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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts


CHAPTER SIXTEEN:  Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby.


We stayed in Birmingham five weeks.  Large audiences attended the phrenological lectures in the Music Hall, Broad Street (since converted into the Prince of Wales theatre), and during the day, a great number of well-to-do persons came to the consultation rooms for phrenological examinations.   My duty consisted of attending the consultation rooms, and taking my turn at taking down these examinations and afterwards writing them out.  This was day work: in the evening, I took part as a doorkeeper.  This was the routine of our first five weeks of Birmingham life, ending with a tea meeting, at which Fowler and Wells were lionised and phrenology glorified as the grand reformer of the ills of mankind.  There was a vote of thanks also to the shorthand writers and doorkeepers, to which I was put up to respond.  I elicited some applause by suggesting that when the old heads had finished their day, the young ones might step into their shoes and continue their work.  Man proposes, but God disposes.  This programme would have led to different results in many ways.  My plans of life were exceedingly vague at that time, and, indeed, they have never had any definiteness as regards the present state.  The view before me and my companion at that time was mainly this, that our business was to get through faithfully on all points till then.  There has never been any alteration on this point, though things took definite shape by and by.  The service of phrenology would have been a beggarly calling, which was prevented by and by.


The principal feature of interest to us during our Birmingham stay was our Sunday intercourse with a handful of people who had been interested in Dr. Thomas’s visit and lectures in 1849, and of whose existence we learnt from occasional hints in the Herald of the Kingdom, and otherwise.  They were not organised as a “church,” or even as an ecclesia, but met together in a very informal way on Sunday evenings in the upper room (bathroom) of a barber’s shop in Summer Lane, to read Dr. Thomas’s writings.  There might be getting on for a dozen of them when they were all there.  The room just held them.  The soul of the coterie was Mr. Thomas Davis, a water-works official, who had not himself obeyed the truth, but felt a keen interest in everything socially pertaining to it.  He was treasurer and general manager of affairs.  There was another man who stood much in the background, and rarely attended, and yet who was much more pronouncedly of the fraternal type than any of them.  This was Mr. Bailey, a working jeweller, whose wife kept a groder’s shop in New John Street West.  He was a fatherly and devout man, short and full-bodied, with round, anxious face and fully developed head.  He was the quiet, tender-hearted father of a large family.  He was full of devotional feeling, which almost invariably found vent in tears when he prayed.  He was for this reason known among some of us as “the weeping brother.”  He and his Emily have long since gone to rest.


On the report of our presence, he came to the little meeting.  The state of things was immediately the subject of conversation.  I pointed out the unscripturalness of the chaos that prevailed, and recommended the proper incorporation of all immersed friends of the truth, and them only, as an ecclesia for the regular breaking of bread, and the proclamation of the truth.  With these ideas Mr. Bailey most readily agreed, and something like immediate steps were taken for carrying them into effect.  Friend Davis took a back seat, as the Americans say, and an ecclesia was regularly organised, and lectures commenced.  At their request, I lectured every Sunday evening to a suffocatingly crowded audience in the barber’s bathroom that would not comfortably seat perhaps over 16.  It was a small affair, to the verge of contemptibility, but it was a beginning, and long experience has taught the wisdom of not despising the day of small things.  Small things may be precious things.  Everything depends upon the germ at work.  My companion and I met with them seven successive Sundays.  We were only five of these Sundays in Birmingham, but as our next town of call was Wolverhampton, only some 13 miles off, we came to Birmingham on the two Sundays we were located there.  These seven Sundays afterwards led to a movement which brought us back to Birmingham.  In Birmingham we have ever since remained – never, however, with a settled feeling, but always with a sense of the pro tem. sort, like a steamship at a port of call, or a bird of passage that has lighted on a promontory for a brief rest, and that presently will resume flight.


A fortnight at gloomy Wolverhampton was succeeded by a visit of similar duration to Leicester.  We were struck with the brightness and beauty of Leicester after Wolverhampton; and with the animation and apparent intelligence of the people.  The remark mutually exchanged was that Leicester would be a good field for the truth if by any means it could once be introduced.  There were no brethren in the place in those days.  There is now a considerable and interesting ecclesia, the result of rootlets struck out from Birmingham.  A brother in the latter town had a cousin in the former.  The brother introduced the truth to the cousin, and the cousin, an energetic young man who ran well for a time, did not rest till he got lectures delivered in the place.  One thing led to another.  There have been ups and downs, as there have been everywhere.  Affliction, outside and in, has been severe enough to kill it, but the truth has proved a hardy plant that nothing can destroy.  The young man who introduced it afterwards attempted to uproot it, but he found he had started a force that cannot be controlled.


From Leicester we went to Nottingham, another clean and interesting and thriving town.  Here there was an ecclesia, which made our visit much more interesting to ourselves.  We were made welcome guests at the hospitable house of brother John Turney, who had a large and promising family of sons and daughters.  Since then there have been storms and gales and wrecks: but some safely ride at their anchors still.  The phrenological lectures were a feature of interest in the town, but the brethren were the great attraction to us.  They did not prove the thoroughly spiritual community that we imagined them to be.  This was not to be wondered at in view of the quite recent emergence from Campbellism.  There were some fine men among them, but their hold on the Scriptures proved to be but feeble.  One highly promising young man, indeed, fell away quite soon to open infidelity – a son of a very fervent father and grandfather, who both fell asleep in the faith.  His apostasy was preceded by a course of theatre-going and pleasure, following in which, greatly to my distress, he was encouraged by a brother in another part of the country, who also made shipwreck at the last.



Others were but partly enlightened, and only partly in love with spiritual things: lively, nice, interesting people, but much more interested in each other and in their houses than in the great things of God, which claim the supreme affection.  This is not peculiar to Nottingham, nor to any spot on the earth’s surface.  It is part of the disease common at a time when God has temporarily suspended visible participation in the affairs of men, leaving His written word alone to represent Him (a visible monument for which we are not thankful enough).  The effect of the mixed state of things was soon seen in frictions and fermentations, which at last ended in disruption.  Disruption has continued more or less the order of the day ever since; and, indeed, must necessarily be the history of the truth everywhere in the absence of its great centre and head, for this simple reason: some love the truth and some do not, mistaking the love of the social circumstances generated by the truth for the love of the truth itself.  (No discerning person will deny the truthfulness of this proposition.)  Now when two classes of persons in this condition associate together, sooner or later the divergence of their affections becomes manifest to each other.  When this arises, antagonism, passive at first, becomes more and more distinct as circumstances afford scope for it, till at last it assumes the complexion of animosity, especially on the part of those who are lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.  Men of God have no animus, however much they may have to dissent from those whose eyes and heart are shut towards Him.  Of course, it is possible there may be much division where there is little or no godliness, and all the more because of the absence of godliness on either side.  Still, the presence of godliness does operate as an irritant.  Godliness has no pleasure in irritations of any kind, but loves peace and seeks it; and is therefore liable to flee from the presence of strife and seek in solitude that communion with God which is obstructed by the disunions of men.  There is a possibility of erring in this direction; for it is one of the appointments of God in the present evil state that godliness should fight the evil and earn the crown that waits a faithful course at the end.


Our stay in Nottingham ended with a phrenological tea-meeting, in which we had no heart.  The tea-meeting took place in the open air at the Arboretum, and would have been a very pleasant affair had it been on the basis of enlightenment towards God and submission to His appointment; but as a mere festival of the flesh, it was not far from being nauseous   --glorifying man who is not worthy of it, and deifying a science that merely shows us man’s dark interior (for the high-sounding names of his organs, conscientiousness, veneration, benevolence, etc., are when rightly understood, but names of capacity, not of endowment: the mere description of potentialities depending upon divine education for development, apart from which, man is a barbarian).


Our next move was to Derby, but whether we stayed there or not, I cannot at this distance of time be certain.  If I had not been there many times since in another capacity, I would have remembered.  My companion thinks we stayed, and it seems very likely on the face of it, but the memory of it has clean gone – except a dim impression to the effect that the visit was a failure on account of the religious opposition felt by the Derby people towards phrenology.  Such an opposition would be logical if immortal soul religion were the truth: for, certainly, phrenology takes the bottom out of immortal soulism by showing that human mentality is an affair of corruptible organisation, and not of incorruptible and detachable essence.  Some were sharp enough to see this, but the majority comforted themselves with a kind of intellectual juggle to the effect that the brain was but the musical instrument on which the soul performed, and that, of course, when the strings were short or loose, the performer was not responsible for the abortive sound.  The fallacy pleased shallow minds that preferred to be both phrenological and orthodoxical, especially such as were not much in earnest on the latter point, who constitute the overwhelming majority.  But higher minds resented the absurdity, and scouted phrenology as the invention of the devil.  That this was the highly respectable and unenlightened state of mind among the Derby people, I should greatly doubt from subsequent experience.




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