Bassett's Guide and Directory for County Armagh was issued in 1888, and is full of varied information about the county at that time. The chapter dealing with religion in Lurgan is very detailed, listing the history of different denominations. Unexpectedly about six lines are not about a particular church, but refer to mysterious events that took place well over a century earlier when John Wesley was in Lurgan and was entertained by a Mr. Miller who showed him the 'talking statue' he had created.
The fact that this was worthy of mention after 120 years intrigued me and I decided to discover the known facts...
John Wesley, preacher (and later founder of Methodism), was on tour in Ireland in 1762 and visited County Armagh. On Monday 26th April of that year he wrote in his Journal "In the evening I preached to a large congregation in the Market House at Lurgan. I now embraced the opportunity, which I had long desired, of talking with Mr Miller, the contriver of that statue which was in Lurgan when I was here before.
It was the figure of an old man standing in a case with a curtain drawn before him over against a clock which stood on the other side of the room. Every time the clock struck he opened the door with one hand, drew back the curtain with the other, turned his head as if looking round the company and then said, with a clear, loud articulate voice "past one, two, three" and so on'.
Wesley went on to say that 'there was nothing like this seen in Europe', and that 'Mr. Miller was in danger of being ruined, not having time to attend his business because so many came to see it. As none offered to purchase it the whole machine was in pieces, nor has he any thought of ever making anything of that kind again'.
Then in June 1773, eleven years later, Wesley wrote in his Journal, 'After preaching in Lurgan, I enquired of Mr. Miller, whether he had any thoughts of perfecting his speaking statue which had so long lain by. He said he had altered the design, that he intended, if he had life and strength, to make two, which would not only speak, but sing hymns alternatively with an articulate voice: that he had made a trial and it answered well'.
After reading these entries, the first question must be, was it all a hoax?
That seems unlikely when it is remembered that John Wesley was a highly educated man.
A student of Oxford, he later lectured in Greek at that University, He spent time in America and when back in Britain he spent his life travelling and preaching. One estimate says he covered at least 250,000 miles on horseback and he produced a great deal of published material. Of the man himself, it has been said his journals have touches of humour and pathos.
The pages telling of the 'talking statue' were written when he was in his late 50s, and with his experience of human nature, it is unlikely that he could be tricked. The fact that he spoke to Mr Miller again in 1773 underlines that he must have been genuinely impressed.
Mr Miller makes it plain that the statue was seen by many people and, as he was a businessman and the father of Joseph Miller M.D., it would seem he had standing in the community.
Is there any explanation as to the invention which so attracted Wesley?
By the 17th century church organs were developed and could probably make one syllable sounds, but the words Wesley heard were 'loud, clear and articulate'. The drawing of the curtain, the movement of the head could have been part of an automaton, these figures were known for centuries. Old records from the 7th to the 10th century mention these, including an allusion to a 'singing girl'.
By the 18th and 19th century there were mechanical songbirds and intricate automatons. The question remains... did Mr Miller find a way of reproducing a human voice long before anyone else?
The secret died with him and so this fascinating mystery remains unsolved.