1 Gissing, Norfolk (c 1790-1832)

My ancestors, the Garrards, originated in Norfolk. At least, the earliest documentation I can find of them is in Norfolk. My own father, who enjoyed learning German at school, was sure that they came there from Germany, so the name must orginally have been Gerhard; myself, I am more interested in the family’s origins being Celtic, from Brittany, and so the name would more likely have been Gérard. However, George (or Samuel) Garrard, a master weaver, lived in the village of Gissing in the south of the county of Norfolk, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In the earlier 1700s there had been several Timothy Garrards living in that area, so one of them could have been George’s father, but I have found no firm evidence that this was the case. Besides, none of them is recorded as living in Gissing, and my sense is that the weaving business was well established there by George’s time. What is known is that he had four sons: George, Ezra, William and (I think) Daniel. Of these it is William who we know most about, because he wrote about his life; and his ‘Reminiscences’ were published, posthumously, by one of his congregation (1) –  he had become a clergyman. He also wrote spiritual tracts, and a volume of poetry; and he played music, in later life he played the violin.

When he was a young man, the strangest things would sometimes happen to William Garrard the weaver’s son. By way of example, one evening he was with friends playing ten-pin bowling at the Chequers in his home village of Gissing, and just as the bowl went out of his hand he suddenly felt what he later described as ‘such a sweet, overwhelming love’ that came flowing into his heart and started tears pouring from his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. There he stood in the midst of all the people, struck speechless.

People stared at him, and called out to him to mind his game; but by then he knew nothing about the game. At last he made some excuse and left the Chequers, going down into a meadow quite alone, and there he stood howling and weeping although he could scarcely tell what for; but his heart felt ‘broken and melted within him for love’.

On another occasion he was playing music with his three brothers at an open-air music festival at Burnham, also in Norfolk. The four of them were seated in an artificial bower prepared for the band of music men, made with green boughs and flowers; they all tuned their instruments and began to drink freely and play merrily; though William did not feel the same as the others, as if there was ‘some old bleeding wound within’, and sometimes he would fetch up a heavy sigh.

He drank at least as much as his brothers, attempting to drown all inconvenient thoughts of sanctity and purity, but there was a place in his heart that the liquor would not touch. Although he drank abundantly he could not make himself intoxicated. He found there was something in him that he could not quite drown, neither could he be merry as he would, though he blew on his French horn with all the gleeful energy that he could muster.

They were in the middle of playing a cheerful tune and, in spite of the loud sound of the music and the surrounding chatter of the people, he heard these words from a psalm that were spoken in his ear distinctly, as if it had been an audible voice: ‘My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not’. Whether it is sinful to play music in a field for the enjoyment of people gathered there is a question on which there may be differing opinions; but the effect upon William on remembering this saying was instant. His instrument fell down on his knee and he sat like one stupefied; his brother George shook him by the elbow and said, ‘Blow, blow Bill; come, blow up!’ Yet though William tried to join in the music again, he could make no more than a miserable hand at it.

After the music, as sometimes occurs on sultry summer evenings, the clouds began to blacken and a most alarming tempest came quickly up. Whilst the vivid lightning blazed around him and the skies seemed to be rending with peals of thunder, to William it was ‘the lightnings of divine justice and the thunders of God’s holy law’ that were more vivid and loud in his horror-stricken conscience.

Whilst the thunder seemed to tear apart the heavens above his head, he felt as if the ground were opening wide beneath his feet; he expected at every clap of thunder to find himself in hell. Then, when the clouds had finally dispersed, he felt like one raised from the dead; so overcome with gladness that he was not in hell, and so filled with wonder, that he sat alone in silence for some long time with a deep inward solemnity of soul, mingled with a strange mixture of sighs, grief and gladness.


Sometimes he would be walking through quiet, shady woodland, or across fields in the sunshine, and he would unexpectedly find himself caught up in an almost unbelievable sweetness with a sense of it tasting like honey, whilst the woods and groves seemed to dance before him and the fields themselves seemed joyful. We have to agree with William, I think, that such experiences arrived by the action of ‘free grace’, and not as a result of assiduous adherence to spiritual practice, earnestness of prayer, or saintly goodness in word or deed; invariably these ecstasies would come upon him at times of doubt, confusion and even despair.

He interpreted his visions as the intimate presence of the Lord Jesus Christ; and so of course he should, for he had been brought up in a Christian land, the son of Christian parents (howsoever they may have bitterly argued about their doctrines between themselves), and within the near- constant sight of churches and their tolling bell-towers, such that the sport of steeple chasing had entered common parlance.

It did not occur to him – why should it? – that Hindoos, Buddhists or Mohammedans might enter the very same territory but from different points of the compass, describing where they had come to with different words, inflections and languages, and painting what they saw there using colours that came from wholly different pallets.

So, William became a follower of Christ; and, within the broad collection of sects and segments that in those days made up such a spiritual mosaic within the one self-declared Christian country, he would choose the form of religion that understood and spoke about free grace, as opposed to free will, whether or not our modern minds might perceive no contradiction between the two. He became, after spending some years battling with Satan and struggling to come to some place of simple peace and clarity, a devout and religious member of the Strict Baptist Church.

St Marys Church Gissing

William was born on 11th October 1795 – which, as it happens, was a Sunday. What his birth was like I have no way of finding out for sure, though I suspect that there was something about it that didn’t feel altogether right. Judging by his later life, there often seemed to be an element of polarisation, of a certain type of discord, and I’m sure that would have been there from the very beginning.

According to official records his father’s name was George Garrard; according to one of William’s grandsons, my grandfather’s uncle Charles, William’s father was Samuel Garrard, whose name was in a copy of John Bunyan’s Holy War that was later in Charles’ possession. I have therefore called him George Samuel Garrard. His mother’s name I do not know at all. In those days women’s names and details were often not required on important documents.

My own son is seventh in line from George Samuel Garrard, whose business was weaving hemp and flax cloth in Gissing, which is near to Diss in Norfolk; and I am told that we carry within us the genetic imprint of seven generations. George Samuel married in about the year 1790 and although he had four sons, providence has left us with detailed information concerning only William. More than half a century later, William was to become well known in the town of Leicester as a Baptist minister and preacher; and if we look further still into their future, the descendants of George Samuel and his son William were to include a veterinary surgeon and farmer, a wine and spirits merchant, several doctors and surgeons, an Anglican clergyman, a commercial artist, and myself.

William was my grandfather’s great grandfather. He was brought up in a household where religious disagreements between his ‘Calvinist’ father and his (presumably) Anglican mother were commonplace, and frequently disturbed the peace of the home. From reading about his later life I feel iut is quite likely that this disturbance would have had a deeper personal origin; so in a sense (though he did not perhaps see it that way) his life’s purpose was to solve this problem, to heal this old wound. I believe that in the end he did very well; but whilst he was growing up he did not feel encouraged to discuss religion with his parents, even though in pre-Victorian England it was a subject as hotly debated amongst some members of local communities as might be politics (or football) today – and it was a subject that became increasingly important for him.

At first, however, he had very little interest in spiritual matters. One day when he was about fourteen years of age, he was standing in his father’s garden musing alone, when he noticed a very small weed just springing up out of the ground; and a thought struck him, ‘How does that little weed grow? Surely it must be God who makes it grow, if there be a God.’ And he looked up into the mist (for it was a very misty day) to try, if he could, to see Him! But he saw nothing, and these thoughts of God soon passed away from his mind.

When he was much older, writing his reminiscences, he described his early life largely in terms of his ‘vanity and folly’, when he was chiefly interested in what are called ‘the harmless amusements of youth’; such as music and dancing, singing, racing, swimming in summer and skating in winter. These were his favourite pastimes, and though the purpose of his writing was to stress his youthful folly and his lack of spiritual understanding, nevertheless the modern reader will perhaps be pleased that something at least was recorded of these more commonplace activities, which together create some historical picture of life in rural Norfolk in the early nineteenth century.

One day in summer he was swimming, and diving to the bottom of a deep claypit he found that his head became nearly set fast under a tree root at the bottom of the pit. As he lay there beneath the water he then seriously thought about dying, for no one could help him, and with the water rattling around him and roaring in his ears he knew he must drown if he could not extricate himself. He certainly could not breathe, but he thought he must try to free himself and to be as calm and collected as he could. So he put his hands back over his head, laid hold of the root, made a sudden struggle, and up he came! He felt very thankful when he came up; but that thankfulness too soon passed away from his mind.


Not long afterwards William met Sarah Norman, who would become his teenage sweetheart. Sarah was born about 1797; and I’m sure that she must have been pretty, though there is no picture of her, nor any description that I’m aware of. There is, however, a poem that William wrote some years later, and which seems to have been inspired by his relationship with Sarah. In spite of the contemporary idiom – which meant that it was written in rather vague terms of classical gods and goddesses – the story of Daphne and Daphnis surely gives us a flavour:

Love would have frowned, but could not, ’twas disguise;
He read her heart then through her sweet blue eyes;
True love may frown, but never can remove;
Their eyes spake love, as they strolled down the grove. (2)

Sarah’s mother was Frances (née Scarlett) Norman and her father Ezra Norman, though I don’t know the name of the farm where they lived. William and Sarah met whilst walking about the village, each running errands, and in William’s words, ‘I was wounded by the little winged boy, as mythologies describe it, and fell desperately in love’. However, since William was then very young, and showed few signs of gaining responsibility, her father forbade his going to their house.

This grieved young William very much, and as he could not conceal ‘the pleasing pain’, he told her the ardour of his affections; but she seemed to disregard it all and said she thought it would be best to break off the acquaintance, as her father disapproved of it. This wrought in William a kind of melancholy despondency, and after many unsuccessful entreaties, he was driven into a kind of rage and wild despair.

In this sad state of mind, one beautiful star-lit night he wandered down a long green way called Tibenham Long Row. Gazing up at the starry heavens, ‘Surely,’ he thought, ‘there must be a God. Who made all these stars? And if there be a God, He must know what I am so distressed about. Oh! That God would speak out and decide this matter for me.’

He came to the conclusion that if he was to have this young woman a shooting star would run before him; this would occur, he later recalled, before he had walked a hundred steps further. Well, as he fearfully walked, afraid to finish the last step, a shooting star did indeed run directly before him, almost down to the horizon. And oh! How pleased he was, at least for the next few minutes. Then it suddenly darted into his mind, ‘This may be all a delusion; the star might have ran if I had not desired it.’ So then he began to despair again and the next thought was, ‘Well, I must have another star run before me as a sign to know that I really am to have her’; and before he had walked the number of steps concluded upon, another shooting star did in fact appear; though this time it whirled around like a wheel and then went out in a moment.

Now William was quite alarmed, for he thought, at this strange motion of the star, that God was very angry with him; and he said out loud, ‘I must have no more of this.’ He went home caught between hope and despair; but still, from the circumstances of the star running at all, he cherished a secret hope that his desire would yet be granted.

Such presumptuousness, he would later comment, as to ask for signs from heaven! However, Sarah soon came to the Garrards’ house on some business, the acquaintance was renewed, and before much more time had passed the couple were indeed married – to the joy, so it seemed, of William’s fresh young heart; but William was a troubled man, and this marriage was to end too soon, in tragedy. Perhaps a more experienced and discerning mind might have read this message into the strange movement and sudden disappearance of the star, but this was not how it was with William; even as the facts bore hard upon him he would appear to take little notice.


More than 150 years later, during the 1980s, the writer Lindsay Clarke was to compose his novel The Chymical Wedding in Gissing. For the purpose he rented an old cottage in the village, with an overgrown front garden and ‘dumpy lime-washed walls’. It was ‘built of wattle and daub, timbered throughout in oak, with a reed thatch cocking a snook at the world from either gable end. It was set in a stand of beech and chestnut a quarter of a mile from its nearest neighbour … At the rear the cottage overlooked the water-meadows on the wilder fringes of the hamlet and you could see the round flint tower of Gissing St Mary’s glinting in the sunlight across the stream. The windows were leaded and small; even at mid-day the rooms were shady, almost dark.’ (3)

Opening the book and looking on the first page, I read this description which sent a shiver down my spine. It was in just such a cottage that the Garrard family lived in the early nineteenth century, and where they ran their business as cloth manufacturers. William had free time for sports and games, and he must have had some education. Dickens describes village schools of the era, for instance in The Old Curiosity Shop (4): rural school teachers had little or no formal training, but could teach basic skills of literacy and numeracy; besides that, they could teach whatever might have taken their interest. William certainly learnt to read and write – poetry, not just shopping lists – and he was also soon proficient at debating matters of religion.

Just as his father’s belief in predestination was forever arguing with his mother’s belief in free will, so William had an internal argument raging on for years, and it would allow him no peace at all. He joined the family weaving business, but he could find no real sense of belonging in this world.


William was by no means rich, but by the standards of the day his life was reasonably comfortable. The family led a life of far less struggle than they would likely have done in Norwich, less than twenty miles away, where at that time more weavers were sent to the workhouse than people from any other trade. The town had grown great as the medieval centre of worsted production, though by the first half of the nineteenth century there was an economic decline setting in. The industrial revolution meant that textile production had largely moved to factories in the north of England. In Norwich there were still many handlooms in operation, but most were engaged in making silk products and other luxury and fancy fabrics for the upper classes; weavers mostly worked at home, employed doing piecework for London-based firms.They often existed in desperate poverty, living and working in dreadful conditions (5).

As part of a rural community however, the Garrards would have had a regular trade weaving flax and hemp. The indications are that they were producing linen and coarser, hard-wearing hemp cloth or canvas, for the immediate local market; and that theirs was an independent, family-run business. The process of growing flax or hemp, and converting it into yarn ready for weaving, was much the same for each crop and was lengthy and labour-intensive. Most stages of this process took place on the farm where the crops were grown.

For flax, the time from sowing to harvesting is about 100 days, so sowing times can be adjusted to fall in line with an anticipated period of sunny weather, and if there was a prolonged period of spring rain planting could be delayed. Sowing (probably by hand, though later in the nineteenth century seed fiddles were introduced, but were expensive); growing (the plants close together, to encourage tall growth); harvesting (plants pulled up whole by hand, this task done by the whole family); bundled into ‘beets’ (about a hand-length wide) and dried in the sun stacked in ‘stooks’ (12 beets to a stook); and also rippled (removing the seeds using a board with nails).

Once the dried plants had been brought in from the fields they could be stored for up to a year until required. Then they were made wet again by retting: either dew retting – laying them on the grass and turning them every few days to let the dew wet them – or wet retting, when they were submerged in water. Dew retting produces a greyish fibre and water retting produces pale golden fibres. This latter method apparently stinks, and it was advisable to change the water because of the smell and because the flax gets slimy. On some farms a pit was dug and water diverted from a stream to provide the tank. Wet retting is the quicker method and the fibres can be ready in about 6-10 days. Then there was scutching (bashing the fibres to loosen them); hackling (pulling through a nail comb or ‘hackling pins’ to refine the fibre, and to divide it into long fibres – ‘line’ – and short fibres – ‘tow’); and finally the fibre would be spun.

Many women and girls in the village would have spent at least some of their time spinning. Some of this would have been done on the farm where the plants were grown, and probably in a rural community the rest would have come from other households where other women would have sat spinning to earn a bit of extra income. Whether the Garrards would have bought it as raw fibre or as spun yarn I don’t know for sure – probably the latter. Their business was weaving it into cloth, again a laborious task, and delivering it – often back to the farming families who had grown it – for manufacture into clothing, bed linen or canvas tarpaulins (6).


Weaver's cottage

A nineteenth century weaver in his cottage with his family.

The painting above, by Bernard Winter, shows the weaver at work with his loom set side-on to a window, so that the light shines on the threads where the shuttle would be ‘launched’. The woman sitting is winding the spun yarn onto bobbins for the weaver’s shuttle. She has a basket of completed ones at her feet. The woman standing is bringing in a heavy-looking basket of skeins of yarn, some of which appear to have been dyed. (7)

William worked for the family weaving business until he was in about his thirtieth year, though it seems that he did not commit himself to the seven year apprenticeship that would have led to him becoming a master weaver. He describes himself as often being out and about, visiting neighbours or neighbouring villages ‘on business’; this appears to have been his role. He would have been visiting farms mostly, purchasing yarn ready for weaving and later returning to deliver the woven cloth and to collect payment. He travelled on foot, perhaps keeping in touch with how the growing, harvesting and processing was coming along, and whether there was a plentiful crop. It was on such errands around the village that he got to meet Sarah Norman.


William & Sarah marriage

William and Sarah were married at Gissing parish church on 6th October 1818, when William was five days short of his twenty-third birthday and Sarah was just twenty. A witness was Ezra Garrard, one of William’s three brothers. Before long Sarah was pregnant, and within a year of the wedding she had given birth to a baby boy. He was named William after his father.

However, the elder William would soon feel great remorse, because ‘I never thanked God once for her as His gift’. Instead of being such a holy, religious man as he had promised himself he would be, in recognition of his greatest wish being granted, he was actually quite the reverse. He could not give up his old, and seemingly merry, worldly acquaintances.

As one of the local lads he had always been the leader. Even now that he was married, in all tricks of mischief and folly in the village he was sought out to lay the plots and plans for what they called their fun, such as tying up old women’s doors, stopping their chimneys, and so on. Playing off their tricks one night with a very irritable old man named Thomas Sparrow, some of the party were discovered by him, and next morning Tom was going off to the magistrate to bring them all to justice. A man by the name of Francis Palmer met him, full of rage and fury, on his way to the magistrate, and he said, ‘Tom, boy, don’t go; I don’t believe you would wish to hurt a few neighbours’ children; it may be all settled for a gallon or two of ale.’

That night the parties met to settle it over a few gallons of ale in Tom’s little cottage. Now Tom’s bed stood below in the same room, so the young lads sat all round on the bedstead, and some on the bed. Soon, as the party began to be merry, they slyly cut Tom’s bed-cords, and down went the bed on the floor, with the lads tumbled upon it. It must have made a great crash, confusion and revelry. Up jumped Tom in a terrible rage. ‘I thought,’ said he, ‘you came to settle it. So this is your settling of it! This is your settling of it! Is it not?’

It is perhaps little wonder that William came to see himself as such a sinful person, since the antisocial behaviour from his teenage years had continued into his twenties, and did not cease even when Sarah fell very ill with tuberculosis. Later he would write, ‘Be it recorded that, when the Lord first smote my conscience, I was, with my wild companions, throwing stones at old Tom Sparrow’s door!’ Suddenly seeing himself in a different, shadowy light, he stopped abruptly and dropped the stones out of his hand and onto the ground.

His heart ‘sunk in me like a stone’. Guilt seized on his soul, so that he felt quite faint and sick; and he could think nothing but, ‘Oh wretched man! Oh wretched man! Oh, what a vile wretch I am to be at these foolish tricks while there lies my poor sick wife on the bed, near to the doors of death and eternity!’ He stole away in the dark from his errant companions.


Sarah seems to have been a most wonderful saintly person; even when she was in a ‘rapid consumption’ and William could see ‘the damp dews of death set on her pale face, and she wasted almost to a skeleton’, it was she who would pray for him. He remembered her praying a short prayer, and he was included in it: ‘that God would give me His rich grace in my heart.’ One morning, when she was very close to death, William went to her bedside and she said, ‘William, what do you suppose I have been thinking about in the night? … I have been thinking that, if I could see Jesus Christ, I could kiss Him, because He was so good as to come and die for me’.

Sarah burial

Sarah herself died in February 1820, and she was buried in the village churchyard. Her baby son was then no more than a few months old.

While dews of death sat on her pallid face,
She blessed her shepherd with a dying grace;
Ye gentle ghosts of injured virgins come,
Sigh o’er her grave, plant willows round her tomb. (8)


Following her sad and untimely death William’s life went through a huge and radical change. At first he was in such a distressed and distracted state that people suggested that he too was going into a consumption. ‘Death’ he noted, ‘was stamped on all things my eyes beheld, and the whole of creation seemed to be hung in mourning’.

Then, as if in answer to Sarah’s prayers, dramatic experiences of the spirit began to come upon him quite unexpectedly. ‘The light, love, and glory returned again, so indescribably sweet, full, and powerful, that I did not know how to contain myself, for the Lord seemed to be in the bed with me, and in my bosom, for my heart was quite full of the real substance of love and joy, and the room (that was like hell to me before) seemed turned into heaven, as if it were filled with sweet odours, and unctuous dew-drops of Paradise, and a sweet breath breathed a fragrance through all the powers and faculties of my soul, insomuch that it left no room for one doubt or fear while it lasted.’

Ecstatic moments like this were interspersed with lengthy periods of doubt, depression and berating himself for his sinfulness. On one occasion he even contemplated suicide, though he realised that this would only cause unnecessary suffering for his relations, ‘And oh, thought I, what will become of my dear and only babe?’ This thought brought him back. It was the only time that William’s son appeared at all in his reminiscences, though his ‘dear and only babe’ must always have been important to him. Nevertheless, his description of his state of mind makes clear that he could not have played much part in the child’s upbringing. It seems most likely that young William went to live with Sarah’s parents.

William started attending Gissing’s nonconformist chapel, where he found himself meeting and even seeking out the company of old men whom he had previously despised and mistreated. After a while, however, he found himself getting into hot disputes with them on matters of religious doctrine, and soon he went instead to join the Baptist congregation in Diss.


Now he would walk the four miles across the fields each Sunday. ‘The trees, fields, flowery meadows, and the whole lower creation, as I passed along, would sometimes appear to be gilded with a serene and heavenly glory’. Perhaps there was a battle going on within him, between Satan and Jesus, for his soul; or perhaps ‘the real substance of love and joy’ was now firmly there inside him, gradually driving away the doubt, fear and confusion that he had grown up with.

In due course he was baptised into the Strict Baptist Church. The ceremony took place in the river Waveney at Roydon, near Diss, performed by the Reverend George Washington Wilks. Although his spiritual and emotional turmoil still continued, he also began to be invited by small communities in the area, to preach in a barn or in someone’s front room; and although at first he was still very unsure of himself, he gradually grew in confidence.

His first tentative steps into this, which was to become his life’s work, took place in an old barn at nearby Shimpling where a few people would meet for prayer, and preaching too when they could have it. Some of these were members of the Baptist church at Diss, and passing that way on business he would often meet with them on weekday evenings. One evening they put the Bible before him, desiring him to ‘read, pray, and expound’, as is the way of the Baptists. He wrote that in doing this, ‘they put me to the blush’, and he said no.

However, they pressed it and so at last he opened the Bible and read a chapter; then he made some observations, but, as he thought, in a very confused manner; all the same the few people there seemed quite satisfied and asked him to come and preach to them on the following Sunday. He was afraid to promise them; but, during the week his mind was strangely exercised about the matter, and when Sunday came he started off walking across the fields. The poor villagers were assembled and seemed glad to see him. They put him in their pulpit – a few rough old boards nailed together in the barn – and again they placed the Bible squarely before him.

Just as he was about to begin, a gentleman with whom he had some acquaintance came into the barn and sat himself down; he was a learned man and his presence ‘quite put me about’, as William said, so that he had thoughts of declining to preach after all. However he felt some strength come into himself, and mustered up all of his courage, and read his text. To his surprise, his heart felt enlarged and ‘unexpected utterance was given’. He went on for a good part of an hour, to his own astonishment. The people there seemed to be joyful as a result.

As for William, ‘I was quite puffed up, and began to think within myself, Well, I was not aware of it, but I find that I can preach; I am a preacher; I shall be some great man, a great preacher, and be sent for to some great place’. Before leaving the barn, they asked him to come again and preach the following Sunday; ‘and, though I slowly contested, I meant to go, and thought I would do better next time’. So during the week he studied his sermon, and wrote down on a sheet of paper his chief headings – ‘first, second, and thirdly’ – and many subdivisions beneath each head.

‘Well, Sunday came, and off I went again, like a parson with my skeleton sermon in my pocket; and, with some confidence in my notes, I mounted the preaching-box, and slipped my papers between the leaves of the Bible; and when the time came for preaching I intended to give them something like a grand sermon’; but in the course of a few minutes he was through his first chief head, and all its subdivisions, and could not read correctly what he had written next; so he began to feel rather queer, and he soon got rapidly through both second and thirdly, and all their subdivisions too; and there he stood, not knowing at all what he should say after that.

‘I stood and gaped and blushed, and tried again, but could not go on, for my mouth and my lips felt as if they were glued together. I then sat down, filled with shame; and as soon as I could I came down from my eminence, got my hat, and ran away across the fields, soon out of their sight, reproaching myself for being such a fool.’

About a week later, nevertheless, he was invited once more to preach; this time in Pulham, another village about five miles distant from Gissing. He protested and said he could not, but nevertheless when Sunday came he started off and arrived in the room where the people were assembled, and there he sat down amongst them. After much encouragement ‘to read and to expound’, which at first he was too nervous to do, eventually he did get up, and with some trembling he opened the Bible and began to read some words that had been on his mind. This time he had no ‘paper crutches’ in his pocket, and he started very softly; but he preached on that Sunday with calmness, enlargement, and comfort; and once again, all the people there seemed joyful as a result.


After this the invitations came with some regularity, and so far as I can calculate it was in 1825 that he was formally called to preach before the deacons and a large congregation at Diss. After this his activities as a preacher were regularised and confirmed; for now he could be sent out by the Church, ‘to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever I might be called’. So he gave up the weaving business to become a Baptist preacher; he left the village of Gissing, his parents and his brothers – and also his young son William – for his calling.

I am not a Baptist myself, nor even a Christian, but I do respect and believe in the workings of Spirit; and it was to become self-evident, as time went by, that Sarah’s death at an early age did not mean her life had been wasted. It resulted, first, in William, her husband, completely changing the course of his life – and that had certainly done him some real good. Then, during his fifty years of ministry that would follow, he was able to pass on the love with which he had been infused during his early spiritual experiences, probably many times over, to the people who would receive his pastoral care.

Doctrines and theologies might confuse us like a cacophonous Tower of Babel, but these plain and simple facts are all quite true.

At first he moved around East Anglia, to whatever congregation would for a while, perhaps for a year or so, provide him with a modest living wage. He ministered to Baptist communities – noted here in the order in which they employed him – at Attleborough (Norfolk), Aldringham (Suffolk), Trowse (near Norwich, Norfolk), Friston (Suffolk), and Wortwell (Norfolk). Then, some time in the early 1830s, with his name and growing reputation travelling there before him, he received an invitation to preach at Great Dunmow in Essex, from a Mr James Challis who lived at the nearby farming community of Panfield.


1. Reminiscences of the late William Garrard, compiled by R.A.Barber (a member of his congregation at Newarke Street, Leicester) and privately published in 1874, the year following William’s death. Direct quotes from William and many details of his life are taken from this book. For further information see chapter 3.

2. From A Pastoral Poem, included in the Reverend William Garrard’s Old England, our Queen and Her People, published in Leicester, 1862. This quotation from pp 9-10.

3. Lindsay Clarke, The Chymical Wedding, Jonathan Cape (1989), p 1.

4. I am assuming that the character of the rural schoolmaster in Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), was typical of the early part of the nineteenth century. The story is believed to have been set in about 1825.

5. See Jill Waterson, Handloom Weavers in mid nineteenth century Norwich (2009), http://www. history-pieces.co.uk/Docs/HANDLOOM_WEAVERS.pdf

6. Research into growing and processing flax during this period by Trish Jones.

7. The painting is by Bernard Winter; the drawing from Spinning and Weaving – Scotland’s Past in Action’ by Enid Gauldie.

8. From A Pastoral Poem (see note 2), p 11.