All Saints Parish Church
There can be few Wellington locations with a story to rival that of its parish church in shaping the town’s cultural profile. While All Saints was recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086 and damaged in the English Civil War, it would not be until the Georgian era that its literary legacy was established.
The Little Country Town
The current All Saints church was completed in 1790 and is at least the third incarnation of the building to stand on the site during the last thousand years. Despite that millennium-long lineage its part in Wellington’s cultural story began relatively recently in 1802, when the Reverend John Eyton became vicar. He was appointed to the role by his father, Thomas, who as local squire exercised his right to grant his third son the living of the church. While nepotism may have been the predominant factor in his ascension, Eyton’s undoubted pastoral skills (honed at the bastion of evangelism that was St Johns College, Cambridge) would mark him out as an exceptional individual.
Recollections of a Beloved Pastor
Reverend Eyton’s reputation for the care of his poorest parishioners was established with practically his first sermon but perhaps his most telling contribution was, ironically, the work he did outside the church. By fostering good relations with the non-conformist community, visiting its various chapels and meeting houses, he cemented Wellington’s position as a local centre of Methodism, providing a ready market for the printing presses of the town’s burgeoning publishing industry. Eyton’s powerful brand of evangelism enhanced Wellington’s credentials further afield, too. Yet, despite his commanding character, he suffered persistent ill-health and two assistant curates were required to share his workload throughout most of his tenure. Such was his standing, however, finding candidates to fill those positions was not difficult and they in turn added new stories to the town’s cultural legacy.
The Rural Minstrel
Reverend Henry Gauntlett was another well-known figure in evangelical circles and arrived at All Saints for a year-long stay in 1804. While he was a published author in his own right, the most outstanding feature of his tenure was almost certainly the birth of his son, Henry John. During a long career, he would become a noted organist and one of the nineteenth century’s leading British hymn writers. Five years later a young Irish curate and poet, Reverend Patrick Brönte, would enjoy an equally short but even more impactful stay — becoming the first of the famous literary dynasty in print (thanks to local publisher F Houlston and Son). He would also utilise the Reverend Eyton’s connections to the local Methodist faith to make the contacts that would take him to the more familiar surroundings of Yorkshire and into the arms his future wife Maria Branwell.
Reverend Eyton delivered his final sermon at All Saints in March 1822. His death the following year was felt so profoundly that the antiquary Charles Hulbert, in his History of Salop, was moved to write that the grief of local parishioners “maybe conceived but cannot be described.” In fact, Eyton’s influence was such that a book dedicated to his memory, Recollections of a Beloved Pastor, was still being republished in 1861, while an ornate memorial in his honour, replete with a canopy and Corinthian columns, survived in the churchyard until the 1950s. Eyton’s death did not bring about an end to All Saints cultural achievements either. His replacement, Reverend Edward Pryce Owen (another graduate of St John’s Cambridge) would carve out his own niche as a celebrated landscape artist of sketches, etchings and paintings including several of Wellington and the surrounding area.