CHAPPELL, BENJAMIN, wheelwright and machinist, Methodist lay preacher, postmaster, politician, and diarist; b. 5 March 1740/41 (Old Style) in London, son of Richard and Rachel Chappell; d. 6 Jan. 1825 in Charlottetown.
Benjamin Chappell was trained as a wheelwright and machinist, and like many other young urban artisans of his time he was drawn to the preaching of the Wesley brothers, who were reinvigorating the Church of England with pietistic fervour. Chappell was particularly associated with John Wesley at Islington (London), and with his brother William Chappell became a lay evangelist. In April 1770 Wesley, writing in his journal of a visit to Inverness, Scotland, noted: “Benjamin and William Chappel, who had been here three months, were waiting for a vessel to return to London. They had met a few people every night to sing and pray together; and their behaviour, suitable to their profession, had removed much prejudice.” In the summer of 1774 Chappell and his wife Elizabeth, whom he had married in February, left London aboard the scow Elizabeth, bound for the north shore of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island. Chappell has left no record of his reasons for emigrating, but unemployment was heavy in 1774 among artisans, and the newly-weds may, like thousands of their fellow Britons, have hoped for a better future in land-rich North America. Moreover, the moving spirit behind the voyage of the Elizabeth was a Quaker merchant named Robert Clark*, who had purchased Lot 21 on the Island in 1773 and thought of himself, according to Governor Walter Patterson*, as a “second Penn” who wished to found a settlement for the “recovering of sinners.” Chappell, whose pietism always verged on the “inner light” of Quakerism, was probably attracted by a combination of spiritual and economic motives to join Clark’s venture at New London.
Like most such well-meaning ventures, especially to jurisdictions as isolated as St John’s Island, Clark’s settlement was a disaster from the outset, despite a considerable expenditure of funds. He and his business partner Robert Campbell brought out a number of indentured servants, including Benjamin Chappell, who received their passage and provisioning in return for four years’ service. Clark was able to wax rhapsodical about well-timbered land, available at “4d per Acre, for life, or 1s Pr acre free-hold.” He is reported to have said that the wood could readily be sold to incoming ships and that “Sawyers were better paid for their labour, than in England, that the Rivers abounded with fish & the Country with game which were free for any one, that Deer & Turkeys were so plentiful that a person might shoot them some times from the Windows, & when at work in the woods might shoot enough to serve his family without loss of time – in short any man could live much more comfortable there, than in England.” Although Clark’s optimism about the abundance of natural resources was not without foundation, his expectations about the ease of their exploitation proved chimeric. Few of Clark’s settlers had the skills and determination (backed by religious faith) of the Chappells; the Island lacked a commercial infrastructure to provide even the rudiments of life beyond the natural resources, which themselves were difficult to obtain during the cold, snow-filled, and ice-bound winters; and the naval privateering of the American rebellion ended any transatlantic timber trade.
There were 129 persons at the village of Elizabethtown (near Springbrook) when Benjamin Chappell made his first diary entry on 19 Jan. 1775. They were huddled together against the winter in a few hastily constructed log-houses. The Chappells shared their dwelling with “three gentlemen” and their cook-room with 17 people, including “eleaven strangers.” Timbering was made virtually impossible by the shortage of horses, hunting by the snow, fishing by the ice. Food was extremely difficult to obtain, and the people became restive. On 18 February Chappell recorded, “Very short of provisions. No rum, no bread, no meat, no beer, no sugar in the stores. “He attempted to ration what little remained, but the settlers threatened to raid the storehouse. Occasional supplies drifted in from other settlements, particularly from David Lawson* at Covehead, but by the end of March a large party of men “outrageous through want of Provisions” formed a plan to “surprize Charleytown.” The coming of spring sent folk to their gardens and made shellfish such as oysters available. Chappell and his wife considered leaving, but on 9 May “Concluded not to remove but to trust to God for food.” The next winter, again hard, was complicated by the November shipwreck of the Elizabeth, which lost the supplies on board and merely added new mouths to the tiny settlement. Through all the suffering, which included the death of an infant Chappell in November 1775, Benjamin and Elizabeth worked, exhorted the people to trust in God, and believed.
Even before his indenture had expired, Chappell had begun working for acting governor Phillips Callbeck* – who had a market for timber in the military buildings and other public construction he was organizing at Charlottetown – and had spent some time in the little capital, which was clearly more prosperous than Elizabethtown. Chappell removed to Charlottetown in October 1778, leaving his family temporarily in Rustico. Economic opportunities were much greater in Charlottetown than on the north shore and, as a skilled mechanic and woodworker, Chappell found a variety of tasks to be done. He worked for a succession of governors on their mansions, built boats for leading inhabitants, and even turned his hand to such unusual projects as a saddle for parson Theophilus Desbrisay. On 3 Dec. 1780 he agreed with Governor Patterson to take care of the town pump for £6 per year, and he served the parish for many years as churchwarden and overseer. He supervised the erection of the church spire and weathercock in 1801. Between outside employments, he laboured in his workshop, making almost anything the market would demand; he specialized in spinning-wheels, especially after 1800, eventually handcrafting more than 600 of them. In 1802 he was appointed deputy postmaster, apparently using a packet he owned with his brother William to transport the mail to the mainland. More sophisticated society required new gadgets, and after 1801 he built coaches and sleighs for several leading Charlottetown figures.
Chappell was elected to the third House of Assembly in 1779, but his diary makes clear that he was not interested in politics. Besides his craft and family, Chappell’s chief concerns were spiritual and religious. In the absence of a clergyman of Methodist leanings he led prayer-meetings, and the first visit to the Island of a Methodist preacher, by William Black in 1783, was at his “earnest and repeated invitation.” Black described him as “an eccentric but truly pious and upright man.” John Wesley, with whom Chappell corresponded, recommended, “If you have no clergyman, see that you constantly meet together, and God will be where two or three are gathered together.” Chappell formed a class at his home about this time. Wesley also warned against the “broad, ranting Antinomianism” of Henry Alline*, suggested that the British government be petitioned about the sorry state of the Island, and advised that “it will be a difficult thing to find apprentices who will be willing to take so long a journey to a cold and uncomfortable place.” It was as difficult to find clergymen as apprentices. A Quaker visitor to the Island in 1786 reported that the Chappells “haveing no Religious place of worship to go to seam to lament their situation with some others.” Chappell held the small Methodist community of the “true genuine believing few” together against the “Rigged [rigid] Clamerous, Bigoted, disputing” many, supporting clergymen when they appeared, until the arrival of a substantial group of Methodists from Guernsey in 1806 firmly turned the tide and established the denomination on the Island.
If Chappell was a pious man, he was not a narrow sectarian or proselytizer. He corresponded with leaders of other denominations, including Presbyterian James Drummond MacGregor of Pictou, to whom he wrote, “It is my constant care not to wean any person from their own Church & peopel only pracktice helping them out of the Pit of Unbelief & Ignorance, and then send them amongst their own people to tell them what wonderous things God hath done for their Souls.” Nor were his intellectual interests solely confined to the spiritual, for although “One Immortal Soul, is a greater Miracle than all the Inanamate Creation of God,” he was interested in the latest developments in astronomy and science, difficult as it was to obtain such information on the Island.
Chappell’s diary ends in 1817, probably because he ceased activity in his workshop, although he maintained the post office in his home until his death. Tradition suggests that he was somewhat irascible in his last years, but he died feebly singing with his last breath, “O love! how cheering is thy ray! All pain before thy presence flies.” Chappell was that combination of skilled artisan and committed pietist which was so typical of 18th-century Methodism, and he more than anyone else made the spirit of John Wesley a reality on Prince Edward Island.
Nantucket Hist. Assoc. Library and Research Center (Nantucket, Mass.), Nantucket Monthly Meeting of Friends papers coll., no.51, box 1, folder 1, John Townshend, journal (photocopy at PAPEI). PAPEI, Acc. 2277; Acc. 2575/8, memorial of Benjamin Chappell, 11 March 1788; RG 16, land registry records. P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation (Charlottetown), File information concerning Benjamin Chappell. UCC-M, John McGregor papers, Chappell to McGregor, 1802. Thomas Curtis, “Voyage of Thos. Curtis,” Journeys to the Island of St. John or Prince Edward Island, 1775–1832, ed. D. C. Harvey (Toronto, 1955). John Wesley, The journal of the Rev. John Wesley . . . , ed. Nehemiah Curnock (8v., London, [1909–16]), 5: 364; The letters of the Rev. John Wesley . . . , ed. John Telford (8v., London, 1931; repr. ), 7: 199–200, 385–86. Prince Edward Island Register, 8 Jan. 1825. J. T. Mellish, Outlines of the history of Methodism in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island . . . (Charlottetown, 1888). Matthew Richey, A memoir of the late Rev. William Black, Wesleyan minister, Halifax, N.S., including an account of the rise and progress of Methodism in Nova Scotia . . . (Halifax, 1839). E. P. Thompson, The making of the English working class (London, 1963).