On this day … 5 April 1862

The Preston Guardian reported the death of the Rev Alexander Birnie, formerly minister at Leeming Street and Pole Street Baptist chapels. He had been found starving in a haystack in Northumberland, and was carried to the Morpeth workhouse where he ‘died of the mortification of the extremities.’

It was a sad end to a life that had promised so much. In 1853, he had been invited by the congregation at the Leeming Street Baptist chapel to become their minister. At the time he appears to have been a member of the staff of a college in Aberdeen. He was clearly a highly-educated man, to judge by his correspondence in the Preston Chronicle after he took up his post.

Eleven months after his arrival, it seems there was a falling out among the Leeming Street congregation. The Rev Birnie and a large number of the congregation separated from the chapel, and began worshipping in the former Cannon Street Mechanics Institute.

Baptist Chapel in Pole Street
Caption from the Preston Digital Archive: ‘Carey Baptist Church, Pole Street, Preston. An engraving of the chapel. Erected 1825. Known as the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel Calvinistic Methodist. It is now Carey Baptist Church. Note the windmill on the right. The windmill at right once stood in Snow Hill close to Trinity Church. Image courtesy of David Berry.’ Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rpsmithbarney/4350236390/

Fifteen months after the split, the Rev Birnie and his followers bought the Methodist chapel in Pole Street for £700 and began to worship there. He stayed with the chapel for less than three years, the congregation did not flourish, and the Rev Birnie supplemented his income by his writings.

He left to pursue a literary career. He did not prosper and tried his luck, again without success, as an auctioneer and newspaper editor. His decline continued, ending in his final days in Northumberland. He kept a diary of his sufferings in those last days, according to which his troubles started when he was robbed ‘of about £3, all I had, and a suit of clothes’, which left him penniless, starving and homeless, as he details:

February 10th
The third day, and I have not had a morsel of food.

February 11th
I have had but a piece of coarse bread since Monday last … My existence has been a curse to myself, and to everybody connected with me, through my own folly … God help her [his wife] and my poor children.

February 12th
Another day, and not a bit of food … Nothing stronger than water has entered my lips … The side of a hay rick or a plantation has been my bed … Don’t bury me like a dog; my articles and speeches in this book will show that I deserved better.

Thursday, 13th
I have now lain under some straw by a haystack, near Morpeth last night and all day. God knows if ever I shall be able to proceed any further. I would like to have got to Chester-le-street, to be buried there, that my poor wife, when she looks on my grave, might forgive and weep.

The entries continue until the 25th of the month, when, presumably, he was found and taken to the Morpeth workhouse.

On 28 May 1862, the Preston Chronicle carried the following item:

The poems and papers of the late Mr Alexander Birnie, who formerly resided in Preston, and whose melancholy death we recorded a few weeks since, have, we understand, been handed over to a reverend gentleman in Durham, with a view to their publication on behalf of the deceased’s widow and children.

Anyone with a Lancashire Library membership can read the full reports on which the above is based by going to https://www.lancashire.gov.uk/libraries-and-archives/libraries/digital-library/newspapers-old-and-new/ to access the Preston Chronicle archive. Simply put Alexander Birdie in the search box and select Preston Chronicle from the drop-down menu.

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