F W Boreham - Daydream Believer

by Chris Jones

The Council is planning to celebrate the 4th Centenary of the Wells by fixing ‘blue’ plaques to the homes of notable residents. I wonder whether they will consider the Upper Grosvenor Road home of Frank Boreham. He started as a 14-year old clerk at the High Brooms brickworks in 1885 but went on to become a renowned preacher with a world-wide audience far beyond that of Canon Hoare. He died in 1959 but his works are still studied. They were the subject of a paper presented at a conference in Seoul, South Korea just last year. His autobiography 'My Pilgrimage', written in 1940, is an easy read, a little sentimental perhaps, but it tells an interesting story, full of details of life in Tunbridge Wells in the 1870’s and 80’s.

Frank William Boreham was born at 3 Garden Road in 1871, the first child of Francis and Fanny Boreham. Francis was a solicitor’s clerk. The family moved to a new house, Wroxton Lodge, in Upper Grosvenor Road in 1874, where they remained for the next seventy years. Francis’ father had worked on the Earl of Derby’s estate at Wroxton near Banbury, and it was a family tradition to give that name to all their homes.

The Borehams were a religious family. Francis and Fanny had met at St John’s Church and had married there, but some time before Frank’s birth they transferred to Emmanuel, the new church on Mount Ephraim, part of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion. The minister of Emmanuel, the Rev George Jones, was active in the movement to open a second Skinners’ Company school in Tunbridge Wells, and Frank’s parents were presumably disappointed that the campaign took so long. Frank went instead to the Grosvenor United School in Meadow Road, where the multi-storey car park now stands (see map). ‘Plain as it was’, Boreham explains, ‘ it was an excellent school as schools went in those days’.

Frank was never as dedicated a scholar as his friend and rival, Gilbert Finch, the Mayor’s son. He was too fond of day-dreaming - of cricket, which was to be a life-long love of his; and of adventures in far-flung parts of the world - with polar bears in the far North, boa-constrictors in the Amazon, or wolves in Siberia. Perhaps Gilbert should be blamed for this, as it was he who introduced Frank to a local library, ‘a dingy little school-room, a few streets away, where, in return for the modest outlay of a penny a month he had unlimited access to tales of adventure’. Or perhaps it was Frank’s own romantic nature. He tells of a local tradition that one could see the sea from Crowborough Beacon, and, although he never saw it himself, and never heard of anybody else who had seen it, nevertheless he continued to make occasional trips, sixteen miles on rough and dusty roads, in full expectation of seeing it one day.

Day-dreamer or not, Frank achieved the seventh grade at age twelve, and worked at the school as pupil-teacher for two years at 2s. a week. A few weeks before his fourteenth birthday, though, he was introduced to the adult world of work, as a junior clerk at the Brick Company in High Brooms, at that time separated from Tunbridge Wells by a belt of thick green woods. All went well for a year, but then there was a dreadful accident as Frank was checking the wagons leaving the company sidings. He slipped beneath the wheels of the locomotive, and as a result his right foot had to be amputated.

Frank was in hospital for six months. At times they feared whether he would survive at all. He eventually went back to the Brick Works, but his leg was too fragile for him to continue working there. However he had been able to study short-hand during his convalescence, and it is thought that he then worked for local newspapers, though no firm evidence for this has been found. We do, however, have a testimonial from Mr G Edwards, builder and contractor of Woodbury Park Road, praising Frank’s work during a six-month period of employment with him.

Two events in Tunbridge Wells made a profound impression on him. The first was a visit by the American preacher D L Moody who spoke one Sunday afternoon on the Lower Cricket Ground. People gathered in their hundreds. The second was the formation of the Salvation Army. He knew many of the early converts and tremendously admired their courage, especially when their meetings were attacked by the ‘Skeleton Army’: “When I saw those, of both sexes, whose appeals had so affected me, bleeding from wounds inflicted by fists, or sticks and stones, my soul was stirred within me.” (For a more detailed description of the early years of the Salvation Army in Tunbridge Wells, including the attacks by the Skeleton Army, see Ian Beavis' article in the Summer 2005 Newsletter.)

In late 1887, still only 16, he took a job in London, for the South London Tramways Company. London dazzled and terrified him, and he was often lonely. He tried out a number of evangelical churches, starting with Immanuel in West Brixton, with whom he went on a mission to hop-pickers in Brenchley. At one point he tried to join the Plymouth Brethren but was turned away for wearing a small blue Temperance ribbon. It was decried as ‘a badge of the world’. He was baptised into the Old Baptist Union in Streatham, but once baptised he never went back there.

In 1892 he enrolled with Spurgeon’s College to train as a preacher. Students at the College were allocated villages in which to practice their skills. Theydon Bois in Essex was a popular posting because of the pretty girls who lived there, and one of these caught Frank’s eye. But his main ambition was to be a missionary. He wanted to go to China, but his injury prevented this. So, when the opportunity arose of taking over a mission in New Zealand, he seized it, though he had not actually completed his training.

Frank left for New Zealand in 1895 aged 24. He obviously did some serious thinking on the voyage as, when the ship reached Tasmania, he sent a letter back to Theydon Bois, to the father of the girl he had left behind. Frank and Stella were married the following year in New Zealand. (For a brief note on their journeys to New Zealand, click here.)

The settlement of Mosgiel had been established 46 years earlier by Scots - ‘the sturdiest and saintliest sons and daughters of the Free Kirk’ - and many of the original settlers were still there. Frank found that ‘beneath countenances like granite cliffs, there was an inexhaustable wealth of human tenderness’. It was a great opportunity for the young man. He was their first minister, and, in a quiet town far from distractions, he had time to develop his skills as a pastor and preacher. He also had time to read, and to contribute articles to local newspapers.

When he left Mosgiel after twelve years it was for Hobart Tabernacle, the leading Baptist church in Tasmania. Amongst church members were many state and federal MP’s. Frank continued his regular preaching, and his newspaper articles, but it was while in Hobart that he started collecting and publishing his sermons in book form. They very quickly became a success, running through edition after edition, and selling into the hundreds of thousands (see example).

After an illness in 1916, he moved to Armadale, a suburb of Melbourne, and there again drew crowds of eager hearers to his sermons. He retired officially in 1928 but continued to work as interim minister and guest preacher, and went on lecture tours of North America and Britain. Frank died in 1959. He had received an honorary doctorate from a Canadian university in 1928, and was made OBE in 1954.

Over his life Frank Boreham produced over 50 books, and wrote more than 3000 editorials. His publishers considered him their greatest catch since John Wesley’s day. Some of the books were re-printed in the 1990’s, and photocopies of his first book ‘Won to Glory’ written while he was still in London, are available on the Internet at $20 each.

What made the books so successful? To the modern reader they are hopelessly pious and starry-eyed. But to a less demanding audience in harsher times they offered re-assurance. The apparent simplicity of the stories, drawing upon ordinary people and everyday incidents; and Boreham’s gentle humour, were inspiring and uplifting. In the words of Barbara Frame of Dunedin Public Library, “Boreham’s world was vast and endlessly interesting; there is little to deplore, and much to appreciate”.

Frank had 7 brothers and 2 sisters (see picture of the family). One of the brothers, Frederick, joined the Anglican Church and became Archdeacon of Truro and chaplain to George VI and the present Queen. No Borehams now remain locally.

Bryan Senior, who lives at Wroxton Lodge today, has worked with Frank’s family and other researchers from Australia to investigate Frank’s life in Tunbridge Wells, to collect pictures and to track down other members of the family. I should like to thank him for all his help in the preparation of this article. Thanks also to Barbara Frame of Dunedin Public Libraries for permission to use the picture of the 'Merry Man of Mosgiel', and for sight of her own article on Boreham's life and work.

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