Monday, 9 May 2011
Poor, Yet Making Many Rich
"Unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off." Isaiah 56:5
"Philanthropy and real Charity in a humble life - died on Tuesday last, aged 72 ... a man whose good deeds performed within a humble sphere of life are worthy of admiration and lasting remembrance." These were the eulogising words written in 1839 in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle for that giant of kindness John Pounds.
Born in Portsmouth on the 17th June 1766, it seemed that John Pounds was destined for a life in shipbuilding, however there was another Will in store for him which guided him in the task of building lives and letting them set sail on the sea of self-respect and success.
At the age of 14, within weeks of his father's death, John fell into a dry dock while working and was left badly crippled for the rest of his life. In those years such an outcome was nothing less than a catastrophe, with work for young men of his class geared almost exclusively to manual labour. Something of John Pound's faithful attitude to life can be seen from how he used a long period of convalescence and recovery as an opportunity for self-education through the reading of many books on various subjects. By the time he was able to resume walking he had amassed a wealth of knowledge, one of his favourite subjects being that of natural history.
To support himself he learned enough of the trade of shoe-mending which, considering the number of people involved in the busy labour of both Portsmouth and Langstone harbours, provided him with plenty of work. While earning more than he could ever had done at the docks, his income was not particularly generous, however he earned himself enough to purchase a dwelling (calling it a house would be to overstate reality) in which to live and work. Consisting of two rooms, nothing bigger than an overgrown garden shed, the downstairs was used as his workshop/living room.
Another tragedy, the birth of his nephew Johnny with inwardly turned feet, would further guide John down the path of greatness. Realising that the boy's mother could not cope with the needs of her disabled child as well as those of all her other children, and aware that doctors were planning to break the boys ankles in an attempt to rectify the disability, John pounds asked to be allowed to care for the boy. Applying his knowledge he developed a basic pair of orthopaedic boots, which eventually cured the child's affliction.
John Pounds was the proverbial communitarian, caring deeply for the community he belonged to, always seeking ways to help the many destitute families that filled the streets. People knowing this about him, would seek him out to solicit help for themselves and their families and would always receive it to the best of his abilities. Many orphans and destitute young people would be drawn to his workshop, where ever cognisant of the words of our exemplar Jesus:
"Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven" Matthew 19:14
John would entertain them with a story and other fruits of his educated mind. Also providing them with warm food from his own scanty provisions, to assuage their hunger.
Slowly but surely he began to gather more and more children around him to educate them, on occasion 40 or so children could be found, sitting on old boxes and benches in his tiny workshop as he filled their young minds with knowledge, while at the same time carrying out his work as a cobbler. He was known to search out the neediest children, offering them hot potatoes and inviting them back to his workshop schoolhouse. He would teach them from as many old school books as he could lay his hands on and provided slates for them to practice their writing and arithmetic as he could not afford copy-books. He taught them a wide range of academic subjects, but also taught them how prepare food for themselves and how to mend their own shoes. He took them on field trips to the hills outside Portsmouth to collect flowers and all the while teaching them how to identify animals, insects and trees . Unsatisfied with just teaching the children, he would care for them when they were ill and fashioned toys for them for play and sport.
John was also insistent that the children receive a good religious education and to this end visited a local Anglican church to petition the vicar for some Bibles to be used in his school. The vicar told him he would be happy to help, and as soon as the children saved up the tuppences and threepences he would be happy to sell them the Bibles. John Pounds questioned the Vicar where exactly these destitute children were to get the money, and then decided to seek help elsewhere. He went to the Unitarian chapel (today John Pounds Memorial Church, Unitarian) and again asked for Bibles. The minister, Revered Russell Scott, handed him several Bibles and told him that the chapel would provide him with as many as he needed. Indeed the chapel and its congregation provided much more than just Bibles, and they actively helped John in his mission to educate and care for the poor youth of Portsmouth.
Each Sunday John, a rather dishevelled and unkempt man, would smarten up and take his "children" to the Sunday-school attached to the chapel. He himself relished attending his chapel and would sit in his pew quietly and faithfully worshipping his Maker.
He received valuable aid from Portsmouth Unitarians, however he never accepted any for himself, instead directing everything for the use and benefit of his charges. He remained to his death in the same humble station. A woman once said to him:
"Mr Pounds I wish you were rich, you would do so much good!" to which he responded: "Well, I don't know, if I had been rich, I might perhaps have been much the same as other rich people. This I know, that there is now not a happier man in England than John Pounds, and it is better as it is."
His life ended suddenly on New Year's Day 1839 and was buried in the grounds of the chapel he loved. His funeral was attended by large numbers of people of all religious and political opinions. Many people contributed to the fund to create a memorial stone for him, which can be found to this day in the grounds of the church.
Dr Guthrie, a famous Edinburgh Calvinist preacher and philanthropist said about John Pounds:
"When the day comes when honour will be done to whom honour is due, I can fancy the crowd of those whose fame poets have sung, and to whose memory monuments have been raised, dividing like a wave, and (passing the great, and the noble, and the mighty of the land) this poor, obscure old man stepping forward and receiving the especial notice of him who said, "inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these, ye did it also to me".
John Pounds' story should serve as an example and a warning to us. Each day of life presents us with opportunities to become the best we can be, we must not let excuses or fear or indolence prevent us from reaching our potential, always remembering the words of the hymn:
Come, labour on:
Away with gloomy doubt and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here;
By hands the feeblest can our God fulfil
His righteous will.
Jane L Borthwick 1859
John Pounds demonstrated that everyone has some skill, some gift, which can with willpower and faith, be a source of assistance to all those around us. Each of us can be great, or at least come part of greatness. The vicar that John Pounds approached for Bibles, squandered his chance at playing a part in this most glorious of achievements, let us not make the same mistakes.
The cobbler from Portsmouth set in motion a movement that would shortly thereafter be called the Ragged School movement which in turn led to education becoming available to every single child in the country, and yet even today there are many children, victims of circumstance, family breakdown etc, that are struggling. Unitarian congregations up and down the country must strive to be present in the lives of these children, assisting them and their families and keeping alive the legacy of a man who in the most reduced circumstances educated hundreds of children and kept them far from lives of crime, sadness and hopelessness, that is the sort of church we were and should be again.
"I dream of a church that joins in with God's loving
as she bends to embrace the unlovely and lost;
a church that can free, by its sharing and daring,
the imprisoned and poor and then shoulder the cost.
God make us a church that joins in with your living
as you cherish and challenge, rein in and release;
a church that is winsome, impassioned, inspiring:
lioness of your justice and lamb of your peace.