Gloucester has a wealth of connections with the United States, from the composer of The Star-Spangled Banner to a signatory of the US Declaration of Independence to Gloucester, Massachusetts itself. Gloucester-born religious figures played pioneering roles in spreading Methodism, Evangelicalism and the Sunday School movement to the early American colonies. More than 9.5 million US citizens traces their roots to Gloucester and the surrounding county – a good place to start researching your ancestry is the Gloucestershire Archives

American Flag at Gloucester Cathedral - credit Fionn Davenport.jpg

The Composer of The Star-Spangled Banner 

John Stafford Smith (1750–1836) was born in the Gloucester Cathedral infirmary and was the son of the organist. A former cathedral chorister and composer, John was best known for writing the music for ‘Anachreon in Heaven’, the constitutional song for a popular London gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in the mid-18th century, the Anacreontic Society. The song crossed the Atlantic Ocean and became the tune for the American patriotic song set to the words of Francis Scott Key The Star-Spangled Banner following the War of 1812. It was adopted as the national anthem of the United States of America in 1931. 

You can take a tour of Gloucester Cathedral and learn more about John Stafford Smith and his birthplace. He is also featured in the ‘Kings, Queens and Martyrs’ tour on mobile app www.gloucestertours.co.uk

A Gloucester-born Founding Father 

Button Gwinnett (1735-1777) was born in Down Hatherley, grew up in Gloucester and educated at the King’s School founded in the grounds of Gloucester Cathedral. He became an American political leader, who as a representative of Georgia to Congress, was the second of the signatories (first signature on the left) on the United States Declaration of Independence drafted on 4 July 1776. He was also the provisional president of Georgia in 1777, and Gwinnett County (now a major suburb of Atlanta) was named after him. Gwinnett was killed in a duel by Lachlan McIntosh following a dispute over a failed invasion of East Florida. Due to his untimely death, his signature is extremely rare compared to his fellow founding fathers and is now worth a small fortune. 

The British Bells Are Coming 

The oldest peal of bells in the USA are in Old North Church, Boston. They were made in 1744 by the famous Rudhall foundry in Gloucester and installed in 1745. One of the first bell ringers at the church was Paul Revere who with William Dawes made the historic ride to warn the rebel militia that “The British are coming”. This was a prelude to the first battles of the American Revolution. The church tower was used to warn of the approach of the British forces. One light for an advance by land, two lights for one by sea. The Rudhall foundry was on the site of the Post Office in King’s Square. There is a plaque to the right of the entrance. 

The Birth of the Sunday School Movement 

Robert Raikes (1735–1811), English journalist, humanitarian and Anglican layman, was famous for co-founding the Sunday Schools movement. Noting the unruly behaviour of Gloucester children on Sundays (when they were not working in the factories), he set up a number of Sunday schools to educate them. The schools were so successful that the movement spread across the country, to North America and to the European continent, laying the foundation for the modern state school system. Raikes was baptised and buried in St Mary de Crypt and attended the grammar school adjoining the church. He owned the Gloucester Journal based just across the street which is now the beautifully restored pub Robert Raikes’ House.  

The Original Firebrand Preacher 

George Whitefield (1714–1770) was a Gloucester-born minister and a leader in the Methodist movement alongside his fellow ‘Holy Club’ members, John and Charles Wesley. He was born in The Bell Inn, owned by his parents, and was a pupil at the school next door to St Mary de Crypt Church, where also he preached his first sermon. Whitefield was the most famous evangelist of the eighteenth century, making seven trips to the early American colonies and taking part in ‘The Great Awakening’. He preached outdoors to large audiences from Pennsylvania in the north to Georgia in the south. The impact of Whitefield on both English and American society was immense and his greatest asset was his magnificent voice. His great friend Benjamin Franklin calculated that he could be heard by 30,000 people at any one time. He co-founded Pennsylvania University with Franklin.  

Whitefield is a controversial figure due to his shifting views on slavery. Whilst he advocated for the better treatment of slaves and accepted them into his congregation, he also pushed to introduce slave labour in Georgia to help run the orphanage he set up in Bethesda. 

Whitefield died in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts on 30 September 1770, and was buried there. 

Two Gloucesters 

The residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts named their settlement in honour of the English city’s defiance against King Charles I during the English Civil War. The city was besieged in 1643 and successfully held out for a month before it was relieved by the Parliamentarian army.  

One notable figure who made the journey between the two Gloucesters was Captain Howard Blackburn. He arrived in Gloucester Docks in August 1899 after sailing his cutter ‘Great Eastern’ single handed across the Atlantic. He spent 61 days at sea and had been affected by a badly swollen leg which prevented him from raising sail for 8 days. This journey was even more remarkable as he had lost all his fingers, both thumbs and a toe through frost bite during a severe winter storm on an earlier fishing voyage. Blackburn was greeted at the quayside by a large crowd of sightseers. During his stay in the city he was entertained by a number of leading citizens. Several hundred people visited the docks to see his tiny craft and many were welcomed aboard and were offered bourbon whisky and ship’s biscuits. 

World War II and the Red Ball Express 

When the United States entered the Second World War, Gloucester became an important crossroad for military supply convoys as the English Channel ports were in range of the Luftwaffe. Cargo was rerouted to Pembroke Docks in South Wales and travelled via Gloucester on its way to the south coast of England. General George Patton’s Red Ball Express convoy was a common sight traveling through Gloucester following the D Day landings. The headquarters for the US Army Services of Supply division was located in nearby Cheltenham where GCHQ is now based. Its commanding officer, Lt General John CH Lee, was a devout man and made frequent visits to Gloucester Cathedral, even having two of his staff baptised there. 

Related

Gloucestershire Archives
Heritage/Visitor Centre
Gloucestershire Archives

Gloucestershire Archives preserves historical records and makes them available for research e.g. family, house and local history. Collections are listed in an online catalogue. Document pre-ordering and an enquiries service are available.

Gloucester Cathedral
Cathedral/Minster
Gloucester Cathedral

A warm welcome awaits you at Gloucester Cathedral - one of the finest medieval buildings in the country and the burial place of royalty. Please refer to the Cathedral website www.gloucestercathedral.org.uk for services and events times.

Discover de Crypt
Church/Chapel
Discover de Crypt

St. Mary de Crypt is a 15th Century Church in the centre of Gloucester. It is famous for it’s Tudor Schoolroom adjacent to the Church and for it’s two famous ‘Sons’- George Whitfield 18thC Evangelist and Robert Raikes who started Sunday Schools.

Robert Raikes's House
Pub/Inn
Robert Raikes

Set in the beautiful 16 Century townhouse once belonging to local philanthropist Robert Raikes, this is now a quirky, city centre public house which is run by Samuel Smiths Brewery and boasts a lovely garden courtyard where you can dine on a summers day.

The Tiger's Eye
Bar
The Old Bell - Tigers Eye

This is one of the most unique places to eat and drink in Gloucester. Visit anytime for an afternoon drink, a cheeky cocktail or an evening meal cooked at your table using the Black Rock Grill method.

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