All ye whom literature engages,
Come read my book through all its pages,
It far surpasses former ages
For truth and diction;
Compar’d with which the wisest sages
Wrought nought but fiction.
When the irrepressible Wesleyan preacher Hodgson Casson arrived in Gateshead in 1827 and stood in the pulpit of the chapel on High Street to deliver a sermon only a few of the faithful stared back at him. Ever the populist, Casson told the empty benches how displeased he was with the low attendance and took off into the night. Once he was as far as Sunderland Road he turned around—coat and hat stuffed underarm—and ran as fast as his legs would permit back to the chapel, all the way shouting those magnetic words… ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’. Hot on his heels and tantalised by the promise of a ruckus, the crowd piled into the chapel after him. Casson proceeded to the front, availed himself of coat and hat and rolling up shirtsleeves addressed the clamouring crowd. ‘My friends you have come to see a fight; you shall not be disappointed; for I am just going to have one with the devil!’. Casson flowed on with ebullience, delivering a characteristically effervescent sermon to his unsuspecting congregation.
News of Casson’s stunt spread across Gateshead and into Newcastle. Soon after a satirical account was published reimagining the event as a boxing match between Cumberland Hodge and Brimstone Harry. The piece took the form of a poem written by the devil himself, a lamentation over Gateshead in which he impugns the fair old town for abandoning him. Thousands of copies were sold and Casson remained the talk of the town for weeks after, firmly imprinting himself into the collective consciousness of Gateshead.
O Gateshead, Gateshead, Gateshead, O!
What makes you so uncivil,
To turn your back on your best friend–
Poor old Nick the Devil?
Part of the charismatic Casson’s brilliance was that he could generate this kind of strong buzz. He was well-travelled and reached his zenith in Gateshead, where he could address any audience with signature vivacity. Yet more remarkably if there was no crowd, he almost certainly would be sure to attract one. Casson’s showmanship made him unorthodox among his Methodist preacher peers but few would deny that he could get the job done. Before long a waning congregation was swelling, with many travelling over the water from Newcastle to hear him speak each week.
Casson’s short time in Gateshead was dotted with apocryphal tales of Messiah-like happenings. His hagiographic autobiography effuses on his time in Swalwell, where he found a general dereliction of Methodist morals and local workers committing acts of impiety on the Sabbath. One particular group of fellas showed particular indifference to Casson’s firebrand exhortations on how they should be occupying themselves on their only day of rest. After the preacher cited them as paragons of turpitude in a lecture that evening, the group were incensed and such was their distaste that they resolved to stone Casson to death. The following day—so the story goes—one of the conspirators was overcome with a mortal ailment. On his deathbed the man known only as W.T. repented with Casson at his side before succumbing to his illness.
The scorn towards Casson abated but did not disappear in Swalwell, at least until another fantastical occurrence. The tale holds that a group of disenchanted disbelievers crowded his horse as he rode through the village. One of the gathered took aim at Casson with a stone, but before he could get his shot off Cumberland Hodge reminded them of what happened to W.T.—the last man to threaten him with violence. Casson’s thundering words caused several of the men to atone on the spot and became some of his warmest admirers. Ever the forgiver, Casson welcomed them with an abundance of love and in his correspondence would refer to them as his ‘Swalwell darlings’!
Although his tenure in Gateshead lasted only two years—from 1827-1829—Casson left a distinct impression. He subsequently spent two years in Durham and another two in North and South Shields before moving to the non-conformist parish of Birstal in what is now East Riding of Yorkshire.
R.W. Hetherington, ‘Early Recollections of Gateshead Fell – The Chapels’, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle (7th January 1882): p3.
A. Steele, Christianity in Earnest as Exemplified in the Life and Labours of the Rev. Hodgson Casson (1853)
Dr. Doublespur, The Devil’s Lamentation over Gateshead (date unkown)