When Elizabeth Ann Lewis sadly passed away on the 14th March 1924, she would leave behind a legacy that would for many years be spoken about not only by the townsfolk of Blackburn, but also by those of an entire nation.
Born into a poor farmers family, Elizabeth was just one of six siblings of George and Ann Lewis. She had one sister, Margaret, and four brothers – George Graham Lewis, Robert Fisher Lewis, Samuel Lewis and John Lewis, and for those that may not know, John Lewis was one of the former founder’s of Blackburn Rovers Football Club back in 1875!
Elizabeth’s parent’s were teetotallers, with her father George being one of the early pioneers of the temperance movement.
It was on the 16th May 1867 that Elizabeth would marry a man named Thomas Lewis in Sandbach, Cheshire, and the following year they relocated to Blackburn where Thomas was in business as a coach builder up until his retirement in 1905.
In 1882, believe it or not, Blackburn was known as the most ‘beery town in England’, with a total of 604 licenses which included 255 public houses.
And as you can guess, drunkness and violence went cap-in-hand during this period which would make the streets of Blackburn at times a place not to be found wandering alone!
After settling in Blackburn, both Elizabeth and Thomas engaged in a Band of Hope work, helping those less fortunate in life with day-to-day living.
It was this type of work that would lead Elizabeth towards the Blue Ribbon Mission and in 1882 she was asked by the organiser, a Mr. Glover, to assist by going into the audiences and asking them to sign a ‘pledge’.
This work seemed to fire her imagination and as soon as one meeting had finished, she would visit the homes of some of those who had attended to induce them to sign the pledge.
It seems she had the support of many people and this pushed Elizabeth to forming her own mission and on the 1st September 1883 she hired a room within the Cowell-Street Temperance Club.
However, only six people turned up in what was a discouraging event. But never to be beaten, Elizabeth managed to get four people to sign her own pledge, with Mr. John Oates being the first man to sign.
It wouldn’t take long though for word-of-mouth to spread, and by January 1884 she had re-located to new premises on St. Peters Street, and a place known as the Spinners Insitute.
The first report and subscription list came on the 1st September 1884 and showed around eighty subscribers that included 4 members of parliament and had raised around £72.
She would stay at the Spinners Institute until 1891 but as her subscription list would grow, space would become an issue.
Her husband, Thomas, had already began to have a purpose built hall put in place in his own workroom which was situated along Mincing-Lane, and this room could hold around 700 people.
On the 18th June 1891, her new premises were officially opened by Dr. F. R. Lees, and the building would eventually be named after him, becoming known as ‘Lees Hall’.
It was within Lees Hall that, it was reported, thousands of men and women of all ages would make the decision to become teetotallers.
Now, whilst Elizabeth was changing the lives of many people, all for the better I must add, her work would ultimately make her the enemy of many landlords and licensees! After all, she was taking trade away from them at an extraordinary pace.
But despite her many setbacks, and she had quite a few at that, she never wavered from her beliefs.
Perhaps one of Elizabeth’s most testing of times came in April 1900 when she had heard damaging whispers that had began to spread.
On the 10th October 1899, when after visiting Blackpool for a half-day outing, she would later be accused of ‘improper conduct’ with her younger assistant missionary, a man named Mr. William Moss.
These accusations were made by John Shaw, who was a licensee of the Griffin Hotel, Blackburn, and he would tell his customers that he had witnessed both Elizabeth and Mr. Moss acting in an improper way the day before.
In fact, both Elizabeth and Mr. Moss had been in Blackpool, that was true, but they were also accompanied by several friends of theirs. These friends would later testify during a court hearing that took place in April, 1900, and it appears that John Shaw had no basis for his claims. Mr. Biggham, acting on behalf of Shaw would later agree that there were was no justification whatsoever for the allegations made to Elizabeth and his wished to withdraw them with haste!
Mr. Gully, acting on behalf of Elizabeth, accepted the decision and a verdict was agreed that Shaw be made to pay .40s in damages.
For Elizabeth, this case of ‘slander’, whilst it was proved there was no truth in any of it, it would nevertheless be something of a unnecessary hindrence but one which, thankfully, not many people would remember for too long!
In fact, such was Elizabeth well thought of in the community, when the King and Queen visited the region in 1913, she was asked to be a representative for the town. She was also the first woman to be granted permission to visit Lancaster Castle, and she was the first woman in England to conduct a service in a Nonconformist church at Park-Road in 1905.
On two occasions her work was publicly acknowledged and in 1896 she was presented with a cheque for £140 on behalf of the 1,000 subscribers she had welcomed. And ten years later, she was gifted a brooch and pendant studded with precious stones, and a cheque for £150.
Over a period of just over forty-years, the total number of public houses and other establishments that had once caused so much hardship and misery for so many people had been halved – a true testament of the work done by Elizabeth and her many helpers.
Unfortunately, and after over forty-years of hard work, Elizabeth Ann Lewis sadly passed away at 6.30am on Friday, March 14th 1924. She was 76 years old at the time and had been battling a long illnes.
And whilst her death came as a huge loss to not only the missionary, but also the townsfolk of Blackburn, her work would not end there.
William Moss, her assistant and dear friend, made sure her legacy would continue by securing a life-long leese of Lees Hall.
At the age of 70, William still carried on the good work started half-a-century ago by one who will always be remembered as “The Drunkard’s Friend,” and whose name will go down in history as one of the greatest Temperance Reformers of all time.
The final resting place of Elizabeth Ann Lewis. Blackburn Old Cemetery. Photo’s taken 14th April 2023.
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