Rev Hugh Richardson Wells

1879 - 1929

Ninth Minister of Ballywillan Presbyterian Church

After Mr Woodburn’s death the congregation had difficulty in agreeing upon a successor.  It took almost two years before a unanimous call was given to Mr Hugh R. Wells of Belfast, who was ordained on 6th August 1879

(1. The Kirk of Ballywillan since the Scottish Settlement J E Mullan Belfast 1961)

Mr Wells is first mentioned in the minutes of the Coleraine Presbytery on 16th June 1879, where it was recorded that Mr Wells be transferred to the care of the Presbytery of Coleraine from Belfast Presbytery, and that he be appointed constant supplier of the congregation of Ballywillan.

(2. Coleraine Presbytery Minutes, 6th August 1879: Church House Archives, Belfast ).

Mr Wells, a native of Belfast , was brought up in connection with Crumlin Road congregation.  Later in life than most licentiates, he decided to enter the ministry.  He took his Arts course in the Queen’s College, Belfast , and graduated in 1878 in the Queen’s University of Ireland .  He studied Theology in the Presbyterian College , Belfast , and was licensed by the Belfast Presbytery on 6th May 1879.

(3. Obituaries, The Witness – 5th May 1933, and Missionary Herald.

It is interesting to note that the Rev Wells was born in Carnmoney in August 1846 and the minister of Carnmoney Presbyterian Church from 1845 – 1880 was Rev Joseph Barkley, uncle of Rev Woodburn’s wife.  Perhaps the Rev Barkley may in some way have brought Mr Wells to the attention of Ballywillan Presbyterian Church.  In 1862 during the Rev Barkley’s ministry, the old cruciform church building at Carnmoney, dating back to 1714 was rebuilt on more commodious lines and on a square pattern.  This also may have influenced Mr Wells to rebuild Ballywillan church.

(4. A History of Congregations in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland 1610 – 1982; Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland , 1962

In a speech on the day of his ordination Mr Wells said:

“The day to which I have looked forward, and for which I have anxiously longed, has now fully come, and I rejoice in its blessed light….  By a series of circumstances, not under man’s control, I am today placed in the office of the holy ministry, and have thus realised my fondest hopes and most earnest expectations.  Nothing could give me greater joy, save success in the work in which I am to be engages, than my present position.  Though they are weighty, I rejoice over my present obligations.  I am not a mere functionary; I have chosen the ministry as the work in which I believe I can best serve and glorify God, and as that to which I feel myself specially called.  I thank God for the call and for the ecclesiastical recognition which, in His good providence, I have today received.  I feel the more thankful that I am received by the Church which, above all others I love, and in which, I believe, I can do my duty to God….  The harmony of the congregation encourages me….  I thank them for their unanimity in choosing me, and for their enthusiasm in receiving me.  The way I have been chosen and received, warrants me to believe that I am truly called to the work of the ministry among them and encourages me to entertain the greater hopes of success.  We shall, I hope, minister and people, be able as one man to do the work given us at peace among ourselves.  We shall, as much as lieth in us, live at peace with our neighbours, having for our motto, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men’.

Replying on behalf of the congregation, Mr Glenn said, “I believe we have got the right man, and shall never have any reason to regret our choice, which, I am happy to say, was unanimous.  I hope Mr Wells may be long spared to our church, and feel happy in his work, and that the longer we are acquainted, we shall love and respect each other more.  I represent the people, and he has a hearty welcome amongst us….”

(5. Constitution,  9th August 1879).

Information from older members of the congregation has helped to give a picture of the Rev and Mrs Wells.  Mr Wells is described as having been a gentleman, very tall and good-looking, with a beard and moustache and a ‘terrific head of hair’.  In the pulpit when delivering his sermons – which were long but well thought out – he used to wipe his moustache with a large white handkerchief with exaggerated deliberate movements, and was even known to have combed his hair whilst in the pulpit.  One past member of the congregation said that Rev Wells reminded her of what Jesus must have looked like, with the beard and the long face.  He wore a long black raincoat, similar to the type of dark raincoat the Police used to wear.  He was very proud f this coat and used to relate how long he had had it.  The fact that the coat was turning green with age suggests he must have had it for some time.

Not a humorous man, he was very prosaic and long-winded.  He never used a word of four letters if he could find one of five or six syllables.  At Sunday School examinations he would put his questions in such a way that the children did not know exactly what he was asking.  Church, for children during the Rev Wells’ ministry, must have been boring as he preached high above their heads.  A number of the younger boys were known to have made a nine-hole golf course in a field nearby, and instead of attending church they played golf.

During his ministry there were no organisations for the congregation.  Morning Service started at twelve o’clock and the Evening Service was held in the moonlight once a month.  There were no streetlights at that time for people going home.

On meeting a member of his congregation, Mr Wells loved to shake their hand and hold it for a long time.  Once he remarked to Miss Elizabeth Kane of the Ballywillan Road , ‘I am glad to see you haven’t got one of these new-fashioned bicycles!  It is ironic that Mr Wells should have passed the remark to Miss Kane, considering the number of miles she later travelled by bicycle, covering the whole of Ireland .

Mr Wells loved to walk and it was his custom to take a walk every morning, returning to the manse in time for lunch.  Whilst he was out walking, it was not unusual to see him stoop, pick dandelions and suck the sap from them.  In the month of April, at the first sign of Spring, he would extract his straw hat from hibernation and could often be seen striding through the fields in his hat, and carrying his blackthorn stick.  He attributed his good health to these walks and a spoonful of cod-liver oil, which he took after each meal.  He also recommended porridge and buttermilk.  Eggshells were saved and powdered down for his coffee.  Mr Wells practised his sermons in a nearby field, which had one solitary hawthorn bush in the centre.  At this time it was common land but now belongs to a local farmer.

When he called with his parishioners, the children had to have their verses of Scripture ready for recitation and answer questions on the Catechism.  He always arranged to call at meal times when the family was in.  The children, who hardly dared look sideways at him, knelt down in a row.  The mother placed a cushion on the floor and a chair beside it.  The Rev Wells knelt down, prayed, and when he arose, patted each child on the head before leaving.

On 2nd June 1897 Mr Wells was married to Jessie Andrew McMicking, daughter of Thomas McMicking, JP, of Burnbrae, Helensburgh.  Mr Wells was 51 when he married, and his bride was 33.

Mrs Wells, who wore glasses, is described as being very kind and thoughtful, but ‘futtery’, with a pleasant Scottish accent.  She was a small, plump woman, very bad on her feet, with ankles that were puffed up and came out over her shoes.  She presided over the senior girls in the Sunday school and at Christmas parties held in the manse for her class.  Always willing to try something new, when badminton started, although she had never played before, she went on to the court to hit the shuttle over the net.  Once when the Alexanders of Crossreagh were practising hitting matchboxes on a wall with their air-gun, she had to have a go and succeeded with the first shot in knocking a matchbox off the wall.

We have in our possession Mrs Wells’ Bible, presented to her by her Sunday School class on the occasion of her leaving Helensburgh on 12th November 1896.  From this Bible and notes made by Mrs Wells, it is obvious that Mrs Wells made out the Scripture headings, and that Mr Wells based his sermons on these readings.  Mrs Wells took an active interest in her husband’s ministry.  She took great delight in calling with members of the congregation and indeed in helping Rev Wells in any way she could.

After his marriage, the congregation presented Rev and Mrs Wells with a driving horse, harness, hooded carriage etc, which was driven by their coachman, John Rankin.  It must have presented a striking picture with Mrs Wells sitting upright like a queen in the carriage and John Rankin in the tall hat, which he wore.  In those days, members of the congregation who could afford to do so came to church by pony or horse and trap, and during the service the animals were kept in the stables, which still exist at the rear of the church, where they were fed oats.

When Mr Wells was 70 and Mrs Wells 52, they adopted a five-year-old girl from Edinburgh .  We cannot be sure of the child’s background.  Some people think she lived in an orphanage, whilst others said she was related to Mrs Wells, as her name was Elizabeth Cameron McMicking and she called the Wells’ Uncle Hugh and Aunt Jessie.  Betty had long brown hair down to her waist and attended the Ladies High School in Coleraine, travelling there by bicycle.  Later she was educated at a boarding school in Sligo .  She was a very lively girl who found it hard to sit still.  She was clever and musical, and occasionally played the organ (not the pipe organ) on a Sunday evening in church.

Mr and Mrs Wells resided at the old manse on the Magherabouy Road , and their door was always open to visitors.  They had two Dalmation dogs, called Punch and Judy.  The garden was a picture, with colourful flowers, and the privet hedge was always squared and neatly cut.  On good days, ladies of the congregation would play croquet on the lawn, and the children would play tennis with Betty Wells.

Mr Wells died on 27th April 1933 in his 86th year.  His funeral was on the first day of the Route Hunt Races and it was a case of divided loyalties, whether to go to the races or the funeral.

(6. From notes made by Mrs Sandra Johnston of conversations with members of the congregation).