Mormon visitors to New York City in the 1870s mention most frequently two individuals in the New York City region, if they mention anyone at all. Williams C. Staines was the emigration agent, the missionary sent from Salt Lake City to assist the emigrants from Europe through customs and through the transfer from ship to train. In contrast Henry G. Bywater, the Brooklyn Branch President, hadn’t come from Utah and didn’t visit there frequently. He lived permanently in Brooklyn while trying to earn a living and get his family to Utah. When Staines was not around, everyone went to Bywater for advice and assistance.
In Mormon history Bywater isn’t very well known. He spent few years in Utah (finally arriving in 1883) and arrived by train, unlike the pioneers who crossed the plains on foot and horseback. As a result, he isn’t mentioned often by those who compiled Mormon histories.
Henry Gwilyms Bywater was born in Wales in 1834 to George Henry Bywater and Elinor Gwilym. The family joined the LDS Church in 1848, and Henry was ordained an Elder in 1856, serving as a “traveling Elder” in the Cheltenham, England conference for a year in 1857. A decade later Henry and his family had earned enough money to emigrate to the U.S., reaching New York in September 1868.
While trying to earn money to continue his voyage to Utah, Bywater was a teacher, a “pressman on tin,” and “president of the first district of the Williamsburg branch” until 1871, when the branch president, William Searle, immigrated to Utah. The branch then had about 400 members. Elder Staines, the Church’s immigration agent and in charge of the church in the east at the time, then appointed Bywater as president of the New York conference, which then embraced New York, Long Island, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Bywater tried to grow the Church in the New York conference during his service, organizing, for example, a 25-member branch in Providence, Rhode Island in 1873. But with members regularly trying to immigrate to Utah and few if any missionaries, Bywater must have had a difficult time getting the conference to grow. Instead, it is likely that the membership declined during his tenure, and an 1877 newspaper reported just 100 members where there had been 300. In 1878 the branch moved from Grand Street in Williamsburg to 92 Prospect Street in Brooklyn, changing its name from the Williamsburg Branch to the Brooklyn Branch, and in 1882 the New York Conference was dissolved, since Brooklyn was the only branch remaining in the conference. Bywater was then released and James T. Flashman was named branch president.
While I’ve found little about Bywater’s life in Brooklyn, newspaper accounts have given some information about his Church life. He apparently preached regularly during Church meetings, speaking on subjects like the persecution that Mormons had suffered and the necessity of gathering to Utah. During his time in Brooklyn, Bywater apparently worked as a pressman on tin and resided in Greenpoint, according to newspaper articles of the time.
Bywater was finally able to immigrate to Utah in 1883, and left New York on September 11th of that year. He died in Salt Lake City in December 1889.