In this episode, we look at the town where John and Charles Wesley were born: Epworth. We cover the drainage of the swamps, the wildness of the land's character, as well as the Epworth ghost.

Episode 28

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: Epworth.

If you google, Epworth, it takes a while to get to England. The first hit I have goes to Epworth Children and Family Services in Missouri, then the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which was developed by Dr. Murray Johns at Epworth Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Epworth Hospital was built in 1920 through the Methodists in Australia. As well, there are a lot of Methodist churches named Epworth. A lot of Sunday School classes and mission outreach programs that are named after this small town in Lincolnshire, England. We’ve already talked some about Samuel and Susanna Wesley’s time in Epworth and the fact that John Wesley was born there in 1703. In Episode 21, we discussed the year 1703 and the different political events going on at the time. What we have missed is the place itself. John and Charles Wesley didn’t emerge from the ocean like Venus on a chariot, they were born in a unique place and time that shaped them. The physical geography where we live shapes us, and Epworth was unique place to be born. Just before Samuel Wesley moved his family there, a radical change took place to the geography around Epworth. We will get to that soon, but first we have to discuss the Isle of Axholme.

Now, when I say Isle of Axholme, it probably sounds like I’m talking about an island. When I started research on this episode and came across the words “Isle of Axholme,” again and again, I first looked to the coast of England. I was mistaken. The Isle of Axholme describes how a region in northern Lincolnshire used to be mostly covered in water. Villages like Epworth were built on high ground. Because of the swamps, the area seemed like a series of islands. For all of its history, it had been extremely isolated from the rest of the country.

In the 1620s, King Charles I hired Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the Isle of Axholme, since the King had a number of estates in the area and he thought that the drainage would increase their value.

As Joy Lloyd writes,

An agreement was signed in May 1626 between Cornelius Vermuyden and Charles I, as lord of the manors of Epworth, Misterton, Hatfield Chase and thirteen adjacent manors, to drain approximately 70,000 acres of fenland.1

An older word for marsh was fen so it was referred to as fenland.

There was a lot of disagreement in the area because there would be a loss of common lands with drainage. This led to riots and the king eventually reducing his acreage, but an agreement resulted in 1636 that again reduced the common lands and gave 7400 acres to Vermuyden and a number of settlers, many of whom were French Huguenots fleeing persecution. The drainage of the area was complete in 1628, but controversy continued up to 1691 about what portion of the land was for the king, the developers, and the commons. The folks who had lived on the marshes were called Fens or Fenmen and their rebellious streak lasted even after controversy over the drainage had ended.

The manor of Epworth, an area larger than the town, covered the southern three-quarters of the Isle of Axholme. The word ‘manor is used in a technical sense. When we hear the word ‘manor’, we may think of mansions today, but there were specific legal realities to the manor.

The origin of Manors seems to be involved in some degree of obscurity. The name is either from the French manoir, or from the Latin maneo, as the usual residence of the owner of the land…every manor was the similitude of the kingdom at large, during the feudal times. The Lord divided his Manor as the state had divided the kingdom, into two parts; the one part he retained for his own support…the other part was parceled among his dependents, who returned him their services. 2

The common lands were a part of the manorial system and each manor doled out its share of commons in a unique way. The controversy around the drainage had to do with how much land was left for those who had already been farming in the area. There had been an agreement with the Lord of the Manor and the commoners in the 15th century that still held sway and local leaders used it to fight to retain a larger portion of the newly drained and diked area. After the drainage, the population rose.

In 1603, there were 770 people living in Epworth parish (that is, in the area surrounding the town). The population rose to around 1000 in 1642 and then stayed about that same size until 1686.3

Child mortality was high for a number of those years, but no higher than elsewhere in the country. Dysentary and other diseases killed many children in the last part of the 17th century, and influenced many families (like the Wesley’s) to have more children. As Hannah Newton points out, between 1580 to 1720, “ almost one-third of young people died before 15 years of age.”4

This area surrounding the town, had good, loamy soil. As Rev. Stonehouse writes in his history of the area, “Epworth Field must have been one of those places selected by the first cultivators of the soil for the purposes of agriculture, “a fine rich brown loam, than which there is none more fertile in England.”5

Maldwyn Edwards also relates that “when Dr. Adam Clarke visited Epwroth in 1821 he said that even at that date there was no road on leaving Epworth ‘for upwards of forty miles, but fields of corn, wheat, rye, potatoes, barley, and turnips which were often crushed under the carriage wheels.’”6

The journal of Abraham de la Pryme gives a lot of context to the area around the time of John Wesley’s birth. Pryme writes,

““Yesterday I went into the Isle of Axholm about some business. It was a mighty rude place before the drainage, the people being little better than heathens, but since that ways has been made accessible unto them by land, their converse and familiarity with the country round about has mightily civilized them, and made them look like Christians. There is nothing observable in or about Belton Church that I could perceive. There is a pretty excellent Church at Epworth…The chancel of teh church was formerly a most stately building, almost as big as the whole church, and all arched and dubbled rooft, but falling to decay, they made it be taken down and a less built out of the ruins thereof, which was about twenty five years ago.

All on the east end of the Church, and over against the south thereof, stood a famous and magnificent monastry of Carthusian monks, which upon the reformation, were all expelled, and the monastry pulled down to the bare ground, to the great shame and skandall of the christian religion…The Minister thereof is the famous Mr. Wesley, who set out the celebrated poem of the Life of Christ.7

Describing the town itself, Rev. Stonehouse writes, “The Town of Epworth is pleasantly situation on the side of a hill…Three streets lead into a small but neat and clean looking Market-Place; and that which comes from the west is in length considerably more than a mile, having here and there a good house standing apart, with a garden and small enclosure between. [the town has a weekly market] held on Thursday; the fairs on the first Thursday after the 29th of September and the first Thursday after the 1st of May….8

The land was fertile but the people were not gentle. They were used to speaking up for themselves with the crown after the drainage and so when the Wesleys first moved to town, they didn’t suddenly change all there ways to match the strict morality of their new parson.

John Wesley later related to Henry Moore that

“on one occasion his father found a farmer cutting the ears of corn from his tithe sheaves and putting them into a bag. The Rector marched the farmer back into the Epworth market-place and, turning out the contents of the bag before the astonished people, he told them of the farmer’s petty pilfering. Then he left the discomforted man to the judgement of his neighbours and with the most complete sangfroid went back to the rectory!”9

Edwards continues,

“It was characteristically brave, but was it wise? These men made violent enemies. In the previous century the Fenmen had been known to burn the crops of their opponents and to kill their cattle. In 1697 a much-hated landowner, Nathaniel Reading, had his house burnt down and there were indications that his enemies intented him and his family to perish with the house. Already in 1702 Samuel Wesley had suffered the loss of two-thirds of his parsonage by fire. Again in 1704 fire destroyed all his flax.”10

We already shared the story of the Epworth fire, but it is important to realize that it wasn’t an isolated event.

One of the curiosities of history is that another boy born in Epworth at the beginning of the 18th century also changed the world. Benjamin Huntsman, the creator of European Crucible Steel, was born in 1704 to a quaker family in Epworth. He was a clock maker who developed this new method of steel manufacturing that turned Sheffield into the steel center of England and helped kick start the industrial Revolution. Because Huntsman’s family was Quaker, it is highly unlikely that John and Benjamin spent time together as children, save for the occasional frolic in the greens on market days.11

In our next full episode, we will look more closely at the childhood of John and Charles Wesley by reading the letter Susanna wrote to John later in his life, which he republished. But before that, one last story of Epworth soon after young John went to boarding school at Charterhouse and while Charles was at the Westminster school.

It is a ghost story. Near the end of his life, John Wesley published an account of the events based on the witness of his father, mother, and seven sisters who were present at the time of the haunting, from December 1 1716 until February of 1717.

Here is the beginning of Samuel Wesley’s account.

From the 1st of December my children and servants heard many strange noises, groans, knockings, etc., in every story and most of the rooms of my house, but I hearing nothing of it myself-they would not tell me for some time, because, according to the vulgar opinion, if it boded any ill to me I could not hear it. When it increased, and the family could not easily conceal it, they told me of it.

My daughters, Susannah and Ann, were below stairs in the dining-room, and heard first at the doors, then over their heads, and the night after a knocking under their feet, though nobody was in the chambers or below them. The like they and my servants heard in both the kitchens, at the door against the partition, and over them. The maid-servant heard groans as of a dying man.

My daughter Emilia coming downstairs to draw up the clock and lock the doors at ten o’clock at night, as usual, heard under the staircase a sound among some bottles there, as if they had been all dashed to pieces; but when she looked, all was safe.

Something, like the steps of a man, was heard going up and downstairs at all hours of the night, and vast rumblings below stairs and in the garrets. My man, who lay in the garret, heard someone come slaring through the garret to his chamber, rattling by his side as if against his shoes, though he had none there; at other times walking up and downstairs, when all the house were in bed, and gobbling like a turkey-cock. Noises were heard in the nursery and all the other chambers; knocking first at the feet of the bed and behind it; and a sound like that of dancing in a matted chamber, next the nursery, when the door was locked and nobody in it.12

Even Samuel begins to believe something strange is afoot. He makes the connection to prayers for the Hanoverian King George, to whom he has sworn and Susanna has not. John Wesley mentions the rift that emerged between Samuel and Susanna over prayers for the king in his own account of the Rectory ghost. The girls had named him Old Jeffrey and historians have often made a connection between the ghost story and the Jacobites, who were followers of the Stuart line instead of William and Mary, Anne, and the Hanover George’s. The Jacobite rebellion of the year before in 1715, when James II’s son, James Francis, landed in Scotland. Queen Anne had died in 1714 and the Hanoverian, George, had just been crowned so James Francis thought his time was now. England, however, did not. The Jacobites lost battle after battles, James Francis became ill during the Scottish winter, and his main financial backer, King Louis XIV, died, leaving his five-year old great-grandson, Louis XV as king. The Jacobites functioned as a ghost story of sorts of England, more of a phantom threat than a real one, but phantoms still hold power. We will go into more detail about the Jacobite rebellion in Episode 30 on the reign of King George, but just like the Jacobites, the ghost in Epworth did not last forever.

The story of the Epworth ghost is still relayed today.13 In 1917, Dudley Wright collected all the writings of the Wesleys on the event in a book titled the Epworth Phenomena, which I will link to in the show notes and you can access on our website, historyofmethodism.com.

The point is not the veracity of the tale but the context of the place. Epworth was not London or Newcastle or Bristol or even South Ornsby. It was a unique place that shaped the people there and the stories they told. It shaped how receptive or unreceptive the local population was to the ministry of Samuel Wesley. Next month, before we get to Susanna Wesley’s vision of parenting which John and Charles Wesley, we have a special Bonus episode. I will be interviewing Michael McKenzie, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Keuka College about his recent book, A Country Strange and Far: The Methodist Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1834-1918.

While we are barely to 1716 in our history, it may seem strange to jump ahead, but there are a lot of similarities between the way the geography of the pacific northwest challenged the Methodist Church in the 19th century, and the ways the Isle of Axholme challenged the ministry of Samuel Wesley. We will also talk about how history is not just entertainment. How it is forms and informs, in explicit and implicit ways, the struggles of our present day, next time on the History of Methodism.


Dudley Wright, The Epworth Phenomena (Philadelphia, PA: David McKay, 1920).

Rev. W.B. Stonehouse, The History and Topography of the Isle of Axholme (1839)

Abraham de la Pryme, The Diary of Abraham de la Pryme (The Surtees Society, 1870).

Joy Lloyd, The Communities of the Manor of Epworth in the Seventeenth Century PhD Thesis 1998.

Maldwyn Edwards, Family circle: a study of the Epworth household in relation to John and Charles Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1949).

Hannah Newton, “The Dying Child in Seventeenth-Century England”, in Pediatrics, 2015.

E. Wyndham Hulme, “The Pedigree and Career of Benjamin Huntsman, Inventor in Europe of Crucible Steel”, in Transactions of the Newcomen Society 24:1 (1943), 37-48.

Frank Baker, “Investigating Wesley Family Traditions”, Methodist History 26:3 (1988), 154-156.

Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 46-52.

Karen Diehl Yates, “Jeffrey the Jacobite Poltergeist: The Politics of the Ghost That Haunted the Epworth Rectory in 1716-17”, Wesleyan Theological Journal (2015), 68-79.

H. Addington Bruce, Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters (New York, 1908).

  1. Lloyd, 12. ↩︎
  2. Stonehouse, 119-120. ↩︎
  3. Lloyd, 28. ↩︎
  4. Hannah Newton, “The Dying Child in Seventeenth-Century England”, in Pediatrics, 2015. ↩︎
  5. Stonehouse, 118. ↩︎
  6. Edwards, 14. ↩︎
  7. Pryme, 173. ↩︎
  8. Stonehouse, 174. ↩︎
  9. Edwards, 14. ↩︎
  10. Edwards, 14. ↩︎
  11. Hulme, 37. ↩︎
  12. Samuel Wesley in Dudley, 29-30. ↩︎
  13. See Frank Baker, “Investigating Wesley Family Traditions”, Methodist History 26:3 (1988), 154-162, and Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 46-52. ↩︎