Ann Mason Freeman Devon Breakaway Bible-Christian, Quaker, Letter-Writer, Memoirist and Passionate Preacher

Map with Northlew showing Horrathorn

           From the first moment I came across references to her the C19 female Devon preacher/memoirist/ letter writer Ann Mason Freeman caught my attention.  Here is the opening of her Memoir:

        You will find various online sources which feature Ann, so she's not entirely extinguished from Devon's history. But she is one of the lucky ones, records about Freeman's life and her memoir only survive because of her links with the Bible Christians, one of the evangelical movements which sprang up in the westcountry during the C19. Initially Ann Freeman intrigued me because her home background, a farming family in west Devon, was similar to that of many of my own ancestors and as well she had lived not far from the parishes with which branches of our family were also rooted for hundreds of years. Broadly speaking, that takes in parishes that lie within a triangle formed by the point of Okehampton, Barnstaple and Bude - Broadwoodkelly; Dowland; Monkokehampton and other neighbouring parishes.

         One of my great great grandmothers was  Mary Parker, who was born at a farm in the parish of Dowland, which is just 20 miles east of Sutcombe, where one of the farms that the Mason family held is situated. Mary Parker was born in 1791 just a few years before Ann Mason Freeman. When you take into account Devon's proliferation of parishes, the distance between these parishes is small enough for the rural families of our farming ancestors to extend out genealogical tendrils and link up one with another in many and various complicated networks. Also, when it comes to the main narrative themes of Ann Mason Freeman's life, that geographical triangle is sufficiently compact to allow a reconstruction of patterns of inter-relationship in past communities in terms of their religious interests and associations. When I read about Ann's life, writings and travels I kept wondering if some of my foremothers or forefathers may have encountered her or others in her social circle; or indeed, if any of my great, or great great grandmothers, - such as Mary Parker - might themselves have become caught up in the world of the once celebrated Bible Christian/Quaker female iterant evangelical preachers, just as did Ann. If so, then sadly their religious fervour, memories and letters have long ago dispersed into dust and earth. In any case, as far as the Westcountry is concerned it is unusual (indeed, as far as I am aware, probably unique) for any texts written by a woman from this period to have survived, which in itself make the Memoir of the Life and Ministry of Ann Freeman written by herself and An Account of her Death by her husband Henry Mason, a special book.

        Yes, fair enough, Ann Freeman's text only exists because of its links with evangelical sects of her time and its remit is a narrowly focused religious rhetoric, but even so the memoir provides a way of allowing us a glimpse into the mind-set of women from rural Devon communities during the early C19, so even though my own foremothers' personal diaries don't survive, texts such as that penned by Ann can fill out a background context for family history social records. 

        I assume that one of the reasons that the text written by Freeman -which includes the narrative of her life-journey - survives, is because it was taken up by her husband after her death, then edited, extensively prefaced and published as her biography, by him. Hers is not the only story of a woman who wrote who would have disappeared into the ether if not for the actions of a male relative following her own demise. In other words, Ann Freeman is fortunate to have such a legacy - and indeed her 'fame' within the restricted circuits of evangelical networks, which means that she has a biography in sources such as Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (which as I write this during lockdown 2020 is allowing free access for a while through some library memberships)  - is probably mostly due to the biography accorded to her by her husband rather than other more peripheral historical sources. Henry Freeman's prefacing commentary about his late wife's Memoir (which was published not long after her death), suggests that he has omitted passages and as well he has edited some of her words.

 'The following memoirs do not contain the whole of what my dear partner wrote as that would have swelled the book … the whole of the memoirs are in her own words except the     alterations of I believe very few expressions that the reader may have a better understanding of the real meaning'. (See Memoir
        It is of course impossible to know how much Henry left out or indeed how much of the text he altered, but I think for a contemporary researcher reading a woman's text like this which has been shaped by a man, it is always important to have at the back of one's mind that the writing includes alterations and therefore may not be presented the way its author intended.

        It's also important to point out that another reason Ann Mason Freeman's memoir has survived is because of its provenance as a text written by one of the women acclaimed inspirational woman preachers from an important sectarian movements of the early C19. Designated as a 'Female Special Agent' Ann was one of a network of women preachers, many from Devon and Cornwall (several of them were her friends) who were encouraged and supported during the early years of the Bible Christian movement. During some of the years in which they were active in the south west some thirty per cent of the preachers taken on by the sect were women. Thus Ann's own memoir is an excellent source book for those who might be researching other women preachers of that time. The Bible Christian website provides the following information on Bible Christian women preachers.

From the very beginning, female preachers played a significant part in the work of the Bible Christians. Mary Thorne, the mother of James Thorne, had preached around Shebbear at the very beginning. Catherine Reed did much work to establish the circuits in Kent and London. The preaching of Mary Thorne, née O'Bryan, was described in The Maiden Preacher by her son, Samuel Ley Thorne, in 1889. Mary's mother, Catherine Bryant, had become a Bible Christian preacher. There are others: Johanna Brooks, Elizabeth Courtice, Elizabeth Dart, Anne Mason, Mary Ann Verry and Mary Toms. (The Bible Christans).

From Ann Mason Freeman's Memoirs

         According to her own memoir, Ann Mason was born 24th June 1797 at Horrathorn, or Horathorne, near Northlew (which you can see on the map which heads this post). Her parents were William and Grace Mason, who as far as I understand were of the established Anglican church (but I'm not quite sure of this fact). The beginning of her memoir (see illustration) relates that Ann was fourth of the Mason's thirteen children.  Compared to that of the life-span expectations of current generations, Ann's life was brief. She died at the age of 26, but albeit in conformity with the religious norms of her time, managed to pack into her short life-span a veritable wide-ranging box of experiences, including several homes, wide-ranging travels, extensive preaching and a number of texts including letters to a variety of relations, friends and acquaintances. When she was fifteen, just as many daughters from farming families, she was apprenticed to a dressmaker and shortly after this her family moved 18  miles north west of Northlew to another farm, Northcott (you can see Northcott on The Ruby Trail Map), which is between the parishes of Sutcombe and Bradworthy.

Map of Bradworthy showing Northcott

       In her book Prophetic Sons and Daughters, Deborah M Valenze remarks that the Masons, 'like the majority of the inhabitants of the area' were 'small farmers', and surrounded by 'moorland terrain', but I'm not quite sure she is correct in that assumption

       I find it rather intriguing that according to Ann Freeman's Memoir all the Mason siblings 'were early instructed to read, to say prayers mornings and evenings and on first-day evenings were catechised'. Ann must also have been a fluent reader and writer. In my own family history research apropos farming ancestors from Broadwoodkelly and neighbouring villages - which are also parishes in the nearby territory of west and north Devon - I've not always found that the women of the same era were able to write, for only a few of our foremothers signed their own marriage record. Of course they may have learnt to read; it's not possible to know, but I'm tempted to suggest that the women of the farming families of the Westcountry of Ann Mason's generation (late C18/earlyC19 were not generally literate. Perhaps she and her siblings were in the minority; or perhaps it was her religious and familial backgrounds which were the determining forces. 

Lane just south of Northcott (credit on image)

          The next fact we find about Ann in her memoir is that in the year before her family's move to Northcott farm, presumably while they still lived at Northlew, she fell under the influence of a Methodist Minister who came to preach in the parish, but during the same period she was bothered by inner spiritual turmoil and began to suffer from the physical ailments that eventually ended her life. She describes a trip to 'Oakhampton' where she was supposed to be confirmed, but because of inner turmoil - the 'dark' and 'death' in her  - confirmation didn't happen, and it was 'ministry' with a 'soldier' that helped her to see 'the beauty in religion' and prompted her to feel the 'power of Grace'. This experience was apparently a reawakening for Ann. It appears from her narrative that there followed many turbulent spiritual times, but this intense encounter started her on a new life-path of dedication to the role of 'pilgrim', a spiritual inner world from where she could minister for her God. Soon after the family's move north to Northcott, during  'midsummer', Ann and her sister Mary became 'spiritual companions' and joined the Northcott Methodist Society. This caused ructions in the family, and their father promptly banished them from the house, but evidently Ann won the battle and all too soon her mother and at least four other siblings were also converted and joined the 'breakaways'.

      During the next few years Ann describes a 'great revival of religion in the neighbourhood' and she began travelling away from home to attend various evangelical meetings. One such meeting was 8th September 1816, when she walked six miles to 'hear a stranger preach' and on another outing the following month she fell under the spell - the 'fame of love' of  the breakaway Bible Christian minister James Thorne. Thorn and another minister William O'Bryan had led the split of the Bible Christians or Bryanites from the Wesleyan Methodists a year before, in 1815. (Their first meeting was held at Lake Farm in Shebbear. It doesn't seem as if Ann was present at that meeting, which is perhaps surprising given that Shebbear is only 8 miles east from Sutcombe and during these years Ann apparently thought nothing of walking long distances).

Another lane south of Northcott (credit see image)

        By the time she was definitely drawn into their orbit the group were becoming highly influential in the westcountry. On 1st January 1817 Ann attended the fifth quarterly Bible Christian meeting at her aunt's barn at Alsworthy (it may be this barn at Alsworthy in Bradworthy but probably is also in the neighbouring parish of Alfrardisworthy), where she says 'The Lord poured out His Spirit'. I'm assuming that Alsworthy is the farm of that name in the parish of Alfardisworthy, which is about five or six miles south-west of the Mason's farm at Northcott.  It was after this meeting that Ann left the Methodists and became a class leader and preacher with the Bible Christians. So, despite increasing respiratory problems, she began many years of travelling, often involving long-distance walks to open air meetings all over the county and down into Cornwall, where as itinerant preacher she spoke to the people who flocked round her. She apparently thought nothing of walking thirty miles in a day to reach a destination. Her appointments included the position of preacher for the Shebbear circuit, and then, for North Cornwall.  

       I'm not going to follow Ann Freeman's spiritual journey, or preaching career to the end of her life, which, following her marriage to |Henry Freeman in London, encompassed years away from her home-patch, in London and Ireland. I prefer instead to focus on her time and life down in Devon, her homelands, to try and unpick a few of the tangled threads of her family and associative network, because I'm sure this unusual farmer's daughter didn't just suddenly transform her persona from rural 'ugly duckling' into passionate, gifted evangelical performer without, either inheriting traits and talents from family members close to her, or/and absorbing skills from other inspirational individuals as they went out and about on the local Bible Christian circuits. My investigation here is only preliminary. I'd love one day to focus on long-term focused research about Ann and other women in her circle who became involved in these west Devon breakaway sects, because there is much yet out there to discover which will be relevant both to those interested in Devon's forgotten literary-linked women and to those who may have family roots in the area.  I am rather ashamed to admit that before I was led along the local archive mazes to Ann Freeman I was one of those, who though passionately interested in both Devon genealogy and Devon's literary women, had not ever really taken much notice of Bible Christians; but now since encountering this Devon memoirist and preacher I am aware that there is much yet out to there to re-discover. However, as far as this blog post is concerned, my intention is to just send out a few feelers to others out there, who might want to pick up my threads and follow the journeys of Ann and others in her network.

       In his unfinished book  A new history of the Bible Christian Church 1815-1907 (Jamaica Press, Hartland, 1997 - the whole text can be found online) Michael Wickes says

 'Bible Christians … should be of interest to most local and church historians, as well as to genealogists trying to trace families of Westcountry descent. The Bible Christians played an important role in the social and political development of the South West during the Victorian era but too many histories of Devon and Cornwall have almost completely ignored their presence. Many contemporary inhabitants of the South West have never heard of the Bible Christians, despite the fact that Bible Christian chapels still form part of the local rural landscape'. New History

        Well, my as yet tentative research to explore gaps in what is known about Ann's immediate (and even extended family) brought up so much material (as is often the way with these kinds of 'Who do you think you are?' kind of searches) that I hardly know where to begin. I suppose I started with the thought that this young farmer's daughter might/must have had a rather different background that the foremothers in my own (also north and west) Devon farming family. As noted above, I've not yet found any three times great grandmother from that north and west Devon branch of our family who was obviously educated to any level other than (sometimes) basic literacy, I also had my doubts about the assumption made about the social standing of Ann's parents. Were they really just  rather poor yeoman farmers with only a small farm holding as Valenze in her book Prophetic Sons and Daughters concludes? I'm not sure.

         When I started to look at the online genealogical sites (especially making use of the Lockdown free access briefly made possible), it was not easy to trace William Mason, Ann Mason's father's family and background; there seemed too many alternatives to make it possible to establish his identity. So instead, I began with Ann's mother's family. With the help of FindMyPast it was easy to find her parents' marriage, at Bradworthy, on  23rd May 1791, and so discover that William was 'husbandman'  and her mother's maiden name was Grace Ashton.

Record of William \Mason and Ashton marriage banns

Both William and Grace were identified as  'from' Bradworthy and both signed their names. Thus opened a flood-gate of  Bradworthy Ashtons, taking in other researchers' family-trees - which inevitably meant some disparity as to identities of Ann's mother Grace's parents (Ann's maternal grandparents). I had to choose between two possibilities, both of which led back to probably one family of Ashtons from the Sutcombe/Bradworthy area, who it seemed to me were likely to have been aspiring freeholder yeomen, possibly a step away from 'gentlemen' status.

       There are quite a few Ashton wills (or lists of) and other documents available via Discovery and/or Devon Record Office, one of which I believe may be that of Ann's maternal grandfather, Samuel Ashton. 'Yeoman of Bradworthy'. A Lawrence Ashton is also listed as Yeoman in several files which relate to land conveyancing sales of parcels of land in the parish. Lawrence may be Samuel's father and thus Ann's great grandfather. (If so, Ann's maternal great grandmother, Samuel's wife, was Margaret Tremeere (another family who seem to have had long-standing roots in Bradworthy).

       The Bradworthy website comments that the Ashton family purchased the Manor of Bradworthy early in the C19. I also read somewhere (but have mislaid the source) that the Ashtons owned Lower Alfardisworthy (farm) for nearly 200 years. (Could this be the same farm as that of the site of the barn where the transformative Bible Christian meeting was held where Ann was 'converted'?|) This suggests to me that when they moved from Northlew to Northcott near Bradworthy, the Masons were possibly returning to Grace's maternal roots. Was it then being farmed by one of her maternal aunts? If so, which one? All this indicates to me that Ann Mason Freeman's maternal inheritance was affluent. I doubt that her mother's parents (or father) were poor tenant farmers. If I am correct then it explains Ann's apparent high level of  literacy, which I have puzzled about ever since I found that she learnt to read early in life. I believe there must be much more to find about the Ashton family and their links with Bradworthy. (However, if the brilliant researchers on Ancestry are correct, then at least one branch of the Ashton ancestors had Cornish links, for Lawrence Ashton's birth is listed as at Morwenstow. Perhaps when Ann travelled to Cornwall to preach she knew that she was returning to a place where some of her forbearers had called home.)

      Well, as noted above, Ann's father's parentage and birth place is not so certain than that of her mother's Ashton family. But yet again, eventually Ancestry came up trumps and provided some clues, which led me to a William Mason who I think may be Ann's father. That William Mason was baptised in Hatherleigh, a parish less than five miles from where the Mason family farmed at Northlew. He was a son of another William Mason, his mother born Mary Hole. That couple had been married in North Tawton, another nearby parish. I have not been able to find anything more about the Masons of Hatherleigh but Mary Hole may be interesting as the Hole family of North Tawton were a well-known landowning family who were renowned as local clerics and several of the family had literary connections. I have to stress here that the genealogical research I note here is only tentative and others out there may well find I have gone down - or up - the wrong tree/s! But I wanted to include all these suggestions as if they do prove correct then Ann Mason Freeman's family background may be rather different from that which tends to be assumed. 

       It is also important to stress that Ann had several female friends who, like her, became preachers and memoirists. Each of these women deserves to be attended to and slotted into the context of this significant group of south west's non-conformists. Regrettably, at the moment, I am not able to spare more time to research them all, but I hope one day others will do so and that eventually there will be a chronology and compendium providing a source text about these fascinating women and their influence on the religious non-conformist groups that were so important in Devon rural communities during the late C18 and early C19.  

      Whatever the definitive facts about her ancestors, and about her social background, Ann Freeman does seem to stand out amongst the crowd of other evangelical women preachers of her time. Given that she suffered from poor health throughout her short life, it's striking that she was mentally able to withstand the hostility which was often directed towards her as she walked and preached her way around the Westcountry. And Ann was evidently gifted with a swift and sure intelligence; she could argue theological debate fluently, and even take on Bible Christian's male leaders; so much so, that during the last years of her life she had the courage to challenge these leaders and leave the Bible Christians to become a Quaker.

        Through the centuries there have been a handful of self-appointed eccentrically motivated so-called religious women born and brought up in the heart of Devon who managed to create a stir not only within the county, but extending out way beyond its boundaries. It's beyond the scope of this blog-post, but I have often wondered whether a couple of Devon's eccentric females of the C18 and early C19 had any links with one another and further, that women preachers such as Ann Freeman might have been influenced by these other 'alternative', eccentric country women. Even within the conventions of the mores of their own times  Joanna Southcott (self-designated prophetess, born 1750), and Princess Caraboo/ Mary Wilcox (exotic fantasist/impostor, born 1792) were utterly unconventional. When I first read about them I couldn't help but wonder whether there were links between the two women. Southcott and Caraboo had similar rural backgrounds and Caraboo's work as farm-hand may have meant that she heard rumour, gossip and general chit-chat coming from other parts of her own county which led her to find out about the bizarre life of Southcott. In 1803, when Caraboo was about twelve, Southcott’s Prophetic Box, which contained all her completed writings, was being conveyed from Exeter to London. Southcott, who was now 53, was a figure of national notoriety especially because of her deluded conviction that she was 'Woman of the Revelation'. It's certainly possible that Mary Wilcox heard about the older kinswoman’s escapades and that Southcott's notorious life led the younger woman to begin to dream up her own (arguably) even more outrageous future.

        Perhaps the contemporary milieu matched with the unsettled centennial opening years of the opening century had some bearing on these women's eccentricities. By the early C18 Devon was split between the dualities of its rural territories and its growing more urban areas; you could get lost in the intricate geography of high hedges and long narrow lanes, which were still mostly rutted tracks, but the county's reputation as a locality that could provide urban delights was growing; parts of Devon was becoming fashionable for the famous to frequent. Add to the mix the volatile effects of the Napoleonic Wars, with their concomitant dramas and scandals, and perhaps the extraordinary palavers initiated by Mary Willcocks and Joanna Southcott are already partly explained. And maybe there is some connection between these two women and the passionate evangelical women preachers of Devon and Cornwall, including Ann Mason Freeman - who was yet another farmer's daughter (or, as Caraboo, linked with farming) who popped up from the depths of Devon's C18/19 rural community. Maybe something in the female psyche during this time of momentous religious and social changes was ignited and (comparable to the contemporary chains of association between today's flourishing female song-writer/singers) led to a chain of influence, as each woman discovered the stories of those who preceded her and responded with an 'evangelising' flourish of her own.

      Devon must have remained special for Ann Mason Freeman, for even after her marriage and extensive travels she returned to her home at Northcott during the last weeks of her life, and died there on 7th March 1826. She was buried at Sutcombe burial ground (which I believe may be the same as Sutcombe's Free Church Cemetery), on 13th March. As I write I'm looking forward to the time when following our release from recent lockdown, - (during which I'm researching and writing this piece) I can get out and about on the literary trail again, so I can take off to the rural corners of north and west Devon in pursuit of Ann Mason's homeland. I hope to find one or two sites linked with this young country woman, who 'cheerfully gave up' the dutiful roles convention expected of her as a Devon farmer's daughter, 'to be a pilgrim'. When I do will add more photos to the post.  

Postscripts to Post 

  1.        As so often happens when I start to research a woman from the past who had literary links with Devon, when I was researching Ann Freeman's genealogy, another woman-who-wrote leapt out of the archived names. Lois Deacon, who I have written about in a previous post in my earlier blog - who is most remembered for her research into hidden stories about Thomas Hardy's life - also researched and wrote a biography titled So I Went My Way, about her great grandfather, another Bible Christian, who like Ann's father, was also a William Mason. This William Mason was also apparently known as a wrestler. As far as I know Lois didn't ever establish the definitive family for her William, (here is the record in A2A) but he certainly had associations with the same area, as Ann Mason Freeman's parents at Bradworthy, and the co-incidences between his life and that of hers suggest strongly that there must have been a blood relationship between him and her family. He was likely to have been her younger brother, who was baptised at Northlew in 1799. There is evidently much more out there to discover about Ann Mason's extended family, all of which could help to fill out the background context from which this Devon woman preacher and memoirist leapt out from the thicket of Devon rural lanes and left a literary legacy which even now enrichens our own understanding of religious non-conformity in the late C18 and early C19 and also, for those of us whose own ancestors came from these parts, gives us a little cameo about the lives of our forebearers. Perhaps someone out there may be able to further unravel the complex family networks ...

2.  Another frequent happening when I'm researching one or other Devon-linked woman writer is that the archives, or a google search, turns up another fascinating literary Devon associated woman. Finding about Ann Mason Freeman's home sites and reading up about Bradworthy parish I ran into several references to Mrs Desmond Humphreys, a celebrated novelist who wrote under the pseudonym 'Rita'. Humphreys travelled down through Devon in the 1920s and apparently stayed in Bradworthy, which later appeared in her novel Asenath of the Ford; A Romance of Red Earth Country:

'the long lovely avenue that leads to Bradworthy' where 'the trees bent towards each other on either side entwining bough and branch with loving intimacy, as friends link arm in arm, or lovers clasp hands'. (See Bradworthy).  

     I am not familiar with 'Rita' nor her novels, but will look forward to becoming acquainted with her when I have a few spare hours...


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