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Saturday, 5 January 2013


My 3x great uncle Rev Joseph Angus made his mark in the Baptist world. He trained for the church at Edinburgh University and Stepney Baptist College, of which he was later the principal for 44 years. He was also a stalwart of the Baptist Missionary Society, which he served as secretary. One of his role models must surely have been William Henry Angas, a cousin of Joseph’s grandfather’s generation. (William’s branch of the Angus family chose to spell their surname differently at the beginning of the 18th century).

William was the first Baptist minister ordained specifically for missionary work amongst sailors. His mission began four years before his ordination when in 1818 he co-founded the British and Foreign Sailors Society with his brother George; and it was cut short by his untimely death from the cholera outbreak which swept through British ports from South Shields to Greenock in 1832. His achievements are all the more remarkable for the short time in which he was active. William died when Joseph was 16 and it’s entirely possible that they met. Certainly there are striking parallels in their training and careers.

Medallion issued in 1905 by the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society to commemorate the centenary of Britain’s victory over the French at Trafalgar (the organisation still exists today as the Sailors Society)

The Angus/Angas family had already been non-conformists for many generations. William’s great great grandfather had attended sermons by the first Baptist preacher in the Northeast, and William’s great great uncle Titus had his home, High Juniper House, licensed for Baptist worship by the scattered congregation in the area. There is a great deal to be written about the thorough way in which William prepared himself for a calling which he began to hear as early as 1810, and about the exhausting program of missionary work which he undertook in the last ten years of his life. I will return to these topics in later posts. But the remarkable events of his teenage years were enough to fill another life altogether; a Boy’s Own Seafaring Adventure.

William’s father Caleb Angas was a coach manufacturer in Newcastle upon Tyne, whose business extended to a shipping line which imported the timber used to build his coaches. Caleb had William marked out for training as a lawyer but as William tells it he heard that “it was extremely difficult for an honest man to be a lawyer.” Although one hardly imagines the sailors of the day to be any more pious than the lawyers, William was instead drawn to the oceans.

The official coach of the Lords Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne, built in 1898 by the firm which Caleb Angas founded in 1780 (the coach was put up for sale by the town council in November 2012 in the face of crippling public funding cuts by the British government)

His father used his influence to send William on a series of voyages on board the Hannah under Captain Hawkes, to the Swedish capital Stockholm, Memel in Prussia (the modern-day Lithuanian city of Klaipeda) and Riga (then in Russia, now capital of Latvia). If Caleb hoped that William would be put off, he was disappointed. Back in Newcastle William enrolled in Mr Tinwell’s school for seamen before joining a ship as an apprentice navigator.

As Richard Welford, a biographer of William, noted in 1895, “the life of a sailor was in those days one of peculiar risk and vicissitude.” At the end of the eighteenth century, Britain was at war with France, and William’s ship was captured by a French privateer off Lindesnes on the southern tip of Norway. He and the rest of the crew were transferred to the French vessel to be imprisoned in France; but that ship was wrecked en route; and when he was finally delivered to a prison in Dunkerque, he languished there for twenty months. At last, in around 1802, an exchange of prisoners resulted in his release – but no sooner was he out of a French jail than a British pressgang seized him and forced him into service on a Royal Navy man-of-war. Only the last-minute intervention of his father, who happened to know the admiral of the fleet, secured William’s final freedom. After all these adventures, he was still under twenty-one.

William, as one might well imagine, had strayed rather far from the Baptist precepts of his youth after several years in the company of sailors. It was while imprisoned in Dunkerque that he began to regain his faith. He was part of a failed escape attempt from the prisoner-of-war camp and found himself after recapture under the armed guard of a French hussar. The trooper was using pages torn from a book to light his pipe – a book which William noticed was a pocket edition of Dr Watt’s Hymns, the popular standard selection used in Baptist chapels. William traded his possessions for the remnants of the volume, an exchange which – to use a seafaring metaphor – changed the course of his life. (More on William Henry Angas in my next post.)

Title page of Hymns and Spiritual Songs
first published in 1707 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

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