A sea of passion and fishermen’s faith

The story of Methodist preacher and fisherman, Willie Long, the focus of a new exhibition at Sheringham Museum.

On the ruggedly beautiful seafront at Sheringham, a striking museum sits facing the sea. Decorated with images of fisherfolk painted by talented local artist Colin Seal, the true depth of detail to be found within is outstanding. Far from a static museum, Sheringham is alive with ever-changing exhibitions, all overseen by curator Lisa Little.

Each year a new exhibition begins in March; this spring’s enthralling showcase is set to open on the 16th. Preparations start following the close of the previous exhibition at the end of November, with the room entirely dismantled to become a blank canvas. It’s never empty for long, as displays are planned up to three years in advance and a team of passionate volunteers soon set to work on bringing new projects to life. So strong is Lisa’s dedication to the rich history of Sheringham, she has 10 years’ worth of ideas ready and waiting. This continual change and evolution is what attracts thousands of visitors, year after year; the museum is always fresh and exciting. 

This year the focus is on the extraordinary tales of ordinary men, fishermen who dedicated their lives to God through preaching the Methodist word. One such preacher, perhaps among the most accomplished, was Willie Long. The driving force behind the building of West Runton chapel, Willie Long was a man devoted to faith and an incredibly compelling orator. Sheringham has always been a deeply religious place, mentioned in the Doomsday Book, it’s had a recorded chapel since at least the 11th century. The dangerous profession of fishing has been woven into the town’s history for centuries, and myths and legends pertaining to the sea are rooted in local folklore. Fishing and faith go hand in hand. 

The driving force behind the building of West Runton chapel, Willie Long was a man devoted to faith and an incredibly compelling orator.”

When a catch is brought to shore, fishermen have a ‘dole share’, part of the haul which is donated to the church to thank God for their bounty and safe return to land. The predominant style of worship which emerged in these fishing communities in the 19th century was that of Methodism. For many inspiring fishermen including Willie Long, just listening to the preaching of sermons was not enough; he chose to dedicate his life to the word of God by becoming a preacher. In the Sheringham locality, a selection of towns and villages formed what was known as ‘the circuit’, which local preachers travelled spreading the word. These places of worship included open public spaces, private homes and dedicated chapels. 

Willie was such a charismatic preacher he drew crowds, even touring as far as London, where there was a demand for his services. His early sermons were held from the hull of his fishing boat, moored in the water. He would captivate the crowd who gathered on land to listen, as in some instances he was not allowed ashore to preach upon the beach. He was an amazing man, his great friend William H. Middleton described him thus: “Willie Long was filled with the spirit of love, charity, peace and meekness. Yet he could stand as firm as a rock for those things he knew to be right.His speech was always full of sanctified common sense and lightened with a ready humour. I have never known a better conversationalist.”

The fishing communities of the North Norfolk coast also travelled to Grimsby in a practice known as following the fish. When lives and livelihoods depend on something as fickle as the sea, these families had to be prepared to travel to make the most of nature’s bounty. In fact, so many Sheringham fishermen also lived in Grimsby that there is an area dedicated to them known as ‘Little Sheringham’. It was here that Willie met and married his wife, Mary Elizabeth Craske, a union which was to last a lifetime. 

Born in 1859, Willie Long was the son of a fisherman and grew up helping upon his father’s boat. He developed a love for the sea from an early age, before heading out as a young man to bring in his own catch. Deeply religious, Willie was blessed with a certain charisma which caused people to take heed of his words and put their faith in him. He presented himself as remarkably erudite despite never having received a formal education, all that he had learned had been through relentless study of The Bible. He often described himself as ‘a man of one book’.

The exhibition at Sheringham Museum covers the life of Willie Long and a whole host of other Sheringham fishermen preachers. Their dedication to their faith should serve as an inspiration to us all; whatever you wish to believe, follow it with enough conviction and it will bring comfort, enough to weather any storm life brings. 

Visit the museum this season for a voyage into this fascinating area of local history and go to www.sheringhammuseum.co.uk to find out more.

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