George Eliel Sargent, Author and Preacher

George Eliel Sargent (1809-1883) was a prolific and culturally important author. He was resident in Eythorne from about 1842 to 1853, during which time he wrote many of his significant works. The picture shows George in his later years.

He was born, in Battle in Sussex, on 2 Jan 1809 and was the sixth child of George Sargent (1774-1861), a draper, and his wife Ann Wood (1776-1857). He was educated at Rye and at Hunter’s Academy, Brunswick Square, London.
He took up a business post in Oxford where he had an introduction to the Chapel which the Hewletts attended. George was a deeply religious man with strong Calvinistic views. On 12 September 1837 George Eliel Sargent and Emma Hewlett (1814-1890), the daughter of Esther Hewlett, the author, were married in the New Road Baptist Chapel, Oxford. George’s brother, Ebenezer, married Emma’s sister Esther Beuzeville Hewlett on 16th June 1841.

The young couple lived in Oxford for the first few years of married life. Their first two children were born there; Daniel George in 1838 and Emma in 1840. George preached in villages around Oxford, and one of his sermons was afterwards produced in the form of a tract called “The Leprosy Cured.” This was his first publication, and the beginnings of a literary career which spanned 40 years.

In 1842 he gave up his business, which he detested, to devote himself to literature. The family moved to Eythorne where Emma’s mother, Esther Hewlett, who in 1827 had married the Rev. William Copley following the death of her first husband the Rev James Hewlett, was living. George and Emma may have moved into Copley House initially, but by 1851 they were living in Church Hill House along with their six children and Emma’s mother, now separated from William Copley.

George was a prolific writer of books and tracts with a definite religious and moral flavour. Most of these were published by the Religious Tract Society (RTS). In September 1851 the Editor of the RTS, Mr W Haig Miller, wrote to George Eliel asking if he would supply material for a new periodical which the Society had been contemplating. “The Leisure Hour” first appeared in January 1852, and the first article in it was the “Accommodation Bill” by G E Sargent, though his name was not then published as its author. “The Leisure Hour” was a general-interest periodical of the Victorian era which ran weekly from 1852 to 1905. It was the most successful of several popular magazines published by the Religious Tract Society, which produced Christian literature for a wide audience. Each issue mixed multiple genres of fiction and factual stories, historical and topical (see below).

The magazine’s title referred to campaigns that had decreased work hours, giving workers extra leisure time. Each issue cost one penny and contained 16 pages. The creation of the magazine was partly a response to non-religious popular magazines that the Religious Tract Society saw as delivering a harmful and destructive morality to the working classes. The ethos of the magazine was guided by Sabbatarianism: the campaign to keep Sunday as a day of rest. It aimed to treat its diverse subjects “in the light of Christian truth”. Despite this, The Leisure Hour carried far fewer statements of Christian doctrine than the Society’s other publications. Compared to other popular magazines of the time, The Leisure Hour had a greater emphasis on fiction. The cover of an 1871 edition is illustrated.
In spite of his industry, writing was not a lucrative business and George’s wife struggled to raise the children and manage the household. J. Gilbert Wiblin, in his paper “A Quiet By-Lane of Huguenot Story: A paper on a refugee family named Roussel and their descendants”(read before the Huguenot Society of London, January 14, 1931 ) states that “… in Emma Hewlett he had a resourceful and heroic wife, in whom the cares of domesticity did not submerge her intellectual and cultural interests.”

The book, “Down in a Mine, or Buried alive” (published between 1850-1876 and running to 19 editions), concerns two weeks in the life of Peter Morrison, a boy aged nine, who works in a mine and who lives in an industrial environment, dominated by furnaces and their waste. His father is dead and his mother has been the only breadwinner until Peter was old enough to work. Here is is a description of Peter descending into the mine (“Monday, Week One”): –
“How were we to get down ? We saw a great hole in the ground pitchy dark, and above it a windlass, or some kind of machinery for lowering and raising great weights. From this hung a chain, and at the end of that a large basket. “We fixed ourselves in the basket, standing with our hands grasping the chain ; the word was given, and down we glided with a smooth motion into what looked like a well, about six feet across, and boarded all round. I kept my eyes fixed on the opening above, which seemed to become smaller and smaller, till at a vast depth I was obliged to look down, as my head grew dizzy, and small pieces of coal and drops of water struck with unpleasant force against my face. As we descended lower all became darkness ; the noise over our heads grew gradually more indistinct till it died away, and a gloomy silence ensued, broken only occasionally by the grating of the basket against the walls. ” At length, after a descent of nearly six hundred feet, I heard the voices of men below me, and presently I perceived two dim lights. These were at the High Eye, formerly at the bottom of the shaft, on a level with which is a great extent of the workings. I asked no questions here. Steady the basket,’ cried our guide ; and in a moment we were again in utter darkness. In a quarter of a minute more I heard other voices below me, the basket stopped, and we soon found ourselves on our feet at the bottom.”
From the title of the book it can be gathered that the ending is tragic. From Chapter II, “The first day of the disaster”
“It was about half-past ten when I and seven others got into the cage. We had got about half way up when we heard a sudden crack in the shaft, and a moment after there came down a tremendous crush of falling timber, which struck the cage. Before we were struck something passed by us down the shaft, like a flash of lightning The crack we heard seemed close by us in the shaft, it did not come from overhead. It might have been one of the spears (pump rods) breaking, but I should not like to say. We were all thrown out of the cage by the shock. Four of us were killed on the spot. When we (those who survived) came to consider, we concluded that the spears were broken, as the engine had stopped ; and we thought that the shaft had closed up over us”. The buried miners are not rescued in time to save their lives. An illustration from the book is shown below.

George’s last few years at Eythorne were tinged with sadness, as firstly one-month-old Sidney died in March 1851, followed by Esther Copley on 17 July 1851. The first-born, Daniel, who showed so much promise of a bright future, died aged 15 on 14 November 1853. All three were buried in the Baptist Churchyard at Eythorne.

Later that year the Sargent family moved to Whitfield, Kent, where the youngest child, Frederick George, was born in February 1855. They remained here for 15 years; George continued with his writing, and preaching in the towns and villages for miles around. In a Memoir of Author written by his son Edward Sargent, George is described as follows: “The high character, consistent life, and Christian example were of much value to all with whom he came in contact. His counsel and advice were sought by many, and always gladly given, as well as help to those in need, so far as it was in his power to bestow it. His religion did not make him dull and gloomy.” One of the works published after George’s move to Whitfield was The story of a City Arab (published 1864), the introduction of which I think is very evocative: –
By the dim light of a single candle, a woman, not many years past girlhood, sat working with her needle. Her dress was mean and scanty; her face, though so young, was haggard and careworn; her fingers were very thin and pale, yet not paler than her countenance; and a constant racking cough caused her frequently to suspend her labours, while it shook her whole frame with its violence, and convulsed her features with pain. It was a dark night, and stormy and cold. Mingled snow and sleet beat against the broken window, which rattled in its frame; while the scanty curtain – a checked apron – which was suspended before it and barely concealed it, swayed to and fro with every gust of wind. The apartment was a wretched attic in a dilapidated house in a London alley. The plastered walls of the garret were discoloured with damp, and in some places had given way, laying bare the black, rotten laths, between which the air whistled freely in, playing with the feeble blaze of the rushlight, threatening every moment to extinguish it, and causing a stream of melted tallow to gutter down the iron candlestick. The flooring of the room was worm-eaten, rotten, and uneven; many of the boards were loose, and some broken away, leaving dangerous gaps for unwary footsteps. The furniture of the room was a small deal table; two chairs, one of which was occupied by the poor watcher and worker; and a flock mattress, on the floor, on which lay a child, whose age might be five or six years, and who, wakened by the uproar of the elements without, was watching his mother for the young woman was his mother-with dreamy interest. In a corner of the room was another couch, not occupied then; and this, with a wooden shelf, fastened into a recess formed by the projecting brickwork of a chimney, and a rusty grate, in which lingered a spark or two from some dying embers, completed the inventory of the chamber. “Past ten o’clock, and a stormy night! ” The hoarse voice of the watchman was faintly heard from the pavement below, mingling with the pattering of the sleet, and the moaning of the wind, and the rattling of loose tiles overhead; when the door was pushed open, and a tall female figure, wrapped in a faded and ragged red cloak, and with her head partially covered with a battered bonnet, which had once been black, stumbled heavily in, and threw herself on the unoccupied chair.”
George Eliel Sargent is best known for the work “The Story of a Pocket Bible” which ran to 25 editions, was last published in 1911 and ran to over 350 pages. It is deemed by scholars to be culturally important. It tells the story of different lives as witnessed by a bible as it is passed from owner to owner. It starts with the life of a child and ends with “The Drunkards Home”.

In 1868 George Eliel Sargent and his family moved to London when he was appointed by the Committee of the Religious Tract Society to the post of Tract Editor. He commenced his new work with much energy and zeal and the “Tract Magazine” flourished under his management.

He remained in this post until “the infirmities of age [compelled] him to retire from it” in 1880. He remained active in the service of the Society reading manuscripts submitted for publication, and offering much useful criticism and counsel. George had been troubled by bronchial problems for some time, but when the end came it was rather sudden. On Sunday 22 July 1883 George Eliel Sargent quietly, peacefully and without much pain, died. He was 71.

His remains were interred in the burial ground of the Baptist Chapel at Eythorne, where over thirty years earlier his two sons and mother-in-law were laid to rest. Emma Sargent lived for another seven years. She died on 13 March 1890 and joined her mother, husband and two sons in the Eythorne Baptist churchyard.

Vince Croud