John Watson at Westgate Circuit (1863-1866)

Cowshill, near Wearhead
Cowshill, near Wearhead: John Watson served his "apprenticeship" in this area.

Rev. John Watson spent four probationary years as a Primitive Methodist minister at the Westgate Circuit, in upper Weardale, close to his birthplace and family home. In 1863 he was already 30 years old, and his abilities were known around the community. From the outset, it is apparent that he was a valued member of the church's "team" and a person likely to do well.

How can we be so sure? From the reports which the Circuit sent annually to the Sunderland District Meeting. These are a gem of administrative design, a century ahead of their time.There are seven pages of preprinted forms, with a total of six tables to fill and 33 questions to answer, plus room to write additional comments. Through the issues they address we also get a glimpse of the spirit of the period. Naturally, finances figure prominently, as do membership numbers. But so does emigration, and the performance of the preachers themselves: complaints and discipline, quality of preaching, even tobacco smoking.

(1) John's abilities were praised early on:

Mr. J. Watson is a diligent student of the Bible and Biblical Literature, he acquires knowledge very rapidly and solidly, and he is "an able minister of the New Testament". [1864]

(2) The number of home visits was apparently a sensitive point, because it warranted a footnote every year:

The reasons why Bro. Rust has not visited more than 35 per week and Bro. Watson more than 30 per week are

1. the paucity of the inhabitants and the distances between their residences

2. the mountainous nature of the station

We are happy to state that neither of the brethren object to family visiting, but feel a pleasure therein and delight in attending to the work in connection with their other Ministerial duties.

We believe that Brothers Rust and Watson could not visit a greater number in this Circuit and attend to other Ministerial duties. [1864]

(3) Another delicate issue was the stationing of John Watson on his home circuit, a clear (and apparently highly unusual) exception to normal procedures. In the second year, reasons adduced included:

We urge the Restation of Mr. Watson on account of his helpfulness to a widowed Mother & family by his Council in directing two younger brothers in carrying on the Business on which the family is chiefly dependent. [1864]

By his third year, the report included a full page of justification:

Re-Station of Bro. J. Watson

To the District Meeting held at North Shields, May 1865.

Dear Brethren, Grace, Mercy, &c.

We forward for your consideration Minute 30 &c, of our March Quarterly Meeting.

"That the General Committee, District Meeting, and Conference be most respectfully requested to give their sanction for the Re-station of Bro. J. Watson a fourth year in the Westgate Station".


1st. It is the unanimous wish of this Station, including Officials, Members, and Hearers."

2nd. Bro. Watson has been and is still exceedingly successful in the conversion of sinners in the Station.

3rd. Bro. Watson is willing, and would rather remain another year in the Station.

4th. Once more, we courteously urge our request on the Ground of the healthy and improving condition of the Station. We Report 58 increase of members, and also an increase of Station and Missionary Revenues."

Signed by order of the Quarterly Board.

March 11, 1865.

P. Clarke, Pre.
John Watson, Secry.

(4) In John's last year, we read:

Item 30: "Which of your Travelling Preachers, if any, has signified, in writing, his intention to marry?

Answer: "Mr. John Watson" [1866]

The lady in question was Mary Phillips, daughter of John's first superintendent Heny Phillips. Sadly, she was to die within about a year of their marriage.

(5) Finally, here are John Watson's personal evaluations, as reported by Circuit Presidents Henry Phillips and Peter Clarke:

  1863 1864 1865 1866

1. What is his age? 30 31 32 33
2. If married, put M; if single, S; if widower, W S S S S
3. How many children has he under 18 years of age? _ None _ None
4. How many years has he travelled? 1 2 3 4
5. By what station was he taken out? Westgate Westgate Westgate Westgate
6. Has he been a superintendent? No No No No
7. Is he capable of superintending? Yes Yes Yes Yes
8. Is he attentive to discipline? Yes Yes Yes Yes
9. Is he a tobacco smoker? No No No No
10. Is he in debt? If so, to what extent? No No No No
11. How many family visits has he made weekly, on an average, during the last Connexional year? 30 (footnote) 30 (footnote) 30 40
12. Is he peaceable? Yes Yes Yes Yes
13. Is his preaching generally acceptable? Yes Yes Yes Yes
14. Does he preach long sermons? No No No No
15. Does he preach a full, free, and present salvation? Yes Yes Yes Yes
16. Is he successful in the conversion of sinners? Yes Yes Yes Yes
17. What is his general conduct? Good Good Good Good
18. Is he attentive to chapel affairs? Yes Yes Yes Yes
19. If he has not travelled ten years, has he read all the Rules during each of the six months of the last Connexional year? Yes Yes Yes Yes
20. Did he get the books of his last station duly signed before he removed? Yes This is his first Station This is his first Station This is his first Station
21. Did he come to your Station in July last? Yes No No No
22. If he then came to your Station, what was the increase or decrease of members from March to June in the Station whence he came? Increase 197 _ _ _
23. State whether your Station has had an increase or decrease of members since June last, and what number of either. Decrease 43 _ Neither increase nor decrease 10 Increase

Source: Durham Record Office refs. M/WE 93 (29-32)
Postcard of Cowshill: Valentine