Chapter Eleven - Three Wise Men Bring Gifts: John Howard, Samuel Whitbread and John Wesley

John Howard with the gift of compassion

John Howard is well known for his connections with Cardington and his compassion for the local people. Howard was born in September 1726 in the North London area. His father was an upholsterer and fairly well off but his mother died while Howard was still a baby. His father was a Calvinist, as was his school teacher John Worsley. After his schooling he worked as an apprentice for a grocer in London as his father thought it would teach him about industry. His father died when Howard was sixteen, leaving him and his sister with a fortune. He travelled to France and Italy but returned to London as he was ill. He was cared for by his landlady: Sarah Loidore whom he married when he was 26. He had no children with Sarah and she died three years later in 1755 being almost 60 (she was twice his age).

He moved to Cardington where he worked to improve his tenants’ well being – he rebuilt the houses in the village, providing each with a fenced kitchen garden and organised children’s elementary education. Girls were taught reading and needlework and boys the 3 Rs and he gave gifts of money and currants (a valued dietary supplement of the day) to the poor at Christmas. He provided good quality housing at affordable prices for the working sort at an economical sacrifice to himself. Three years after the death of his first wife, when he was 32, Howard married Henrietta Leeds who cared about the poor, selling some of her jewellery to help them. She gave birth in 1765 to their only son John, who was known as Jack, but Henrietta died shortly after this. Howard travelled the Continent and around Britain, sending his son to boarding-school at the age of four.

In 1773 Howard was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. One of his duties was keeper of the county gaol. Bedfordshire county gaol at that time was in Silver Street where John Bunyan wrote Pilgrims Progress. Appalled by what he found at Bedford prison, Howard travelled to other countries finding other penal abuses and was shocked by the amount of gaol fever and smallpox in prisons. He devoted the remaining seventeen years of his life to inspecting prisons and penal reform. He found that prisoners were not released until they had paid their fees so Howard proposed gaolers be paid a salary. In 1774 he gave evidence supporting a bill in the House of Commons for prisoners to be set free if acquitted, and their fees to be paid by the county. This was called the Gaol Act. He then proposed another bill in 1774 which would provide medical attention and hygiene in prisons. Between 1775 and 1777 Howard visited 230 different institutions; some he visited two or three times. He called for well-lit, ventilated buildings with running water, sewerage and separate sleeping cells for each prisoner. For each prison, he advocated an appointed paid gaoler, surgeon or apothecary, and chaplain. In addition he thought there should be no sale of alcohol in gaols but believed there should be services on Sundays. He travelled again visiting gaols and houses of correction, and in 1777 published his book The State of the Prisons in England and Wales with Preliminary Observations and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons as he found conditions were not improving despite the Acts. He ensured the price of his book was fixed low, to make certain of as wide a distribution as possible and even gave some copies away. He wrote in the introduction to his book “I beheld in many of them, as well as in the county-Gaols, a complication of distress: but my attention was principally fixed by the gaol-fever, and the small-pox, which I saw prevailing to the destruction of multitudes, not only of felons in their dungeons, but of debtors also”.

Howard was a Puritan and sought God’s predestined plans for him but both his wives were Anglicans. He was a slave to duty, humble and compassionate. He was a teetotaler and a vegetarian, and he rose at 3am to work, and was never vain: he stopped a subscription to erect a statue of him and never sat for a portrait. About his death he said “lay me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten”. He travelled to the continent again but died of fever while visiting a military hospital in cold, wet weather on 20th January 1790 at Kherson, Ukraine where he is buried. A memorial was erected there by the Russian people.

Howard’s legacy lives on: Howard’s statue in Bedford’s market square was erected in 1890. The sculptor was Alfred Gilbert who created the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. John Thomson (the pastor of the Howard Church, Bedford at the time) spoke at the unveiling of Howard’s statue saying “I trust that this statue of Howard will stand in our market place to rebuke the sordidness and selfishness of the times, and be a daily reminder to the youth of Bedford that life may be put to grander uses than the mere winning of money and obtaining of worldly glory”.

The Howard League for Penal Reform carries on Howard’s work today. It is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK, having been established in 1866. It is independent of government and funded by voluntary donations. The society believes in working for a safe society where fewer people are victims of crime. The society believes that offenders must make amends for what they have done and change their lives. The society’s current campaigns involve helping prisoners find work after prison, providing them with essential skills, working to reduce the suicide rate in prisons amongst prisoners, and working to reduce the overcrowding in our prisons today.

John Wesley with the gift of evangelism

John Wesley was a Church of England clergyman and founder of Methodism. He was born in 1703 in Lincolnshire and was the thirteenth or fourteenth child in the family. Both his parents were high church Anglicans although children of dissenters themselves. As an undergraduate, John Wesley sought holiness through self examination but still played cards, read plays and indulged in dancing. In 1725 Wesley was ordained as a deacon and in 1728 ordained a priest. In 1735 he and his brother Charles responded to an invitation to go to Georgia in America as missionaries for the ‘Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts’. As minister in Georgia, Wesley upheld traditional Anglican disciplines and published his first hymn book A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1737) but while in Georgia, Wesley had religious doubts which were deepened by his encounter with Moravians there. He returned from Georgia in December 1737. In 1738, back in England, he grew convinced the 'saving faith' he sought could be received in a sudden experience although he was convinced his religious life should be dominated by a belief in salvation through works.

In March 1739 Wesley started preaching in the open air. Wesley travelled around the country in the 1740s and 1750s, teaching his beliefs and he visited Bedford in 1753. He was surprised by the good conduct of the Bedford people and preached from the stone pulpit at St Paul’s, Bedford, which can still be seen. Wesley always maintained that Methodism was not separate from the Church of England, and unlike other evangelicals of his day he denounced predestination as he maintained “predestination makes God appear unjust and unfeeling and it undermines any incentive for morality”. Although still quite sprightly in 1790, Wesley was growing blind and gave up keeping his accounts. In October he preached his last sermon in the open air and his final sermon on 23rd February 1791. On 24th February he wrote his last recorded letter, encouraging William Wilberforce in his anti-slave trade campaign but Wesley did not live long enough to see this goal realised. Among his last recorded words were “The best of all is God is with us”, and died at his home on 2nd March 1791.

Samuel Whitbread with the gift of generosity

Samuel Howard Whitbread was born in 1858 and lived in Southill and London. It was this man who donated land and money for the building of the Howard Memorial Church in Cardington. He came from a family of politicians who were also known as Samuel Whitbread who, in the 18th century, lived in Cardington and were involved in the brewing business.

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