The First Minister

Whitehaven, in the parish and lordship of St Bees, came into Lowther hands in the early 17th century, but because of a dispute over title it was not until 1663 that the Lowthers of Sockbridge became unchallenged lords of St Bees. The important date is 1675 when Sir John Lowther made his home at The Flatt, a house he built at the south east end of the town. A series of royal grants enhanced his position in the town and enabled him to assume the role of patron and benefactor. The project for a new church was an integral part of Sir John's schemes. The old chapel had never been consecrated, was out of alignment with the new street plan and by 1693, as William Gilpin, one of Sir John's agents, pointed out, was hindering the paving of Lowther Street. Nor could it accommodate those wishing to use it. During the 17th century Whitehaven grew in size and importance; in 1642 the town consisted of 40 to 5o houses and the old chapel. By 1685 the population numbered 1089, grouped in 268 families.' In an age when religion was a vital force and often the very stuff of politics, it was inconceivable that so large a community should be without an adequate church. The building of St Nicholas' was not a matter for the town alone.

When Nicholas Stratford, Bishop of Chester,' consecrated the church on Sunday, 16 July 1693, The Auditory was very great, there being the Sheriff, Sir William Pennington, Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Mr Stanley, Mr Curwen and all the gentlemen of this part of the country (except Mr Patrickson who is very much tormented with a fit of the stone) and clergy sans numbre. Clearly events in Whitehaven were of interest to the county gentry. The development in Whitehaven of a new commercial and industrial community was a challenge to the social order dominated by the country gentlemen. Sir John was in an excellent position to meet this challenge. His place in the old social order was secure and his involvement as a colliery owner in the new kept him to the fore. As one of the Cumberland M.P.'s, Sir John needed to retain the goodwill of the Whitehaven freeholders and his role as the town's patron can be seen as an attempt to incorporate a new society within a traditional framework. If the building of a new church stimulated civic pride, the appointment of the first minister must also be treated with due regard to the good name of the town. In 1687 Sir John and the intending subscribers had signed an agreement laying down the procedure to be followed : the subscribers, representatives of the town, would present two candidates to Sir John, who would then make the choice of minister. While the Lowthers were clearly patrons and benefactors, the townspeople were sufficiently lively to expect a voice in such an important matter. Before the agreement could be implemented, however, it was necessary to solve the problem of James Marr. He was licensed to serve as curate at Crosthwaite in January 1689 /90, but had spent most of his time since 1691 ministering at the old chapel, where he had quickly made an impression as a passionate man in every sense of the word.

He thought that he should be appointed to the new church, regardless of the procedure agreed upon in 1687. Since it was clear that most of the "considerable men" of the town were determined to abide by the agreement, Marr took steps to maintain his position. The Rector of Distington, Lancelot Teasdale,' whom Gilpin saw as a potential candidate, thought it a "hardship upon Mr Marr to supplant him".

Teasdale's sympathy was not apparent to Marr. The week before the church was consecrated Teasdale was due to preach in the old chapel. Gilpin sent his servant to Marr to acquaint him with it and to desire the favour of his pulpit. But he had the indiscretion to refuse it and immediately cause the bell to ring before the usual time and passed into church in haste lest we should prevent him.

Later in the day Teasdale was allowed to deliver his sermon but Marr's intentions were clear. Pointing out that his pretensions were as fair as those of anyone else, the subscribers suggested to Marr that he should preach in the new church until an appointment was made. Marr thereupon claimed that he had a legal title and refused to sign any paper to the contrary. The subscribers decided not to use the new church but to allow Marr to continue at the old chapel until the affair was settled. Marr's reaction to these decisions became clear on Sunday 23 July. As people made their way into the chapel he stood at the door making "personal reflections" upon some of them. Instead of the lessons Marr read the St John's Gospel chapter 18, and by clever use of emphasis made the account of Christ's arrest, trial and crucifixion bear some relevance to his own position; then he turned to the Testament, quoting from Psalm 35, to convey the picture of the unjustly accused minister, whose kindness was rewarded by evil.

Nor were current events neglected; news that some of the ships in the Virginia trade had been lost to privateers was seen by Marr as God's judgment upon the people for daring to oppose the minister's will. His sermon followed much the same pattern, implying that those who opposed him were opposing God's will. He finished by appealing for support against the leading townsmen who were his enemies. His afternoon sermon was even more violent. His Benediction ran Blessed are they who meekly hear the Word of God etc. But not the proud and the insolent whose imperious wills will not comply with it, who come not hither to learn it but to oppose it and to carp and catch. After this tirade it is not surprising to find that even some of Marr's followers joined the ranks of those seeking to remove him. In the hope of achieving this, the Bishop was given a full account both of the events of 23 July and of a conference of subscribers at which Marr had made his contentious claims. His behaviour made the quest for a suitable minister all the more immediate.

As John Gale, an agent of Sir John, pointed out in September 1693, Marr's party was able to keep the town divided and as long as this situation continued there was no chance of attracting a suitable minister. Marr was, however, prepared to offer terms to Sir John. He was anxious not to appear to have been rejected and if Sir John would prevent anyone else being presented to the Bishop and allow him to act as minister, he would resign after a short time in favour of the man of Sir John's choice. It was Gilpin's belief that this was merely a ploy to enable Marr to be recognised as the legally settled minister, without first being elected.

In October the Bishop took a hand and ordered the townspeople to proceed to a fair and orderly election. Marr now found himself hindered by his earlier claims. When it was suggested that he might be one of the two candidates presented to Sir John, he could not bring himself to retreat from his claim to a legal title. His one concession was his willingness to accept a solution from Sir John, which would not damage his reputation and would prevent his enemies from claiming a triumph over him. Marr was conceding little, but events overtook him. He suddenly went to Scotland and when he returned in mid-December his pretensions were utterly blasted for beside the offer he has made of withdrawing — upon the nomination of another, he has in a foul degree incurred the penalty of the law on the score of his servant's being with child and other such like attempts on a former servant too evidently proved upon him.

Lancelot Teasdale used this news to preach against Marr with a text from 2 Thessalonians 3 vi — "withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly". This revelation saw the end of Marr as a serious candidate. Since Marr was ruled out the quest for candidates had to be extended beyond the town. One possible candidate was already a familiar figure, and had found a champion in Gilpin — Lancelot Teasdale, rector of Distington. In evaluating his prospects, Gilpin drew attention to a point that was to be something of a test for all the candidates. I am afraid it will not be easy to bring the people into a liking for Mr Teasdale, his voice being weak and therefore his preaching (forsooth) not so lively — for we have few here who know how to distinguish betwixt a strong discourse and a strong delivery. We have seen the power that Marr could put into a sermon and Gale referred to his power over the common people as not to be despised. Clearly Teasdale could not compete with that kind of preacher.

About the time that Teasdale's prospects were fading, attention was drawn to Zacharias Taylor,' who was given such a good recommendation that Gale and other subscribers were anxious to hear him. An invitation was sent, and several who could confirm the good reports led Gale to the conclusion that "Mr Taylor's talents will so far exceed Mr Marr's as to crush him into contempt".

Three months were to elapse before he was heard in the town, but on 17 December 1693 he preached twice before congregations swollen with people from the surrounding country. Gale was overjoyed : He is without controversy an excellent preacher and gives extraordinary satisfaction to all, our next business will be to settle such a maintenance as may be worth his acceptance. Gale had no doubts as to who should be the first minister. On 24 December he told Sir John "the two persons proposed to the election are very worthy persons — but Mr Taylor is the man on whom all peoples are set".

His conviction that Taylor would be the man of Sir John's choice made him omit the second candidate, Alexander Farington, headmaster of Kendal Grammar School,' who had preached in Whitehaven in August 1693. Though he had much to recommend him, his voice tended to sink at the end of his sentences and he was "lame in both his hands but has so much use of them as to write and handle books". When Taylor was the man most likely to succeed, such drawbacks as these were not taken too seriously. Events were to make them a more serious cause for complaint. Preparations were made for the election. Sir John, informed of the candidates during the first week in January, received letters from the town furthering the cause of Taylor : Gilpin thought this early notice was to give Sir John more time in which to consider his final choice. More likely it was an attempt by Gale, as Taylor's main advocate, to influence Sir John, who would not lightly disregard the wishes of the town.

The religious set-up of Whitehaven was varied. As the chief port in the Irish coal trade, it was open to Catholic influence and in the course of the 17th century had also attracted a number of Presbyterian families, especially from Newcastle, a town which was markedly less tolerant towards them. The Gales were one such family and John's brother Elisha was later to act as trustee for the Presbyterian meeting-house. On Sunday, 13 August 1693, Gale reported that We have this day four preachers in town all exercising at one and the same time that is to say a Presbyterian at his meeting house (licensed) a Quaker (upon presumption) Mr Marr at the old chapel and Mr Farington at the new.

The Presbyterians were the more numerous and articulate of the dissenters; their chief concern was with the fate of the old chapel, which they hoped to take over. In January 1693/4 they went round the town seeking support for their plan to apply to Cumberland Quarter Sessions for a licence to enable their minister to preach there. This was refused in court on 10 January, mainly due to the insistence of Gilpin and Richard Patrickson. Undeterred, the Presbyterian leader, Atkinson, went to the new church on 24 January to attend the election and produced his own scheme. He proposed Farington for St Nicholas' and a Presbyterian for the old chapel, which ignored the 1687 agreement. When questioned by Gale he declared that it was not a denial of Sir John's choice since he could either accept this plan or present someone of his own choice. Gale's reply put paid to this by pointing out that the old chapel was outside their terms of reference and that they were only to nominate candidates for St Nicholas' . The Presbyterian preference for Farington was not without reason. Gale suggested that "the presbytery stand in fear of his abilities and rather wish us some dull sot that thereby their numbers may be increased".

In the event, Taylor and Farington were nominated by the almost unanimous agreement of the subscribers. The joy which Gale and others felt must have been clouded by uncertainty surrounding Taylor. It does not seem in keeping with his character that financial considerations were responsible. No-one could be sure what the living would be worth ; it was hoped to meet an obligation to guarantee go per annum but with the divisions in the town there was some doubt as to how long it would be before all the pews would be taken by subscribers. Marr had maintained that it was better to depend on people's charity than on a settlement based on the seats. Taylor was anxious to retain his salary as King's Preacher' and would only accept nomination if he could do so.

The Bishop was determined that Taylor should accept one or the other. Gilpin saw recourse to two expedients as a last chance of obtaining the services of such an excellent preacher. One was a Royal dispensation, but this was rejected as being an affront to the Bishop : the second was to suggest that the King's Preacher's place be exchanged for a parsonage near Whitehaven, but this too failed to meet with approval. Hopes of securing Taylor faded, and the townspeople found themselves back in the position of the late summer. Almost, but not quite, for though Taylor had dropped out, Farington remained. Gilpin saw no problem. As far as he could ascertain, Farington was willing to accept and there was virtually no opposition, but the most telling point was that the time spent in seeking, approving, treating, choosing will keep us so much long unsettled that I am afraid we shall at last grow indifferent whether we have any or no.

By the end of March 1694 Gilpin was saddened by the way "some have been almost for every new face since Mr Marr went off and have particularly encouraged three several persons since Mr Taylor left us". While such concern was encouraging, Gilpin regarded it as breaking an engagement already made, since it disregarded Farington's claims ; of equal concern to Gilpin was the fact that "this unsettled temper is neither for the good nor the reputation of the town". He saw in the quest for other candidates a means of delaying Farington's formal recognition. Gale did not share his enthusiasm for him; in March 1693/4, in more explicit terms, he repeated his reservations: His voice extends not to all parts of the church whereby a great part of the seats would be of little value rendering a settlement upon them (or otherwise) impracticable — nor is his expression so articulate as to be constantly understood — some single word in a sentence wanting both voice and utterance so as to invalidate the whole and this I affirm of my own knowledge though my seat be so near as adjoining to your own [i.e. Lowther's] yet with the best intention I could not always understand.

Gale also expressed concern over the delay but he was far more concerned that Sir John should not nominate anyone without regard to the wishes of the town, even though this might involve further delay. He himself had not been idle in the search for suitable men, but no-one made an impression to compare with Taylor. John Harrison" delivered two sermons in early March but he, too, was criticised because his voice was "fine so as to cause an echo and make it less articulate".

Lancelot Teasdale recommended another but Gale did not think he was likely to gain the necessary support. Sir John was anxious to see matters concluded, and at a meeting of the contributors on 9 April he told them, through Gilpin, that he would allow them either to offer Farington or to present two others to him. At this meeting Gilpin suggested that they should present Farington as their unanimous choice. Gale maintained that Farington had already declined and that they should nominate two others. It was agreed that they should not proceed to any election until they had written assurances that both candidates would stand. The next moves were made when Gilpin was in Lancashire on business. Gale summoned the contributors and on his assurance that Farington had declined, secured the nomination of John Harrison and Francis Yates."

Gale's trickery was exposed when it became known that Farington had not abandoned his pretensions. After such treatment Gilpin did not expect Farington to persist and in that case he would try to transfer the Farington interest to Harrison, whose moderate temperament he thought might attract some of the dissenters. Yates struck Gilpin as a young man who revealed "both in his discourse and in the pulpit more heat than is consistent with the peace and welfare of this place, being indeed too much of Mr Gale's temper".

Within a few days those anxious to have Farington were encouraging him to persist and were offering to guarantee him £8o a year as an inducement. In a final effort to terminate matters Sir John suggested that a method more like a true election should be adopted. Those who owned all or part of a pew together with those who had contributed (Gilpin was among this group) were to constitute the electors. They were to write down two names and the two men who polled most votes were to be presented to Sir John. This scheme was accepted and notice was given that the election would take place on 3o July 1694, over a year after the consecration of the church. Both in preparation and execution the election resembled a parliamentary election. Lists of those qualified to vote were drawn up but this did not prevent malpractices. A "parcel of ragged fellows" were given the money necessary to qualify them as voters, while the Gale family split their contributions to create more voters. Gilpin thought it better to acquiesce and even went so far as to prevent others from raising objections, believing that a settlement was necessary upon any terms.

Such behaviour was inevitable, he concluded, when resorting to popular elections. To give everyone an opportunity to vote, the polling was not concluded until 8 August. Though Gilpin claimed that Farington had the support of the more substantial subscribers, it was Francis Yates who topped the poll. Gale then put forward the claims of Robert Thomlinson.12 By declaring that no-one had opposed him, Gale implied that the election between Farington and Yates had been for the second place. Gale carried his point, but when Gilpin urged the subscribers to make their recommendation to Sir John, they decided to "put it off".

News of this came as a surprise to Sir John who told the Bishop of Chester that the election had been objected to on the grounds that insufficient notice had been given. A further election was held in which Yates received 104 votes and Thomlinson 84. Sir John then recommended Yates to the Bishop and asked that the new minister be hastened down to the town.13 Gilpin's relief at the news of the appointment can be seen in his attitude to Yates. In April 1694 he was considered too young and hot tempered; by mid-August Gilpin was expressing the hope that "Mr Yates' prudence may compose all these distempers that obstruct at present".

Within five months, Gale triumphantly reported to Sir John: As for Mr Yates, he is a minister without objection, his care and pains is beyond all about us nor is his talent to be despised by the best in many miles around us we have two sermons every Sunday we have prayers every Wednesday and Friday and every holy day throughout the year we have prayers in the morning with either a sermon or a homily and prayers in the afternoon.

From this evidence it would seem that the first appointment was a successful one — Yates' ability more than compensated for the delay and uncertainty. This incident shows the extent and variety of the religious make-up of Whitehaven. Though the new church was Anglican, the degree of lay involvement in the appointment of the minister suggests Presbyterian influence — an influence also apparent in the concern for the quality of the minister, specifically as a preacher. The Presbyterians proper were an active group and tried to take advantage of the situation ; equally, attempts were made to secure candidates capable of resisting Presbyterian encroachments. The struggle among the Anglicans was epitomised in the rivalry between Gale and Gilpin, agents of Sir John Lowther. Gale headed that group in the town who strove for a greater control over the town's affairs, whereas Gilpin was the protagonist of the Lowther point of view. If Gale ultimately hoped for the creation of an oligarchy, based on the merchants, harbour trustees and other leading townsmen, Gilpin strove to ensure that Sir John's control persisted. In the protracted search for candidates Gilpin was prepared to acquiesce far more readily; his original choice, Teasdale, was soon discarded, while his advocacy of Farington was tempered by a desire to settle things as soon as possible.

Gale pressed hard for Taylor and was genuinely sorry to lose him; thereafter, his intention seemed to be to delay the issue. Though he had originally backed Farington he brought forward others in opposition to him and even after the first poll introduced Thomlinson.

If Sir John was to retain the respect of the whole town, it was imperative that he should not appear to favour any particular group. His main concern was to maintain his standing in the town, which was developing under his aegis. As M.P., coal entrepreneur and a leading member of county society he required the goodwill and, at times, the acquiescence of the townspeople who in turn depended on him. Who better than Sir John to obtain places in the various government offices for Whitehaven people or to safeguard the interests of the town, its harbour and trade.

The relationship between Sir John and the townspeople was thus one of interdependence and good relations were to their mutual benefit. It was right and proper that Sir John should make the appointment to St Nicholas' Church; the active part played by the townspeople reflected the growing importance of the new social order. Sir John recognised this and the appointment of the first minister is an illustration of the methods used by men like Sir John to incorporate the new commercial and industrial communities into the gentry-dominated society of 18th-century England.

St Nicholas Church, Whitehaven
St Nicholas Church, Whitehaven


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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