The author of this melancholy note was Richard Abey (1797-1876), a one-time Primitive Methodist Preacher. It’s an odd find, pasted on the inside cover of a scrapbook containing some printed ephemera from his short preaching career. It’s unclear if it was written when he was towards the end of his life or, perhaps, when he was away from home preaching in his twenties.
Either way the tone fits with what else we know of the early part of his life – dominated as it was by poverty, debt, death and family estrangements. The Rylands has, along with this scrapbook, Richard’s handwritten autobiography, which, given the longevity of those around him, he thought wise to begin aged 26.
Richard’s spelling is almost always poor but because it tends towards the phonetic it’s not difficult to follow his meaning. He begins with notable events from his childhood: his mother died when he was three, his father married again and his stepmother, as in a fairy tale, rejected him.
“though I tried to please and ablidge her she was allways very cross and never had a pleasant look for me while I staid at home”.
Shortly after this second marriage Richard was sent to boarding school.
Leaving school at 14 he worked for a miller and helped at his brother’s farm. His stepmother died in 1815 and “we became one family as we was when my dear mother left us.”
His father married a third time, this time to a younger woman whom Richard believed to be interested only in his father’s money. This led him to what he describes as a somewhat dissolute lifestyle – he ate and drank well and bought more expensive clothes – eventually finding himself in debt and
“I soumtimes thought of aning myslef and freaquently wished that I could ley myslef in a dike and dey”
It was at this point, aged twenty that he began to take a more active interest in Methodism:
“One Sabath day and the people asked me to exort. I complyed with there request and exorted from mark 8. 36.“
The verse, in the King James version, is “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
His preaching career was hindered both by his “third mother” talking of him as “Proud” and “forward” and by his own occasional fall into sinful behaviour: He got publicly and shamefully drunk “verey much ashamed and abased before the lord”. He doesn’t return to preaching with any commitment for another three years.
Debt, Marriage, Death
Aged 23 Richard’s brother formally valued his mill with a view to selling it. Richard complained bitterly that the valuation was too high. Borrowing money from his father and taking on a debt to his brother, he bought it anyway.
He married Sarah, a lady’s maid, in October 1820 but the mill struggled, requiring repairs he couldn’t afford. In November 1821 his first child, Betsey, was born and soon after the young family moved, taking on another mill. However the financial failures continued: “What a thing it is to be poor”. Then, while all but his wife “shunned and abused” him, his daughter died “which I loved better than life. It was a great trial for me as she had encouraged me as made the bother the lighter.”
A year later, having paid some of his debt, he moved again but on 18 May 1823 his wife Sarah died in childbirth along with their second child. Although his father soon recommended he marry again Richard wasn’t interested, reasoning that “I had had a loving wife and I might get a cross one or dirtey one or a wicked one or an extravagant one.”
Richard Abey, Primitive Methodist Preacher
The immediate impact of this tragic event was twofold. Firstly Richard began to write his Life and secondly he committed himself to becoming a Primitive Methodist Preacher.
By the end of the following year he notes that he has preached 177 times in 185 days in Newcastle.
The diary at this stage focusses on the preaching. Richard is clearly full of purpose and happiness in his account and he was at times a dramatic evangelist: “when I had sung and prayed I fell down before the congeation as tho I was dead. Thus the lord bring down the ealthy as well as the sick … people eld a pray meeting and I was a litel recovered.”
What is most striking in his diary here are his impressions of the new industrial landscape of the north east. A man who has barely left Barnetby le Wold is astounded by the glass manufacturers, iron foundries, mines and “steam ingons called iron horses which forces there way on a ralway for 5 miles traling or draging 12 wagons of coal after them at the rate of 5 or 6 miles an hour”.
He went further afield in the following years, and found varying levels of success in preaching. The diary covers his time in London and Plymouth where, as he preached “hell raged and wicked men persecuted, pelting me with dirt and stones, God strengthened me and I preached to hundreds of attentive heares. I belive good was don”.
As he approaches the end of the diary in May 1829 entries become sparse and sporadic but there is more cause for optimism on the readers part – there is a steadiness and a positivity that were absent in the early parts of the volume, and then this, unanticipated and not mentioned again:
We know from census records (via this informative and well put together Primitive Methodist website) that his wife was named Eliza and that they went on to have nine children together back in Barnetby. Each of the children outlived their father, who, despite the misfortunes of his early years, lived to 78 years old.
The Rylands has digitised the Life of Richard Abey and it can be viewed online here. If you find the handwriting difficult to read, it has been transcribed (some years ago) in a clearer hand here. The Abey Family Scrapbook mentioned at the top of this article has also been digitised and can be viewed here.
The Methodist Archive at the Rylands has a large collection of diaries, letters and other personal papers from early Methodist preachers. As well as important sources for the history of the Methodist Church they also offer fascinating social and personal history.