Silas K. Hocking: Author and minister
by Bob Davenport
When, in late 1943, Philip Larkin began his first job as a librarian he found that ‘A substantial body of the readers were elderly people, who found the stairs difficult, but were still prepared to face them for Mrs Henry Wood, Florence L. Barclay, Silas K. Hocking, Rosa N. Carey and many others.’
Silas Kitto Hocking, who is buried in St Pancras Cemetery, is virtually forgotten now, but he was the author of nearly 100 books and was the first novelist anywhere to sell a million copies of one title.
He was born on 24 March 1850 in the Cornish village of St Stephen-in-Brannel, the third son of James Hocking, who part-owned a tin mine, and his wife, née Elizabeth Kitto. Between the ages of 7 and 13 Silas attended a private parochial dame school in his village, where he studied the three Rs and scripture; then he was tutored by a local man, T. N. Andrews, until in 1866 he began working as a mining surveyor.
However, he had heard and befriended the leading young Methodist traveller Amos B. Matthews, who encouraged him to enter the ministry, and aged 18 Silas was accepted as a local preacher in the St Austell circuit, also helping at temperance meetings and mothers groups. After six months he became an auxiliary preacher with additional duties and a wider area of travel within Cornwall, and within two years, in 1870, he was ordained as a minister of the United Methodist Free Churches (UMFC), an offshoot of Wesleyan Methodism with greater lay participation and a more democratic structure.
He had not yet been properly ordained when, aged 19, he took up his first appointment, at Pontypool, in the Newport circuit in Wales, and it was here that he first grew his distinctive long patriarchal beard – perhaps to offset his youth in the eyes of his congregation.
As was usual in the UMFC, he didn’t stay long in one place, but in 1871 was moved on to Spalding in Lincolnshire and then in 1873 he took up a post in Liverpool.
This was a time when the population of Liverpool was growing to about 600,000; the city had the highest infant mortality rate and the largest workhouse in Britain, and over 3,000 prostitutes. Hocking’s chapel was in an area near the docks and some of the poorer parts of the inner city, with tenements and slum housing, dirty streets, and children sent out to sell matches, carry bags, beg or steal to raise money.
A couple of years later and now married – to the former Esther Lloyd, the younger daughter of the Liverpool UMFC circuit steward who had put him up while he found lodgings in the city – he moved on again, to Burnley, and in these less challenging surroundings he had more free time. As a child he had spent his pocket money on cheap editions of Shakespeare, Dickens, Walter Scott and Fenimore Cooper, among others. Now he began to write himself. He started with one or two articles for a UMFC magazine, then, almost without premeditation as he told it, he began work on a novel. Alec Green: A Tale of Sea Life first appeared as a weekly serial in the Burnley Advertiser in 1878 and in the following year was published – with moderate success – in book form by Frederick Warne & Co., who bought the copyright for £15.
He began work on a second story, and this time suggested that it be serialised in a UMFC magazine. The editor liked it, but, worried that the magazine had never published fiction – except in the obituary notices, Hocking suggested – insisted that he be allowed to curtail the serial if the reaction was negative. But the only complaints were about late delivery of the issues with new instalments.
Hocking approached Warne’s about publication in book form. They offered £20 for the copyright. Hocking suggested a royalty, but succeeded only in extracting a promise that he would not be forgotten but would have a share of the profits if the book turned out to be a success.
The story – Her Benny, also published in 1879 – was based on Hocking’s experiences in Liverpool and told of two children, Nell and her brother, Benny – nine and eight when the story begins – whose mother has died and who run away from their abusive father, who has sent them out to scrape a living on the streets. They are befriended by a kindly nightwatchman, Joe, who finds them a new home. But they are still living in straitened circumstances, and Benny is tempted to steal until Nell shames him out of it. ‘Purty little hangel,’ says Joe of Nell; ‘I hopes she’ll grow up good, or – or die – ay, or die!’ And die she duly does, though remaining good to the end. As for Benny, someone whose bag he offers to carry gives him a job in an office; he is wrongly accused of stealing and has to leave; wandering and near collapse, he is taken in by a farmer’s family and prospers; he saves the life of the girl – by now a young woman – who had persuaded her father to offer him the office job, and, his innocence of theft long realised, he marries her, returns to and eventually becomes a partner in her father’s business, and lives happily ever after, telling his children ‘how, by being honest, truthful and persevering, he had worked his way through many difficulties, and how, by the blessing and mercy of God, he had been kept until that day’.
The book was a success – a great success. It sold in its tens and hundreds of thousands, was made into a film in 1920, and eventually became the first novel anywhere to sell a million copies. Hocking reminded his publisher of their promise of a share in any success, and in return received a cheque for £10. ‘Never publish a book at your own risk’ and ‘don’t sell your copyright,’ he later urged in his memoirs.
In accordance with UMFC practice, Hocking continued to move to a new post every few years, and in 1880 he transferred to the Manchester circuit, where he also took part in the City Mission’s outreach work among prostitutes. ‘The churches look after the saints with commendable zeal, and feed them regularly with the milk and honey of the Word … ’ he commented in his memoirs, but ‘The lost sheep have to be followed if they are to be found. They have to be sought out if they are to be brought back. This was what the City Mission was attempting to do.’ But he continued to write, and for the next half-century he was to publish one or two new books almost every year. (His brother Joseph was also a prolific novelist and a Methodist minister, and his sister Salome published novels too.)
Hocking’s stories were often set in his native Cornwall or in north-west England, and Martin Wellings has recently characterised them as involving ‘manly heroes, chaste heroines, decorous romantic encounters, exemplary characters able to resist the temptation to behave meanly or dishonourably, and an inevitably satisfactory moral resolution at the end of the book’. Earlier, in reviewing To Pay the Price (1900), the Manchester Guardian summed up Hocking’s works as follows:
They have a strong family likeness; all are written for obviously unexacting readers. Personal characteristics and events are dashed in in strong colours. Certain general gestures answer to certain emotions, somewhat to the neglect of the study of fine shades and gradations of feeling. But Mr. Hocking always gives his public, at any rate, a well-defined plot, clearly worked out.
From the Guardian’s reviews of some of his other books, however, it seems that that plot could be sensational. For example, in Doctor Dick and Other Tales (1895)
The successive incidents of the reformation of Doctor Dick, who had all but sunk into the slough of reckless dissipation, by the direct and indirect influence of a sweet girl’s love, are admirably described; but the tale is needlessly lengthened by the abduction of the heroine, her imprisonment in a lunatic asylum, and her false funeral … Mr Hocking, however, never fails to interest his readers, and the moral tone of his tales is invariably healthy.
And in The Blindness of Madge Tyndhall (1897)
Chloroform and kidnapping are clumsy devices for disposing of a rival; he is sure to appear again when least wanted, as the youngest theatre-goer knows. But these are the devices by which John Sleeman rids himself of Dr. Studley on the eve of the doctor’s wedding with Madge Tyndhall.
At the end, however, ‘Everything is put right, virtue is rewarded and villainy punished, but the whole lacks distinction.’
In The Fate of Endilloe (1901) it wasn’t the plot itself that the Guardian found implausible:
Mr. Hocking usually has a workable plot, but it is the people he tells us about who are so impossible. Dorothy’s lover, for instance, after three years of absence and silence, returns to her, in true melodramatic fashion, with white hair and beard and the ‘properly’ brown wideawake. Finding her faithful, ‘the old man buried his face in his hands; when he raised his head again the wideawake hat lay on the ground and a young man sat in his place under the tree.’ Rumour, too, plays her old part in this tale. On the mere rumour of his love’s marriage Justin Pentyre turns his back upon her and goes away to a mournful and solitary life. When will Mr. Hocking understand that ‘people don’t do such things’?
In The Scarlet Clue (1904)
Two handsome young men go for a walk in the Lake District and one ‘flings’ to the other first a ‘look of scorn’ and then ‘a bitter biting taunt,’ with the result that ‘why they did not return to their homes was wrapped in mystery.’ The dragging of the mere, the cave in the rocks, the abduction of the next heir to the property (alluded to by the villain, who was evidently a golfing villain, as ‘a very small bunker’), and the discovery that somebody has been changed at birth follow decently and in order, whilst the heroine is decoyed into a lunatic asylum, where, in Mr. Hocking’s phrase, the matron ‘honestly believed that the poor young lady was one of those harmless lunatics that only an expert could be sure that anything ailed them.’ In the end, needless to say, the mystery is unwrapped and the taste for poetic justice amply gratified.
By the time of The Great Hazard (1915) The Observer’s reviewer was groaning about
That wife in the lunatic asylum! That lovely girl who cannot marry the exemplary young clergyman because of her! Here she is again, the first of these, alive and horrid, and this time it is not she who most considerately dies. To make up for this, the other people die. There is no real reason why they should, except that you must end a story somehow … It would not be so bad a tale if everything were not so crudely overseen.
When, in 1901, Arnold Bennett published a discussion of popular novelists, Hocking – whose publisher reported that his sales had averaged a thousand copies a week for the previous twenty years – was one of his subjects. Bennett confessed himself baffled by Hocking’s appeal, concluding:
I have tried fairly to explain the phenomenon of Mr Hocking, but from the start I felt it to be, in its essence, inexplicable. That tact of which I have spoken is negative; it consists in refraining. What is it that Mr Hocking does? What is that quality, lurking in every sentence on every page, which attracts? To this question, though I have approached it sympathetically and without arrogance, I find no answer. When souls call aloud to each other in the night, each knows its fellow: and that is all one can say.
After three years in Manchester, in 1883 Hocking moved to Southport, where he had a pastorate rather than a circuit which meant that he was seldom in the same pulpit more than two Sundays in succession. A new, heavily mortgaged, chapel seating 800 had been built for a congregation that averaged about 80 – rising to 100 or 120 on special occasions. Hocking had demanded and been given a free hand before accepting the post, and by the time he left, thirteen years later – moving after three years was a custom rather than a rule for ‘full-connexion’ ministers – he had increased the congregation to about 950 (accommodated with extra chairs wherever possible), paid off all the chapel’s mortgage and a large bank overdraft, redecorated the building, and installed a new heating system and a very fine organ – and had his salary doubled.
Hocking’s success as an author enabled him and his wife to travel, and a trip to Switzerland during his years at Southport may have contributed to a story that has proved more enduring than any of his own. He found Conan Doyle and E. F. Benson in the parties staying in his hotel. The three of them went for a walk to the Findelan Glacier and
we fell to talking about Sherlock Holmes. Doyle confessed frankly that he was tired of his own creation. ‘The fact is,’ he said, ‘he has got to be an “old man of the sea” about my neck, and I intend to make an end of him. If I don’t he’ll make an end of me.’ …
‘If you are determined on making an end of Holmes,’ I said, ‘why not bring him out to Switzerland and drop him down a crevasse? It would save funeral expenses.’
‘Not a bad idea,’ Doyle laughed in his hearty way, and then the conversation drifted to other topics.
Whether or not my suggestion had anything to do with the fate of Holmes I do not know. Anyhow Doyle did bring him out a few months later, and caused him to disappear over the Reichenbach Falls.
In 1896 Hocking left both Southport and the UMFC ministry; he had wanted to resign a year earlier, but had been persuaded to give his chapel more time to find a successor. He had hoped to continue as a minister without pastoral and administrative duties, but could not agree conditions with the UMFC, which had become uneasy with his celebrity status as a successful author and a very popular visiting lecturer and preacher, while Hocking – who had ‘never believed for a moment that the ministry was the only way in which I could serve God and serve my fellows’ – thought he could function more effectively without the connexional rules of a church whose drift towards Anglicanism, as he saw it, bothered him.
In his contribution to Christianity and the Working Classes, a 1906 book edited by George Haw, Hocking wrote that
In Christian England the Church, whether Free or Established, is becoming more and more the sacred preserve of the well-to-do. The ambition to erect costly and imposing sanctuaries has necessitated a heavy financial strain upon the worshippers. In too many instances no poor need apply …
Christianity stands for peace and goodwill towards men. That is a proposition which, in the abstract at any rate, I presume no one will dispute. But does the Church stand for these things? We know it does not. It defends war to-day with as much passion and zeal as it defended slavery a century ago … The Church has allied itself with the man of blood in all Christian countries. In fact, war is tacitly regarded as a Christian institution. It has its recognised place in our rota of prayers. We send out our chaplains to the battlefield to encourage and console the fighters. We get pious prelates to bless our war-ships and other implements of destruction … As a matter of fact, the Church has become the bond-slave of the State, not only in England, but in all Christian countries. Hence whatever villainies rulers may perpetrate, the Church is expected to bless; and she does bless, and does not even pull a wry face over it…
While Christianity means one thing and Churchism means another, – while Christ enunciated great principles which His ambassadors are silent upon, – it is in vain we complain of the alienation of the working classes or any other class.
When the Church begins to teach and to practice Christianity in sober earnest the people will come again.
He believed that
Many of our ministers seem to live in a little world of their own, an intellectual world it may be, but essentially narrow. They spend their days with critics and commentators and theologians. Biblical criticism and and theological niceties have become an obsession with them. They seem unable to get out into the greater world of men and women, and the things that matter.
On leaving Southport he, his wife, two sons and two daughters moved to London, and he lived in Avenue Road, Highgate, for the rest of his life. (In 1998 his former London home was used as the location for what The Sun described as a ‘Three in a Bed Sex Shocker on the Beeb’ during an episode of Deborah Moggach’s saga Close Relations.) He was never idle – ‘I have been temperate in all things except work,’ he told the Cornish Guardian towards the end of his life. While continuing to write novels, in 1894 he became editor of the Family Circle until in 1896 he co-founded the Temple Magazine (subtitled ‘Silas Hocking’s Illustrated Monthly’), which published essays, articles and serialised fiction (it folded in 1903). From 1900 he was for 25 years a lay member of the National Council of Evangelical Free Churches. And on almost every Sunday until his mid-sixties he spoke as a lay preacher somewhere.
In October 1899 war broke out between the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and the United Kingdom, which sought to control those territories and their gold and diamond mines. As a Christian pacifist, Hocking was against this Boer War, and he became chairman of the Stop the War Committee set up to oppose it. At a ‘Peace-day’ meeting organised by the British International Peace and Arbitration Association in February 1900 he moved the resolution urging ‘as early a cessation as possible of this deplorable war by a means of peace honourable to both parties’, and the Manchester Guardian reported that
Mr. Hocking condemned the present war as, in his judgment, the most horrible, unnecessary, and wicked war of the nineteenth century. He went on to deplore the attitude of the bulk of not only the secular press but of the religious press in regard to this conflict, and remarked that religious ministers – hitherto earnest advocates of arbitration – seemed for the time being to have put their consciences aside. Nobody spoke of the Nonconformist conscience to-day.
In July 1901 he was reported as telling a conference of London Free Church ministers summoned to consider ‘a constructive policy of peace’ that ‘to his mind [the war] was the most sordid business in which England had ever been engaged.’
His opposition to the war resulted in speaking engagements being cancelled and shops refusing to stock his books. And when, in May 1900, news arrived that the British garrison at Mafeking had been relieved after a Boer siege lasting seven months, a mob went to celebrate by attacking Hocking’s house; however, there was uncertainty about its number, and it was the house of a strongly imperialist neighbour that had its windows smashed.
Through his public speaking Hocking had on several occasions met the Liberal politician David Lloyd George, and he was invited to become the Liberal parliamentary candidate for Camborne, in Cornwall, in the 1900 general election. But his stance on the war made him an electoral liability – even a fellow Liberal candidate denounced him as a ‘saintly cur’, and he was advised not to set foot in Cornwall if he valued his life – so in February 1900 he withdrew his candidacy. He later did stand, unsuccessfully, for as the Liberals in Aylesbury in 1906 and in Coventry in 1910, when he lost by just 216 votes.
He was active in several organisations seeking social reform, At a May 1902 meeting of the temperance organisation the United Kingdom Alliance (a few weeks before the end of the Boer War) he moved the resolution
That as the liquor traffic is the chief source in this country of physical degeneration and premature death, of imbecility and mental disease, of the neglect and ill-treatment of children, of political and electoral folly and corruption, and of almost all those evils that wise teaching and good government exist to prevent, the people ought to be armed with the vote to prevent the issue or renewal of licences for the sale of drink in their own neighbourhood.
(Although teetotal, he was very clubbable – a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Whitefriars Club – and his memoirs contain many accounts of the eminent men of the day whom he knew and the rather ponderous stories that they exchanged.)
In 1902 the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour had passed an Education Act which provided funds for denominational religious instruction in voluntary elementary schools, owned primarily by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, ending the divide between voluntary schools, which were largely administered by the Church of England, and schools provided and run by elected school boards. The Nonconformist churches were angered by the support for Anglican and especially Catholic schools and the loss of their own influence on school boards, and campaigned for amendment of the Act. Hocking was a member of a committee of the National Free Church Council set up in August 1903 to formulate a national, non-sectarian education policy, and at a May 1904 meeting of the Liberation Society, which campaigned for disestablishment of the Church of England, he moved that the legislation should be amended to provide that ‘(1) All publicly maintained elementary schools and their teachers should be under the full control of the local education authority; (2) all theological test for teachers should be abolished; and (3) sectarian teaching [subsequently amended to “theological and ecclesiastical teaching”] should not be permitted during school hours.’ In September the following year he was among the many ‘passive resisters’ summonsed for refusing to pay rates while the 1902 Act remained in force.
In May 1904 he spoke on international brotherhood at a meeting of the National Christian Endeavour Convention in Hyde Park:
He contended that it was of the very essence of the Christian religion. Christianity knew nothing of racial distinctions. We had to be very careful lest we put our nationality before our Christianity. This was a point at which men’s fealty to Christ had broken down again. They had loved Christianity much, but they had loved Empire more. Their duty was to protest against all militarism, and if they could raise up a generation of young men and women thus pledged in all countries of the world an effective check would be put on the wickedness of Governments.
In June 1909 he was part of a delegation representing British churches that visited Germany to promote peace and goodwill. They were received by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, said Hocking, ‘shook hands with perhaps a dozen of those who stood nearest to him, but he manifested no enthusiasm for the cause we had come to represent.’ The Kaiser struck him as being ‘a stubborn man, but not a great man, an ambitious man but not a great-souled man. Away from his environment he would would be ordinary, almost commonplace.’ At a banquet, Hocking had a long talk with Admiral Tirpitz, who impressed him by ‘his apparent sincerity, by the readiness, with which he answered my questions, by his protestations of goodwill, by the case he made out for Germany, looked at from his point of view.’ He was depressed when, reporting this conversation to the Admiralty back in London, he was presented with evidence that cast doubts on Tirpitz’s sincerity.
When in the summer of 1914, the First World War broke out, Hocking’s first feeling was ‘utter bewilderment’:
It seemed as if the bottom had dropped out of everything. Everything for which I had loved and laboured had fallen into dust. All my work and striving had been in vain … Yet what could we do? Could we deny our promise to Belgium? Could we let the hordes of Germany trample upon the whole of Europe? Suppose we and France and the rest put into practice the doctrine of non-resistance? Suppose we let the Kaiser have his way and turned the other cheek, what then?
He found that ‘The idealism of the New Testament bore no relation to reality.’ He turned down all invitations to preach, and never resumed preaching. But he accepted an invitation from the YMCA to visit camps throughout England and talk to the soldiers, and he did this until the end of the war and beyond, addressing tens of thousands of men, including Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians. He found them the most attentive and interested audience he had known, and that
Their hatred of war and the whole military system was bitter beyond expression. It was an almost universal complaint that they were treated more like cattle than men. They were no longer individuals, but just platoons and companies, to be harried and hurried, and driven and dragooned, without any regard to what they felt and suffered … ‘Never no more,’ was a common expression. If they were lucky enough to come out alive, if …
When the war was over, in February 1919 he was asked by the Canadian YMCA to spend four or five weeks in Belgium talking to Canadian troops waited to be demobbed. He was asked by one Canadian if he was ‘the original Silas Hocking’. In response to Hocking’s puzzlement, the soldier explained that his mother used to read him Hocking’s stories and he had ‘thought that he lived back in the time of John Bunyan or thereabouts, and that he had gone west ages ago’.
Hocking returned from Belgium via Flanders and northern France, and was appalled by the destruction he saw. He drew on his trip for his 1920 novel Watchers in the Dawn, and thought when that was finished that he would give up writing. But he found that
It is by no means as easy to do nothing as it looks, I tried it for a few months, but the experiment was anything but a success. Work becomes a habit. I presume idleness may become a habit also, but habits are not easily formed late in life. To be really proficient in idleness one should start young.
So, in addition to public work for the League of Nations – which he considered ‘the world’s one hope. Without it the nations are doomed’ – he continued to produce a book or two in most years. When the Manchester Guardian interviewed him on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday, in March 1935, he declared that he would not write another novel, but was writing ‘a small book about the people of his early days, comparing also conditions then and now’. He died six months later, on 15 September, at his Highgate home. The Times obituary noted that ‘There will be no mourning and no flowers, by his special request.’
• E. A. Bennett, Fame and Fiction: An Enquiry into Certain Popularities (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.; London: Grant Richards, 1901)
• R. G. Burnett, ‘Hocking, Silas Kitto (1850–1935)’, rev. Sayoni Basu, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2006
• Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (London: George Newnes, 1894)
• Cornish Guardian, 19 September 1935
• Valerie Grove, ‘Property Lust: The Ultimate Modern Fantasy’, The Times, 8 June 1998
• George Haw (ed.), Christianity and the Working Classes (London: Macmillan, 1906)
• Silas K. Hocking, For Such is Life (London and New York: Frederick Warne, 1896)
——, Her Benny (London and New York: Frederick Warne, 1890 illustrated edition)
——, The Moral Aspect of the League of Nations (London, The League of Free Nations Association, )
——, My Book of Memory: A String of Reminiscences and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1923)
• Alan M. Kent, Pulp Methodism: The Lives and Literature of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking, Three Cornish Novelists (St Austell: Cornish Hillside, 2002)
• Philip Larkin, ‘Single-handed and Untrained’, in Required Writing (London: Faber and Faber, 1983)
• Manchester Guardian, 13 April 1895 (‘Books of the Week III’, Doctor Dick and Other Tales), 27 April 1897 (‘Books of the Week’, The Blindness of Madge Tyndhall), 23 February 1900 (‘“Peace-day” and the South African War’), 7 November 1900 (‘New Novels’, To Pay the Price), 1 May 1901 (‘New Novels’, The Fate of Endilloe), 20 July 1901 (’Free Church Ministers and the War: “A Constructive Policy of Peace”’), 15 October 1902 (‘United Kingdom Alliance’), 6 August 1903 (’The Education Act: Educational Policy of the Free Churches’), 4 May 1904 (‘Liberation Society’s Conference’), 25 May 1904 (’Christian Endeavour: The National Convention Meetings’), 28 September 1904 (‘New Novels’, The Scarlet Clue), 26 March 1935 (‘Silas Hocking: Sixty Years of Novel Writing’)
• The Observer, 14 February 1915 (‘New Novels’, The Great Hazard)
• The Times, 16 September 1935 (‘Mr. Silas Hocking’)
• Martin Wellings, ‘“Pulp Methodism” Revisited: The Literature and Significance of Silas and Joseph Hocking’, in Peter Clarke and Charlotte Methuen (eds.), The Church and Literature, Studies in Church History vol. 48 (Woodbridge: Ecclesiastical History Society / Boydell Press, 2012)