Silas Hocking (1850-1935)
Silas Kitto Hocking was born on 24th 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, Elizabeth nee Kitto. All seven of their children were baptised with biblical names and three of them went on to become writers and notable literary figures of their day.
Silas was brought up within the local Methodist tradition, but he also had a great love of literature. He attended a local private parochial school until the age of 13 and was then tutored by a local man until at the age of 16 he began work as a mining surveyor.
He was accepted as a local preacher in the St Austell Circuit at the age of 18 and also helped out at Temperance meetings and mothers’ groups. Within 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 This branch of Methodism was formed in 1857 and continued until 1907 when it joined with other groups to form the United Methodist church. At the age of 19, before he was properly ordained, he took up his first ministerial appointment in Pontypool, in the Newport circuit in Wales. before moving on to Spalding and then Liverpool in 1873.
Liverpool in the 1870’s had many problems. It had the largest workhouse in Britain, the highest infant mortality rate and was known to have over 3000 prostitutes. Silas, still only 23 years of age, was sent to a chapel in an area near the docks. One of the poorest parts of the city, it was made up of dirty streets, tenements and slum housing with many of the children begging, stealing or selling matches to raise money for the family.
Silas moved to Brunswick chapel in Burnley in 1876, living on Albion Terrace, and alongside his preaching he began to write articles for a UMFC magazine and then started work on a novel Alec Green: A Tale of Sea Life which 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 to gain popularity as a writer and in 1879, whilst he was still in Burnley, his novel Her Benny was published. This was based on Hocking’s experiences in Liverpool and told of two children, Nell and her brother, Benny. The book was a huge success selling thousands of copies. In 1920 it was made into a film and eventually became the first novel anywhere to sell a million copies. It was the basis of a successful musical by Anne Dalton in 1993.
Silas moved on from Burnley in 1880 going to the Manchester circuit, where he also took part in the City Mission’s outreach work among prostitutes.
He completed a popular ministry in Southport where he had a pastorate type of post from 1883 until 1896- an unusually long appointment at the time. Whilst there he managed to increase the congregation from 80 to 950, clear the large debts of the church and double his salary! He also continued to write profusely and in 1896 decided to put his ministerial duties aside, moving to London, without pastoral charge, to concentrate on his writing and Liberal Politics. He resigned from the ministry in 1906 and, as a member of the Liberal party he unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary elections of1906 and 1910. He died at Highgate on 15 September 1935 having become quite wealthy as a novelist of note.
His brother Joseph Hocking (1860-1937) was also a Methodist minister and famous novelist. He followed his older brother to Burnley and was Minister at Brunswick Methodist Chapel from 1895- 1898. He was a hugely popular preacher attracting large congregations. He published "All Men are Liars" in 1895 whilst at Brunswick. He wrote nearly 100 novels with Cornwall, and an idealised Methodism being two of several prominent themes in this writing. He served mainly in London and retired from the ministry in 1910 due to ill health.
'The underlying ethic endorsed by the Hockings was one of earnest endeavour, honour and honesty, thrift and generosity, courage and sobriety, with a respect for the Sabbath, a horror of alcohol and a preference for practical Christianity over dogma.'
Martin Wellings, 'Pulp Methodism Revisited', pp. 372