Two brass plaques on the internal, East-facing tower walls are the clearest remaining memorials to the three Wightmans whose work dominated the Victorian history of the church and its small but densely-peopled parish. Rev. John Wightman led the worship here from 1818 until 1841, when he was succeeded by his son Prebendary Charles Wightman. Charles who was Vicar for over fifty years until he died in 1893.
Charles Edward Leopold Wightman’s imposing name tells a story – he was named for his three godparents. These were Princess Charlotte, who might have become Queen of England had she not died following complications after childbirth, aged just 21; Edward, Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria, and Leopold, Charlotte’s husband, who later became King of Belgium. Charles Wightman’s mother was the daughter of a Russian Prince, and a companion to the teenage Princess Charlotte. Charles was thus a quarter Russian – which, some say, showed in his great bushy beard!
Important though these two priests undoubtedly were to local history, and much loved as Charles undoubtedly was – he was commonly known as “good Mr Wightman” – it is Charles’ dynamic and gifted wife Julia Bainbrigge Wightman who provides one of the most remarkable stories from St Alkmund’s. Julia was an intelligent and committed lady who believed that her Christianity should have a practical expression in the small community in which she found herself. Her writings inspired others to emulate her tireless work in improving the lot of the poor. Her books did not dwell on philosophy and lofty sentiment, but spelled out to her audience the ‘facts’ – practical work that could be done, with the example of Shrewsbury – and St Alkmund’s in particular – to the fore. The name of this quiet church was, for a time, known and celebrated nationally.
St Alkmund’s is squeezed into the centre of the old town at the head of Butcher’s Row – today a setting for smart bistros, a hotel and various other shops and offices, but in the mid nineteenth century a residential and commercial area where animals were slaughtered and butchered. In 1851 no less than 43 families lived in Butcher’s Row – some with as many as 12 children. Of these people, Julia herself records that only six attended church. The young Prebendary and his wife could not be unaware of the rest, however – with 11 public houses and beer-houses within two minutes’ walk of the church, Saturday nights were alive with the sounds of “drunken mirth and revelry”, with “women’s voices … conspicuous in the uproar”. The quotes (I hasten to add) are from Julia’s own writings…
Just as we can scarcely imagine the squalor of Butcher Row, so we find it hard to appreciate the extent of drunkenness and the range of social ills that stemmed from excessive drinking among the poor in those days. The Saturday chaos typically began as wives battled to extract enough money from their husband’s wages for food and rent for the family before the men settled in the alehouse for the night, with “skittles, dice, and dominoes”, gambling and worse. Sunday followed a similar pattern, laws against opening notwithstanding, and for some men their weekly jobs not only allowed, but in often almost required taking a drink – for example, to seal a deal. Teetotallers were not only despised – they were simply not understood. Small wonder that hundreds of deaths were recorded each year caused by excessive drinking.
For Julia, her life-changing moment came in January, 1858 when she read Catherine Marsh’s “English Hearts and English Hands”. Catherine, another clergyman’s daughter, had been moved by the plight of soldiers going to the Crimean War, as well as that of navvies working on the construction of the Crystal Palace. The condition of the working classes was nothing new, but the conscience of educated, Christian society now moved women such as Catherine Marsh, Florence Nightingale and Julia Wightman to do something practical. If they couldn’t remove poverty, they could at least address the main evil as they saw it – the demon drink.
The St Alkmund’s Total Abstinence Society began in August of the same year with an unpromising attendance of four adults and two children. It was not the first Temperance Society in Shrewsbury, but the previous one did not have a determined Julia Wightman at its head. Summer meetings were now held in her garden, others were later moved into the nearby St Alkmund’s schoolroom (the St Alkmund’s Day Schools were another benevolent initiative of Charles and Julia).
Julia soon realised that a clear commitment had to be required from members as well as total abstinence – moderation was simply not an option, and so she called on them to ‘take the pledge’. Once people had done so, however, she was careful not to berate them further with the evils of drink, but instead arranged Bible readings and interspersed these with interesting lectures. One such was on the Royal Marriage in January 1858, with pictures on display from the Illustrated London News; later that year the theme was astronomy, and Julia explained the workings of the annular solar eclipse observed on March 15th using oranges as Sun, Earth and Moon. At the end of the lecture, the oranges were shared…
The more prosperous members of the parish soon found some of these poor people in church on a Sunday – filling the aisles. 60 or 70 came regularly, with 20 or so in due course taking Communion. Julia’s first book, which told the story of the reforms at St Alkmund’s, was published in 1859 under the title “Haste to the Rescue”. in the first year alone, this sold 28,000 copies, and Julia Bainbrigge Wightman and the St Alkmund’s Total Abstinence Society were discussed in society circles around the country and beyond. In many places, similar societies were started in emulation.
The second book, “Annals of the Rescued” (1860) expanded on the first, and Julia, realising that facts spoke for themselves, included many life stories written by the folk of Butcher Row – or, to be precise, dictated to her by them. These explained – in the people of Shrewsbury’s own words – that abstainers were financially better off, healthier, happier and lived Christian lives. Soon the Society numbered over 1000 members, with at least 450 men, 200 women and 400 ‘juveniles’. The schoolroom housed an absolute maximum of around 220 – when absolutely crammed – and often half that number again had to be turned away from meetings.
Julia understood that while virtue might be its own reward, it was no bad thing to have some fun too! A quarterly tea-party was established at the Music hall with guest speakers, and still more popular was the annual summer excursion to Wales – with sight-seeing at Llangollen and a health-giving walk to Valle Crucis Abbey. Members of the Society wore ribbons or nosegays to identify themselves, which led to the suggestion of striking a medal for each member. A pattern was designed, and the medal was struck – but such was the affection for Julia that the people secretly raised a subscription of over 20 guineas to pay for the first medal to be made in gold. The surprise was complete when in 1860 she was called to the outside of the church, which was surrounded by 200 people, who presented her with a specially engraved medal. One of those people was a man called Humphrey Jackson, who raised his contribution by giving up tobacco. He quickly realised how much his smoking habit was costing him when he paid his money and still had 12/6d left over. He never smoked again!
In 1872 Julia was the guest speaker to the National Temperance League. Unsurprisingly, she told a real story to illustrate her point – of a woman called Molly, a hopeless drunkard, who had turned her life around by signing the pledge. Julia showed by example that it was possible to make a difference through personal involvement and energy. She was not bound by class values, and she was not patronising to the poor people she loved. In many ways she was a person who was well ahead of her time.
Above all, she was practical. The overcrowded schoolroom had already led her to comment in 1860 “… what a boon a large Common Room would be”. With the profits from her writings and a substantial donation of £2000 from the Society, local architect John Randall was engaged to design and build a Temperance Hall on the site of the former Fox Inn in Princess Street. This was completed in April 1863, and provided a meeting place (especially for men) other than one of the public houses. Newspapers were provided, meals, lectures, Bible classes and even a Ragged School which comfortably pre-dated Gladstone’s Education Act.
Charles, to whom Julia remained devoted all their lives, died in 1893, and his indefatigable wife remembered him by having the tower at St Alkmund’s restored – the pinnacles on the outside and the layout on the inside. It is fitting therefore that after she too passed away in 1898, just short of her 82nd birthday, the two of them were commemorated by the two brass plaques which are fixed to the tower interior wall, facing the East.
The Hall they set up in Princess Street continued in use as a Working Mens’ Hall, now renamed in memory of the Wightmans. During World War I it was used by the Army as a Pay Office, and since then has been variously a repertory Theatre (see left), dance hall, antiques centre and cinema. “The Wightman” closed in July 2019, and we wait upon the next chapter in the life of this building. Whatever that proves to be, let the Hall continue to commemorate the name of Shrewsbury’s – and St Alkmund’s – greatest philanthropist. Hers remains a story that deserves to be told.