A Mortehoe Gospel, the recollection of a visitor to Mortehoe (1882)

Thursday 31st August 1882

North Devon Journal

A Morte-Hoe Gospel

The following sketch by a visitor to Morte-hoe appeared in a recent issue of the Echo.

I can’t say the inn was clean, but then, as the landlady said “they comes all over the place.” In front of the inn stood waggonettes, drags, carts, and basket carriages. Inside the hall, blocking the passage, squatting on the stairs, carousing right and left in the bar room, coffee room, bedroom, were visitors munching, holding cups of milk, tumblers of ginger beer; laughing, talking, chatting, merry girls, merrier young men; paterfamilias paying up all around; horses with dropping heads, accustomed to hills outside, by no means champing the impatient bit- all ready to start.

The day was done at Morte-hoe. A free breeze was blowing over the downs; the sea was coming in along the picturesque rocks of Morte Bay far down.

Mere troops of ‘consumers’ flocking hither from Ilfracombe, Bideford, Barnstaple every day, and are off on donkeys down the steep road to the wonderful shell caves below, and the reaches of the Woolacombe Sands.

Morte-hoe has not yet been discovered by the world; it is only frequented spasmodically by the Devonshire folk and a few stray tourists, with, as Albert Smith used to say, “a stick and a bundle” under which circumstances it is quite natural that the inn should not be in perfection, and that there should be hardly any lodgings at all.

A sudden stillness seemed to creep over Morte-hoe as the last car jolted off, and the sounds of the laughing revelers and the distant wheels died away over the brow of the hill. The measured murmurs of the sea, allured me down the steep and rocky road. I never got as far as the beach. It was getting dark. As I came round the furze-covered hillock and started a stray rabbit. I saw lights. A little further on I came to a small wayside stone building. Inside they were signing. I stopped; a donkey boy, a shepherd, and a country girl with a basket loitered round the door. I entered; two or there candles were the only illumination. About twenty people were there, all peasants, boys, men, girls and women. It was a rough little chapel with wooden benches. I sat down. Someone handed me a hymn book of the Moody and Sankey type. A middle aged Bible woman, or some such evangelist, was the end of the room, conducting an irregular kind of service, supported by two young women of the peasant class, whose chief point was their singing. They all sand loudly and lustily those buoyant and popular encore tunes with which the public are now generally familiar. The sand in chorus “Don’t let him stand-don’t let him stand-don’t let him stand outside.” “No Don’t” wailed the preaching Priscilla. She was a quiet, kindly jolly looking soul, with a tightly fitting black bonnet and a white frill.

“Don’t stand outside, dear friends” said the Bible woman at the end of the room, addressing the loiterers round the door, and her voice vibrated with deeper feeling as she said, persuasively, “it is warmer inside dear friends, come in with your baskets and sing with us.”  The loiterers had come in and sat down. The strangeness, the genuinesses and the simplicity of the whole thing, the way it evidently “fetched” the people fascinated me. I stayed for the sermon.

Whenever the preacher was at fault for a word the girls round her groaned out “Blessed hope!” “O, be joyful!” and so forth, which whatever we may think of the method, kept the service thoroughly alive. A few more stragglers had now come in, and were invited to get up, of course, out of the darkness in to the light.

The last hymn seemed the most popular of all and was sung with a will. I don’t know how many verses there were. I thought it would never end. I left them singing.

I went out. It was quite dark. This little chapel on week day nights, I said, gathers its honest, earnest group. Yon large empty church closed by is closed; it knows not how to open its doors for the people; it does not adapt itself to their wants. That poor Bible women herself grossly ignorant, is doing more the lowly people of this seaside village with her preposterous Bible commentaries and her doggerel hymns, because she gets near to the people’s hearts and loves them, and is herself earnest. What might not the clergy do, with their position and advantages, if they had a tithe of such faith, love, energy and hope.

Next morning, as I lay in bed, I heard about seven o’clock the stone masons chisel going. They were building houses opposite the inn. A carpenter sawing inside, another man wheeling bricks, both were singing lustily at their work, and seemed to work better for it. The man within sang “A crown for me” the man without sang “A crown for you.” It was a hearty, joyous and withal a manly strain.

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