An obscure hymn-writer, whose verses have been sung in all parts of the world, was Thomas Bilby, parish clerk of St. Mary’s Church, Islington, between the years 1842 and 1872. He was the parish schoolmaster also, and thus maintained the traditions of his office handed down from mediaeval times. Before the days of School Boards it was not unusual for the clerk to teach the children of the working classes the three R’s and religious knowledge, charging a fee of twopence per week for each child. Mrs. Mary Strathern has kindly sent me the following account of the church wherein Thomas Bilby served as clerk, and of the famous hymn which he wrote.
The church of St. Mary’s, Islington, was not internally a thing of beauty. It was square; it had no chancel; the walls were covered with monuments and tablets to the praise and glory of departed parishioners. On three sides it had a wide gallery, the west end of which contained the organ, with the Royal Arms as large as life in front. On either side below the galleries were double rows of high pews, and down the centre passage a row of open benches for the poor. Between these benches and the altar, completely hiding the altar from the congregation, stood a huge “three-decker.” The pulpit, on a level with the galleries, was reached by a staircase at the back; below that was “the reading desk,” from which the curate said the prayers; and below that again, a smaller desk, where, Sunday after Sunday, for thirty years, T. Bilby, parish clerk and schoolmaster, gave out the hymns, read the notices, and published the banns of marriage. He was short and stout; his hair was white; he wore a black gown with deep velvet collar, ornamented with many tassels and fringes; and he carried a staff of office.
It was a great missionary parish. The vicar, Daniel Wilson, was a son of that well-known Daniel Wilson, sometime vicar of Islington, and afterwards Bishop of Calcutta. The Church Missionary College, where many young missionaries sent out by the Church Missionary Society are trained, stood in our midst; and it was within St. Mary’s Church the writer saw the venerable Bishop Crowther, of the Niger, ordain his own son deacon. Mr. Bilby had at one time been a catechist and schoolmaster in Sierra Leone, and was full of interesting stories of the mission work amongst the freed slaves in that settlement. He had a magic lantern, with many views of Africa, and of the churches and schools in the mission fields, and often gave missionary lectures to the school children. It was on one of these occasions, when he had been telling us about his work abroad, and how he soon got to know when a black boy had a dirty face, that he said: “While I was in Africa, I composed a hymn, and taught the black children to sing it; and now there is not a Christian school in any part of the world where my hymn is not known and sung. I will begin it now, and you will all sing it with me.” Then the old man began: