A Saint, a Dame and an Eight Thousand Mile Journey
by Adrian Bean
How long a person lives for doesn’t necessarily determine their impact on the world: Mozart was considered a genius at the age of five, Greta Thunberg changed the civilised world’s attitude to climate change by the age of fifteen and also by fifteen, Bobby Fischer was a virtually unbeatable Chess Grandmaster. Conversely, most people get to the allotted three score years and ten without making any significant impact on the wider world, and very few do so when elderly. This makes it all the more sad when a life is extremely short, as that interrupted life might have produced unimagined inventions, cures for illnesses or created literature rivalling Shakespeare.
In the first month after Bedford Cemetery was opened in July 1855, there were 28 burials; 16 of those buried were aged five or under.
Yet despite the ever-present danger of cholera and other illnesses, some reached genuine Old Age. One such person was Noah Pratt, dying in 1855 at the age of 89. As a working-class man, he also succeeded against the odds, having lived a life of apparent quiet obscurity, by having an effusive and generous obituary in the Bedfordshire Mercury which portrayed him virtually as a Saint. The 1855 obituary outlines some of the enormous changes to the world since his birth in 1766, and by looking at the history of his family you can see how some of the dramatic events of the era affected them.
As with most people of the time, Noah Pratt’s world was a small one. One of seven children, he was born in 1766, and worked as a woolcomber, as did his father. It was an Anglican family, but after moving between Bedford and Kimbolton, he and his family settled in Bedford and became members of the Bunyan Meeting. He had four children and after his wife died, he remarried and from the second marriage he had another eight children. He seems to have been slightly confused by his large family at one point, as when he had them baptised again, he mistakenly listed the wrong mother for one of the children. He was so anxious and wonderstruck hearing of the birth of his first child that he injured himself on mechanical equipment and was lame for much of his life. Until his death, he was a mainstay of the Bunyan church, sometimes stepping in to preach in the absence of the minister. His headstone, paid for by members of the congregation, shows the high regard in which he was held.
According to recollections by a granddaughter, Hannah Slater Bone, during the Napoleonic War era when there were rumours of a French invasion, Noah was a “bugle man,” sounding out the warning call for soldiers to get ready for action when he himself had been told to do so. He was an overseer at the “House of Industry” (commonly known as Workhouse) but despite the cruel associations with these places, Noah seems to have been a benevolent figure.
For the last fifteen years of his life he lived in one of the Dame Alice almshouses, rent-free. This was a benefit given to those of good character, but it did lead to a little controversy. At that time a requirement to have the vote was to be a Householder, but there was an official objection to him exercising his right to vote as he wasn’t legally the owner of a property. Happily, the objection was overruled.
His obituary in the Bedfordshire Mercury was lengthy. His was a life “passed in decent, uncomplaining, uneventful poverty,” and it noted his “benevolent and happy countenance, free from all the repulsive signs of old age, and most of all free from the symptoms of petulance, fretfulness, suspicion and of dotage.” Between 100 and 200 people attended his funeral, conducted by Rev John Jukes, one of the three notable Bunyan pastors of Noah’s lifetime. He left some 85 descendants.
Despite his relative obscurity, he would have witnessed enormous changes in his hometown. He was one of the first residents of the Dame Alice almshouses, one of the first burials in Bedford Cemetery, he would have seen the construction of the prison and the Corn Exchange, seen the railway and banks come to Bedford, survived outbreaks of cholera and seen people go off to the new Empire. In the streets of Bedford he might have passed Charles Higgins, founder of the brewing empire, or John Howard, or at least heard of him. His was a small world, but a lot was happening.
By contrast, some members of his family travelled far and had experiences much different from his. Bravery and bitter religious differences are shown in the story of Noah’s daughter Hannah and her own daughters. Hannah married James Slater, from a strict Calvinist family, and who believed strongly in the very real danger of going to Hell rather than Heaven. Hannah Slater’s daughter (also Hannah) was born in Clifton in 1835. She, her sisters and their mother were influenced by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) missionaries and were baptised in 1854, when young Hannah was 15. What Noah thought of this isn’t known, but James Slater disowned them and they lived in poverty. Young Hannah formed a friendship with John Bone, who was similarly inspired by this new religious group. In 1858, he set out for America to join the Mormon community, and she followed in 1860 in a ship carrying 594 “saints” but to all intents and purposes, alone. After reaching New York they travelled by rail to Nebraska then to Salt Lake City. Overall she had travelled 8000 miles from Bedford, including 1000 miles by cart, in the kind of conditions we’d recognise from Wild West films, fraught with human and natural dangers. There she married John Bone.
Other members of the family followed her example. Between 1862 and 1864 her sister Frances Eliza Slater emigrated, as did sister Ruth and her husband sometime before 1870, going to Idaho. Yet another daughter, Mary Ann Slater had good reason to want to start a new life with her husband in the New World. According to family legend, while still in Bedfordshire she gave birth to twin girls, both of whom died within hours. The vicar arrived in time to baptise the second one but because the first one hadn’t been baptised, she was buried outside the churchyard. Not surprisingly, Mary Ann was distraught and felt let down by the church; as LDS beliefs gave her comfort, she converted and emigrated with her five children and her husband, who perhaps because of the trauma, had found his own comfort in drink.
Perhaps even more impressive was her mother, Noah’s daughter Hannah Slater. In 1870, when in her early 70s, she and a granddaughter made the exhausting and dangerous journey from Bedford to Utah. By that time her estranged husband James Slater had died and many of her immediate family had gone. She lived to the age of 90, amongst the Mormon community in Lehi, Utah.
What attracted these Bedfordians to convert to Mormonism isn’t known, nor why it had such a following in Bedfordshire but it must have taken a great deal of courage to do what they did. One aspect of Mormonism is that unlike in mainstream Christianity, Mormons believe that Salvation can come from doing Good Works, whereas Christianity holds that it only comes from Belief. It’s reasonable to think that they were good people, intending to do Good Works in Utah, and thereby achieve Salvation…in much the same way as family patriarch Noah seems to have been considered something of a saint.
Noah’s grave is high up in the cemetery, with the stone at reference E11.18.
The words highlight his commitment to the Bunyan Meeting:
“This stone was erected by the church and congregation assembling in Bunyan Meeting of which the deceased was a consistent member for seventy years.”
The stone also commemorates Fanny Ellard and Susannah Frances Ellard, two of his granddaughters through his daughter Frances.
However, he wasn’t actually buried at E11.18, but nearby, at E11.3. The most likely reason for this is that in 1955, a hundred years after his burial, a crematorium was built and a Garden of Remembrance was established for ashes to be scattered there. A number of headstones which happened to be inside the boundary of the new Garden were moved to places just outside the boundary, although of course the bodies stayed where they were. It’s strange to think that in the years since, visitors might have stood at those stones thinking about their distant relatives but not realising that they were actually several yards away, within the boundary of the Garden of Remembrance.
Bedfordshire Mercury Dec 1855
Details of the family history researched by Lynn Brown (Noah’s 4x great granddaughter). Many thanks for sharing this fascinating story.
Recollections recorded by daughters of Hannah Slater to LDS publications in Utah. It includes an interesting account by Hannah Slater Bone of the Almshouses:
“With this money (the Dame Alice money) there were also forty six houses built in one long row, only as the road cut them in two. They were called Dame Alice Row or Dame Alice Street. All the old people at the age of seventy would live in one of those, if they bore a good character, rent free as long as they lived. My mother’s father lived in one of them for nineteen years and died there at the age of 89. The houses were numbered and the name of the man was on the door. Grandfather lived in the one on the end. It seems to me now; Noah Pratt No 46 on the door.”
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