Saturday 08 August 2020

Sukey Harley

Churton Square

Sukey kept the pot boiling - but the Rector did not favour the brew!

Born Susan Overton at Prolley Moor on the Long Mynd about 1780, buried at Pulverbatch in 1853, Sukey Harley kept the religious pot boiling in the village for 37 years.

Her father died when she was only three, the last but one of a large family. Hunger and ignorance made her "a very wild, unruly child." As soon as she was old enough Sukey served in a farmhouse where her bent for hard work made her popular.

She married early. Her husband Charles was a farm labourer and unlike Sukey was quiet and steady. After the birth of their only daughter they moved to Dorrington and then to Ryton, where "we kept two pigs; we had enough and to spare; no lack of this world's goods ... I made acquaintance with all the idle, frivolous girls in the village…hooting and bawling, shouting, gammocking and romping."

"On the Sabbath morning we used to collect together in a large barn, dancing and revelling, and fooling away the time. I was a very good tuner on the fiddle, and they used to dance. This is the way my Sabbaths were spent."

In spite of her "gammocking" Sukey realised that two of her churchgoing neighbours "had got something that I had-na got, this was it that troubled me. I began to think there must be a God; then I thought, these women know that God."

Sukey went to church with them, but was unchanged by the experience. "One day I was fluttered about two little pigs. I could-na' get them into the sty. I cursed and swore at them as usual."

Contrasting herself with the two neighbours, Sukey "was tossed to and fro. The reason I don't know God is, because I cannot read. Then I thought I must have a new prayer - These words clapped into my mind:

- 'Lord, lead me into the true knowledge of thy dear Son.' I never heard that God had a Son yet these words came into my heart. It was the prayer God taught me himself, no one else taught me."

One morning a fortnight later, Sukey shut herself up alone in her bedroom. "Then I said with all my strength, I will never open this door again till I know their God. I stuffed the windows with all the old rags I could find; I could not bear the light; then I went down on my knees in the dark corner and began praying . - the Lord's Prayer, and, Lord, lead me into the true knowledge of thy dear Son!' -

"I felt Him come; it's past my talking about! Such a wonderful time; it's clean past telling. No words can express the feelings of my heart at this time, He showed me all my sins. Yes, that bit of pink ribbon I had stolen for my doll's cap came upon me. He seemed to tell me all my sins were forgiven. I was so overwhelmed that I did-na' know what to do.

"Well, I went and unblocked the windows, cleared away all the dirty rags, and let in the blessed light of the sun, the glorious light, my Father's light. I unbolted the door and opened it. I looked out: what a glorious sight! I saw my God in everything. All things were new to me. I was unbound, I was loosed."

Her new faith soon evidenced itself. "I had a desire to read; I longed to read the blessed Word for myself. I got my little wench to teach me the letters; she used to grow sleepy, so I would give her two suppers of a night to encourage her; all the while I was praying to my God to enable me to learn.

"She brought me on as far as this - God is love, God is light - . I thought, 'My God is love, He is light. He can teach me himself.' From that time I would take my book, and go down on my knees, and look up to my Heavenly Father, and beg of Him to teach me - . . and He did teach me."

Sukey and her family shortly moved to the outskirts of Pulverbatch, where her lively faith met with opposition and resentment. "I used to attend the church. They used to pelt me with books from the gallery, and the farming men used to throw their sticks from the gallery at me below . - - so I left the church."

The demonstrative Sukey and the unruly congregation were not the only problems for the Rector, the Rev. William Gilpin. Under the influence of friends and acquaintances elsewhere, several of the Gilpin children were to leave the worship of the established Church.

As a man who believed in discipline - formerly, like his father who founded Cheam School, he had been Headmaster there - he was overwhelmed by his vicissitudes.

His daughters Jane and Mercy, with Sukey and her family and some ten others, began meeting in a cottage or farmhouse on the Sabbath. while Charles and Margaret Gilpin accompanied their father to church as usual. "My poor, pious children are all such bigots," the Rector compIained.

Sukey was always ready to "fight for her religion" with zest, and the village witnessed many battles. She realised years later that her efforts hindered rather than helped her cause. Her tongue remained in great evidence however.

"They say, 'Why, Sukey Harley has a changed heart. yet how she talks' This is what I do. I fall down before my God and wait, and never give up till He tells me what to say. I cannot speak till He comes."

She faced many trials. In 1826 her cottage, 2 Harolds Bank, was burnt to the ground through another's negligence. "I stood upon the causeway and kept looking at my burning house. I hardly dared to look up to God for help."

Then, "He strengthened me marvellously. I banged mite the burning house, I cared neither for flames nor falling rafters, nor timbers, nor yet for the devil my mortal foe, for my Saviour was with me."

A neighbour who had seen the flames came running to her assistance, and together "we soon got the house cleared. When all the goods were out of the house, and the roof fell in. and the flames rose up, and the smoke, then I looked and wondered at it."

"Well, the folks, they fetched a wagon, and put all the things into it. I myself came down to Churton Square. I was soot, and black and smoke all over."

In 1850 her husband Charles was taken ill and later placed in an asylum where she visited him every few weeks. That winter she left her isolated cottage for one much nearer to a meeting room which had by then been specially built in the village. She remained there for the last two and a half years of her life.

If her life was turbulent, and her tongue a torrent, her death was by contrast quiet and peaceful. She had known it would be. "Now I often think about my death. The folks will be gathered together to see old Sukey Harley die, and they'll think to hear glorious words from my mouth. But they will hear nothing. No I sha'nna have a word to say when I am dying."

In August, 1853, she was seized with a paralytic stroke; she died early the next morning, a Sunday, in accordance with her heart's wish. Her voice was silenced, but her words remain.

"My prayer often is, Lord, when Thou seest fit to remove me, or any of thy children, from this life, be pleased to raise up more and more from every generation who shall be after Thy calling and purpose."

She is not forgotten. Much of her story, taken down from her own lips by Jane Gilpin and first published in 1837, was included in 1964 in a book "More Than Notion" by J. H. Alexander about the Gilpin family.

Some, stirred by Sukey Harley's testimony, have come long distances to see where she lived and prayed and died. They are usually those who also know her God.

by Grace Holding - December 1975.

Sukey Harley's grave in St.Edith's churchyard