Born in Townhead, Glasgow. Orphaned early in life, he became a street-urchin and remembered standing in his bare feet on the flagstones over the underground kitchens of the Royal Informary. At 14 he was taken on as an apprentice at the Clydesdale botle works, where the manager Robert Hall and the works engineer James McDougall introduced him to Primitive Methodism. A schoolmaster taught him his 'three Rs' and he learned his debating skills in the open-air Sunday meetings on Glasgow Green. Leaving Scotland with the intention of emigrating to America, he found employment in Newcastle upon Tyne and was befriended by a PM preacher, William Pears. He was converted and became a PM local preacher at Gateshead. After two years as a hired local preacher, he began itinerating in 1865, travelling in the north-east until 1883. He was one of the trio who wrote the 'Conference Sketches' for the Primitive Methodist Magazine. His experiences in the Blyth Circuit 1869-1872 led him to write The Black Diamond: a tale of life in a colliery village, which included a description of the Hartley Pit disaster. During his service in Preston Circuit, 1883-1889, he became leader of the Liberals and campaigned for temperance and against the squalid and disease-ridden housing.
Appointed to North Adelaide, Australia, in 1889 he had a brief but influential ministry at Wellington Square chapel, where he built up a large congregation. Politically an active, radical Liberal with Christian Socialist leanings, he supported the strike of the predominantly Irish RC dockworkers, advocated land nationalisation and tax reform, and showed a willingness to consider RC views, e.g. on baptism. Joseph Ritson's novel Hugh Morrigill, Street Arab is based on his early life. He died in Australia on 24 October 1891.