Of the many people with connections to Cornwall whose stories I have so far explored, John Gill – peace activist and printer – is perhaps the one who inspires me most. As we approach the 210th anniversary of his birth (11th September 1811), I’d like to present a short biography of this amazing man, who lived most of his adult life in and around Penryn, and during his lifetime travelled over 12,000 miles to distribute leaflets to promote dialogue in place of conflict.
John Gill was the second child born to his parents at their farm in St Ive, north Cornwall: he had an older brother, William, and a younger brother and sister – the latter of whom were born after the family had moved to west Cornwall in 1815.
The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) were almost concluded at the time of John’s birth, but as a young adult he was witness to the misery and deprivation caused by the Corn Laws (restricting the import of all cereal grains in to the UK with the effect of raising prices, and profits, which benefitted the land-owning classes), and joyful at their repeal in 1846.
John’s father – who worked in agriculture - was descended from Quakers, and he ensured that John and his brothers benefitted from more education than many children of working-class parents would have had. He was apprenticed to a bookbinder in Truro at the age of 12, completing his indenture in 1830, at the conclusion of which he set up a shop on Penryn High Street as a bookbinder and stationer. His business throve and in 1835 – the year he married Susanna Truran, and the couple welcomed their first child - John had the funds to buy a printing press. Six more children were born to the couple over the next eleven years, and two of their sons went into the printing trade – William who moved to London, and Thomas, who worked alongside his father in Penryn.
Encouraged by Thomas, the printing press was used to publish ‘The Commercial and General Advertiser’ from June 1867, which later changed name to ‘The Penryn Advertiser’ and was published up until 1967.
Press reports and general enthusiasm for the military was prevalent at this time, fanned by reports of the Crimean War (1853-56) and the American Civil War (1861-65), to which John was strongly opposed. By 1869, he was already attending meetings organised by the London Peace Society, and by degrees, he became more involved with the campaign to promote peaceful resolution of conflict via talks to Sunday Schools and church congregations. In 1871, he distilled his feelings on the subject into a talk ‘The present age ripe for arbitration to supersede War’, emphasising how the end of slavery had been accelerated by a campaign of awareness and petitions against the practise, begun by Quakers in 1783. John was pivotal in urging a similar trajectory to promote the cause of arbitration rather than conflict. Alongside his fellow peace-workers, John sought to counteract the ‘glamour’ attached to the military by marching-bands and smart uniforms, the institution of the Drill Hall practise for Board School students and attempts to conscript those from orphanages into the army.
Together with his friend, the miner-turned-poet John Harris, John composed and printed ‘Peace Pages’ – small tracts of text, illustrated with wood-cuts (created by John Harris’ oldest son, John Alfred) which he distributed widely in the course of his journeys around the UK over the next twenty years of his life. Every year he printed hundreds of thousands of these pages – 228,000 in one year – and travelled widely across England to give talks to Sunday Schools, churches, workplaces and other settings, and distribute these Peace Pages.
Wendy Monk (his biographer, and great-grand-daughter) estimates he travelled 12,000 miles in his quest to promote the cause of peace. A lifelong vegetarian, anti-smoker and pacifist, he was much admired for his ethics and gentle ways. He lived with the family of Frederick Chegwidden in his final years – after the death of the daughter who he had lived with since his wife pre-deceased him – and when he passed away at the age of 94, he was buried in the peaceful churchyard of St Gluvias, near where he had lived and raised his family, and from where his dedication to the cause of peace spread far and wide.
Though the time span that separates us from John Gill is considerable, many of the societal issues that he strove to improve are still evident today; the ‘distance’ doesn’t feel so large. What wonderful uses John would have made of the social-media platforms that connect the globe today, we can only speculate!
To send a token of remembrance to the resting place of John Gill - or a donation in his memory to the Penryn Food Bank - go to: John Gill | Explore My Story
John Gill of Penryn - Wendy Monk (published 1971)
The John Harris Society - website link here.