The Life & Remains of the Late Rev William Hamilton, Minister of Strathblane

Reminiscences

The Reverend Dr William Hamilton was the minister of Strathblane from 1809 until his death in 1835. In 1836 a memoir of his life and work was published by his son, Rev James Hamilton. (The Life and Remains of the Late Rev. William Hamilton, Minister of Strathblane: Two Volumes. M. Ogle & Sons, Glasgow, 1836. Retrieved from the Atla Digital Library, https://commons.ptsem.edu/id/liferemait01hami.)

Though predominantly a theological work, Volume One contains some interesting insights into life in Strathblane in the early 19th Century and the challenges facing its minister.

William Hamilton was born into a farming family in the Lanarkshire parish of Stonehouse in 1780 on 4 February. (Interestingly, he claims to share his birthday with three of his siblings, born between 1764 and 1783!) He appears to have been a sickly child after surviving a bout of smallpox and throughout his writings is pre-occupied by what he imagines to be his imminent death. He is also very self-critical, often complaining especially about what he dubs his “peevishness”. He was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Hamilton in 1804, after taking various courses over eight years at Edinburgh University, though his doctorate was awarded by St Andrews University. After a period as assistant at New Kilpatrick, Bearsden, and minister of St Andrew’s Chapel, Dundee, he was appointed to Strathblane in 1809.

The Reverend William Hamilton DD, Minister of Strathblane from 1809 until 1835

At the time the appointment was in the gift of the Duke of Montrose. Throughout his life William Hamilton remained a vociferous opponent of this form of lay patronage and strongly believed ministers should be appointed by their own congregations. In Strathblane this did not happen until 1886, 50 years after his death! Hamilton was on the evangelical wing of the church and politically inclined to liberalism. The Dictionary of National Biography records: “His sympathy with liberal political views and popular movements exposed him in some quarters to unjust rebuke.”

In 1813 he married Jane King (1784-1855) in Paisley Abbey, and the couple went on to have six children between 1814 and 1826. Strathblane manse with its damp rooms and low ceilings was in a deplorable state. The row about its replacement ended up in court, where it was ordained that a new manse should be built immediately. The elegant new manse [now known as the Old Manse!] was constructed on the opposite side of the Blane to its predecessors and was ready for occupation in 1828.  

The Manse, completed in 1828 (now a private house)

This is how Rev Hamilton described his parish: “The natural appearance of the parish of Strathblane is the most picturesque and beautiful that can be conceived. The scenery is diversified by the magnificence of mountain grandeur, the loneliness of moorland solitude, and the endless undulations of a fertile and well-watered valley. Farming furnishes employment for the greater part of the people. Two bleach-fields and a large print-field occupy the principal proportion of the other inhabitants. The population, amounting to little more than a thousand, was of the most diversified description and character, from the country gentleman, merchant, and banker, down to the most vulgar and toil-worn peasant; and from the refined, polished, warm-hearted, accomplished Christian, to the most disgusting specimen of brutal stupidity and ferocity.”

Initially his church was packed every Sunday: “The congregation was always numerous and continued for many years to increase, till forms were placed in the passages for the accommodation of those who could not get sittings in the pews and it was believed that it would be necessary to erect a gallery round the church.” The situation changed with the bankruptcy of the printworks in 1819. Though work recommenced in 1824, after 1831 a rapid turnover of workers adversely affected church attendance.

Another issue regarding the printworks was the use of child labour. Hamilton complains: “The demand for the labour of children has proved most pernicious to the best interests of the rising generation. Boys and girls are employed at the bleachfield and printfield at the age of eight and nine years. Their wages are two shillings a week. The idle, dissipated and poor parents grasp at this miserable pittance as a great addition to their own earnings, and withdraw their children from school before their education is well begun, and always before it is half finished. When sleepy and worn out with the labours of the day, the little creatures are sometimes sent to an evening class. But they often fall fast asleep, and even if they can be kept awake, are so languid and lifeless that they can learn nothing.”

William Hamilton was a fervent supporter of the temperance movement and regarded “tippling” as one of the greatest obstructions to his ministry in Strathblane: “Tippling houses have at all times been a powerful counteraction upon my usefulness. At one time there were nine in the parish. Of late they have been reduced to six; but two at the very utmost are all that are required for the accommodation of the public.

He continues: “And what is a licensed tippling house? It is a pandemonium. The wives and children of its customers are deprived of their food and clothing. Their offspring are allowed to grow up without education, and they are unable to attend the house of God from the want of dress.” He calls for the reform of what he regards as a corrupt licensing system. Meanwhile, according to his son, he often quietly slipped some money to families unable to afford suitable outfits for church.

Then, as now, it seems Strathblane was a popular destination for weekend daytrippers from Glasgow. James Hamilton recalls of his father: “It grieved him to see the still retirement of his secluded valley invaded by bands of noisy Sabbath-breakers from the neighbouring city.”

Associated with this issue was that of illicit distilling. In the section of his memoir dealing with divine providence (and retribution!) he recounts: “Under the patronage of the senior excise officer of this parish, appointed to this station in 1815 or 1816, the parish was filled with smugglers. For a weekly percentage of each still, he bound himself never to interrupt their operations without a direct information, and to give warning twenty-four hours beforehand when a seizure was to be made. In consequence of this arrangement with the smugglers, ten stills were kept almost constantly at work. The smugglers themselves were men of the most audacious and lawless description.”

Eventually the minister decided to take action: “On July 18th 1821, despairing of relief from any other quarter, I wrote a letter to the chairman of the Board of Excise, containing a narration of the state of matters in the parish. This letter was written and sealed at four o’clock pm. At five, I was informed that this miserable exciseman had been drowned at noon of that day, while bathing in Dumbroch [Ebbie’s] Loch.” One wonders if the Rev Hamilton had the dubious privilege of burying this miscreant.

Though William Hamilton deliberately attempted to stay out of politics, there were two occasions on which he became embroiled in issues that were consuming public debate both nationally and locally in the early 1830s. In February 1833 the inhabitants of Strathblane sent a petition to both houses of parliament demanding the immediate abolition of slavery in the British colonies, despite the fact that a number of local families had been considerably enriched by links to slave plantations in the West Indies and Demeraras. Reading between the lines of his memoir, the Rev Hamilton had incurred the wrath of the pro-slavery lobby, though, frustratingly, his son says: “I purposely refrain from entering into the particulars of that ill treatment which he incurred by his noble and disinterested conduct in reference to West India slavery.” The Abolition of Slavery Act received Royal Assent in August 1833.

Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies, August 1833

Parliamentary reform was another major issue. The 1832 Great Reform Act widened the franchise to include small landowners, tenant farmers and tradesmen. James Hamilton recalls of his father: “When the Reform Bill was carried, the operatives of Strathblane determined to have a procession in honour of the great event .. Having asked and obtained permission to pass in front of the manse with their instrumental band, my father was so gratified by the amiable spirit and deportment then exhibited… that he invited the whole party to return in the afternoon ..to partake of some refreshments.” There was a jolly event with speeches and some quoting of Psalms. However, “This conduct gave offence”, presumably to those who opposed the idea of giving middle class men the vote.

Among other innovations for which William Hamilton can take credit were the introduction in Strathblane of both a public library and a savings bank, which he ran himself. He also gave public lectures on philosophy and science, both of which he had studied at Edinburgh University.

Hamilton was the victim of frequent bouts of illness (each of which he was convinced was his last) and occasional accidents. On 4 March 1823, he recorded in his journal: “And this day, on my return from Gartmore, I have to record another merciful and marvellous interposition of thy Providence, in preserving my life when, having for some moments lost the control of an unruly horse, my foot was twice thrown out of the stirrup, and again and again I was in danger of being unseated and dragged at the heels of the furious animal, till my skull should have been dashed in pieces, and my body mangled and disfigured to the horror of my family.”

And on 17 July 1830, he reports: “Driving up the Crow road above Campsie in my own little carriage, accompanied by Mr James Provan, the horse took fright. I got out of the carriage. But in a few moments and before Mr Provan got out, the horse and carriage were over the precipice. I apprehended that Mr Provan would have been torn and mangled and the horse and carriage dashed in pieces. But through the merciful imposition of the Preserver of men, with the exception of a few scratches, Mr Provan was uninjured, and even the horse able to perform his journey.”

The following year, tragedy did strike when William Hamilton’s 13-year old daughter died. Hamilton must have buried literally hundreds of children during his Strathblane ministry in an age when at least three in ten children didn’t even reach their fifth birthday. But his heart must have been especially heavy when he wrote in his journal on 20 September 1831: “At two o’clock in the afternoon I committed to the dust the earthly remains of my daughter Elizabeth.” Though she had been ill since she was 11, at that age she had command of both French and Greek. He laments: “Her temper was gentle and amiable to an uncommon degree. And her gentle and sanctified soul was lodged in an elegant and comely body.”

Her little grave in Strathblane Churchyard bears the rhyme:

This lovely bud so young and fair

Cut off by early doom

Just come to show how sweet a Flower

In Paradise could bloom.

Hamilton himself was taken ill in early 1833, though he continued to preach. In the General Assembly of 1834, he moved a resolution to abolish lay patronage in the appointment of ministers, despite knowing it had little chance of passing. Throughout his ministry, he believed strongly that congregations should have the power to appoint their own ministers. Of course, nine years later 450 evangelical ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland and set up the Free Church, over precisely this issue. In this respect, William Hamilton was ahead of his time.

He died on 16 April 1835, four days after delivering his last sermon, on the theme of Proverbs ch11, v30: “He that winneth souls is wise.” Friends and parishioners erected the large sandstone monument facing you as you enter Strathblane churchyard. It commends Hamilton (in a tribute running to 127 words!), for his writings, his friendship, his love of science and his wisdom but most of all for the “fervour and power” of his preaching.

Monument erected to William Hamilton in Strathblane Churchyard by his friends and parishioners

Post script. In his account of the ministers of the parish, local historian John Guthrie Smith includes a colourful anecdote that James Hamilton failed to include in his selection of his father’s writing. (Perhaps he thought it too frivolous!). It recalls the arrival in Strathblane in the 1820s of the latest ladies’ accessory – the umbrella: “The fortunate possessor was Miss Robison of Leddriegreen, and the first day of its public exhibition was a rainy Sabbath. Being apprised of its presence in church, all the youngsters turned out to view the phenomenon, and as the old lady advanced through the descending flood under covert of her moving tent, they eyed her with such admiration as some of us have felt the first time we saw a man go down in a diving bell.”

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