This article originally appeared in the July/August 1983 issue of Pioneer Magazine
by Steven R. Sorensen, City Creek Chapter
British Convert’s Pioneer Spirit Waits 24 Years to be Fulfilled
alma ash was born on the 10th of February, 1861, in Birmingham, England, only 24 years after the arrival of the first L.D.S. missionaries in Great Britain. He was, nevertheless, a third generation Mormon, and his family roots anchored him firmly to the faith.
His paternal grandfather, Isaac Ash, had joined the Church shortly after the introduction of the Restored Gospel to Great Britain in 1837. Thomas Hick, his maternal grandfather, had discovered the new faith while residing in the Birmingham area and had immediately begun to labor diligently for the cause.
Alma’s parents, Thomas and Sarah, were likewise devoted to the Gospel, faithfully participating in the worship and activities of birmingham hockley branch, The Ash family were not unaffected by the spirit and message of gathering which was carried among the converts by missionaries and which so fully permeated the atmosphere at every gathering of the Birmingham Saints.
As newlyweds, Sarah and Thomas had longed for the opportunity to unite with Church members in Great Salt Lake City. The ability to emigrate, however, depended more upon money than desire. Despite their commitment to the Church and a firm resolve to follow counsel, by the time of Alma’s birth, the Ash’s had not accumulated sufficient means to “flee Babylon and gather to Zion.”
For many British Mormons, the chance to emigrate came quickly. The trip to Utah soon followed the conversion experience. Thousands of these Saints demonstrated their faith and affirmed their commitment to the Church as participants in the pioneer Utah experience. But for others, such as Alma Ash and his family, the experience of “going to the valley” would elude them for years.
Had the Ash’s emigrated during the first few years of Alma’s life, they would have shared in the pioneer experience. But that was not to be. It fell Alma’s lot to wait for more than 24 years before entering the valley.
Growing up as a Mormon boy in England’s crowded “city of ten thousand smokestacks’” was not an easy experience, particularly when one’s family was poor. Alma was the second surviving child and eldest son of a family that eventually numbered 11 children. Though a skilled shoemaker, Thomas was not able to meet the economic demands of his large family. The income could simply not keep pace with the outgo.
Consequently, Alma left school at a tender age to apprentice as a shoemaker. Other Ash children followed this lead, entering shop or factory as soon as their age would allow it. Even by maximizing family income potentials, the family led a “bare bones” existence.
Alma’s home, to the day of his departure from England, was among Birmingham’s infamous “back to backs.” These long rows of adjoining cottages arranged “side to side “ and “back to back,” formed large apartment-like complexes. Each dwelling contained two upstairs sleeping rooms, a main floor living area, a small pantry and a cellar. Ash pits, privies and washhouses were shared by tenants.
A family of 13 found such accommodations uncomfortable, to say the least. When the poorly constructed buildings combined with England’s cold dampness to render a sleeping room unusable, conditions became nearly intolerable.
Cramped quarters were among the least of the problems which attended life in the “back to backs.” Scenes of human brutality and gross immorality were offensive to young Alma’s Mormon sensibilities. Drunkenness, wife beating, child beating, cursing, brawling and thievery were common scenes of everyday life in the Ash neighborhood.
Women pulling each others’ hair and fighting over children made the washhouse an undesirable place to visit. Daily exposure to acts of violence and profane living reinforced Alma’s perception of his city as a veritable Babylon.
Another menace which preyed upon Birmingham’s poor was the pawnshop. Much to Alma’s chagrin, the Ash family fell victim to this evil. The “uncles,” as brokers were called, would accept practically anything of value — clothing, bedding or household items.
Through the years, Alma’s mother — with tear-dimmed eyes — often handed him the carefully laundered and folded clothing of an anxiously expected new arrival, with instructions that he was to plead with the broker for enough to pay the rent, buy food for the family or pay an indebtedness.
On other occasions, after considerable discussion, one or more of the older children would surrender an article of clothing to be taken to the pawnshop, with the hope that it could be redeemed before being needed for church or an evening out.
During one particularly difficult time when trips to the broker became frequent, the scarcity of clothing in the family dictated that Alma and his father share the only remaining pair of trousers. Alma sporting them by day in order to look for work, and Thomas wearing them at night to go among his shoe customers to solicit business.
Influence of Friends
The selection of good companions was an especially difficult task for Alma. His youthful emergence into the shoe shop brought close contact with some of the more undesirable elements of English society and left him vulnerable to evil influences. Repulsed by the behaviors of some of his colleagues, he tried several methods of limiting his contact with them. At various times he would take his work home. As a radical measure, he once quit much needed employment in order to seek a better work environment.
Church activities led Alma to associate with other Mormon boys. However, even among these friends unsavory characters were found. Forming bonds of friendship with young men of the same religious persuasion helped Alma remain unstained by the grosser immoralities that surrounded him.
But despite valiant efforts to remain completely free of the sins of the world, Alma and his young companions could not resist the temptation to indulge in the great English pastimes of smoking and drinking beer. These practices they recognized as being contrary to the spirit and law of the Gospel, but they felt unable to avoid them.
Alma found ways of escaping from the drudgery of work and the powers of darkness that seemed to forever stalk him. Church services and other branch activities turned his attention from his problems to the plight of others. Sunday evening walks with friends and family would take him out of the smoke-dried city and into the lush English countryside.
Visits to castles and other prominent historic sites along with an occasional fishing trip provided him with brief respites from the cares of the world. Journeying into the world of literature, he could lose himself in another place and time. Nonetheless, temporary retreats from the Babylon which held him captive were always cut short by sudden re-emergences into the real world of grinding poverty and evil.
From his early youth, Alma possessed an overwhelming desire to emigrate. His response to the spirit of Mormon emigration manifested itself in his childhood activities as he and a few friends would line up tables, chairs and boxes and play “going to the valley.”
Visits to the Ash home by such missionaries as charles shumway, lot smith and abraham halliday were occasions cherished and savored by Alma. As his father serviced the Elders’ shoes, Alma sat spellbound listening to stories of the trials, triumphs and opportunities of “life in the valley.” Following such sessions the Ash family would spend hours planning, hoping and dreaming of emigration and how life in Salt Lake City would suit them.
As Alma matured, admonitions “to gather” from such inspiring Church leaders as Joseph F. Smith, Albert Carrington and Francis M. Lyman sunk deep into his heart. Derisive comments by non-Mormon associates (“Well Mr. Ash, you haven’s been to the Holy Land yet!”) and similar comments by fellow saints, served to pique Alma’s passion for emigration.
As Alma’s 24th birthday passed he reflected upon the increasingly desperate financial and social circumstances of his family. Careful analysis of the prospects for the family’s emigration convinced him that unless some drastic actions were taken, the family would never find the means to extricate themselves from their situation.
Alma, in concert with long-time friend, Henry Phillips, devised a plan. Without revealing their intentions to anyone, the two began to save money for a summer departure to America.
All went well for Alma and Henry. By the end of July, the two were bidding farewell to family and friends, on the false pretense that they were taking a fishing trip to the country. Leaving Henry’s younger brother to reveal the plot to their families at a later date, the two made their way to Liverpool. Within hours, they were on the “Wyoming,” bound for America, barely able to believe that they were experiencing the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
The trip to Utah by steamer and train offered few of the challenges experienced by the earliest companies of British Saints. Nonetheless, the new and unfamiliar sights of the American West excited the men.
Alma found life in the valley equal to his greatest expectations, though he did not rest easy until he had gathered around him his beloved family to share his joy.
In the years following his arrival in Salt Lake, Alma pursued various interests, he obtained steady employment and was eventually appointed a timekeeper at the Salt Lake Z.C.M.I. He pursued his education, eventually receiving a license to practice law in the state of Utah, His devotion to the Gospel manifest itself in his faithful service as a Seventy’s Quorum secretary.
He married and began to raise a family.
In January, 1902, as he prepared to fill a mission call, Alma Ash contracted a respiratory ailment and quietly died. Not quite 42 years of age, he had lived a full life.
Alma Ash was not a “Utah pioneer “ in the traditional sense of the term. He did not toil across the Great Plains with a wagon or handcart. He was not among the founders or developers of any Utah community. Nevertheless, Alma Ash, and others like him, possessed the pioneering spirit. Although unable to participate firsthand in the pioneer experience, they longed for the opportunity to do so. That same faith and determination which manifest itself among the saints on the overland trek from Nauvoo to the valley, sustained those who waited for many years in far off lands for their opportunity to emigrate.