A curious East Twerton gravestone inscription recalls a man who regained his life
Strolling into the tranquil cemetery at Bellotts Road, visitors are likely to spot a graceful Victorian headstone set against the glossy shades of a sprawling holly tree.
The inscription carved into the pale grey stone is intriguing. It tells the passer-by:
The celebrated teetotal iron worker
Who died the 27th November 1891
Aged 79 years
Jasper now thy toils are o'er
Fought the battle won the crown
He is not dead but sleepeth
Evidently this was a man who fought a personal battle against alcohol and gained the respect of people of his day. With a little bit of research, it is possible to discover who John Jasper was and shine a small spotlight on his life.
John Jasper as he was
A vivid account of the life of John Jasper, his troubles as a hard drinker and his new life as an abstainer, is recorded in a chapter of a book called Sketches of Life and Character published in 1872 by the Scottish Temperance League.
The same account appears in a Victorian newspaper called the British Workman which aimed to encourage temperance among the working-class. An antique edition of that newspaper presents a striking image of John Jasper the iron worker greeting a church minister.
The story, written from a 19th-century temperance perspective, narrates the depths to which Jasper sank through his out-of-control drinking. He had been a heavy drinker from a young age and his lifestyle caused him to be sent from his parents' home to become a drifter, poorly clothed, passing from one iron foundry to another in search of work.
Jasper briefly resolved to drink less after hearing the news that his father had died from drowning while in a drunken state—but unable to change for long, he quickly returned to his old ways. He married a sober wife who was able to bring in an income as a shoemaker, but his drinking led them both into destitution to the point where they had to sell all their furniture and take clothes to the pawnbroker.
While he was working at Low Moor iron works in Bradford, Yorkshire, John Jasper thought for the first time about quitting alcohol entirely. At this point the story is told in his own words, allowing this personality from the past to speak to us a century and a half later. He says:
My first thoughts were these: Well I have a wife and four children, and I should like to live in the world with them as long as I can; and if I am to live long, I must give over this drinking, for I feel many aches and pains in my body, which, I believe, are brought on by drinking.
But another thought crossed my mind: How am I to stand my work without a little drink? So I said to my wife, 'Fanny, I will not go to a public house any more; and you shall brew at home the old way...
So my wife brewed seven gallons of Old Stingo, as I called it. After some time, when we thought it was ready to tap, we agreed to tap for supper. On that very night there was going to be a teetotal lecture, and I was going to hear it.
I went into the lecture, and I saw a book of diagrams, and I imagined I saw my stomach, and the ravages alcoholic drinks had made there. I said then, 'By the help of God, I will never taste again,' not knowing I could do my work without it.
When I got home, Fanny had tapped our drink, and she had got a pint ready for me. I said to my wife, 'What have you got there warming?' 'It is a pint of our drink; I have tapped it.' 'Then you can go and turn it out into the road if you like, for I will never taste it again by the help of God.' 'O John, I have often heard you talk in this way.' 'Well,' I replied, 'by God's help, I am now in earnest.'
And strong drink was never set before me by my wife after that time; and she signed the pledge with me and my children likewise.
Whatever one's feelings about alcohol and the merits or demerits of abstinence, Jasper's decision greatly changed his life for the better. He was able to pay off debts, get furniture for his house and buy new clothes for his children. Meanwhile, his wife regularly testified to others that a peace now rested over their home.
John Jasper the Temperance leader
Although Jasper was ridiculed by some, he managed to establish a small teetotal society from his fellow iron workers at Low Moor. According to an 1891 Bath Chronicle write-up about him, many of his colleagues followed his example when they saw that free from alcohol, his body was less scorched and blistered from the heat of furnace-work and that he was able to work in such conditions for longer.
The story of John Jasper circulated the country and in 1883 he became a speaker for the Western Temperance League. He was very convincing in this role, leading many to commit to abstinence, and was especially influential among the iron and tin workers of South Wales. In country villages, he would ring a handbell to call people to his meetings. While attitudes to alcohol may have changed over time, it seems likely that his endeavours helped to alleviate much poverty among the working-class of that era.
At some stage in his life, Jasper moved to Bath where he lived at Livingstone Road, just off Moorland Road. The Bath Chronicle article of 1891 records that he developed health problems after wading through shoulder-high snow, aged in his seventies, to speak at meetings in Cornwall! His funeral at the Bellotts Road Cemetery saw a polished elm coffin with huge brass handles lowered into a spot that he himself had chosen.
As a final detail, it is interesting to ponder whether the holly tree that grows behind Jasper's headstone was planted in his memory. It is quite prominent, being visible from the Bellotts Road Bridge that spans the railway line. It marks the resting place of a devout man, almost entirely forgotten now, but who would once have been well-known in this area.