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Gawin Kirkham -The Open Air Evangelist

Digital image restoration © Peter N Millward

Gawin Kirkham
The Open Air Evangelist

 Chapter 6 

Ch1. Ch2. Ch3. Ch4. Ch5. Ch6. Ch7. Ch8. Ch9.

                 Toward the West; and Labours more Abundant                                                                                                                

The true soldier loves the front. His place is where the hottest battle joins, and sternest issues are decided. Called though he be to quit the foremost rank, and awhile to wait where lesser interests are involved, his heart is ever yonder where the clash of arms and the shock of opposing forces tell their own thrilling and enthralling tale. Surely so, at least, in warfare of a spiritual sort, waged with weapons not of earth, and by men of faith and prayer. Thus it was with Gawin Kirkham. After an interval far indeed from inactivity—that were impossible while life and health remained — but largely marked by events of greater quietude than the hero-spirit reckons entirely congenial, he turned to his accustomed rank, donned anew the armour of the battle-field, and went forth to the wars of the Lord with high hope and eager countenance. Hence forth, like some valiant spirits long ago, his feet were “as swift as the roes upon the mountains to make haste.” For life’s sun was westering, and every day became more precious.

A Remarkable Year's Work

It was in April, 1877, that, as travelling secretary of the Open-Air Mission, this evangelist of the highways thus resumed his delightful toil. The days were filled with many-sided enterprise. Recruits were sought and won. Voting preachers were instructed and led forth to service. Auxiliaries were formed, and country work was organized. The First Years Work of the Travelling Secretary, an “Occasional Paper” of the Open-Air Mission, published in 1878, tells its deeply interesting story in diary form. What a revelation of consecrated zeal lies in figures which, however, but faintly tabulate a record all too precious to lie within the realm of measurable things! What had been accomplished? Towns and villages in twenty counties had been visited to the number of eighty-five, and in London fifty-nine districts had been reached. More than six thousand miles had been travelled, and five hundred and ninety addresses had been delivered to an aggregate of seventy-seven thousand people. Sixteen races and fairs had been the scene of personal labour; students in five colleges had been addressed ; and seven new auxiliaries of the Mission had been formed. All this within a year! This narrative includes many graphic illustrations of the difficulty of the work. At Croydon races, on April 11th, 1877, “I was accompanied,” he writes, “ by an agent of the Mission. We paid one shilling each for admission to the ground. This was necessary to be able to get at the people ; but they were in no mood to listen to us, or to take our tracts, as the afternoon was thoroughly wet. The race-ground was a complete quagmire, and we stood in the mud all the afternoon. To work the place more completely we penetrated a large refreshment booth, and had barely got under the canvas when a terrific thunderstorm broke over the course, and the people crowded into the booth until we could not stir; so we were compelled to hear all their slang and jokes, which were in no degree moderated during the most vivid flashes of lightning or the heaviest peals of thunder. I do not remember a place where there was more mud ; and I was glad of the hospitable roof of Mr. Owens Mell, near by, where we were invited to tea. About nine hundred tracts were given during the day.” Perhaps the following, in the same strain, is even more vivid in its brevity :— “Ascot Races, June 14th.—A very discouraging day. Fashion was too dignified to receive tracts, books, or cards, however pretty their appearance, or however politely offered. Mr. Belchem and I took one approach, and Mr. Holder and Mr. Wallis another. Hardly one in fifty would take the tracts. All seemed bent only on reaching the course. I never set eyes upon so much fashion before. To walk in front of the enclosure surrounding the grand stand was to see dresses made of all the colours of the rainbow ; and to see thousands upon thousands thus living for worldly pleasure made me inexpressibly sad. And then, with a flourish of trumpets and outriders came the Prince of Wales in state. And when the races were over, what remained? Bushels of torn betting-cards strewn over the course, broken and empty bottles by hundreds, and heaps of refuse paper driven by the wind. So the fashion of this world passeth away.”

Tokens of the Power of God

Even the element of personal danger was some-times not entirely absent. A stone thrown by a boy while Mr. Kirkham, accompanied by friends, was singing in Hoxton Market one Sunday at this time, struck him in the face, and drew blood. On this he reflects: “ Although engaged in mission work for twenty-two years, this was the first time I lost any blood. I have been struck by sticks and whips occasionally, and have more than once been made as white as a miller with flour thrown by betting men at race-times. Once, while preaching at St. Katherine’s Hill Fair, near Guildford, I was pelted with turf till it reached nearly to my knees. On another occasion, at Brentwood Races, some men attempted to pour some beer down my throat; and once, at midnight, in front of the Old Bailey, while preaching, with others, to a crowd waiting for an execution, we were surrounded and robbed ; but I gratefully acknowledge the preserving hand of God, amid much rough work and many dangers.” But how sweet it was, ever and anon, to discover unmistakeable tokens of the power of God amid such scenes ! As thus :— “Huntingdon Races, July 24th and 25th.—On the second day, Mr. Gerald Hunnybun, a young solicitor, brought a band of about twenty of his young men to the course in the evening, when the racing was over, and we held an encouraging meeting, during which a man who works on the railway was deeply convinced of sin, and cried very bitterly.  This shows that God can work even where Satan’s seat is.” Indeed, such evidences, apparent at the time, or, as in some instances, made known long after, were far more numerous than the essentially seed-sowing nature of the work would lead some to expect. Writing of Kingston Fair, which he visited annually for many years until it was finally abolished, he says :— “Year by year some blessing has been vouchsafed by the Lord upon this effort to make known his truth among the people. Take the following as an example. Four months after the fair I met one of the brethren who preached there. He told me that on the previous night he had been speaking in a mission-room at Lambeth, and a young woman had told him that by the preaching at Kingston Fair she and her mother had both been brought to the Lord.  The mother also testified the same thing. He recognised them again as those who professed to find peace at that time ; and he was glad to have it confirmed by their own spontaneous testimony four months afterwards.” Mr. Kirkham’s remarkable memory for dates and figures, and his ready use of them, is instanced by the following :—       

A Gospel Pioneer

“ Mildmay Park, Sunday, September 30th.—That prince of open-air preachers, George Whitefield, died on Sunday, September 30th, 1770. It fell to my lot to take part in seven meetings, indoors and out, and I had at least six hours’ speaking and singing spread over fourteen hours. We closed the usual summer stations in the Green Lanes, and at the corner of Newington Green. To show the importance of the former, I may mention that this morning we took a census of the passers-by with the following results :— In less than an hour and a half about fifteen hundred passed up towards Finsbury Park, and five hundred passed down towards London, making a total of two thousand ; of whom five hundred, or one in four, stayed to listen for a longer or a shorter period. Let it be remembered that this meeting is held during the time of Divine service.” The record of his second year’s work as travelling secretary, carefully written and preserved in manuscript form, contains in interest and variety almost enough to form a volume in itself. From April 1st, 1878, to March 31st, 1879, he had addressed no less than five hundred and fifty-six distinct gatherings, held, some under the most difficult, and others under the most delightful, circumstances. It is the story of a Gospel pioneer, in whose track lie whole forests of difficulty, and whose business is to cut them down, to cast up the highway, gather out the stones, and to lift up a standard for the people. Courage to attempt single-handed what many Christians shrink from attempting in whole companies ; diligence to enter doors of opportunity which to others had appeared fast closed, or only just ajar ; tact and wisdom to frustrate the designs of those who opposed the truth ; and consecrated skill to lead the efforts of his brethren—all these qualities shone conspicuously. To include a tithe of the inspiring details of this wonderful life would swell this sketch to impossible proportions; hence we must dip but lightly, and cull but sparingly.

Sunday, April 28th, 1878, was spent at Brighton, where, after morning and afternoon efforts, “ I walked in the evening,” he writes, “ from Kemp Town to Hove without seeing a single open-air meeting. So by the lifeboat house at the West Cliff I mounted a capstan and read the parable of the sower. As I read the words, ‘ Great multitudes came unto Him,’some young fellows on the promenade laughed heartily, and I felt how supremely ridiculous I must have appeared in their eyes. However, when I finished reading and commenced expounding, a crowd gathered, and the power of the Lord appeared to rest upon them. Very few came down to the beach ; the bulk stood on the promenade. Not caring to sing a solo, I closed with a brief prayer.” 

“Whit Sunday, June 9th, 1878.—Preached in the Wesleyan Chapel, Redruth, this morning. In the afternoon Mr. Wilson,* the Town Missionary, and his friends arranged a tea-meeting for the show people who had come into the town in readiness for the fair on the following day.


* Mr. J. W. Wilson was a notable Christian worker, of great devotion, and of a saintly character. Some years since he went to Australia, where after much earnest labour he died in 1892.

Among Cornish Wesleyans

This was held in the butter market, and was attended by sixty persons. At first they were shy, and came slowly ; but when fairly settled, they enjoyed themselves thoroughly, and listened to the addresses with marked attention. A patriarchal looking man was to have moved a vote of thanks to the friends for their kindness, but was so overcome by his feelings that he could not speak. So a young actor performed this duty, and did it gracefully and feelingly.  It was the first meeting of the kind I had ever witnessed, and it was very encouraging.”   “ Whit Monday has long been famous among the Wcsleyans of Cornwall for an annual service in the Gwennap Pit, situate about a mile and a half from Redruth. John Wesley made the place memorable by preaching in it to an immense concourse of people. The Rev. R. P. Downes, of Brighton, was the preacher on the present occasion, and chose for his text Romans i. 16, ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.’ The sermon was carefully studied, and its earnest delivery evidently laid hold of the two thousand or three thousand people who crowded the twelve terraces of which the pit is now composed. All we could do was to give tracts to the people as they left.” . . .
“ Tuesday, June nth.—Mr. Cauker and I went on to Truro, where preparations on a large scale were being made to commence the fair on the following day. At eight o’clock, joined by Mr. Truncheon and others, we preached near the fair. Over two hundred assembled, and remained solid and steady for two hours. Surely nowhere but in Cornwall could so attentive an audience be obtained on the eve of a fair.” The record of a remarkable experience at Harwich and Dovercourt is prefaced by the appropriate text:“ And Hezekiah rejoiced, and all the people, that God had prepared the people ; for the thing was done suddenly ” (2 Chron. xxix. 36); and proceeds: “This morning (Saturday, July 27th), I proposed going to Ipswich for the Sabbath, but received letters saying the notice was too short for effective arrangements. So I prayed for guidance, and then decided to try Harwich. The rain fell in the afternoon and delayed our starting (my wife being with me); so that it was past five when we arrived at Dovercourt. I called on the Rev. Henry E. Brooke, who received us heartily, and insisted on our staying in his house. Then he accompanied me to Harwich, intending to have some bills printed ; but the printers had left work, so we wrote out a few notices, one of which he sent to the Wesleyan minister, and then called on the Independent minister, requesting announcements of open-air meetings on Harwich Green on the following day. We then went to his Saturday evening prayer meeting, after which, at nine o’clock, General Goddard, Mr. Luke Richmond, and I, conducted a short open-air service, which was so unusual that people came out of the shops and public houses. “On Sunday morning we spoke on Harwich Green. At first the people gathered slowly ; but after the Wesleyans came from their chapel the crowd Increased.

"God had prepared the People"

In the afternoon I preached for Mr. Brooke in the Dovercourt Mission Hall, where he is pastor,* and in the evening on the green again, on Zephaniah i. 1-12. Here the crowd fairly astonished me by its size. It is difficult to estimate numbers ; but I do not think there were fewer than a thousand persons present, and they were wonderfully attentive. It was by far the best sea-side service I have ever seen. I begged the people to come again next Sabbath evening, and induced General Goddard and Mr. Richmond to see that the meetings should be continued. . . I have already recorded the ready and hearty co-operation of Mr. Brooke. He was kindness and sympathy personified. To his other thoughtful acts he added a monetary one, telling the people at his mission hall that whatever was put in the boxes should go to the Open-Air Mission. The result was £4 1s. to our funds. ‘For the thing was done suddenly.’ ‘ God had prepared the people.’ ” Perhaps no more favourable opportunity for open-air preaching presents itself than when, under the influence of some great calamity, the hearts of the people have been moved and solemnized. It was in the same year (1878) that the Princess Alice met her doom, and six hundred immortal souls passed beyond the vail of time. Tens of thousands visited the scene, and to these, in company with many earnest fellow-labourers, Mr. Kirkham preached the Gospel of Divine rescue, finding an all-sufficient text in the ill-fated vessel herself, which lay distinctly visible from the shore.


*Rev. H. E. Brooke has since removed to Beckenham, Kent.

Doncaster Races—the great turf festival of the north—received a visit in September, 1878, our traveller being accompanied by Richard Builder, one of the oldest workers of the Mission. “ We stayed till Friday afternoon,” the record runs. “ The five thousand or six thousand tracts from the office were soon gone. Friends at the daily prayer-meeting made a collection, and we bought and begged all we could get in the town, bringing the total given during the four days to fifteen thousand. But more than twice as many were given last year, when the Hon. and Rev. Edward Carr Glyn and his curates were among the distributors. I do not remember so much hearty co-operation in any other town during the race-time, as here. A daily prayer-meeting was arranged for each race-day. Two coffee-suppers were provided for the card-sellers, and attended by about seventy each evening. Short addresses were given afterwards. Open-air preaching was continued each evening for between two and three hours. On tabulating our list of speakers, I found that ten residents of Doncaster had spoken, including four ministers.  Dr. Wilson told me he commenced open-air preaching as the result of an article—‘ Go out Quickly’—which I wrote for The Christian about five years ago.”

Lecturing on the Picture

So passed many happy and fruitful days of service.   They included, at this time, an increasing use of the     “ Broad and Narrow Way ” picture, especially in the winter months. Thus Mr. Kirkham' writes: “Monday to Friday, November 18th to 22nd.—Spent this week in Salisbury and the neighbourhood. Exhibited my Dutch picture each evening (save one), and took a collection for the Open-Air Mission afterwards. On Monday the meeting was in the Rink, Salisbury, where Rev. Edgar N. Thwaites presided. Prior to the lecture I spoke in the open-air. On Tuesday morning I paid a visit to Bemerton, and saw the church where George Herbert preached. On Tuesday evening the lecture was at Edmondsham, about twenty-two miles from Salisbury. I stayed at the vicarage. On Wednesday the lecture was in the adjoining parish of Woodlands, where the vicar, the Rev. E. Parnell, presided. On Thursday it was at Pentridge, an out-of-the-way place among the hills six miles off. Here the vicar, the Rev. S. G. Gillum, presided, at whose house I stayed ; speaking at Edmondsham again on Friday night.” These tours in country districts, day by day, exhibiting and explaining his pictorial treasure, yielded rich harvests of interest and blessing. Many received the truth through eye-gate, whose ears had long been deaf to the message of the Gospel. They saw themselves in “the way that leadeth to destruction,” and, trembling, prayed, repented, and were saved. Thus a marvellous link of affection bound Mr. Kirkham to his picture, and the cumbrous luggage lost its burdensomeness in the sure conviction of its usefulness.

Earnestness, fighting single-handed, may accomplish much, and overcome a host of obstacles. How true this was in Gawin Kirkham’s case! No living preacher, probably, excelled him in the amount and variety of his winter preaching out of doors. A heap of snow often served him for a pulpit, and a crowd of skaters in a public park presented in his view an excellent field of service. So, in February, 1879, he writes :“ Preached in the open-air three times to-day. At eleven to the skaters on Hackney Marshes ; at three in Smithfield ; and at seven in Hackney Road. A policeman ordered us away from Smithfield in the afternoon. I at once said we would go, and told the people so, saying we would close our meeting by singing the doxology. This the policeman would  not allow ; so, as he was unusually sharp, I refused to go. He then said I must either go, or accompany him to the station. I preferred the latter. The inspector, however, refused to enter the charge, and administered a gentle rebuke to the constable for interfering needlessly.” Epsom Races, with its vast gatherings of immortal souls bent on pleasure, its scenes of riot and of crime, and its aggregate of human wretchedness and squalor side by side with worldly pomp and splendour, brought its unfailing impressions of sadness, and left indelible memories. The story of the work in 1879 cannot here be told in full ; but some extracts from Mr. Kirkham’s diary run as follows :— “Wednesday, May 28th. The Derby Day. Went all round the downs to see how the brethren fared at their posts. There are about a dozen entrances, but we waylay the people at the seven or eight principal ones, sending the brethren two and two. 

At Epsom Races

To stand at the further side of the downs and see probably a quarter of a million of human beings, almost all of whom are 'lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God,’ is the saddest sight I gaze upon during the whole year. The day was fine ; but when the people were leaving the rain began to fall, and increased till, when we went out to preach at eight, hardly anybody was out. But we stood under umbrellas and proclaimed the Gospel of the grace of God. Next morning we were informed that five hundred destitute men had stood under an arch of the South Western Railway all night to avoid the rain, having no home, and no means of paying for their night’s lodgings. It generally costs each preacher several shillings during the week for food 
and lodging for these poor outcast ones. “ Friday, 30th. Tract distribution, and preaching as before. In the afternoon Miss Alexander invited us to her house to tea. Afterwards we sang some hymns and had prayer on the lawn. This house was my home during the week. Most of us returned to town to-night.“ Probably we gave away seventy-five thousand tracts, books, and Scripture cards, and delivered fifty addresses during the week. We are often charged with throwing money away by giving tracts at such times. Doubtless hundreds of these tracts are thrown away ; but in the parable of the sower only one of four kinds of soil yields any increase.  The charge of extravagance ought to be made of the world, and not of us. Note two facts. 1. A firm of clothiers sent as many business circulars as two horses could draw, in one van. On the Derby Day one of the distributors told me there were twenty men at six shillings the day, and that they had a quarter of a million to give. On the Oaks Day another distributor told me there were fifty of them at work, and he did not know how many they were giving. 2. The proprietor of a Sunday sporting paper sent fifty men in special livery on each of these two days to give away a ‘special Derby number.’ Three two-horse vans were used to convey these men to and from London each day. So many of this paper and the above - named circular were blown about the downs that the holes and ditches were full of them in some places.”
Mr. Kirkham pursued his Gospel ministries “ in season, out of season,” and sometimes his utter fearlessness led him where men leagued themselves to resist the truth, and bade defiance to the God of peace. After preaching in a Sussex village one Sabbath evening at this time,  “ I felt constrained,” he says, “ to go into the 'M------Arms ’ close by. While speaking to a crowded parlour, filled with tobacco-smoke, and half-drunken people, a man in his shirt-sleeves laid his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘ Look here, sir, I ’m master of this house. If you want anything to drink I’ll serve you; if not, you’d better go, for there’s always more row when you’re about than at any other time.’ However, when I told him I must say something before I went, he said, ‘ Hear what the gentleman’s got to say.’ When I had finished, the men set up a shout, ‘ Hurrah! ’ and stamped their feet and clapped their hands, laughing me to scorn. 

A Visit to Jersey

Why should a public-house like this be allowed to pollute this lovely, peaceful village? and why should the landlord be allowed to be in the church choir? for he was there in the morning, singing that grand hymn to the Triune Jehovah—

 Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee ;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.’”

A fortnight’s Special Mission in Jersey almost immediately followed this strange experience.  “ Shall I ever become a sailor?” he asks, recording the voyage.  “In my twelve voyages from London to Margate, London to Hull, Harwich to Rotterdam, and Barrow to Belfast, I have been ill exactly half the number. So as I watched the approach to the beautiful island of Guernsey this morning without having been unwell, I took heart and encouragement. After about an hour there, we started for Jersey, which we reached at noon. A member of our Committee, Mr. Richard Turner, was on the pier to greet me.” Thus commences the story of a visit full of spiritual interest and crowded with Gospel labour. “In looking back on my visit to this beautiful island,” he concludes, “ I find much cause for thanksgiving. Though much rain fell, hardly a meeting was seriously interfered with by it. Though there was nothing like enthusiasm or great crowds, yet Christian friends rallied round, and attentive hearers were found at every meeting. In thirteen days I addressed forty-two open-air meetings at thirty-two different stations, with over seven thousand hearers. The friends also sent £16 to the Open-Air Mission.” A prolonged northern tour in August was commenced on the 9th, which leads him to write on that date : “ My forty-seventh birthday. Goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life. Travelled from Wellington to Lancaster, about one hundred and thirty miles. In the afternoon went on to Gressingham, to see my father, hearing he was unwell. Found him very lame, and nearly blind.  Returning to Lancaster in the evening I witnessed a meeting of the much-abused ‘Salvation Army’ on the Town Hall steps. Three women spoke, but the proceedings were so orderly that no one could find reasonable fault.” One principal object of Mr. Kirkham’s numerous journeys was, as has been stated, to unite local workers and to form them into committees for combined action in the cause of open-air evangelization. Often, however, these committees lapsed by reason of a lack of after-effort, and his heart was sorely grieved when such failures occurred. He counted it a reproach that the Christian churches could not or would not, for such a cause, unite in vigorous aggressive action. Writing of his fruitless efforts to revive a former committee at a well-known seaside resort, he sadly confesses : “ It is this want of united action which forms the great barrier to my mission everywhere. I cannot get people to work together for so simple a purpose as preaching the Gospel in the streets. 

Re-Appointment as Secretary

And even a committee, formed at a public meeting, is little better than a rope of sand. Nothing short of the uniting action of the Holy Ghost is of any real use.” And now, at the close of the year 1879, occurred a further, and as it proved a final, change in Mr. Kirkham’s official position. Mr. Kirk, his colleague, resigned, having accepted the secretaryship of the Ragged School Union. The committee thereupon reverted to the original arrangement, re-appointed Mr. Kirkham as secretary, and, in the person of Mr. John M. Pamment, provided him an assistant of much devotion and capacity. No happier fellowship, no truer accord, can be conceived than that which, during the years just past, had bound him to his friend. Such a tie, formed and deepened in the atmosphere of sacred purpose and achievement, time may not lightly break, and nought but the hand of death availed to sever this. Writing in January, 1880, of the gathering at which Mr. Kirk bade farewell to his attached brethren, Mr. Kirkham says: “ Mr. Mac Gregor presided, and presented to Mr. Kirk the resolution of the committee, engrossed and framed, and a gold watch and writing table from the members and friends of the Mission, as a token of esteem. The balance was afterwards handed to Mr. Kirk, amounting to £20 10s. 7d. The contributors numbered two hundred and fifty-one, including fourteen members of committee, and the amount contributed was £51 3s. 7d. Mr. Kirk replied in feeling and suitable terms.” But the apostolic labours which, as travelling secretary, it had been Mr. Kirkham’s privilege to pursue, were not seriously interrupted by his resumption of the secretaryship, although the routine of the office claimed a larger share of his attention. Indeed, with added years and ever-deepening experience came, if it were possible, a more supreme devotion to the Gospel itinerancy with which heart and life were bound indissolubly. In the street corner or the country highway he ever found a sufficient pulpit, and in the presence of the people an invitation and an inspiration not surpassed beneath the heaven.

Next Chapter 7

Ch1. Ch2. Ch3. Ch4. Ch5. Ch6. Ch7. Ch8. Ch9.