Alf’s habits and activities revolved around his ceaseless religious devotion. Growing up amidst a South-Eastern countryside community, where ‘Parishes were smaller, more workable’ (Mingay, 1981, 44), activities and affairs of many kinds were dictated by the village church. Pair this with a mother who taught him ‘sincere piety…and the simple truths of the Bible’ (8), Alf’s destiny undoubtedly steered towards the work of his Lord.
Alf’s Wesleyan church is a Christian denomination, which refers to the ‘Holiness movement’, the beliefs and practices which emerged from 19th-century Methodism, and a number of Evangelical Christian denominations. ‘Sunday was kept very religiously’ (18), with Sunday school being a prominent part of Alf’s weeks of childhood. Although ‘there was not much money…happiness abounded’ (18) with the thought of sharing a holy day with those closest to him (and not to mention the ‘extra feeding and Sunday clothes’ (18) Alf confides!). His pride in his faith is no more apparent when he gushes that his mother’s family were ‘pioneers of the Methodist movement…earnest workers in the religious life of Oundle’ (4), with them even being among the few ‘who welcomed John Wesley, the founder of the church, to his first visit to their town’ (4). Could his familial roots in the Wesleyan faith’s history have ushered him to continue their work? After all, no greater disappointment would it be to his ancestors if he were to forget their devout efforts of the past.
After a business proposal did not come to be as ‘Fear entered my heart, and I was afraid to make the venture, in case I did not make a success of it’ (85), a local preacher named Mr. W. Hyne knew the perfect plan for Alf.
His next kind thought was to make me a preacher…and be prepared to take the Sunday evening service’ (85)
The next part of Alf’s ‘reminiscences’ is his lengthy detailed narrative of what it feels like to be in a pulpit for the first time…
A nervous look down on the congregation. All eyes were looking up and fixed with some curiosity on the youth who for the first time was going to preach a sermon…I was absolutely out of place, thinking for the first time that I was absolutely out of place, and trembling from head to foot. Talk about knees knocking together! (85)
Poor Alf! Irrespective of his nerves, members of the congregation duly ‘thanked and encouraged to press on in the good work’ (86). He was made a local preacher ‘on full plan’ (87) as a result. ‘The next two and a half years were brimful with happy associations’ (89) he reveals, engaging in preaching evangelistic work, a welcome into the L.C. Missionaries and in his spare time studying and taking shorthand; it seems that the latter years of the nineteenth century for Alf, held habits of meticulous self-improvement and good purpose.
His domestic missionary work took him to the slums of ‘New Cut district’ in Lambeth, an area inhabited by ‘poor human wrecks’ (95), with that realisation that his struggle for temperance and ‘tee-totalness’ amongst the masses here would be of a ‘great and serious responsibility’ (96-96). Domestic missionaries in working-class neighbourhoods recorded the reception they met in diaries, with many of them unearthing ‘a good deal of indifference and some hostility…the picture of a working-class that had no time for religion’ (McLeod, 1984, 10). Alf vehemently expected this to be the case, yet still approached the area with warmth and compassion; as ‘kindly sympathy soon won a way to their better selves, and I found many good hearts’ (96). With ‘domestic preaching services incorporat[ing] local and private affairs into religion in a way that institutionalized services could no.’ (Valenze, 1985, 23), the mere act of talking to the gin palace punters like human beings, or turning ‘the mangle for a poor old woman’ (96) Alf’s new neighbourhood could begin to see religion in a state of understanding and love, rather than the common notion of holding divine punishment and condemnation.
In the way that political narratives are ‘dedicated to one hero, one odyssey, and one battle’ (Gagnier, 1987, 351), Alf’s memoir could also be seen to channel the notions of ‘one great conflict, the integration of social process and personal development’ (Gagnier, 1987, 351), but in the form of religion and his resilient belief in God. Where other memoirs may outline leisurely frolics, holidays or maybe too much ale once in a while, Alf’s habits exhibit will-power and a genuine search for something greater than human beings. Alf’s tireless war against the evils of drunkenness are what guides him through his adult life personally, as well as religiously; continuously having to ignore the usually disastrous ‘habits’ of the day.
Ireson, Alfred. ‘Reminiscences’, TS, pp.175 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education andfamily from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.82-8. Brunel University Library.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
McLeod, Hugh. Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: MacMillan Publishers, 1984.
Mingay, G.E. The Victorian Countryside: Volume 1. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Valenze, Deborah M. Prophetic Sons and Daughters. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985
Quotes Gram: John Wesley Quotes on Preaching. Web. Accessed 21st January 2016. http://quotesgram.com/john-wesley-quotes-on-preaching/#ar0WAuz9BJ
BritainfromAbove.org.uk. Web. Accessed 21st January 2016. http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/epw024162?gazetteer=Gloucester&ADMIN_AREA=Gloucester&ref=36
VictorianLondon.org. Web. Accessed 21st January 2016. http://www.victorianlondon.org/crime1/pros-04.htm