3 Leicester (1842-1875)


The 1830s and ’40s were the height of the coaching era, and no doubt William would, when he could, have made the journey back from Kent to London by stagecoach, to visit Mary. He did write that one day he was riding outside on a coach – the cheaper seats were on the roof, behind the driver – and a ‘very talkative man’ sat beside him and asked, ‘Are you not Mr Wells, of London?’

This man ‘would keep guessing at my name’ until William replied, ‘No, my name is Garrard.’ At this the stranger introduced himself as a minister from Leicester, and identified William as ‘The Watchman on the Walls’ – a name under which he had been writing spiritual tracts. He asked William to come to Leicester to preach. ‘I told him I should not object, if invited properly; and, in a short time, I was invited to Leicester, and to Leicester I came in October, 1842.’

His first impressions of the Zoar chapel in York Street, and the congregation there, were not encouraging: ‘When I entered the pulpit and looked round, I thought what a gloomy, dismal-looking place this is and the people appeared the same; for when they began to sing, the drawling, discordant sounds grated on my ear and seemed to me more like crying than singing.’ These were Calvinistic Baptists, and though there were close links between different types of Baptists – and indeed the different dissenting churches generally – William clearly found their style difficult. At first he acted only as a temporary ‘supply’, but after a couple of months he agreed to stay a while longer – even though he said that he did not much like Leicester.

The first half of William’s book of Reminiscences was written in Leicester and dated 28th July 1843. Nevertheless by the end of 1844, and after living there for two years, he had still made no commitment to remain as the York Street community’s settled minister. However, by then he had moved into the house at 14 Newtown Street, Leicester, with Mary and her three sons.

Exactly when and how the boys rejoined their mother I have not yet been able to discover. A worry is that they may have been sent by the Challis family to one of the notorious ‘Yorkshire Schools’, cheap and squalid boarding schools that often became virtually detention centres for boys from middle class families who were in some way ‘inconvenient’ to their parents or guardians. They could suffer illness, neglect and deprivation, and sometimes physical violence, whilst being several days’ journey by coach from their families; and they generally boarded full time with ‘no vacation’. Many of these ‘academies’ closed down after their worst excesses were exposed by Charles Dickens, who satirised them in Nicholas Nickleby as ‘Dotheboys Hall’ (1).

This is, of course, only a possibility, and certainly James Challis’ Will had provided sufficient funds for a far more genuine and repectable mode of education (2).


Zoar Chapel and Newtown Street

Before William did settle in Leicester, a recurring pattern of his life as a minister was repeated. His uncompromising stance on matters of propriety and morals was what usually seemed to touch a weak spot in the veneer of respectability that was carried by some of the richer members of the congregation. ‘One of the chief supporters of the place … could not endure my preaching, so he left: and soon some of the others became alarmed and frightened, saying how can the cause be carried on if Mr. M— leaves; as if, by his strength of money, he could hold up the Ark of God.’

One night William awoke, ‘through a singular dream or vision of the night’. This was a dream of three severed, bleeding heads, ‘and a fourth behind them, in a kind of smoke … I heard a name pronounced, a name which I knew, but from that day to this I have kept that name a secret, and never named it to any person.’

The following day was the monthly church meeting, when things came to a head. ‘With open mouths, fiery faces, and lightning flashing from their eyes, they began to rage against me. I kept as calm as I could, but they began to stir up my feelings. One poor man, calling me a liar, jumping about the vestry like a half-madman; others abusing me with foul words and clenched fists, until it became quite an uproar.’ Then, William insisted on having a show of hands as to whether he should remain as their minister or go; ‘instantly they all held up their hands, except for those three men, and one more behind them in the shade, who wished to be neutral.’

This settled the question, though William was so troubled by the experience that for three nights afterwards he was unable to sleep. After that matters gradually settled down and he was able to stay, though for him ‘truly this was a fiery trial’ and for a while ‘I sometimes thought of leaving the town, the chapel, and the people altogether, for I seemed oppressed beyond measure.’ However, perhaps as a result of now having a family to look after, this time William stood his ground rather than walking away. That evening in the chapel vestry marks the point of transition from the early period of his ministry to his career in Leicester that he is best remembered for.


It still took some time for him to be reconciled to the situation. Still sometimes feeling like leaving Leicester and this troublesome congregation, nevertheless he could suddenly find himself inspired; ‘If ever I was eloquent in preaching, surely it must have been then. I could have preached until midnight, as Paul did, and the people, it seems, were as joyful as myself ’.

On one such occasion, ‘As soon as I had finished, I ran out of the chapel: some would have stopped me at the door to speak with me, but I was too full of joy and peace to stop. I ran on, for I wanted to get alone by myself to pour out my heart and soul in thanksgiving to God; and when I reached the county jail I felt afraid to go into my own house, lest some one should rob me of my joy. As Elijah wrapped his mantle about his head, so I wrapped my old cloak about my head (for it was winter-time and a very dark night), and I walked round the jail walls, shouting, blessing, and praising God for my deliverance. I was thankful there was not a soul about, or they would perhaps have said, that fellow must be crazed.’

It soon, however, became a very productive time for him: in 1844 he published Sparks of Light from the Watchman’s Lantern, a lengthy ‘Refutation of a false charge of blasphemy, against Doctor Everard’ (Dr Everard being a theologian and preacher much favoured by William); he also made contributions to several Baptist magazines, both as William Garrard and as ‘The Watchman on the Walls’; and there was the celebrated case of 11-year-old Mary Miller, not mentiond by William himself, whose rescue from near-death – apparently by the power of spirit – was presided over and contributed to by ‘Mr Garrard, our minister’, and ‘Mr Lines also, one of our deacons’. The story was reported in the Baptist publication, The Royal Diadem.

In 1845 William’s son William Garrard took up a position as veterinary surgeon in Ticknall, Derbyshire, about 20 miles from Leicester. In 1848  he was married, and prosperously settled in the village; within 10 years of his marriage, the Reverend William had six grandchildren. The only direct evidence there is of contact between the Garrards of Leicester and of Ticknall is in a letter written many years later by Charles, the youngest of the six grandchildren, who said that he knew William well. His older brothers and sisters presumeably did so aswell.

Mary had even more grandchildren, in particular her son David’s eight children. Later, newspaper reports showed that the Garrards and the Challises were invited to each others’ weddings, and in 1879 the younger William’s eldest son Norman would marry David’s eldest daughter Annie Mary; visits between Leicester and Ticknall were clearly a regular occurrence.


William would continue as minister at York Street for more than twenty years. He had finally become established, and by the time of the census in 1851 he was still living at the house in Newtown Street with Mary and Eliezer. Mary’s youngest son had by then taken up an apprenticeship. Nathan was in Oxfordshire pursuing a career in the Anglican Church, and David was still in Leicester but living elsewhere (4). He was finding his own way as a businessman, and had joined the John O’Gaunt Lodge of Freemasons in Leicester. Mary would continue to visit her relatives in Essex – though whether this was Halstead, where she had grown up, or Panfield, or both, is not known for sure.

In 1862 William published his book of verse, Old England, Our Queen and Her People, after Prince Albert had died in December 1861. The book includes a series of dirges written to mark his death and sung in public at intervals during a lecture in the Music Hall, Leicester on January 15th 1862. William’s unquestioning and undivided patriotism, his loyalty to the Sovereign and her consort, would seem uncomfortably exaggerated today, and even then he felt the need to address the question, ‘Who are you, to write so much about the Queen?’

“My simple answer is this:– Because it came upon me unsought for. I was walking carelessly one morning on Dunmow Downs, when the parish bells struck up with a merry peal for the proclamation of the young Queen Victoria. Singular to say, I immediately felt myself under an irresistable influence to turn about and hasten home to my private chamber, alone to pray for the young Queen.”

William never published anything else similar to his book of poetry, and we have to accept that for him this was a part of his spiritual life.


Following the upset at that fiery church meeting early in his time at Leicester, William’s congregation at York Street was at first much reduced. However a sustained period of peace meant that numbers steadily increased – whilst at the same time the fabric of the building was becoming increasingly dilapidated. Eventually a new place of worship had to be found, and they were offered a chapel not far away in Newark Street.

The Zoar chapel in York Street had been founded by Calvinistic Baptists in 1818. In 1863 the congregation moved to the Providence Chapel, Newark Street, where William would continue preaching for a further ten years – until two weeks before his death (6).

The Newark Street chapel had originally been founded in 1835 as an off-shoot from York Street. Now it offered a new home to the York Street congregation (7). The York Street chapel would be rebuilt by a group of Particular Baptists in 1866, for use as a mission hall; it still exists, having been taken over by Primitive Brethren in 1911.


Reminiscences and Newark Street

The unsigned letter dated 1928, mentioned in chapter 2 and earlier in this chapter, was written by Charles Garrard, old William’s youngest grandson – and not by his elder brother Norman, who had died in 1897. This was ascertained by the sender’s address, which matched that in Pendleton which is shown as Charles Garrard’s address in several successive censuses. It was written to his nephew (and my grandfather) Oswald Garrard; Charles was 70 when he wrote this letter, and he lamented his inability to write very clearly. Nevertheless his memories would have been very helpful to Oswald and his enquiries.

The letter refers to William’s book as The Recollections of the late Wm Garrard, and mentions in particular William’s spiritual experiences which are recorded in the book. These are described as happening quite spontaneously, and they bear more resemblance to sublime mystical states than to the fiery emotions that might be more expected of a Baptist minister. They had occurred in William’s twenties, and appear to have ceased once he was firmly set on his direction in life.

Charles would have been only fifteen years of age when old William died but he said, “I knew him well. He was always cheerful and absolutely untainted with hypocrisy – not qualities especially pleasing to his spiritual followers, who nevertheless had great love for him.”

The book, actually entitled Reminiscences of the late William Garrard, was compiled after his death by one of his congregation, R.A.Barber. Mr Barber states in his preface that the book was compiled largely from ‘numerous papers in his own hand-writing’ and that ‘there will still be left ample materials for twice as much more, which it is my intention to publish’, though this never came about – and whether his papers survived I do not know.

William’s nom de plume, ‘The Watchman on the Walls’, is of unknown origin – I still have no idea where this medieval image came from or how it became attached to him.

The book is a spiritual biography, including some details of his physical life but only where he felt them to be directly relevant to his spiritual story. His son and his two wives receive scant mention. Sarah’s tragic death, which initially set William on his spiritual path, does claim a few pages though Mary, who supported him in his ministry for at least thirty years, gets only two very short sentences.


Though something of a firebrand in his youth, in his later years William was referred to with loving respect as ‘the dear old saint’. He died on 14th December 1873, attended by several of his spiritual followers as well as Mary’s son David Challis.

William had played the french horn in his youth, though latterly his instrument was the flute. Towards the end, as his strength began to fail, Mr Barber wrote that a flute, which he had been very fond of using when in good health, lay upon his book case; one day he took it up and said, ‘I feel just like this old musical instrument, laid aside, out of use’. A friend remarked, ‘but you have often played sweetly upon it’ and he replied, ‘Oh yes, and I should like to be at it again; but many of my people don’t seem to understand me’.

The last days and hours of his life are described in some detail by Mr Barber at the end of the book. ‘On Sunday, November 30th, the dear old man was somewhat troubled that he was not able to go and preach. Mr. David Challis and one of his daughters went to see him, and dined with him; and he seemed as usual, much pleased and cheered to have them there, and, after dinner, freely chatted with them about Mr. Challis, senior, whom he highly esteemed as a man of God … He also referred to Mr. David Challis’ boyhood, addressing himself to Miss Challis with much fervency and affection … ‘During the following week he was much engaged in prayer, pleading fervently for the Church of God, and earnestly praying for our dear mother and all near and dear’ (7). He took to his bed-room on Saturday, the 13th, but sat up until about ten o’clock, when he asked for a chapter to be read, and again engaged most sweetly in prayer. Mr. David Challis assisted him to undress for the last time …

‘Sunday morning came – the last earthly Sabbath. We all saw a change, but did not think his end so near. Many of the friends called during the day, several of whom he saw; but towards the close of the afternoon he became much weaker, and wished not to see any more that day … [Next morning] when he awoke he was perfectly sensible, and dozed off again, gave one gentle sigh, and his ransomed spirit left its mortal clay. So peaceful was his end, we scarcely knew when he breathed his last.’


William Mary gravestone

William and Mary’s gravestone as it is now in Leicester Cemetery. The epitaph recorded below is not there – presumeably covered over after Mary’s death and burial two years later.

A report in the Leicester Guardian recorded the funeral that took place the following Friday: ‘The Cemetery chapel was nearly filled some time before the hour fixed for the funeral to take place. The high esteem by which the reverend gentleman was held by all who knew him, brought together on this occasion many of his friends, those who were of the same profession, as well as those of other denominations. We understand he has been a minister about fifty years, thirty of which have been spent in Leicester, at the chapel in Newarke-street. He died on Monday last, at his residence in Southfields, after a somewhat short illness, at the advanced age of 80 years. Many private carriages and cabs followed his remains to the Cemetery.’

The report was clearly written by someone who did not know the family. William’s surname was spelt incorrectly as ‘Garrod’ and his age (actually 78) was likewise incorrect. 20 of his 30 years in Leicester had been spent ministering at York Street, which is not mentioned. Neither his wife Mary, his son William, nor his step-son David Challis were named though there is little doubt that they would all have been present. The detail that was included, which mainly concerned Bible readings and sermons, suggests that the author was a Baptist preacher, presumably one from outside Leicester.

In his letter of 1928, Charles had written: ‘There is a tombstone in Leicester Cemetery, of Mount Servel granite. He wished very much for Ticknall limestone, but my father was unable to quarry one large enough.’ Charles’ father William was by then not just a vet, but also a farmer and the proprietor of the Ticknall limeyards.

The Reverend William and his son William ‘of Ticknall’ do seem to have maintained close family contact, in spite of the tragic circumstances of the son’s early life and his loss not only of his mother but in effect, until they presumeably coincided in London in the late 1830s, of his father too. The tombstone seems to sum up something of their relationship: not quite what was wanted, but actually more robust and longer lasting. It originally bore the legend:



Mary Garrard died on 26th December 1875 at Glenfield Firth in Leicester, the home of her second son David. She was buried in Leicester Cemetery alongside her husband William. The photograph above shows a plaque mounted on a granite block, and details of both William and Mary recorded there. This must have been added after Mary’s death, and presumably covered over or replaced the original epitaph; also William’s age is recorded incorrectly.

Mary and her sons seem to have kept in touch as a family – in spite of the sons having left the Baptist church, and indeed leading very different lives to Mary and her husband. Although they also evidently had great respect for their father James Challis, none of the three took up the option, provided for in his Will, to farm at Patterwick Bottom near Panfield in Essex. Their lives by then had been set on very different courses – each, in various ways, as a result of their having been provided with an extensive education.

Nathan had been baptised into the Church of England in 1852 (at the age of 23), and ordained as an Anglican priest in 1856. He was the only one of the three to move away from Leicester, though he maintained a close connection with his family and he returned to officiate at several family weddings. By 1851 he had moved to Oxfordshire to take a position as a teacher, and later assistant curate, in a school run by the Reverend Alfred Hewlett; and by 1852 – perhaps under Hewlett’s influence – he had let go completely of his family’s Baptist roots and joined the established Church. He married Sarah Barber in 1853 and they had two children, Erastus and Eunice. He acted as Curate in several parishes including Thame in Oxfordshire, Ratby near Peterborough, and Bedminster in Bristol. He died in July 1890, at Warton near Devizes in Wiltshire, at the age of 61.

David married Sarah Anne Lane at All Saints church, Leicester, in July 1854. She was the daughter of Alderman Francis Lane of Leicester, and she and David were to have eight children: Annie Mary, Elizabeth, Francis, Esther, David, Amelia Grace, Mary and Octavia. David and his father-in-law became partners in Lane and Challis, wine merchants. This business, which David Challis continued for at least fifteen years after Francis Lane’s death in 1869, was the basis for the family’s growing affluence, although it did go through serious financial problems in the mid-1880s. David died in 1915; an obituary in the Leicester Daily Post said that he had been ‘probably one of the best known businessmen in the town’. Certainly he was well enough known that an accident that took place on 24th November 1879 had merited an entry in The Leicester Journal (5 December 1879):

‘As Mr David Challis was driving home from his office … he perceived on nearing the Parade, a coveyance coming at a rapid rate which he felt must dash into him. Handling his reins with his usual ability, he managed to save his horse, a valuable one, which otherwise must have been killed on the spot; as it was, the shaft of the conveyance went through Mr Challis’s dash-board, and gave him a severe blow in the shin of his right leg … Mr. White, who was sitting by his side, was thrown from the dog cart into the gutter, and sustained such severe bruises as necessitated his confinement to bed for the past week … The injuries sustained by Mr. C. were of a more serious character, and created grave apprehensions up to Wednesday, the 3rd inst. We are glad to learn that … he is [now] progressing favourably.’

The ‘grave apprehensions’ were, perhaps, all the worse because he would have failed to attend his eldest daughter’s marriage to Norman Garrard, since the wedding took place the day after the accident. David Challis nevertheless recovered fairly soon, and continued running his business until large-scale improvements to the area meant the closing of his shop premises, which had been at 11 High Street.

Eliezer inherited the Challis family Bible, clearly a valued link with his severed family past. A pencilled note against the entry in the family register of James Challis’ birth, reads as follows: ‘This must have been my father, who died … aged 71 or 72’. Carefully inscribed on the flysheet is ‘Eliezer Challis youngest son of James and Mary Challis of Panfield Essex married to Elizabeth Ball Payne … Sept 22 1864’. Their wedding took place at St Peter’s Church, Camberwell (then part of Surrey), officiated by Eliezer’s brother Nathan. The couple had two children, Edith and Arthur. Eliezer was recorded as having worked as a hosier, and later as a commercial traveller. He died in Leicester on 20th February 1882 aged only 49, when his children were sixteen and fourteen. He was buried alongside his mother in Leicester cemetery.

The family Bible passed to Eliezer’s brother David. We have a note from David Challis: instructions for bringing the family register up to date, and including a ‘Memoir stating this Bible which was his [Eliezer’s] by his Father’s Will; and mine by his Will.’ The information he wished to be added to the family register was written in, with spaces left for the birth dates of his two eldest children – though they were never included. David, now clearly head of the new branch of the Challis family in Leicester, had bought an imposing Imperial Family Bible and had begun his own family register.

Both Bibles passed either directly from David or via his eldest child Annie Mary to her youngest son, Oswald Garrard.

grandmother challis

‘Grandmother Challis’, believed to be Sarah Ann Challis (1833-1899),
wife of David Challis and mother of Annie Mary Challis.
Photograph: Thomas Johnson of Leicester.


It must have been strange for the Reverend William, having spent his whole life with very little money and wholly dedicated, as he was, to his religious principles, to find his family around him growing prosperous – and largely as a result of doing well in the liquor trade. His own lack of prosperity was certainly a subject that troubled his thoughts from time to time. As he once wrote, ‘I have sat sulking and pouting like a displeased child; and thought of running away into some distant part of the country, where no one knew me, to leave preaching altogether, and get some employment, or set up some little trade for a livelihood.’

Occasionally there would be an upset in the Baptist congregation, or one of the many new religious doctrines would draw away some members of his church. This would of course affect his income, ‘which, at one time, scarcely came up to twenty shillings a week; and then, with the strictest economy, I found myself running into debt.’ Something always turned up however, usually in the form of small bequests or gifts. On one occasion, when he was still living at Dunmow, ‘I was reduced to one farthing, and as I sat silent in my house, a man or stranger from Norwich came in and wanted some of my tracts, and paid me two shillings for them. Ah, they came at such a time of need, they seemed like sovereigns to me.’

The subject even found its way into his poetry. When he wrote Rural Courtship, A Rustic Poem, the romantic tale of Dolly and Roger that was almost certainly inspired by his blossoming relationship with Mary, he included this:

Men are deceitful, I am often told,
They talk of love, but sometimes ’tis for gold.
I’m short of that, my savings are but small –
Dolly! it is not gold I seek at all.’

He always got by, but such living from hand to mouth often preyed upon his mind. In 1844 he even resorted to endorsing ‘Sleath’s Tonic Pills’ in the local Leicester press. When he did have a few pounds put by, he would worry that someone might break into his house and steal it. On his way to chapel on a Sunday morning, ‘I have actually gone back to put the money in my pocket, lest I should be troubled about it all the while I was preaching,’.

He remembered an old man saying to him, ‘The muck heap is always the highest place in the yard’, and that, ‘If you see people raised from mean parentage and poverty to opulence and worldly riches, their haughtiness and pride generally exceed those who are bred in riches and worldly grandeur.’ But that was all very well until he felt himself compared to others that he knew. ‘Look at some of your old companions and acquaintances: they have done well in the world, and are now worth their thousands, and you are a poor, miserable, despised, discontented fellow, with scarcely a shilling to help yourself, while they are growing in wealth and rising in respectability in the world.’

When this rising middle class included his own son, and his stepsons, and their children’s extensive and close-knit social circle, it must have been very strange for him. David Challis in particular, however, certainly remained as a loyal support to him, as is shown by his being there at the end; and, in the end, the high esteem that William was held in had nothing to do with money. However, in the last few months of his life his value was acknowledged in a particular way.

R.A.Barber records in his compilation of William’s Reminiscences that in August 1873, ‘as the dear old saint had been over fifty years in the ministry, it was proposed to have a Jubilee Service’. The purpose was ‘to present him with a substantial testimonial, and to this most of his old friends in all parts of the country handsomely responded, so that we were enabled to collect the sum of about £236, which was presented to him at a special, ever-to-be-remembered service, on Tuesday, August 26th, 1873.’ There were special sermons preached in chapel the previous Sunday, and at the evening meeting held for the presentation itself there was a lengthy list of people who addressed the congregation with ‘the sweetest harmony prevailing’.

Afterwards William was so ‘overcome and lost in gratitude’ that he could only respond, ‘My dear friends, I cannot describe what I feel, but, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you all; I thank all my friends both far and near’. He was able to reach the end his life free from concern about money.


In the dry atmosphere of the Leicestershire Record Office, the hushed quiet is an exaggerated version of what would be expected in a library. A member of staff goes to find copies of the Reverend William’s literary output, and I was provided with a pencil for taking notes – no pens or other inky writing implements permitted. The copy at Wigston Magna of William’s Reminiscences is a bit battered but in reasonable condition.

I spent some time leafing through and coming to the conclusion that I needed a copy for myself, to read more carefully at my leisure. There are scores of pages devoted to his tortuous spiritual progress, interspersed with ecstatic visionary experiences and details of his life in Norfolk – and, later, elsewhere in East Anglia and then in Leicester. These are historically fascinating but frustratingly scanty and incomplete. Nevertheless it provided sufficient basis for a coherent narrative.

The poetry, Old England, our Queen and Her People, seemed somewhat jingoistic in its praise for the young Queen Victoria and its enthusiasm for empire. At the time I put it to one side with the thought that this was getting me nowhere in my search for the Reverend William’s own story. As already noted, I was later to wish that I had taken a closer interest – though eventually I was to find a copy of my own.

William’s spiritual writings were what he was chiefly known for during his lifetime, and some have appeared quite recently on Baptist websites based in the USA. The turgid imagery and ponderous, dogmatic theology did not excite me at all, in fact the stark contrast between this and the vivid descriptions of his actual spiritual experiences is quite remarkable. This too I put to one side. I’m sorry William, I don’t mean to be rude – I suppose such tracts were considered appropriate in the 1830s.

I wrote out a cheque for nearly £50 to cover photocopying and postage costs, so that a copy of the Reminiscences would arrive at my home a few days later; then I drove off for a brief visit to Ticknall.


1. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1838/9).

2. Even today preparatory schools advertise the life of junior boarders as being ‘character building’, although it is now well established that being separated from parents at an early age is likely to lead to developmental trauma. There are of course other possibilities as to where the boys may have been at the time of the 1841 census – one being with their grandparents, Benjamin and Mary Ann Tiffen, of Halstead in Essex.

3. I am grateful to Andrew Moore for the photograph of York Street chapel and the plan of the area around Newtown Street. The photograph appeared in Andrew Moore’s book Where Leicester has Worshipped, Laurel House Publishing, 2008.

4. It should be possible to find David’s address at this time by checking the 1851 census.

5. I believe that the Newark Street minute book is now held at the Leicester County Record Office. If this is the case, it could help to substantially add to this section.

6. Once again I am grateful to Andrew Moore, for the plan of the area around Newark Street chapel. The chapel remained in use until 1940, when it was destroyed by bombing.

7. This line, and perhaps the whole paragraph, appears to have been taken directly from a note written by David Challis.