THE Reverend Matthew Paterson never ceased to worry about those seriously ill hospital patients he encountered, who had denied the Lord during their lifetimes but now, on the point of breathing their last, hoped to find salvation. Now and again, however, there were patients who took him aback.

In one ward the hospital chaplain met “a most interesting little fellow”, who had had one of his feet amputated. This young patient said his father had left his mother, and that his mother had gone to look for him but had never returned. In sympathy Paterson began to quote a relevant verse from a psalm but to his surprise the young man seemed to know it well. Jesus, he said, had raised up kind friends to look after him. He was now being taught at an “industrial school”, a school for neglected children or delinquents.

This affecting encounter took place nearly 140 years ago, in ward 17 of Glasgow Royal Infirmary, in December 1878. Paterson’s hand-written diary has now been published in book form. It covers just a few years – 1878 to 1881 – but it provides an absorbing insight into this period of the city’s Victorian history, when poverty, overcrowding and ill health were rife.

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The Diary of the Reverend Matthew Paterson has been edited and published by two Baptist ministers, Rev Adam Plenderleith and Rev Dr Neil Allison. Mr Plenderleith himself has been a hospital chaplain at the Royal since 2011, which makes him one of Paterson’s distant successors. The original diary has long been kept in a safe within the hospital’s chaplaincy, and this is the first time it has been made available to the public.

It includes encounters with patients who have been grievously injured in traffic or industrial accidents. Others have been brought in, having cut their own throats. There’s a reference to the ruinous collapse in 1878 of the City of Glasgow Bank. And, reflecting the mood of the times, there was much mutual suspicion between Paterson, a United Presbyterian minister, and a visiting Catholic priest and some (but by no means all) Catholic patients. At one point Paterson observes of a belligerent “Romanist” patient: “[He] looks at me sometimes as if I had no right to be there. I am certain from what I can see that if they had the power we protestants would not have an inch of liberty.”

Matthew Paterson was born in or around 1839, in Lanarkshire. The book’s introduction says he married Sarah Graham, a Glasgow woman, on the last day of 1862. They had four children, but Sarah, and the eldest daughter, Mary Bella, both died in the space of four days in November 1872, possibly from an infectious illness. The girl was only four years old.

Paterson himself worked for nine years in St Andrews as a missionary under the auspices of the Scottish Coast Mission before transferring to Glasgow, and the Parliamentary Road United Presbyterian Church.

He had re-married in January 1874 – to Alison Foggo, from East Lothian – and four years later took up the post of hospital chaplain at the Royal. He served in this post, remarkably, for half a century, though there has sadly been no trace of any diary beyond 1881. When he died in February 1935, one newspaper story referred to him as “one of the oldest Ministers in Scotland.”

One of the striking things in the book, as mentioned, are Paterson’s meetings with people who had had no religious faith during their lifetimes but who now sought spiritual comfort. On January 13, 1879, he was asked to visit a dying patient in ward nine. “Like the majority,” he records, “I found he was seeking Sal[vation] at the eleventh hour when he could do no better, anxious to be saved from everlasting punishment. I often feel sad to think that men should all their lives serve the devil, and at the end of an ill-spent life seek Sal. when they can do no better. I felt it however to be my duty to set before him The Way of Life, and the ability of Christ to save all who come to him.”

“I think death was very much more a near-neighbour then than it is now,” observes Mr Plenderleith. “People went in to hospital, and there wasn’t the belief that they were going to get fixed and come out again. The likelihood was that they wouldn’t survive their stay in hospital. There was very much more a link with the fragility of life.”

Paterson was a diligent and hard-working minister but there were times when even he questioned his effectiveness. “Has there been any good accomplished in my visitations to the sick and the dying?” he writes at one point. “I often feel sad at the indifference manifested when I am speaking to the people. In some cases there seems a ray of light, and a desire on their part to listen to the story of the cross. In others there is no ground to work upon. Ignorance and great darkness, and no desire for light.”

Mr Plenderleith believes Paterson’s task was perhaps complicated because this was a time “when there was a very real rivalry between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant church. The chaplain was viewed with suspicion by some. He also seemed to be in a fairly elevated position, because the rules stated that if the chaplain came in, you had to stop what you were doing, and listen.

“His role was recognised as being an important one, but I don’t think Matthew would have seen himself as one who should be listened to; for him, it was rather the message that he was sharing. And society has lost sight of that today in its argument with religion and man-made stuff, and there is still, for some of us, a very real calling from God into ministry, chaplaincy or whatever.”

The venerable Royal has undergone many changes over the decades but there are some surviving aspects that would have been familiar to Paterson, including the architecture.

Mr Plenderleith says: “If you look at the hospital from the Cathedral, that would have been the main entrance [back then], with all the hansom cabs and everything milling around in that area that is now the paved car-park for the Cathedral. Internally, many refurbishments have been done, but the staircases, especially the one at the centre block, would be very much the same as he would have walked up and down. Some of the staircases have stonework that is well-worn.”

Paterson did not confine his daily work to just the infirmary: the diary records visits to the poorhouse, and to Duke Street prison, where he meets a man named Ferguson, who has been committed for trial for murdering his wife. “While I was speaking to him he wept and seemed to realise his awful position,” he writes.

But he also touches on a dangerous illness faced by Alison. His only remaining daughter, Lizzie Graham, died on September 20, 1881. His final diary entry is on December 1.

How does Paterson strike Mr Plenderleith now, after all this time? Paterson’s wife and daughter, he begins, may have died “from illness that may or not have been related to his work, and that must have been hugely challenging for him.

“Having walked with him over the last two years, to me he seems like quite an austere gentleman. He wouldn’t have been prone to cracking jokes very readily but he had a real passion for what he was doing, even if there were times when he felt, ‘I’m not doing enough’.

“At one point he writes of going to visit somebody in hospital, only to find that the patient had already died. There’s almost a tangible sense of his guilt at not getting there sooner. And that was coupled with a belief that we need to know the reality of a faith in Jesus Christ.

“At that time, of course without the media coverage there is today, the minister was probably the one who was heavily tasked with making sure that message reached people. So if somebody chose to ignore Paterson’s message, the likelihood of them hearing it from another source was quite slim, and he would have recognised that, and it would have hurt him.

“The whole diary would tend to suggest he did intend for it to be handed on,” Mr Plenderleith adds. “It would be great if another diary of his were to surface. For me, I only wanted to make Matthew Paterson part of the actual history of Glasgow Royal.”

The diary (£9.99 + p&p) can be bought via Rev Adam Plenderleith at adhip@btopenword.com or at the Faith Mission Bookshop, Bothwell Street, Glasgow.