From Printer to Preacher

On 17th June 1832 in St. George in the East, London,  Robert Girling and his wife Susannah Dunn had their fourth child – John. He was baptised along with his three older siblings and his younger sister on 31st July 1837. His older siblings had all been born in Norfolk, while he and his sister O(l)lef were born in London. Their father was a Carman by trade – a carman was a delivery driver usually working for an employer.

In 1841 the Girling family were living at 10 Everard’s Place in Whitechapel but were without Susannah who had died earlier that year, leaving Robert with four of his five children at home. In 1844 Robert remarried to a Martha Chaplin and they went on to have three children. By 1851 they were living at 15 Everard’s Place and Robert was described as a Carman Foreman. John, now 18 was an apprentice to a printer. Sadly Robert died the following year, leaving Martha with a young family to provide for. Just two years later John was married – he had married Elizabeth Collins in Pentonville in 1854 and by the time of the 1861 census he and Elizabeth were living at 8 Lansdowne Terrace in Hornsey with two young children, Elizabeth Sarah Olif aged 4 and Charles Colley aged 1. John was now no longer an apprentice and was now a fully fledged printer.

In 1862 John had to appear at The Old Bailey in connection with a case of counterfeiting.

On 7th April 1862 John gave evidence in the trial of Chlom Reichberg  age 45, Abraham Josephson aged 32, and Wolff Harwitz  aged 22, who were indicted for feloniously having in their possession, without the authority of the Emperor of Russia, certain copper plates, stones, and other materials, upon which were engraved certain parts of a Russian promissory note.

This was the evidence John gave in the hearing:

I am servant to Mr. Roberts, a printer, of 41, Tabernacle-walk. Harwitz and Reichberg called at Mr. Roberts’ at the latter end of September. I saw them, Harwitz was spokesman. They came to ask the price of printing 1,000 copies of a form. He described the size on a piece of paper, I have not got that – it was merely a piece of waste paper that was lying on the desk at the time. I told him that the price would be about 4s. a thousand, he said he would call again. About the beginning of October Reichberg came alone, and produced this, it is a border similar to that on the back of a Russian rouble note, it is set up in an iron frame, what we call a form. I took some proofs of it, Reichberg examined it, he made an objection to it on account of their not being sufficiently close together. I said I would try to remedy that defect for him, which I did by taking out the side piece that is now here, and substituting an oblong piece of metal; but I found it would not justify; that is, it would not come close enough together so as to give a just or true impression. In about a fortnight Reichberg came again, and brought a fresh quantity of type to substitute for that which was in the first frame. That would not do either, he told me he was going to exhibit it at the Great Exhibition. I noticed some half and quarter pieces of border, he called my attention to them, said that it was to place them in their respective positions, the same as they were in the first form. That would have brought out a similar representation to what is on that paper. He asked me whether I know a type founder, I gave him the name of Messrs. Caslon and Co. About the latter end of November I saw them again. I then pulled some proofs from a fresh form, Reichberg produced the form, I have not got it, or any of the proofs. There is what we term a make-ready sheet, Reichberg objected to my filing it. It was an impression from a glythographic block, it was an impression of some foreign characters. I gave it up to him, that was at the beginning of December. I did not supply him with any paper.

Cross-examined by Mr. Best. Q. You did not know what the foreign characters were, did you? A. I did not.

Harwitz. Q. Did not you state before the Lord Mayor that I was only there once? Witness. That was the only time I recollect; you were there the first time.

John was one of many giving evidence – you can read the full transcription here.

Reichberg was found guilty and sentenced to 8 years, Josephson and Harwitz were also found guilty and sentenced to 6 years. John had come very close to being more deeply involved, so it was a good thing that they didn’t come back to him for the job he had been quoting them for! It was interesting to see the name and address of John’s employer – Roberts of 41 Tabernacle Walk. This appears to be a James Henry Roberts who was listed at that address in the 1843 London Directory. It seems Tabernacle Walk is now known as Tabernacle Street and 41 is now a rather swish looking solicitors with a flat above.

41 Tabernacle Street

In 1871 John and his family had moved to 65 Brownlow Road in Shoreditch. His occupation was Printer, Compositor and …. the rest is pretty illegible but it seems to begin with B! By then he and Elizabeth had two more children – Mary Charlotte aged 9 and John Barry aged 1. There is quite an age gap between Mary and John so I wouldn’t be surprised if they had lost a child between those years, although I have not as yet found any baptisms or burials. Then by 1881 they had moved to 44 Mildmay Road, Highbury in Islington where John was now a Printer Manager and two more children had come along, Lily and Robert Daniel. It looks like Elizabeth’s occupation is described as being a Mildmay Missionary – but it is a bit unclear as to whether this is a continuation of John’s occupation or specifically for Elizabeth. Skip forward ten years and John had moved across the road to number 47 and it was here I had a little surprise as his occupation was listed as Printer Manager and Lay Preacher.

44 Mildmay Road47 Mildmay Road Islington

44 and 47 Mildmay Road from Google StreetView

A lay preacher is someone who is not ordained but is appointed to lead church services in a religious denomination. I knew that John’s family were non conformists as his and his siblings births were recorded at the Dr. Williams Library, so it seemed likely he was involved with a non conformist chapel or mission somewhere local to him. I did some newspaper searches and came up with some really interesting finds. John was the superintendent of the Union Crescent, Gospel Mission Hall, Union Street, Hackney during the 1870s and was often named in relation to raising funds for ragged schools in the area. There were several mentions of him in the 1870s and 1880s in organising trips to the countryside for the poor children, most of whom had never been out of the filth of London. He also raised money for Christmas meals for the poor with letters in The Times asking for benevolent readers to donate. One such appeal from 1876 reads:

Hackney Road Mission – Much privation abounds, and affliction and suffering has been and is the existence of numbers in this neighbourhood, and in easing the poverty resulting from want, or supplementing the scanty pittance earned by many who have had help, the funds of the committee are exhausted. For deserted mothers and children, bereaved and orphans, poor labourers with a pitiable subsitence, a festive meeting is to be held on Christmas Day in the Gospel Mission Hall, Union Crescent, Union Street, Hackney Road. Donations are therefore sought for 100 aged and needy people and 300 poor children, and the general work of the Mission.”

In some appeals he is named as the Rev. John Girling, but the majority he is the Honourable Superintendent. He was listed in the Religious Census of London from 1888 under “Undenominational” at the Hackney Road Mission. It shows that it could accommodate around 150 in the hall and had an average morning attendance of 30 people and 93 in the evening.

Religious Census of London 1888 Girling

In 1901 John was living at 6 Balfour Road, Wimbledon and his occupation described as Printer Manager and Lay Preacher Non Denominational. The house looks rather nice in a pleasant road, much like Mildmay Road, so it seems John did fairly well for himself over the years.

6 Balfour Road

A slightly fuzzed out photo of 6 Balfour Road from Google StreetView

John died in 1904 and his death was registered in the West Ham district, and probably died in Walthamstow. Strangely he seems to have not left a will. I was quite surprised at this, for a man who seemed fairly middle class and heavily involved in charity work and his religious leanings, I would have expected him to perhaps leave money to the Hackney Road Mission or similar such charitable causes. It seems not.

His widow Elizabeth was living at 41 Salisbury Road, Walthamstow in 1911 aged 80. Despite being a widow and therefore not having to provide information about her marriage and children, she stated she had been married for 56 years and had 7 children – of which 2 had died. I have so far only uncovered 6 children.  Her son John Barry appears to have travelled to Chicago in 1891. There is a passenger list arrival entry for a J B Girling in New York on 18th July 1891 aboard the Ludgate Hill stating he was 21, an Evangelist and his destination was Chicago. John was one of the two children John and Elizabeth had lost before 1911 as I found an entry for him on FindAGrave buried in  Ripon Cemetery, San Joaquin County in California. As yet there are no online death records for this period for me to find out more about John and his short time in America. I do know that he left a young widow Susan who was pregnant with his son Barry Elwood Girling who was born in the July of the following year – she was very young, having been only 16 when they married in 1894. So it seems that perhaps John Barry had followed in his father’s footsteps in the Hackney Road Mission and had gone to America to perhaps spread the word. The other sibling who died young may have been named Cornelia – there is a birth and death in the Shoreditch district for a Cornelia A Girling in 1866. I cannot find any baptism or burial for her.

Image from

Image from

Elizabeth died in Walthamstow in 1923 and she too didn’t leave a will. Perhaps they had already given their surviving children their inheritances.  I would have thought that perhaps their deaths might have been reported in the papers but so far I’ve not found any entries for them. Their daughters married well, with Elizabeth Sarah Olif marrying Thomas Yarrow – who became a School Attendance Superintendent. Mary Charlotte married Samuel Saunders – a Commerical Traveller selling watches – giving their son Samuel the name Yarrow as one of his middle names which was quite a nice nod to Mary’s brother in law. Lily married James Abbott – a Wine & Spirit Merchant. As for Charles Colley – he married Lucy Eliza Thrum and followed his father into the printing trade and became a Printer Manager too. Robert Daniel married Charlotte Elizabeth Baker and he was also in the printing trade.

John Girling was my husband’s 3x great grandfather. It is always rather humbling to come across ancestors who worked hard to make life better for people less fortunate than themselves. It must have been hard for John and Elizabeth to hear the news from afar about their son’s death in California, especially if he had gone overseas to champion the cause they had been heavily involved with for many years. I like knowing that there were probably many poor people in their local area who had been able to go for trips to the fresh air of the countryside and had hearty Christmas meals thanks to the work of John and his brethren and kindly donations garnered from his annual requests via The Times.



4 thoughts on “From Printer to Preacher

  1. Great post—so rich in detail and in research. Perhaps John’s almost involvement in crime made him “see the light” and decide to devote his life to helping others.

    I also found it interesting that the defendants were apparently Russian Jews. I was not aware that there was any significant migration from Russia to England as early as 1862.

    I also love to see that you have family that ended up in the US. Let me know if I can be of any assistance.

    • Thanks Amy. I do find it a bit odd that the California deaths for that period aren’t online when more recent ones are but there you go!

      I think there were so many waves of Jewish migrants from around Europe over many decades. But then of course you do get people who came across in dribs and drabs for work rather than to escape any particular persecution.

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