What a Friend We Have – Joseph Scriven

This story is about a long ago Port Hope resident whom very few of us know the name of, but the world came to know his work. Anyone who has ever been to a church service will recognize his world famous poem/hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.

Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1819-1886) was born in Dublin Ireland, and in hopes of following his family tradition of a career in the military, he attended Addiscombe Military College. There he was deemed as physically unfit for a soldier’s life. He went on to receive his BA in 1842 from Trinity College. Working as a tutor in England he planned to take a wife, but his fiancé fell from her horse while crossing a bridge as Joseph stood on the other side.  She drowned in the river Bann the day before they were to be married! Later in England, he fell in love with a Miss Falconer, only to have her taken away by a rival.

In 1850, he was offered a position as tutor to Theodore Robert Pengelley, the ten year old son of Lieut. Robert and Lydia Pengelley at ‘Brockland’ near Bailieboro Ontario.

Here he tutored and lived for about five years. In 1855 Joseph left Pengelley to live with a James Sackville Sr. at his home and mill, just south of the present day Sackville bridge on Cavan Road southeast of Bewdley. These two gentlemen were brought together by their same religious beliefs (the Plymouth Bretheren) and Joseph became a member of the family. Board was paid by chores such as cutting wood. Winters were spent in Bewdley, and summers in Port Hope. While in Port Hope, Joseph boarded for twenty-two years with Margaret Gibson on Thomas Street. In 1859 he was engaged to Eliza Catherine Roche a niece of Mrs. Pengelley, he was 39 and she 22 years old. Tragedy struck again as, Eliza Catherine passed away soon after from consumption!

He was a familiar sight around the town. A big man with bushy white hair and a full white beard. Carrying a buck saw, he offered to cut wood for any one unable to cut his own or unable to pay someone else to do it. He would never cut wood for hire.

On Sept 2, 1880 the local paper reported “a man named Scriven for some time past is in the habit of preaching on Ontario Street near Walton yelling and shouting like a good fellow occasionally. This man has become a nuisance and we appeal to the authorities to remove him. If he must preach, let him take up a position in the market square in the afternoon where he will not be in the way”. The town gentry thought of ‘Old Joe’ as an eccentric. The “down and out” of town loved this ‘Saint’ of a man. He was a born philanthropist and a deeply religious man who gave away what little he had to the needy, having taken a vow of poverty in his early twenties.

It is believed that his famous poem originally called “Pray Without Ceasing” was written at Sackville for his ailing mother in Dublin and later set to music and renamed “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Charles Crozat Converse. This song has been sung world-wide, in the Italian tongue inside the walls of the Vatican, and has been requested by many criminals on the gallows !

On his way to preach a sermon in Port Hope in 1886 and on passing over the mill dam in Sackville, it appears that he may have bent over for a drink of water or he may have slipped and fallen into the sluice-way. The sluice-way is a hole six or seven feet deep where the water runs over the dam. Some thought he may have been murdered. Others, after 30 years between Sackville and Port Hope, thought his health was failing and his mind was “much depressed and he feared being a burden to his friends” and yes, suicide was considered by many. Joseph was buried at the Pengelley family plot next to his fiancé Eliza Catherine Roche. Note: Joseph and Eliza were supposedly buried here “feet-to-feet” so that when resurrected, they will stand “face-to-face”. Joseph’s grave was unmarked for many years.

On Victoria Day May 24th, 1920, Canada celebrated Victoria Day with 6,000 people making the pilgrimage to the unveiling of a monument, erected at the Pengelley site by a large ministerial group of the Bretheren.

In 1920 Sir Robert Borden, Newton Rowell and William Lyon Mackenzie sponsored a monument to be erected at the north/east corner of The Old Bewdley Road and Northumberland County  Road 9 in Scriven’s memory. It was unveiled by Ontario Premier Ernest Charles Drury.

There is also a monument in the northeast corner of the Port Hope Memorial Park paid for by David Kidd and erected by the former Rutter Granite Co. It was knocked down by a car in 1941, then dumped behind the Public Library on Queen St., and later moved to the town shed. Years later local interests put it back in it’s present location near the old Post Office which was torn down in 1970.

Note: The Pengelley family burial site is a must for historians to visit. It is located southeast of Bailieboro Ontario. Follow Lakeview Road (CtyRd 2) east and south on Scriven Road to the roadside plaque. This site is open to the public, and is a most beautiful and quaint small graveyard with a rustic little cabin overlooking Rice Lake. Every summer many bus tours with people from all over the world stop along this quaint country road to view this famous site.

Ranger wishes to thank the owner of Pengelley (a family member of the original Pengelley’s) for the time he spent talking to my sister Barb and myself about the grave site and homestead.

Regards, Ranger.


  1. bushwasher's Lil Sis · · Reply

    Ranger, I am not a history buff mainly because it seems to always be delivered is a dull, boring way. Having said this…I now say…WELL WRITTEN! I enjoyed reading this post. It kept my interest to the very end. If only history books could be written in such an interesting way maybe I’d have enjoyed history classes during my school years. Keep up the good work!


  2. Hey Bushwhacker’s Lil Sis, thanks for the great comment, appreciate it. Yeah, I used to hate history in school. Now I love local history.


  3. Brian Worrall · · Reply

    It seems the mill pond was an unlucky place. As reported in the Cobourg Star July 12, 1848, my ancestor Lawrence Maguire died at the same spot while attempting to cross the mouth of Cold Creek at Sackville Saw Mill. He was 76 years old, had dementia, and wandered from his son’s house in Cavan, He was last seen alive June 27 and his body was found July 4. A coroner’s inquest determined he had got stuck in the mud and died of exposure and exhaustion. His son was Justice of the Peace and local militia commander Patrick Maguire.


    1. Brian, thanks for the great comment. As a historian I appreciate first-person stories like yours.


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