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06 April 2016

The Godsmark Family of Portslade

Judy Middleton 2016

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
Samuel Godsmark was responsible for building this house known as Stone Hall or Stone House and as The Stonery in later years.

Marked by God

Portslade-born James Godsmark came from an ordinary background but went on to become a fiery preacher and the author of 24 works. His life story is an extraordinary tale of ups and downs with enough downturns to dismay all but the stoutest souls.

copyright © D.Sharp
The font at St Nicolas, Portslade,
 dates back to the 15th century. 
James Godsmark and his six brothers
and one sister were all baptised here
James Godsmark became an itinerant preacher not because he particularly wanted to but because that was just the way circumstances directed him. No doubt he would call it predestination because this was a great theme of his. Predestination is a rather bleak philosophy that leads into treacherous theological waters because if everything is pre-ordained than where does free will fit in? James Godsmark obviously felt that God had marked him out from the beginning; his detractors did not feel the same and dubbed him Devilsmark.

It is no wonder James thought himself to be especially marked by God when you consider the number of times he escaped death, including being nearly drowned at sea by falling overboard twice (once at Shoreham Harbour, the other at Milford Haven), plummeting from the top of a high elm, being pitched from his horse into a deep pond, being ill with severe fever, sliding from the shafts of a cart after he fell asleep and on another occasion, being drunk, falling off a high load of dung into a hole – and all these events had happened by the age of thirteen. 

In some ways James Godsmark can be compared with John Newton (1725-1807); both of them spent their younger years in hard living marked by an absence of religious feeling. But both had an initial spiritual awakening on board ships at the mercy of fierce storms and probable shipwreck. In later life one of Godsmark’s favourite texts was ‘By Grace, ye shall be saved’ and John Newton became a clergyman whose words still resonate today because he wrote the ever popular hymn Amazing Grace.   

The Godsmark Family at Portslade

James was the offspring of his father Samuel’s second marriage. Samuel’s first wife was Mary Gadsby who was born in 1776 and whom Samuel married at St Julian's, Kingston Buci, Shoreham in 1799.
Their sons were as follows: 

William born in 1800, married Sarah Whitpaine in 1827, died in 1829 at Portslade
Samuel born in 1802 died on 4 September1822 at Portslade

Their mother Mary died at the early age of 27 on 1 January 1803 and was buried in the churchyard of St Nicolas, Portslade

William Godsmark was a vintner by trade and the inn-keeper of the George Inn in Portslade village, his father-in-law was William Whitpaine a wine merchant of West Tarring and owner of the George Inn. He was a youthful inn-keeper and he died young in September 1829. His brother Samuel expired at an even earlier age because he died on 4 September 1822.

 copyright © J.Middleton
William Godsmark was the Inn Keeper of the George Inn until his early death in 1829 
(the George is the buildng with the black signage next to the white terraced house)

Samuel did not waste much time after his wife’s death in seeking a second marriage. His new wife was Judith Goatcher who was born in 1784 at Ashurst, Sussex where he also married her in 1805, and their first child arrived in 1806. The children were as follows and were all born at Portslade:

Sarah born 1806 and died March 1825 at Portslade
Jeffrey born 1807 and was buried at Portslade 5 June 1824
Edwin born 1809 and died in October 1811 at Portslade
Henry born 1810 and died in 1848 of smallpox at London
James born 1816 and died in 1891 at Edmonton, London
Owen born 1818 and died in the USA 1840

Henry died from smallpox in 1848 while his ship was moored at London.

Owen also followed a career at sea but while he was in America he committed suicide. His brother James only heard about this sad event later on when Owen’s erstwhile shipmates arrived back in England and told him what had happened.

Samuel Godsmark (1773-1829)

He was a man of unusual strength and stature and rented some land at Portslade that he farmed. His residence was more than a mere cottage because he built his own house, which according to James Godsmark was called Stone Hall (or Stone House). James also states the house was ‘near the pleasant little village of Portslade’ rather than in the village. The house later became known as The Stonery, which was also the name of the farm/market garden to which it was attached. This house was demolished in around 1968. Samuel employed some men to work the land.

copyright © J.Middleton
In this photograph dating from the 1920s The Stonery is the central building facing south with North House Farmhouse in the background and Foredown Tower on the hill.

When James later visited his uncle at Canterbury, whom he did not know, he was able to recognise him partly because he was dressed in the same style of clothes that his father habitually wore – the same top boots, light breeches, blue coat, frilled shirt and broad-brimmed hat.

Samuel kept pistols in the house, which young James had no compunction in ‘borrowing’ to further a game of make-believe. This involved building a scarecrow on the Downs at Mile Oak with a turnip for a head and, pretending to be a desperate smuggler, he rode furiously over the Downs and shot the scarecrow’s turnip-head.

copyright © J.Middleton
This drawing by R.H. Nibbs shows St Nicolas Church as the Godsmarks would have known it.

Although Samuel dutifully attended Sunday service at St Nicolas, Portslade, his moral life left a lot to be desired according to the unrelenting judgement of his son James. Although James did concede his father was kind-hearted and benevolent, Samuel’s downfall was his love of horse-racing, prize fighting and gambling, which brought him to death and ruin. Perhaps Samuel used to walk over to Hove to watch prize fighting that took place in the yard belonging to the Ship Inn, promoted by the inn-keeper. It cannot have helped matters that Samuel’s second marriage was an unhappy one.

Samuel’s attitude to the education of his children was remarkably relaxed and he probably thought that the little learning to be had at the Dame School in the village was sufficient. In an amusing passage, James wrote ‘My father considered me qualified for the duties of life when I could ride down Devil’s Dyke, shoot birds flying, kill a pig, (and) fight a boy bigger than myself.’

Judith Godsmark (1784-1860)

She was hardly a paragon of virtue and it seemed she forfeited the love of husband and son. James wrote (in mitigation of his father’s conduct perhaps) that Samuel had the misfortune to be ‘united to one whose unprincipled conduct and violent temper were enough to crush every feeling of domestic interest.’

In contrast to her husband, Judith never attended church and she cordially hated the parson. But she did entertain some notions regarding the value of education because she insisted that young James attended a school at Shoreham.

It was not surprising that Judith failed to be a pillar of the church because her interests lay in a different direction entirely. In fact her son went so far as to call her and her cronies ‘necromancers’. James said his mother was a particular friend to a respectable class of fortune-tellers ‘by whom she was much esteemed and revered’. These worthies generally only visited the house when the ‘goodman’ had gone off to market. Then, aided by the consumption of rum, whiskey and green tea, future events were made known. All this the young James found fascinating added to which his favourite reading was of the penny-dreadful variety featuring horrible murders, smugglers and ghosts.  

It seems James did not lose touch with his mother when he grew up and later left Sussex because in 1850 he recorded that he ‘gave £10 to his aged mother’.

In 1860 he received a letter telling him his mother had died at Steyning. Rather uncharitably he wrote ‘Alas my mother! I must sorrow for thee as one without hope’. But he hoped that she might yet be saved by grace.

Perhaps her spirit did not manage to rest in peace after all. It is interesting to note that when John Broomfield moved into The Stonery in around 1905 the family soon became aware of the resident ghost whom they knew as Old Mother Godsmark. She would appear as an old lady in a long gown with her hair hanging loose about her shoulders at least once a year in the winter and sometimes three or four times in a year. Strange things happened such as door latches lifting up on their own and doors opening and shutting with no humans nearby. The family were not bothered but the family dogs most certainly were and refused to venture beyond the second flight of stairs.

Perhaps the ghost was a manifestation of Judith Godsmark’s unhappiness about losing her home, furniture and chattels as a widow and the consequent loss of status that entailed; her reduced circumstances must have been galling for her because she had been rather snobbish in her attitude towards the villagers. 

James Godsmark’s Brief Childhood

James was born in 1816 and was sent to the Dame School in Portslade village to receive the rudiments of education. This was in the days before universal education and a Dame School was all that was available in many villages. James does not state what education his older half-brothers received but it was the youngest boy, Owen, who was the only son to receive a proper education and this was because a doting aunt paid for it. James’s sister Sarah was also educated beyond the confines of Portslade and was sent away to a boarding school at Lewes.

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
This old view of Portslade village would have been familiar to young James Godsmark because there were still thatched roofs, the Brewery had not been built and Valley Road did not exist.

James did not think much of his Dame School where his ‘tutoress’ must have been Elizabeth Godley who taught the village children for a period of 50 years. He described her as an old woman who ‘would not believe that the world was round or any such nonsense’. But evidently she had a keen sense of social order and young James learnt that ‘I must bow to the parson of the parish and to the squire, and not steal apples or turnips, nor swear till I become of riper years.’ Trying to teach the village children not to steal apples was something of a lost cause and boys could not resist taking an apple or two from the vicarage garden. On one occasion when the boys did the deed during lunch break, their crime was discovered and they were made to return their ill-gotten fruit to the vicar.

James attended school at Shoreham, which he does not comment about. But the school did nothing to curb his unruly behaviour. He was one of those boys who were always getting into scrapes. When he fell from the top of a tall elm tree, his jacket caught on a branch and there he was suspended, yelling lustily, until his father’s workers heard him and came to the rescue. James would knock down boys coming from the Dame School and steal their dinner and the few pence they had.

His father probably thought his behaviour was quite normal. The only person who was worried about his welfare was his kind-hearted sister Sarah who tried valiantly to make him change his ways. As persuasion did no good, she taught him the following verse:

There is a dreadful hell
And everlasting pains
Where sinners must with devils dwell
In darkness, fire and chains.

James and Sarah walked the Downs together while she tried to steer him along a better path. The unfortunate girl had been sent home to die from her school in Lewes. Probably she was suffering from consumption (tuberculosis). She died in March 1825. James wrote ‘when the village bell tolled her departure to another world, I felt deeply impressed.’ But he carried on bullying other boys. When the father of one of the victims caught up with him and gave him a thrashing, James was livid. He found the opportunity to creep into the man’s garden, destroyed his crops, poured vitriol on the pigs and let them loose. Afterwards he was overcome with remorse and ran onto the Downs where he passed the very spot where his gentle sister had taught him the verse.

Sent to Sea

 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Henry Earp, senior, painted this delightful picture of Portslade in 1840. Note St Nicolas Church to the right and the impressive mansion called Portslade House on the left, near the site occupied by King’s School today.

It seems James’s parents came to the conclusion that the best thing for their wayward son was to send him off to sea. He was only aged 12 and it was certainly a case of throwing him in the deep end. He suffered many hardships and the most frightening experience was a dreadful night of storm in the Bristol Channel with a gale howling from the south west. The ship was carrying a cargo of pig iron. An old shipmate was scared enough to beg James to say a prayer, which he did, until the master ordered him to busy himself about the ship. The vessel managed to limp into Mount’s Bay, Penzance. James soon forgot about his prayer; it was reminiscent of the time he was ill with a fever at Portslade and said the Lord’s Prayer over and over but once he was better he forgot about such things.

James spent some time on coasting vessels. He left the ship and less than a month later that same ship was wrecked on the sands (probably the Goodwin Sands) returning from Sunderland to Shoreham with a cargo of coal and all hands were lost.

Death and Ruin

copyright © D.Sharp
Samuel & Mary Godsmark 
St Nicolas Churchyard, Portslade
On the 9 April 1829 Samuel Godsmark died at the age of 56 and was buried in the churchyard of St Nicolas, Portslade, where his tombstone is still to be seen to this day.

Samuel’s family were left in difficulties because the land was copyhold and Samuel’s male heirs were dead, abroad or too young to inherit. Samuel’s will no doubt stipulated that in theses circumstances settling his estate must be overseen by two trusted friends. It seems The Stonery reverted to the Lord of the Manor of Portslade as was the ancient custom and by 1836 it had become two separate properties although, rather confusingly, they kept the same name. The men who then occupied the land were Revd Edward Butcher of Northampton who was most probably retired by then and he had the copyhold house and land while Thomas Cooper also occupied a house and some land. The difference being that Cooper farmed the land while living on site while Revd Butcher probably employed men to work the land for him.

Meanwhile young James was obliged to do tasks around the farm and his father’s former employees were now the ones to tell him what should be done. Naturally enough, the found this experience humiliating.

At length James and his mother left Portslade and took lodgings with Mrs Beaumont in Brighton. As if these circumstances were not bad enough more sorrow came their way. Shortly after his father’s death, James’s step-brother William, village inn-keeper, died and so did his wife and child.

It was in these circumstances that a wealthy aunt came to the rescue of the youngest son, Owen, and sent him off to boarding school. After his schooldays, Owen was apprenticed to a draper but this did not suit him at all and he soon left and went aboard a man-of-war. Owen seems to have been another restless Godsmark because he deserted the Navy and joined the merchant service instead. His style of life degenerated and James states Owen grew ‘awfully wicked’. At length while he was in the USA and after a night of gambling and debauchery, he blew his brains out.


Samuel Godsmark made provision for James’s career by leaving £50 for an apprenticeship. One of the executors of the will was Old Goddard, a Portslade builder, and he wanted James to take up the apprenticeship with him. Thomas Goddard’s name appears in the 1837 Portslade List of Electors.  James found it hard work, carrying flints and mortar to the bricklayers. As a fatherless boy he felt he did not have many options but he hated his situation and ran away; he tried in vain to get a berth on every ship moored at Shoreham Harbour.

 copyright © D.Sharp
This interesting stone is to be found in the wall of St Nicolas churchyard 
and may well relate to Thomas Goddard, stonemason, indicating that he 
built the wall. The year 1816 was also the year that James Godsmark 
was born and Revd Henry Hoper became vicar of Portslade.

On his way to Brighton James met the other trustee, who on hearing his tale of woe, offered to give him a home where he could learn how to become a miller. Most probably this was Thomas Peters who ran the Easthill Windmill and who married Susannah Cheesman on 8 October 1812 at St Nicolas Church, Portslade. The Cheesman family were previous owners of this windmill. In 1746 Francis Cheesman died and an inventory reveals his wealth. Not only did he own a number of brass and pewter utensils but also four valuable feather beds with numerous sheets for the best one.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Frederick Nash painted this view of East Hill windmill in 1841.

The offer sounded reasonable enough but when James entered the house he found it stacked with his late father’s goods. This enraged him because he did not think the trustee had a right to them. There was further anguish when the boys of the family taunted him. Thomas and Susannah had only one daughter Helen but five sons Cheesman, Owen, William, Arthur and Edwin although poor Cheesman was buried at the age of eleven weeks. James left. Thomas Peters died in 1858.

Somehow, another apprenticeship was arranged for James; this time to Mr Lambert, a Brighton stonemason. This man must have been William Lambert who was employed in overseeing a major work at Brighton. This involved the continuation of a wall that stretched from Old Steine to Royal Crescent and was constructed from 1830 to 1833. William Lambert’s task was to continue this wall to the Kemp Town Estate; the base of the wall measured 23 feet thick and rose to a height of up to 60 feet. This massive work was very expensive and the final cost came to £100,000 and was completed by 1838. West of the Madeira Lift a commemorative plaque recorded the achievement.

copyright © J.Middleton
This postcard gives some indication of William Lambert’s massive wall.

By 1851 William Lambert was a venerable old man aged 85 who lived at 6 Mount Zion Place, Brighton, together with his son Thomas Lambert, also a stonemason, Thomas’s wife, their four sons and a daughter plus one grandson. It is fascinating to find that Judith Godsmark was recorded as also living in Mount Zion Place in 1841.

copyright © D.Sharp
No 2 Mount Zion Place was the home of the Parish Beadle, James lived at No 6 (now demolished)  this may account 
for why James was so nervous as a runaway apprentice, the Beadle would have known James personally.

This time James managed to stay put long enough to serve four years of his apprenticeship to Mr Lambert. Unfortunately, he quarrelled with Mrs Lambert and ran away, taking his tools with him. This was a dangerous move because he was in fact breaking the law and if discovered, he could have been arrested. To forestall this possibility, he told someone in strict confidence, which he knew would be betrayed, that he was going to London. In fact he headed towards Canterbury.

On the Tramp to Canterbury

James knew he had to move fast to avoid detection and he managed to walk 30 miles the day he ran away. By the time he reached Tunbridge Wells he only had one shilling left. He had to beg on the way and he looked everywhere for work. But many other men were also seeking employment and so James was unlucky. His wanderings took him to Hastings, Rye and Dover, tramping all the way. At his most desperate he was obliged to part with a treasured possession, a small pocket Bible with silver clasps. The woman who ran the ‘shake-down’ – that is a long room where both men and women could bed down for the night – was suspicious of James. He looked too rough to be the owner and she suspected he had stolen the Bible, therefore she would only offer him sixpence for it. He also had to sell his tools in order to keep body and soul together.

Henry Godsmark (1776-1858)

At length James stumbled into Canterbury, tired, footsore and filthy. He had tried to keep clean by buying a tiny portion of soap and washing his clothes in a stream but the rough conditions he had to put up with in order to spend a night under cover meant that looking respectable was a losing battle.

James knew he had an uncle living in Canterbury and so he asked about to see if someone could give him directions to his house. Henry Godsmark had a house at Church Street, St Paul’s, Canterbury. He was prosperous and well dressed. Henry’s particular interest in life was horses and it was in the stable-yard that James first encountered his uncle. At first Henry wondered what on earth this disreputable figure wanted while a cousin seated imperiously on his horse was openly hostile. But when his uncle heard about his nephew’s sad circumstances and the death of ‘poor Samuel’ he was instantly welcoming.

Henry wanted James to meet his wife but said it would not be possible in his present condition. He arranged for James to lodge at a respectable inn where he could clean himself up and Henry sent over some clean clothes to wear.

When James went to Henry’s house the next day he found a warm welcome, good food on the table and even his cousins were cordial. Henry was anxious to be helpful to his nephew but James knew he could not stay because he was a runaway apprentice and sooner or later somebody would report him. It must have been very difficult to leave his relations behind.

copyright © D.Sharp
This drawing is based on an original 1837 ‘na├»ve’ painting 
showing the chestnut horse Royal George 
ridden by a proud Henry Godsmark.
It is interesting to note that Henry was a horse dealer and he also fancied his skills as a rider. In March 1837 a match was arranged between Henry Godsmark of Canterbury and Mr Probert of Herne Bay for a prize of £50. Their course covered some two miles and followed the route ridden by the Herne Bay Steeplechase. Henry rode Royal George, a chestnut belonging to George Burge Esq, while Mr Probert rode Conceit. At 11 o’clock the horses were saddled and the contestants proceeded from the Pier Hotel to a standing place from where the race started at noon. Conceit fell at the fifth fence but Royal George completed the remaining twelve fences and won the race by nearly half a mile. Henry Godsmark was so proud of his achievement that he commissioned a jobbing artist to paint a fine portrait of him astride the handsome chestnut horse.


James returned to Brighton and agreed to finish his apprenticeship for 10/- a week while he lived in a different house.

copyright © J.Middleton
A drawing of St Nicholas Church, Brighton 
where James and Susannah married in 1836.
James married Susannah Collins at St Nicholas Church, Brighton, on 11 December 1836, the same year he completed his apprenticeship. James stated he was about 22 years old when he married (but in fact he was older) then he followed with a curious statement ‘and as usual my troubles were augmented’. What happened was that his aunt left him a little money, perhaps the same aunt who had paid for Owen’s education. James fancied setting himself up as a grocer. But he had absolutely no experience in that field and the business soon failed.

He could not find any employment, his wife became ill and the couple suffered many privations during the winter of 1838. A friend gave him half an ounce of tobacco to cheer him up but James sold it in order to buy a one-penny pie for his suffering wife. On another occasion the couple had nothing to eat and had to survive on a single dogfish James had picked up on Brighton beach. At this low ebb James prayed fervently for help and that very night someone gave them a few shillings and some herrings.

 copyright © D.Sharp
Parson Wood’s Memorial.
St Mary's Church,
Broadwater, Worthing
James wrote movingly about being desperately short of funds one Christmas time.
‘I took my fiddle and disguising myself as well as I could, went into the streets and played and sung some favourite pieces of psalmody. I was told by some to go to Broadwater, that there was a Parson Wood, who would be sure to give me something. I accordingly went, taking care to select some tunes and psalms as anti-dissenting as possible. After playing and singing at the door for some time the old gentleman came out, and gave me half-a-crown telling me he was glad I was a Churchman, for he never encouraged Dissenters.’

In February 1839 James tramped to London in a desperate search for paid work. But it was the worst possible time of year; there was snow and frost and building work was at a standstill.

In the spring of 1839 he found work at Worthing and then returned home to Brighton. In the autumn of 1839 James found a job in a large Union House near Horsham. It was hard work and so badly paid that he could not afford to find lodgings. Next spring found him working in St Leonard’s Forest and at last he was able to use his mason’s skills in helping to build the new church of Holy Trinity, Lower Beeding. As a skilled man he was able to earn enough money to save and repay his debts.

Then James was sent to Worthing and was promised regular work.


In the autumn of 1839 James was sent to Shoreham and his wife joined him and this is where their first child was born in 1839. They lived in a house in John Street, Shoreham. The 1841 census records them living there – James Godsmark, stonemason, aged 30, wife Susannah aged 25 and daughter Elizabeth aged two.

 copyright © D.Sharp
James moved into a house in John Street, Shoreham in 1839. He left Shoreham for London in 1850.

At last James had some regular work at St Nicolas Church, Old Shoreham. In particular, he was set to work on creating the stonework for some new windows in the church and the east window is a prime example. Today he would recognise his handiwork but not the glass in the east window, which contains glass exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London depicting Sussex saints Saint Richard and St Wilfrid as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Nicolas.

 copyright © D.Sharp
St Nicolas Church, Old Shoreham, and an example of James' masonry work in the east window.

James must have been a skilled craftsman because the Archdeacon was very pleased with his work and presented him with a half-sovereign. Indeed the authorities were so keen on keeping hold of a good workman that even during the harsh winter of 1840/1841 they retained his services. He was not overloaded with work and executed a few interior repairs and was available to show visitors around.

Quite often he was alone in the old church and spent some time reading the Bible and searching the Scriptures because religious beliefs had come to be very important to him.  


While James was apprenticed to Mr Lambert at Brighton, he sometimes accompanied his master to services at Lady Huntingdon’s Chapel. He also liked to attend prayer meetings before breakfast and heard three sermons during the course of one Sabbath. He mentions once attending a service in Church Street Chapel, Brighton. He probably meant Providence Chapel on the corner of Bread Street, which was frequented by those of a Calvinistic persuasion who were also Huntingdon followers. But there was also Trinity Independent Presbyterian Chapel opposite the Corn Exchange. In fact there was plenty of choice because at that time the Church Street area was a hotbed of non-conformist activity. At adjacent Windsor Street there were no less than three chapels – Adullam Chapel, Bethsaida Hall Chapel and Zoar Chapel.

copyright © J.Middleton
Apprentice James Godsmark would not recognise this impressive
 Countess of Huntingdon’s Church, North Street, Brighton, which was built 
in 1871. The chapel he attended was a much more modest building.

On one of his tramps back to Brighton James mentions dropping in at Jireh Chapel in Lewes. It is interesting to note that a Jireh Chapel opened in Robert Street, Brighton, in 1846.

 copyright © D.Sharp
Jireh, Chapel, Lewes.

James was seeking for the truth and what he considered to be the true practice of Christianity. At Shoreham the Anglican community thought he was a Primitive Methodist preacher. But in fact James was an Independent Nonconformist Minister in the Calvinistic mould and was thus in demand on the Calvinist circuit.

James was heavily influenced by the writings of William Huntingdon (1745-1813) who is buried at Jireh Chapel Lewes and Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) of Rock of Ages fame.
James greatly admired Joseph Irons (1785-1852) a friend of John Newton (Amazing Grace) and walked to Brighton from Shoreham to especially hear him preach on one of Irons trips to Brighton.

Preaching and Poverty

His extensive examination of the Scriptures led James to the conviction that he ought to be preaching his version of Christianity. His early attempts at Brighton to spread the Word caused him anguish when some of his male listeners shouted out that they remembered him being drunk in a pub.

James recorded that his first sermon was preached on 6 June 1841. His landlord at Shoreham had allowed him to take down a partition and thus two rooms were converted into a ‘commodious little chapel’, which was licensed by the Bishop of Chichester. He preached twice on Sundays and once during the week.

Not only did news of his activities spread to ordinary folk, it also reached the ears of his employers who advised him of the ‘impropriety of such a course’. In continuing with his preaching he was putting his stable employment at risk. The parson at Shoreham was ‘very much annoyed’ and perhaps he had noticed a dwindling in the numbers of his flock. At any rate it seems he must have contacted Revd Henry Hoper, vicar of St Nicolas Church Portslade, to remonstrate with James. Revd Hoper visited James and as he was the one who baptised James into the Church of England as an infant he thought his words of advice should carry some weight. He begged James to give up preaching and added that as the Almighty had given him the ability to build churches of stone, he ought to be content.    

James listened and agreed to stop ‘for I considered that it was rather incompatible with Episcopal discipline, to allow a dissenting parson to work in the Established church.’

This statement poses some interesting questions. Presumably it was law at the time for places of worship to be registered with the established church but did that give the church any jurisdiction over what was preached there? Or was it just a question of class? Revd Hoper did reveal his prejudices when he told James that preaching ‘belonged exclusively to those who were classically qualified and ordained’.

Although James ceased preaching for a while and spent a winter of anxiety and poverty, he came to the conclusion that he was meant to continue his evangelical work. Probably the dispute just mentioned caused him to move his activities into different premises at a later date.

One wretched morning he had to go to chapel without any breakfast but later on that day an old man from Portslade came over and brought him a fine rabbit, some other provisions and half-a-crown in cash. This gave James the heart to continue. But it is true to say he did not always feel inspired and quite often, especially when suffering from privation and probably starvation, he would fall into despair and feel that God had deserted him causing him to reflect on the sufferings of Job.

In the summer of 1842 James went on the tramp looking for paid work. He was fortunate in finding employment for four months fixing marble monuments in Lyminster Church. He was a versatile worker and could turn his hand to any craft it seems. He could undertake carpentry, clock-cleaning, bricklaying, painting, paper-hanging, umbrella mending and clock-cleaning. He could also make violins and violin cellos as well as teach young people how to play such instruments.

But still he suffered a lack of income. It looked as though Christmas 1842 would be particularly bleak for the little family but just in time he heard that a lady from Brighton had visited the female butcher in Shoreham and ordered a piece of beef for him, besides leaving him 5/- for Christmas.

In 1843 James did some stonework for a while but soon he was on the tramp again. He walked to Beeding but there was no work to be had; back home he came dejected only to find a man waiting for him with a sovereign from Mr H. in Brighton. Then after evening service a young man from Portslade gave him half-a-crown saying that they were once ‘wicked boys together’. That same evening a lady gave him a copy of Cruden’s Concordance, a captain’s wife sent a piece of pork, a widow donated three large loaves and a pilot from Southwick provided him with a rabbit. This sums up James’s life – plunging from joy to despair and back again.

Itinerant Preacher

James liked to quote from the writings of John Bunyan and the following certainly resonates with his experiences:

The Christian man is seldom long at ease
As soon as one fright’s o’er, another doth him seize

In 1844 James started a small business but he does not state its nature although it seems to involve building supplies. He continued preaching and friends from Brighton came over to hear him and rarely arrived empty-handed. Then James made a bad mistake about the pricing of a piece of valuable marble and as a consequence had to work for three weeks without making any profit.

His reputation as a preacher had spread and he began to receive invitations from outside the locality. One such arrived in December. It was some distance away and to save money he walked there and back for 24 miles with 12 hours spent riding in a coach. He was quartered at the house of a rich man and enjoyed supper there. Then James was asked where he intended to spend the night and unfortunately James had assumed he would have a nice warm bed at the rich man’s house. But there was no such luck because apparently there were no spare beds in the house and he would have to lodge at a public house. When James enquired if a horse might take him there, he was told that as a good Christian the rich man did not allow his horses to work on a Sunday. James grumbled that the upright gentleman had no compunction about allowing the poor parson to walk 12 miles and so near to Christmas too.   

In the spring of 1846 James worked on the stonework of a residence being erected by a London builder. By this time he no longer preached at his cottage but had hired the long room at the Old Custom House in Shoreham. This venerable building was supposed to have been built in the reign of Elizabeth I and was reputed to be haunted with pebbles mysteriously rattling down the stairs.

James paid £16 a year in rent – that is £9 for his cottage and £7 for the long room. But then his landlord said he could have the entire building for that price and so James moved into the Old Custom House together with his wife and daughters and they became the sole tenants of the building.

This move enraged the rector because it seems he had his eyes on the property too and wanted to establish a church school on the premises. He wished James and his family to be turned out but his landlord allowed him to stay.

In 1846 James’s aunt left him the princely sum of £21 and for a short while he was not in want but by Christmas Day he had empty pockets again.

In February 1847 he was invited to preach at the chapel in Brown’s Lane, Spitalfields, a place frequented by French refugees. He received other invitations too.

But with another downturn, one day he was walking back to Shoreham from Brighton when he turned into the ruins of Aldrington church where he sank to the ground in utter despair. It was not of course just himself put at risk through his lifestyle but also his wife and children had to suffer too. Shortly afterwards Mr H. sent him £200 and he earned £500 building a house in London while other jobs netted him £150.

  copyright © D.Sharp
When James knew St Leonard’s Church, Aldrington it was nothing more
 than a ruin, this drawing is based on the 1767 James Lambert painting
copyright © J.Middleton
The rebuilt St Leonard's Church, Aldrington today

In the winter of 1848-1849 James was again asked to preach in distant parts, including Hastings and London and Providence Chapel, Hackney. London people had acquired a large ballroom that they fitted up as a chapel and James preached there. But three months later it was deliberately burned down.

Move to London

In June 1850 James moved to London with his family and the 1851 census records them as living in High Street, Hackney. It is not clear whether or not James regretted leaving Sussex because after all four of his children were born there and a further two were born in London. Perhaps he hoped for better times, a more settled lifestyle and an end to frustrations with local clergy.

James purchased Providence Chapel. But the course of his life did not run any smoother. First of all his wife was ill in 1852 and in 1853 he was told his agreed wages were being reduced and with a wife and six children to support he was obliged to move to cheaper accommodation in the shape of Rose Cottage, Well Street Common.

By the close of 1854 all six of his children were ‘prostrate with malignant fever’. On the Sunday before Christmas his dearest boy Adam died and James was the solitary mourner at his funeral because the others were too ill to attend. But gradually they recovered. It is pleasant to record that during this sad time the rector of Winchelsea and friends at Hastings and Rye came to his assistance.

By 1855 James was embroiled in disputes with some of his congregation and in particular with the deacons and their wives. His opinion of women was never high given his early experiences with his mother. He does not mention his wife much but it is clear the two females he was really devoted to were his sister Sarah and his daughter Emily and because they both died young, they probably acquired a saintly status in James’s mind. However, as for the presence of women in church life, they were nothing but a nuisance to James. It is also the case that women were more influential in non-conformist circles than they were in the Anglican Church. James adhered to St Paul’s opinion of the female sex because he wrote ‘if women in general were to attend to the apostolic injunction and keep silence in Churches, they would incur less disgrace.’

The powers that be determined to get rid of James and the most influential amongst them wished to have a Baptist minister instead. They could not sack James outright and so they told him they could not guarantee his salary while demanding the instant settlement of a debt of £120 or the chapel would go under the hammer. This threat was carried out on 14 December 1855 when the chapel was sold at auction to the Plymouth Brethren.

For the first time in fifteen years James had nothing to do on a Sunday except wander the fields in despair. But he did have the presence of mind to pay a visit to Mr Dodd, the lawyer who had overseen the sale of the chapel. It transpired that the chapel authorities had been dishonest with James in not allowing him part of the proceeds of the chapel sale as well as some lost salary. The lawyer was horrified because he had carried out the work at a reduced price because it was a church matter and he threatened the miscreants with legal action unless they paid James what was his by right.  

Meanwhile, James hired a schoolroom at St Thomas’s Square, Hackney for three months but he found the rent was unaffordable and he had to leave. In 1856 James was obliged to take his brass stair rods to the pawn-shop in order to release a little money for the family to live on.

James rented the Old Assembly Room, Hackney for £22 a year. The little money given him by the congregation was not enough to keep body and soul together. Even when his daughter Emily reminded him of little Evie’s birthday there could be no celebration.

In 1856 James lodged his communion vessels in the safe keeping of a friend and he and his family had to leave Rose Cottage. It was a bitter wrench because he had grown vegetables in the garden for his family and planted fruit trees. Instead they moved to a small house at the Oval, Shoreditch. It must have been a pretty dismal abode because the authorities later condemned it and the family moved to Dalston.

But this was not before poor Emily died of fever in July 1857, which was a great blow to James. Little Alf was also critically ill and not expected to survive. In fact a coffin for him had already been ordered because in the case of this virulent fever a corpse had to be buried as soon as possible. Somehow little Alf managed to hang on to life although nobody knew quite how he did it. Once again, James’s Sussex friends rallied around.

Then there were lodgings in Gray’s Inn Road. In May 1858 James was invited to preach at Plymouth for a month and was then asked to be minister of Trinity Chapel, Plymouth. In October 1859 he travelled up the English Channel by steamer in order to preach for two Sundays in Sussex.

In 1859 James learned that Trinity Chapel was to be sold and he rented Mount Zion Chapel, Devonport, for £2 a week. He also undertook preaching engagements at Portsmouth, Chichester and Hastings.

But he was not destined to stay at Plymouth and after a 15-month absence he found himself back at Watford where he had been a supply preacher before going to Plymouth.

James then began a stint at the Water Lane Chapel where he found to his dismay that women always ruled at this chapel and his particular antagonist was the squire’s wife. Mr W, the squire, and his wife occupied a high-curtained pew for Sunday worship. This afforded them privacy enough for the squire often to take a nap during the sermon. But his vigilant wife stayed awake in order to be able to pick holes in the parson’s sermon. One sermon the squire managed to stay awake for was about pre-destination and he did not like what he heard. They wanted James to be gone by Lady Day. James preached his farewell sermon to such members of the congregation as remained loyal to him at the Old County Court Hall at Watford.    

James went to Bedford for three months but as usual did not get on with well with some people and felt he could not continue. In 1861 he was invited to do supply preaching at Artillery Lane, London. He upset people at Ebenezer Chapel by refusing to baptize infants, which he labelled ‘Popish mummery’. He also wrote ‘It is difficult to discern between a Papist and a Baptist, so far as bigotry goes’. It is strange he had such an aversion to baptism, which is clearly endorsed in the Gospels.

James lived in the most humble circumstances in Camden Town. The dwelling was situated in a back lane and like some old cottages today in Portslade Old Village, there was a treacherous step down just inside the front door. Unwary visitors were apt to fall headlong when entering the place. But what was worse was its situation next door to a slaughter-house. He does not mention the awful stench and distressing noises and although he felt he was at his lowest ebb he was also free from interference with his only master being ‘grim old Poverty’.

James had sold his stonemason’s tools while at Plymouth through necessity. But he regretted the action when he was at Camden Town and had to set about finding new ones; with these he was able to earn money repairing some steps on Finsbury pavement. He had a chapel nicknamed ‘the hole in the wall’ and at the end of 1867 he hired another place where the rent was £30 a year; he was still there when he concluded writing his memoirs. Still intractable to the end he simply could not agree with a preacher who said ‘the blessings of salvation were received through the sacraments of the church.’

James Godsmark first book was The Great Shepherd and His Flock (1849) and his last work was Divine Ordination (1889). In 1860 he published his controversial The Futility of Baptism.

James was not only a prolific writer of prose but he also enjoyed poetry and the following is an example of his work, which he wrote while on a steam-ship to Portsmouth.

O’er life's troubled sea my tempest-toss'd barque
Is preserved from shipwreck, though stormy and dark ;
Each billow bears homeward the valuable freight,
Secured by that charter which nothing can break.

Sometimes I mount high towards heavenly bliss,
And then again down in the yawning abyss;
O’er all nautical powers the storm has full sway,
And all hope of being saved is oft taken away.

Neither sun, moon, nor stars in the heavens appear
Through the black clouds and tempest that whirl in the air ;
The stormy winds threaten, the darkness control
The manifold fears of my tempest-toss’d soul.

But the end of her course she shall surely attain,
Though storms of ten thousandfold trouble the main;
No vessel of mercy e’er founder’d at sea,
For God is her Pilot, and ever shall be.

Thus still on her homeward-bound course she makes way,
Though on her beam ends almost stranded she lay ;
If harbour of refuge, no haven of rest,
Until her keel touches the shores of the blest.

There storms are all hush’d in peaceful repose;
There the river of life and tranquillity flows ;
There my storm-riven soul shall forget all her pains
In the heavenly calm which there ever reigns.
James Godsmark (1816-1891)

James Godsmark died aged 75 in 1891 at Edmonton, London.


Carder, Tim Encyclopaedia of Brighton (1990)
Census returns
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Godsmark, James Memoirs of Mercies and Miseries in the Spiritual and Providential Dealings of Almighty God (1867)
Internet searches
Kent Herald (23 March 1837)
Additional  research by D.Sharp

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp