Hugh Bourne and William Clowes

Hugh Bourne

Hugh Bourne can be described as the originator, organiser and elder statesman of Primitive Methodism. He dedicated his long and active life to spreading the good news of salvation, and to fashioning a new denomination fit for the task.

He was born on 3rd April 1772, at Ford Hayes Farm, in a remote part of the North Staffordshire moors; he always had to battle against shyness and introversion accentuated by the isolation of his childhood home. His father was a bluff, changeable character, but his mother had a loving and moral influence on Hugh and his brother, James. A serious child, he was tormented by an awareness of sin and a terror of damnation. After years of bitter searching for the truth, his conversion, when he was 27 years old, released a fund of spiritual energy and determination.

In 1799 he read an anthology of Christian writings, lent by his mother's grocer in Burslem, which led to a deep conviction of salvation. He describes his conversion like this:

I believed in my heart, grace descended and Jesus Christ manifested himself unto me, my sins were taken away in an instant and I was filled with all joy and peace in believing'

After joining the Methodist church, he began to spread his belief - at first, haltingly, to his friends, then to a wider public, by personal testimony, preaching (preferably in the open air) and establishing lively prayer groups, starting with one at Harriseahead near Kidsgrove. These were attached in rum to the local Methodist circuit. Almost single-handed, he built a chapel for the Harriseahead Society, in a corner of his cousin Dan Shubotham's garden. He also organised large outdoor meetings for prayer, preaching and song, known as Camp Meetings (see below).


The Methodist authorities disapproved of such ventures, and cast him out in 1808. Bourne amalgamated the individual societies, which he had started with those of his friend William Clowes to form a new denomination, based initially on Tunstall, with himself as Circuit Superintendent.

Here began a lifetime's work. He drew up preachers' plans, drafted rules, established Sunday Schools and kept a daily "Journal" With the help of his brother, James, he printed a monthly magazine in the barn at their Bemersley home, wrote and distributed thousands of religious tracts, compiled hymn books and the "History of the Primitive Methodists", which was published in 1823. Gradually, he established the formal structure of the denomination, up to Annual Conference level.

Like his predecessor, John Wesley, he lived simply He went everywhere possible on foot, walking many thousands of miles during his lifetime, fired by divine energy, in the service of God.

Even after retirement, he travelled to America and Canada, and, ignoring illness and old age, persisted in his evangelising work until his death in 1852, at the age of 80.

William Clowes

William Clowes was born in a small house in the Potteries town of Burslem in 1780. His father was a potter, and, like Bourne's, was an ungodly man, but his mother was well-bred and kindly.

At the age of ten, after only a basic education, he became an apprentice potter, for which he had considerable talent. He also developed an enthusiasm for dancing, revelry and drunkenness. This culminated in an escapade in Hull in 1803, when, after a brawl in the "Dog and Duck", he narrowly escaped being press-ganged into the Marines, and ran off back to Tunstall, leaving debts of 70.

For some time he struggled to free himself from this lifestyle. Early in 1805 he attended a love-feast, and on the following day a prayer meeting, where he experienced a deep, lasting conversion. He paid off his debts, joined the Wesleyan Methodist Society at Tunstall, opened his house for prayer meetings and began to travel around preaching the gospel.

Eventually, however, in spite of being well respected and a fine preacher, his association with Hugh Bourne at Harriseahead and the Camp Meetings brought the disapproval of the Methodist authorities, who expelled him in 1810. Many supporters left the Methodists with him to help form the new denomination.

He gave up his well-paid potters job, and on ten shillings (50p) a week toured the towns and villages of Staffordshire, and later Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Cornwall. Everywhere he went he had enormous success as a preacher. On his return to Hull in 1819, for example, in less than three months he formed societies with more than 400 members and in less than three years Hull became the centre of an important circuit with 30 ministers.

By the age of 47, the hardships of this itinerant existence had damaged his health. He gave up continuous travelling, but carried on working in the Hull circuit, visiting other areas from time to time, to encourage the societies, which he had helped to form. He retired in 1842. He died in March 1851, and was buried in Hull's General Cemetery.


During his life he was known as "Apostolic Clowes", because in his dedication, and in his talent for preaching and conversion, he resembled Saint Paul.

Bourne and Clowes had very different, but complementary, personalities. Bourne was basically an introvert, sometimes harsh and impatient, but a great organiser, with sound perception and business sense, unselfish, determined and morally upright. Clowes was equally upright and resolute, but lacked Bourne's organising ability. He was outgoing, with a gentler, more understanding temperament, and a wonderful gift of fluency and intensity in preaching. The talents of both men were vital to the success of Primitive Methodism.


Ed's Comment-My thanks are extended to the museum at Englesea Brook in Cheshire for the above material and their hospitality on a recent out of hours visit.

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