The Graham family in this story were descended from victims of the Irish famine of 1840 to 1851. John Graham and his wife Mary (nee Armstrong), and John Atkinson and his wife Sarah, were forced off the land. They eventually found work in Balnamore Mill, Co. Antrim. Their children John Graham and Sarah Atkinson went to work in the mill too. John Graham also had a son, another John Graham who came to Blantyre from Ireland just after the pit explosion of 1877. John Graham who arrived in Blantyre was a miner and it is his son, John Graham that is the subject of our story.
Born in 1899, young John Graham followed his father into work at Blantyre mines working as a labourer. He had left school at the age of 14However, due to recurring lung problems he left after a number of years and found work as a bricklayers’ labourer building homes fit for heroes after the First World War.
When John converted to Christianity, he sought his new found faith at the High Blantyre Baptist Church, which at the time was known as “The Wee Tin Kirk” and it is there he met and fell in love with Maggie. They married on 22nd September 1933 at the Baptist Church Manse and shortly after moved into a tenement at 66 Broompark Road, High Blantyre. Children followed quickly. They had three children, all born at home on one of the ‘hole in the wall’ beds. Isabel was the eldest in 1935, then James was born in 1938, 18 months before the outbreak of World War II. Finally, John was born in 1942.
John often left his wife Maggie at home, to go out in Blantyre streets and preach from the pavement. I’m sure many people will remember this occurrence, as i do in the 1970s, when i would often hear John before seeing him! For decades, his passion for street side preaching was at the forefront of things. He never missed a day, summer and winter, and even when on holiday. Only serious illness would prevent him from going out. Most of his preaching was done alone but he did occasionally manage to twist some arms to get support.
He often quoted Robert Burns in his preaching and one favourite when pointing out the fleeting nature of ‘wordly’ pleasures was from the epic poem Tam O’Shanter. As decades rolled out, it soon came to be that the people of Blantyre would affectionately nickname him, “The Blantyre Saint”.
Son James Graham who gave me permission to tell his father’s story here, added, “My father’s favourite meal was orange and banana. They were not readily available during the war years but as soon as they became available again after the war, this became his regular breakfast, except Sunday morning when he had fried bacon and eggs. Indeed he would have had orange and banana for every meal if he got away with it”
Tribute During Life
In 1987, Gerry LcLaughlin wrote a nice tribute to John Graham, as follows:
The Blantyre Saint
“This poem is dedicated to a Christian called John Graham,
Who put his trust in Jesus Christ, or Saviour, bless his name,
A sinner like the rest of us, was destined for to burn,
But he gave his heart to Jesus, and from his sins did turn.
At first he did not have the truth, and thought life couldn’t be finer,
Then looking at nature’s beauty thought, a design must have a designer.
The lost souls on the streets today, it saddened John to see
So many on the sinful path to a lost eternity.
So John vowed unto our Lord, that all who’d gone astray,
He’d lead them t’wards the glorious path, and speak to one each day.
So John’s been on the Blantyre streets, how long? He can’t remember,
Big Georgie says two hundred years and four months come December.
Forgive me John for my wee joke, believe me this is true,
For all the people you have helped, I really envy you.
Because all the angels up in heaven are of one accord,
For all the souls that you have led to Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Tribute after death
Upon John’s death in 1993, late historian James Cornfield wrote a fitting tribute to remember John, which is reprinted here below and ends the story well. “John Graham was a man and Christian Evangelist, who walked the streets of Blantyre, preaching the word of God to anyone who would listen to him. He preached in all kinds of weather, come rain, hail or shine, starting with a hymn, followed by a sermon from the Bible. He must have had a rota system for going round the many streets, because he could be found at certain times, on certain days, in certain streets and in this way he covered the entire parish of Blantyre.
John was in my estimation a true Christian and to my knowledge not a regular member of any of the local religions or churches during the many decades he preached his version of Christianity. In later days he joined the Brethren of the Bethany hall, but always retained his independence by returning to his mission and lone vigil in life ,of spreading his version of the word of God to the people of Blantyre.
He died on the 1st December 1993, aged 94 years and is buried in Priestfield Cemetery, a fitting resting place for this apostle of Christ. I hope John found all the happiness and peace in his Heaven that he promised to everyone who would repent and turn to God. I’m sure he did, because ‘if we are to be judged by our life on earth’ he surely earned his place there by his faith and way of life “Requiescat in pace, John.” James Cornfield 1998
You can read much more about John Graham and his family in a new book called “people like us can’t – memoirs of a brickie” by James Graham, the son of John. Its now available to buy on Amazon.
On social media, further comments followed:
Liz Allan He used to say his sermon right outside my house when I was growing up at 6 wheatland ave. I would go upstairs and listen and watch from my bedroom window.
Jeanette Allardyce Ward I remember him standing at the edge of the pavement in Priory Street preaching every week, bible in hand, and what a voice, it carried far x
Tom Brown I remember him standing in the middle of Hawthorn Place and I sat in front of him and listened to every word.