[From Thomas Howard Gill, 1895]
" Old times are changed, old manners gone."
N 1864, the chapel of ease, " St. Mark's," in the parish of Malew, became vacant and Mr. W. Gill strongly desired that his son should go there. He consented to do so, and in August removed to the parsonage. St. Mark's rises gradually five miles from the sea on the slope of the mountain of South Barrule. The village stands on a plateau in lovely air, looking down upon Castletown. A mountain rises from this plateau forming a background covered with a luxuriant growth of purple heather. The Church of St. Mark's is a small old white-washed building 1, with round Norman windows, its little bell-turret at the end, and surrounded by its graveyard. On the opposite side a white gate led into a road boarded on either side by a hedge of golden gorse. Two or three hundred yards on the right hand side was a fir wood, on the edge of which stood the modest parsonage, partly covered with very old-fashioned rose-trees and jessamine.
The work at St. Mark's was a prelude to what was to be His especial line in the future-namely, the building up of what had fallen into ruins. The population consisted chiefly of small owners farming their own land. The church had been utterly neglected 2, no regular services, no life. He began by restoring the church and its services, opening a Sunday-school; and by his manly, earnest preaching he drew the people to him. Gradually he interested the farmers first in the work of restoration and afterwards in parish work. He instituted weekly meetings, he visited amongst the farmers, and thus by his own strong sympathies won all hearts. The parish had been for some time, so far as religious teaching went, in the hands of local preachers, Wesleyans, Methodists, etc.; they belonged to the people and had always been very popular in rural districts and outlying villages. Before long the Rev. Howard Gill found these men were amongst his most attentive listeners, and he soon discovered the reason why they were so assiduous in their attendance at church. They were in the habit of noting down his sermons, and adapting them in their own discourses ; but if they did this, they learnt to know and honour their master, for, after a time, a deputation of local preachers came to him offering to close their chapels if he would have Sunday evening service. The young clergyman consulted his father, who represented to him that he might not always remain at St. Mark's, and the place where he would hold the services was five miles distant, a great consideration on winter nights; also that the people were accustomed to their local preachers, who were good men, and knew the needs of their congregations. He therefore advised him, for the present, at least, to let them continue their ministrations. He accepted his father's decision, and this spirit of toleration rather increased than diminished his influence and popularity.
As in all country parishes, he was frequently out far into the night, sometimes with neither moon nor stars to light him on his way. Every Sunday he had to take evening service at Grenaby, a village three miles distant; one night it was especially dark, but he knew the road well, and so did the pony; a deep ditch ran along one side of it. Suddenly a stray sheep on the other side, upon which the pony had not reckoned, started up, the animal swerved, and before the driver could pull it up, they were all deposited in the ditch, the gig turned upside down, the pony lying on its back. To extricate himself, and then, sitting on the pony's head, try to unstrap it, was Mr. Gill's natural instinct; but in the pitch darkness this was almost impossible to accomplish; moreover, he could feel the blood trickling down his face and a sharp pain in his head. He knew he must be some distance from any habitation, and it would be by mere chance that anyone would pass that way; he saw nothing for it but to keep the pony quiet by sitting on its head, shouting as loud as he could for help, in the hope of being heard. This he continued to do for upwards of half-an-hour. At last he heard steps, and a man called out "What's happened; who's there?"
"Parson," answered the Rev. Thomas Howard.
" What can I do for you, sir ? " asked the man.
" Fetch a lantern," was the answer.
"Wait a bit; I 'll be with you soon, sir," said the man, and he started off at a run. Coming back with the much desired lantern, and looking into the ditch, he exclaimed
"Oh ! sir, what's happened? you're bleeding."
"That's nothing; it's all right now; lend a helping hand," answered Mr. Gill.
Together they succeeded in extricating the pony, but the gig had to be left behind. They then walked to a farm-house, got a saddle for the pony, and Mr. Gill rode home. He knew his wife would be sitting up for him as usual, and it was his habit to announce his arrival by a long whistle, which meant that the cook was to bring out a pail of water to wash down the pony, as on Sunday evenings Mr. Gill always washed, fed, and bedded it himself before turning in.
This night he did not whistle, but crept into the kitchen and signed to the girl to come out to him, and not to frighten the mistress ; the girl was sensible and obeyed, -helped her master to wash and clean himself, as well as attend to the pony. So quietly was it all done, that Mrs. Gill was only aware of his return when he entered the sitting-room. "Tom, dear, why don't you takeoff your hat?" she asked, as he sat resting in the arm-chair. Somehow he evaded the answer, and managed in such a way that his wife went to bed without suspecting anything unusual; but the next morning she was startled by seeing his pillow one mass of blood. Then he was obliged to make a clean breast of it, declaring he had no idea the wounds on his head were anything more than scratches. Needless to say, the gig was fairly smashed to pieces, and it was a matter of general astonishment how the master had escaped with his life.
Shortly after this event, in March, 1865, another son was added to the family circle, who was baptised William Arthur, after his grandfather.
Much as Mr. T. H. Gill delighted in his work at St. Mark's, his great longing was, as it had ever been, to serve in a large and thickly-populated parish. A cousin, knowing of this ardent desire, wrote and asked him, in the autumn of 1863, if he would be willing to take for a time the work of the Rev. J. MacCartie, rector of St. Jude's, Manchester.
After due consideration, and preliminary arrangements being made, Mr. T. H. Gill agreed to take Mr. MacCartie's duty as locum tenens. To Manchester, therefore, he went, and worked there for three months, the first time he had ever had occasion to work in a large and thoroughly well-organised parish. That he was very happy in this wider sphere of thought and action, is evident from a letter to his wife, towards the end of his time there.
"We had a very nice day yesterday," he writes. "Excellent congregations, and many strangers. I preach always here extempore; I feel so much at home in the pulpit. In the morning I preached for twenty-five minutes, and in the evening I had to stop when the great clock finger showed me I had been at work forty-five minutes ! and yet, though the average length is quite thirty-five or forty minutes, the people assure me it is not too long; that they would willingly sit longer! Truly, God has blessed me very much here, and I shall feel it hard to leave the people. I will not mention (if I have not already done so), in writing home, that I expect an address; it will (as you say) be a nice surprise. . . . One of the wardens asked me flatly, if Mr. MacCartie left, whether I would take the living if offered to me? I told him I should have no objection; it really is marvellous what a hold I have got upon their hearts!"
He returned to the Isle of Man for Christmas, little thinking it was to be his last Christmas in Manx land, that he should never again see the churches lit up on Christmas Eve for the national Manx festival, the Oiel bene.[sic Oiel Verrey] This ancient custom is now among the things of the past, but was then still partially observed, especially in outlying parishes. For those of my readers who are ignorant of how this strange service was conducted, I will give a slight sketch of the ceremony. Oiel bene, in the Manx tongue, means the eve of Mary. It took place on Christmas Eve, and was the great service of the year. After evening prayer, the officiating clergyman quitted the church, and the congregation was left to themselves. The church had been previously decorated with holly, and the corner of each pew with wreaths of ivy; it was also lighted with candles in the chandelier and sconces. Anyone in the congregation who chose was at liberty to sing a carol, first in the Manx tongue, then in English, standing in the west porch, and holding a thick taper in his hands. This candle was generally manufactured for the occasion, and was decked out with many coloured ribbons. Alas! as the singers advanced, step by step, towards the communion table, as each verse was droned forth, the grease guttered down on to the ribbons, and even on to the hands of the men. But by no means discouraged, they continued through thirty, even forty verses, carolling a half religious, half profane, story of our Lord's life; sometimes varying this with an incident of Manx history, a wreck, or the public punishing of some sinner. One verse of a very favourite carol ran thus
" Long time they wandered up and down,
To find a lodging in the town,
And when no lodging they could find,
To sleep in a manger she had a mind."
This work of genius, we are told, was composed and sung by Tom Dipper.[sic]
The aspirants to the honour of singing a carol were numerous, and the late winter dawn often found them still in the church; many of them sleeping heavily, adding a far from harmonious nasal accompaniment to the droning voices. It was by no means an edifying ceremony, and often led to regrettable misdemeanours, but the clergy were obliged to sanction it, on account of its national character and great antiquity. Its suspension has been viewed with general satisfaction.
1 St Marks was built 1771/2 so was a little less than a century old at the time Thomas Gill went.
2 The vacancy had become available due to resignation of the Rev J. T. Clarke who had single-handedly built up St Marks - the description 'in ruins' does not tally with the account given by Wm Harrison in Records of St Marks and especially that of the reported testimonial given to Rev J T Clarke.