Between the years 1735 and 1790 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, penned a record of his daily activities in his Journal. Recognised as one of the most remarkable literary products of the eighteenth century, the Journal, transcribed by Nehemiah Curnock, was printed in 8 volumes. Browsing through this fascinating
Journal, I was interested to find that its eight volumes contained at least 14 references to Wesley’s presence in Hungerford, Berkshire, and I hoped that among them I might discover some reference to the existence or development of Methodism in the town.
The first reference to Hungerford occurred as early as Friday 30 March 1739, when Wesley who was en route from Basingstoke to Bristol records that at 3-45 p.m. he stopped at Hungerford for tea, and at 4-30 set out for Marlborough. This seems likely to have been a horse-back ride rather than a coach, for almost immediately on
setting off he writes ‘horse quite tired’, and so stayed the night in Marlborough, only about eight miles distant.
On Friday 31 August 1739 he appears again, this time arriving at Hungereford at 7 p.m. and his Journal reads simply, ‘diary, supper, conversed’. A little later in the same year [Friday 2 November] on a return journey to London via Marlborough, he read ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. After a break at Hungerford ‘for tea’, 8a.m.-9a.m, he set off and continued reading ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. He took dinner [i.e. lunch] at Woollton [Woolhampton?] between 12 noon and 1-30 p.m. and then continued to Reading, still reading Bunyan.
The entry regarding an overnight stay at Hungerford [21 April 1740] suggests that he spent his evening in serious study: ‘ 7 p.m.[arrived] at Hungerford, the --- [almost certainly the name of an inn left untranscribed by Curnock]; read hymns, supper, hymns’. A similar stop [2 May 1740] simply records ‘left London, lying at Hungerford
that night; the next evening came to Bristol’. It was at Bristol that John Wesley‘s brother Charles had settled in 1739, using it as his base for evangelising journeys to the west of England and to Wales.
John made frequent visits from London to Bristol from this time onwards and Hungerford would be a midway point between the two cities for an overnight stay. If there were Methodist followers in Hungerford we should surely expect to find John meeting them either as a group or as individuals on at least some of his fourteen visits.
Other stays at Hungerford include a short stop for tea presumably at the unnamed inn [8 September 1740 ], and on 10 November an overnight stay , succinctly summarised as ‘writ, supper, prayer’ until 7-15p.m. Then presumably to bed, since he set off the next day at 5a.m. for Bristol. A similar lonely stay occurred on a journey from London, when he was up at 3a.m, set out at 4-30 a.m. and, travelling via Colebrook and Reading, arrived at Hungerford at 7 p.m. ‘supper within, 8-30p.m. prayer’. We may be sure Wesley was riding fast on this journey, ‘having received many unpleasing accounts concerning our little society in Kingswood’ [near Bath], where ‘Calvinistic disputes’ were raging. Charles Wesley had written in haste to his brother ‘a full account of the pre -destinarian party....particularly their desire ..... to have a church within
themselves, and to give themselves the sacrament in bread and water,’ and urgently needed his brother’s presence.
Although the entries in these early years give no indication of John Wesley meeting any Methodist followers in Hungerford, his journal not only reveals his amazing physical activity, but also provides a fascinating sidelight on conditions of travel in those days. It seems clear that he travelled by horseback, the age of the stage coach
having not yet developed, and his Journal entries reveal some of the trials and tribulations of long distance travel at this time. That Wesley rode by horse rather than by coach on his journeys at this stage of his life is made clear by his several entries regarding the tiredness or the lameness of the horse he was riding. Thus [18 May
1741] ‘I,’ he writes, ‘rode from London arriving at Hungerford at 6p.m., had supper and read, setting off at 4-30a.m. the next morning, arriving at Marlborough at 7-45a.m. My horse lame’. The route from Hungerford to Marlborough at this date was over particularly difficult terrain.
The following year Wesley writes [24 September 1742 and 11 October 1742] of two experiences which he clearly regarded, each in its different way, as the manifestation of a divine providence: On Monday 24 September ‘I left London, and the next morning called at what is styled the Halfway House. Quickly after, as a young man was riding by the door, both horse and man tumbled over each other. As soon as he got up he began cursing his horse. I spoke a few words and he was calm. He told me he did fear God once; but for some time past he had cared for nothing. He went away full of good resolution. God bring them to good effect!’
Halfway House, still marked on 20th century maps, and so named because it stood half-way on the 8 mile route from Newbury to Hungerford, is mentioned again by Wesley [11 October 1742]: ‘before seven in the evening reached the half-way house, four miles short of Hungerford. I now found it well I did not set out on Monday, in order
to be at Bristol on Tuesday night, as usual. For all the travellers who went that way on Tuesday were robbed. But on Thursday the road was clear; so that I came safe to Kingswood in the afternoon, and in the evening preached at Bristol.’
In a letter to his brother Charles [25 November 1741] he writes of a fever which sent him to bed for the first time, he says, ‘in five and thirty years ever since I had the small pox’. He attributed this to a cold he had contracted ‘by riding continually in the cold and wet nights, and preaching immediately after.’
I find no further entries concerning Hungerford until 1748 when on two occasions [26 June 1748 and 12 September 1748] he ‘preached at Reading at noon ........ and in the afternoon rode to Hungerford,’ continuing the next day to Bristol where he also preached. These were strenuous journeys, even without allowing for the exhausting
effects of his preaching and teaching.
In the long period between 1748 and 1786 I could find only one reference to Hungerford and that in 1769 [5 March] apparently merely as an overnight stop between London and Bath: ‘After preaching at Spitalfields in the morning, and at West Street in the afternoon, I went to Brentford; on Monday to Hungerford and the next day to Bath’. Clearly, now that Wesley’s journeys were taking him to so many other places, especially in the north of England, and in the absence of local followers in Hungerford, his old stopping place had no special attraction which might draw him to visit or to stop there.
Later, in 1786 [28 February] Wesley, now an old man, travelled from Brentford to Newbury and lodged the night there, in appalling, freezing conditions. The next day he continued his journey ‘by chaise’ at 5a.m. and at 7a.m. stopped at Hungerford for tea and ‘conversed’. At 7-45 he ‘read Mr Buchan’, took dinner at 11-30a.m., followed by a walk, and then set off in a chaise for Chippenham.
‘Taking fresh horses there, we pushed on to Bath [5p.m. arrived at Bath] and found a larger congregation than could well be expected’.
By 1786 the era of the stage coach had come, and at Wesley’s age this was a boon, a more comfortable way of travelling, especially in wintry conditions. It had disadvantages, however, in the breaks which occurred between stations, a fact illustrated by the extract above. On the other hand, the travel by chaise enabled him to read more than when on horseback: ‘Thursday 7 September 1786, set out from London for Bristol. In the evening I preached at Newbury’. Next day, Friday 8 September he set off again by chaise, reading Smollett on the journey, and stopping at Hungerford where once again he had tea and conversed before setting off for Melksham (via
Beckington) and Bath.
Despite the social converse, doubtless with other travellers over his tea break, it seems clear that Wesley still had no fellow Methodists he might meet in Hungerford nor any hope of holding a meeting there. This is in contrast to the nearby village of Ramsbury where we know he was welcomed, lodged and entertained (B. Croucher: ‘The
Village in the Valley’ 1986, pp.167-8) by a small group of Methodists, despite opposition from other locals at the instigation, it has been suggested, of the vicar of Hungerford.