Judgmental Pursuit

Mission to Seafarers in Gladstone, Australia | bit.ly/2H1310X

Dr. Ashley’s Pleasure Yacht
John Ashley, the Bristol Channel Mission and All that Followed
By R.W.H. Miller
The Lutterworth Press. Pp. xvi + 147. £20

Review by Gareth Atkins

The early 19th century was, according to one shrewd observer, “the Age of Societies”: “For the redress of every oppression that is done under the sun there is a public meeting.” Print publicity and mass fundraising gave do-gooders the tools and confidence to tackle a vast range of ills. Their targets could be surprisingly specific. Who today has heard, for instance, of the Society of Young Ladies to Sell Clothes at Reduced Prices?

This book examines another largely forgotten endeavor, the Bristol Channel Mission (BCM), founded in 1835. The brainchild of the Rev. John Ashley, a forceful man, the BCM was one of the antecedents of what is now Mission to Seafarers. Walking one day by the Bristol Channel, or so the story goes, Ashley’s son asked him how the islanders of Flat Holm and Steep Holm went to church. After several months ministering to them, Ashley forsook a promised living in order to preach to the crews of vessels waiting in the Channel, sometimes for weeks, for favorable winds.

The tale is picturesque but, as R.W.H. Miller shows in this meticulously researched volume, it is also embroidered. Miller himself once worked for the Missions to Seafarers, as it was then called, and this book is the result of a challenge to excavate the reality behind the story. Miller has written widely on maritime religion, and he carefully reconstructs his subject’s life, often from fragmentary sources, dealing with his education, his inheritance of a sugar fortune, his work with the BCM, his falling out with the committee, and his piecemeal clerical career thereafter.

The gaps in the documentary record do not make for a seamless story. Miller is well aware of this, and judiciously signals what can be known and what must be guessed. Nevertheless, the absence of personal papers means that much — too much, perhaps — has to be inferred. It is difficult to escape the impression that Miller has come to dislike his subject.

Ashley’s prickliness, his churchmanship, his finances, his interest in horses, and a strange court case late in his life all attract adverse comment, some of it anachronistic or unduly judgmental. His anti-Catholic and anti-ritual views were common among large swathes of Church of England clergy, and probably even more so among the laity. And was it really so unusual for a Victorian patriarch to react badly when an unchaperoned male made a pass at a female guest?

Might inconsistencies in Ashley’s testimony in the resulting case simply be the result of age? To be sure, Ashley was an embittered man who felt that he had not been recognized for his pioneering work for the BCM, much of it at his own expense. But Miller’s judgmental pursuit of him makes this book more of a niche than it needs to be.

Those familiar with Roald Kverndal’s magisterial Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth will be familiar already with the contours of Ashley’s world. But there is a fine contextual chapter that will be useful to anyone seeking a basic survey of the subject.

Gareth Atkins is a bye-fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge.


Online Archives