L8 Unseen, Museum of Liverpool

L8 Unseen


L8 Unseen runs at the Museum of Liverpool from 3 April to 6 September. It is a collection of striking images taken by photographer Othello de’Souza-Hartley. The pictures are all blown up to a large scale and rich in detail. Each one features someone or some group of people who live in Liverpool 8 pictured inside a building that reflects the history of Liverpool. The poster used to advertise the exhibition, and reproduced above for instance, shows Cherise Smith of the Tiber Young People’s Steering Group in the boardroom of the Liver Building.

There are also interactive elements in the exhibition in which you can listen to personal stories and send in your own photographs to add to the story. This has been incredibly successful and over 2,500 people have sent in their own photographs in the first weeks of the exhibition.

The blurb for the exhibition declares that “Liverpool 8 is a state of mind, an idea, a culture, rather than just a geographical location”. This identity is based upon diversity, something that is rooted in Liverpool’s development from the eighteenth century onwards as a major seaport that brought so many peoples and cultures to its streets. But in this also lies the downside – Liverpool’s prosperity was based, from the opening of its first dock in the early eighteenth century until 1807, on the slave trade and so the exhibition notes that many of the places used “were founded on the proceeds of the city’s international trading links and the slave trade.” This is undoubtedly true – even for buildings like the Liver Building, built as late as the twentieth century – for without that era of massive expansion when Liverpool became the pre-eminent slave ship port the continued advancement of the Victorian era and later would not have happened. This reprehensible trade carried on by so many people in Liverpool for a hundred years brought tremendous riches and provided the backbone of the city’s prosperity. So the buildings used include the Town Hall, The Black-E arts centre (which was once Great George Street Congregational Church), the Liver Building, a house in Abercomby Square, dock buildings, the Athenaeum Club and other places. There is no getting away from the fact that virtually the whole city was effectively complicit in a vicious trade but I can’t help feeling that somewhere like the Athenaeum perhaps indicates a slightly different attitude, after all it included amongst its founding members William Roscoe and his circle, people who opposed the slave trade from the start and were eventually successful in getting it stopped. We shouldn’t overlook the courage of people like Roscoe who stood out against the prevailing orthodoxy at the time.

My favourite photograph shows four religious leaders from places of worship in Liverpool 8, generally from near the top of Princes Avenue. Seated around a table in the Town Hall are representatives of the Al Taiseer Mosque, Princes Road Synagogue. St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and St Margaret’s Church of England, all resplendent in liturgical garb. One hopes that this gathering represents some sort of on-going dialogue between the different faiths rather than just a gathering for a photo opportunity. At least two of the religious buildings that they represent are amongst the grandest and most impressive buildings in the city and Liverpool, of course, had the first mosque ever built in England. What a shame the nearby Welsh Presbyterian Church, itself something of a mini-cathedral, is now gone, then they could have had a sober Presbyterian in preaching bands and black cassock join the group too. But the building has been derelict for years and the original congregation left in the 1970s. That illustrates one aspect of diversity which has almost entirely disappeared in Liverpool. When I was young the city was dotted with Welsh speaking churches, now I think just one small chapel remains. Sad to note the disappearance of this group, although even in Wales the types of churches that they comprised are nowhere near as prevalent as they once were.

But it is an illuminating exhibition that reflects the resilience and the vitality of Toxteth/Liverpool 8. As Laurence Westgraph says in his notes accompanying the exhibition “what is the culture of L8? Maybe it is the culture of accepting, tolerating and welcoming people from other cultures.”

Festival of Floral Art First Holywood (NS) Presbyterian Church, co. Down

The Very Rev William McMillan has many strings to his bow. He is not just a distinguished and much loved pastoral minister, he is also a highly regarded historian who shares his knowledge readily with all enquirers. In both these areas – and others – he is highly respected but the area in which he is most pre-eminent is undoubtedly that of floral art. His fame in this role is world-wide and a few years ago he was appointed world champion no less. The Rev Mac regularly travels the world as a floral artist and over the decades must have helped to raise thousands of pounds for various charities through his artistic efforts. His latest exhibition is at Holywood Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church which not only utilises a wonderful space but also incorporates his historical knowledge and feel for the theological traditions that have contributed to the development of the church.

Rev Colin Campbell (left) and Rev Bill McMIllan in front of the portrait of Rev C.J. McAlester, in the vestibule of the church
Rev Colin Campbell (left) and Rev Bill McMillan in front of the portrait of Rev C.J. McAlester, in the vestibule of the church

Holywood N.S. Presbyterian church is a substantial classical fronted church dating from the mid-nineteenth century (and designed by Sir Charles Lanyon) but the congregation dates back over 400 years and this exhibition is part of the celebration of the continuation of all branches of Presbyterian witness in the town over that long period. Mac uses the Benedicite, the Song of Creation, as the theme for the exhibition and incorporates references to the rich history of the congregation including the Praeger and Bruce families.

Sophia Rosamond Praeger was, in the words of the exhibition brochure, an “acclaimed sculptor, poet and artist” and as a member of the congregation there are numerous examples of her work housed in the church. Most notable of these is the First World War memorial which she designed to include two children carrying baskets of flowers representing hope; they kneel on either side of the names of those who were killed, including one of her own brothers. Her other brother, Robert Lloyd Praeger, was a world famous botanist who became librarian of the National Library of Ireland.

Rev Michael Bruce was one of the first members of the Presbytery of Antrim and introduced the principles of non-subscription to the congregation in the 1720s. Supposedly a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce his family produced generations of Presbyterian ministers in Ireland.

The exhibition contains material that is both traditional and strikingly modern. The line O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord takes as its cue the fact (quite new to me) that the first two buildings used by the congregation are now both submerged by the sea, and marine plants, shells and liquid are used in the design.

O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord
O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord

O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord pays tributes to the Bruces and incorporates the colours of the Bruce tartan.

O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord
O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord

O ye Children of men, bless ye the Lord is inspired by the logo of Sullivan Upper School as a tribute to the Rev C.J. McAlester, nineteenth-century minister of the church and a scholar and a teacher. He was involved in the foundation of this school and also ran an “underground academy” in the basement of his church.

O ye Children of men, bless ye the Lord
O ye Children of men, bless ye the Lord

Panels on the front of the gallery were inspired by a sketch by Rosamond Praeger entitled “County Donegal” as well as Robert Lloyd Praeger’s most famous book The Way that I Went.

The Burning Bush symbol of the two varieties of Presbyterianism found in the town are both represented by sculptures in dried plant material and the communion table has a suitable decoration. My photographs probably don’t do the whole exhibition justice but it is nice to record at least some of what is on show in Holywood.

Burning Bush H2

Festival of Floral Art, First Holywood (NS) Presbyterian Church 23-26 April 2015, to celebrate 400 years of Presbyterian witness in Holywood.

Inside the church
Inside the church

Liverpool Unitarians: Faith and Action. Essays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history. Edited by Daphne Roberts and David Steers

In September of 2014 we launched – in fine style, it must be said, in the impressive surroundings of the Liverpool Athenaeum, thanks to Philip Waldron – the book Liverpool Unitarians: Faith and Action. Essays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history. Published by the Merseyside District Missionary Association it should also be added that the District took to the role of publisher with great aplomb – not necessarily the most usual role for any church administrative body.  The book is available in many book shops and museums in Liverpool as well as online from the District and via Amazon.

Liverpool Unitarians was a long time in preparation but I think is a better book for the extra time spent on its production. All the contributors have some connection with Merseyside Unitarianism and all write about different aspects of the contribution made by members of this household of faith to wider society over the centuries.

The full list of contributors and subjects is as follows:

Introduction, David Steers; Memorials of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth Park, Bernard Cliffe; Jeremiah Horrocks 1618 – 1641, Bernard Cliffe; William Roscoe 1753 – 1831, David Steers; A Short History of the Rathbone Family, Annette Butler; The Unitarian Family of George Holt, Bernard Cliffe; Noah Jones 1801 – 1861, Philip Waldron; James Martineau 1805 – 1900, Len W. Mooney; Joseph Blanco White 1775 – 1841, David Steers; Kitty Wilkinson 1786 – 1860, Daphne Roberts; John Johns 1801 – 1847, David Steers; William Henry Channing 1810 – 1884, Richard Merritt; Charles Pierre Melly 1829 – 1888, John Keggen; Sir Henry Tate 1819 – 1899, Richard Merritt; Sir John Brunner 1842 – 1919, Len W. Mooney; Lawrence Redfern 1888 – 1967, Elizabeth Alley; Sir Adrian Boult 1889 – 1983, Richard Merritt; The Visitors’ Book of the Ancient Chapel, Bernard Cliffe

It was particularly pleasing to see Len Mooney’s contributions published in the book in light of Len’s sad death just a few months later. Someone who had been a devoted member of Ullet Road Church for many decades Len was a thoughtful and wise person whose gifts shine through in his chapters published here.

The cover of the book
The cover of the book

The book has a full colour cover designed by Alison Steers which incorporates ‘The Triumph of Truth’, the central detail from the library ceiling of Ullet Road Church, painted by Gerald Moira; the Good Samaritan Window at Gateacre Chapel, which was erected in memory of Sir Henry Tate; a bronze representation of the James, (the ship on which Richard Mather and the local puritans sailed to Massachusetts in 1635) made in 1934 for the hall door at the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth; the front elevation of Ullet Road Church built in 1899; and detail of the Liverpool Town Plan of 1725 by J. Chadwick.


The book also contains more than fifty illustrations, many of them never before published, and all of them helping to tell the story of Liverpool Unitarianism. Some of the stories told in the book are well known, others are not so familiar to the general reader, yet others break entirely new ground – Bernard Cliffe’s analysis of the memorials and graves in the Ancient Chapel is a first, as is his examination of the chapel’s visitors’ book.

In the Introduction I say:

This book is not intended to be hagiography but it does try to outline how one group of people – members of a particular faith community with deep historical roots but with an aversion to fixed creeds – were inspired to serve their fellows in different ways. Their legacy can be seen all over the city – in its parks, in its monuments, in the university, in hospitals, in education, in art galleries and museums – and it exists in the long and continuing struggle to create a society that gives equality and opportunity to all its citizens. It is not meant to be an exhaustive account of all the eminent members of the churches and chapels in the region. Readers will notice that the names mentioned are part of wider connections of family and business which includes many others who could be included. There are other figures who could be the subject of such biographical accounts. But this is a selection of some of those who have followed the call of faith to be of service to wider society.


It is pleasing also to report positive reviews in various publications.

In Faith and Freedom Peter Godfrey says: a splendid book… chapters that are full of interest and fill the reader with admiration and often wonder at the scope of the achievements of these Liverpool Unitarians

and in The Inquirer Alan Ruston says:

readers of this book will come to the conclusion that Unitarianism has not been just a faith of the mind but one of action as well.

The title and full publication and order details are as follows:

Liverpool Unitarians Faith and Action Essays exploring the lives and contributions to society of notable figures in Liverpool Unitarian history

Edited by Daphne Roberts and David Steers

Published by the Merseyside and District Missionary Association 2014 ISBN 978-0-9929031-0-7 Price £12.99 plus £2.50 post and packing 128 pages, 52 illustrations, full colour cover

Available from: Philip Waldron, Ullet Road Church, 57 Ullet Road, Sefton Park, Liverpool L17 2AA or liverpoolunitarians@gmail.com also available for purchase on Amazon

Joseph Blanco White (Ullet Road Church)
Joseph Blanco White (Ullet Road Church)


Only in England Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Only in England Photo

As a long time admirer of the work of Martin Parr I was glad of the opportunity to see this exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. I first came across his work in The Last Resort, his collection of photographs taken in New Brighton and first published, I now see, as long ago as 1985. These pictures, taken in colour, are bright and sharp, which serves only to highlight the sense of desperation about the place. Sunbathers sit on crowded beaches, their feet surrounded by litter, babies play amidst the debris, pensioners relax in semi-derelict shelters. They reminded me of childhood visits to the place and today seem to share more with that era than the present time: New Brighton is cleaner, smarter and less tawdry than it was then. But the seaside has been a continuous theme in Parr’s work and this exhibition shows not only some rarely seen examples of his early photography, but also pictures by a major influence on his own work.

Tony Ray-Jones died at a tragically young age in 1972. Martin Parr has curated a collection of his pictures from the 1960s. All in black and white many of them depict scenes taken at sea side locations – Broadstairs, Brighton, Southport, Blackpool and so on. Each picture conveys that sense of melancholy that only the English seaside seems to contain, both in and out of season. Tony Ray-Jones’s own injunction to himself was “don’t take boring pictures” and each contains a strange mixture of humour, ennui and sometimes even a vague sense of menace.

But Martin Parr’s own section of the exhibition is entitled The Non-Conformists, in this case a precise reference to religious dissenters of the traditional type. Taken in the 1970s this looks very much like a vanished age, the last days of an old order. Most of the subjects in the run down chapels are elderly, the ladies all wear impressive hats, the men Sunday-best suits. There is an air of melancholy about many of these pictures too. Chapel goers assemble for anniversary teas and resemble nothing so much as mourners at a wake. And yet the video that accompanies the exhibition shows some of the scenes as they are today and the remote Methodist Chapel looks pretty much like it is still in operation. Non-Conformists can be tenacious survivors.

But if the same Methodist Chapel is still on the go, the congregation are unlikely to look as formal and as staid as they did in the 1970s. You have to go to Ulster, to Brethren and Free Presbyterian churches, to find such a collection of hats on a Sunday, it is generally shirt-sleeve order these days, casual informality is the style in most places now. There is a rigidity and a strictness in these photos of forty years ago that seems strange to modern eyes, as well as a sense of sadness; the chapels look run down, the paint is peeling, the congregations mostly elderly. But here we see chapel life as it was lived in a remote rural corner of England in the 1970s. Worshippers crouch in prayer, in the non-conformist style; sumptuous suppers are piled on to plates after worship; cabbages are auctioned after the harvest festival. Many of the compositions are very striking. A clever view of a service shows part of the congregation seated downstairs while others sit patiently in the gallery above them. Perhaps the most arresting is of a lady wearing a very large hat solemnly ladling sugar into a cup while seated at a table amongst others sharing in a post-service tea in a Baptist chapel. Her movements seem to mirror the illustration on the wall behind her – a curious and somewhat disquieting rendition of the Last Supper which must have been a permanent decoration in the church hall. A blown up version of this picture is used to advertise the show and I reproduce it below:


Martin Parr. Buffet Lunch, Steep Lane Baptist Chapel, 1976
Martin Parr. Buffet Lunch, Steep Lane Baptist Chapel, 1976

But all this, plus Martin Parr’s pictures of home life and working life in the Calder Valley and Tony Ray-Jones’s depictions of English eccentricities like the Bacup Coconut Dancers, makes for a fascinating exhibition which is on show in the Walker Art Gallery until 7th June.

The last photograph of Alexander Gordon

The Rev Alexander Gordon was one of the leading Unitarian scholars of the late nineteenth century. He had an international reputation and connections that spanned continents, languages and areas of research. He also combined his academic work with committed pastoral ministry much of which he exercised in Ireland.

The brief notes that follow illuminate something of his life and work but were prompted by the discovery of this delightful photograph:

Alexander Gordon, 18th January 1931
Alexander Gordon, 18th January 1931

I am indebted to Alan Ruston for discovering it. He found it, printed up as a post card, inside a copy of Herbert McLachlan’s biography of Gordon published in 1932. The card itself is dated 18th January 1931 and it must represent the last photograph taken of this distinguished minister since he died just over a month later. It is a remarkably sharp and clear picture, presumably taken on something like a Box Brownie, with, we must suspect no prior warning and no attempt to pose the main subject.

Alexander Gordon is shown walking up to the meeting house at Dunmurry, county Antrim, indeed the section of wall (at the rear going towards the entrance to the vestry) is still clearly recognisable today, although greatly restored. The significance of the day the photograph was taken is underlined by a quotation from page 123 of Herbert McLachlan’s biography part of which is written on the back of the card:

On Sunday, 18 January 1931, Alexander Gordon drove in a jaunting-car from Belfast to Dunmurry to take service for an old friend laid aside by illness. It was to be his fare-well office of faith and affection. His last public appearance was on the 11th of February, when he took the chair at a Meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland. Ten days later, after a week’s illness and a day in bed, he passed into the world of light. In the grave-yard attached to the ancient Meeting-House at Dunmurry his body was interred on Monday, 23 February, when amongst those who took part in the service was the Very Rev Dr John McMillan of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Together with old pupils and friends who gathered to pay him a last tribute of respect and love was the old driver with the car which had carried him to and fro in the north of Ireland for fifty years save one, with whom, I doubt not, he had oft exchanged a merry jest.

Describing himself as “an Englishman by birth, a Scotsman by education and an Irishman by inclination”, Alexander Gordon was the leading historian of religious dissent in Britain and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. I contributed the short biography of him which can be read online at the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography – .http://uudb.org/articles/alexandergordon.html. Alan Ruston wrote the entry on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which can also be read online although this requires a subscription. Gordon himself is particualrly remembered as one of the most prolific contributors to the original nineteenth-century Dictionary of National Biography. Amongst many other publications he contributed 778 biographies to that landmark publication. His scholarly commitment and devotion to detail was unsurpassed. Alongside this he was both a minister and educator, combining his ministry at Rosemary Street in Belfast, between 1877 and 1889, with the role of divinity tutor to students for the Non-Subscribing ministry. In 1890 he became principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary College, Manchester and the first lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Manchester in what is always described as the first ‘free’ faculty of theology in the UK, in other words one that taught theology without any denominational affiliation or confessional standpoint. Throughout his time in Manchester he maintained his contact with Belfast, serving as a governor of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution for around fifty years and regularly travelling back to Dunmurry to attend communion there under the ministry of his friend the Rev. J.A. Kelly who regarded him as an ‘unpaid assistant’. He was closely involved with the consolidation of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian denomination in 1910 and for the rest of his life was a regular traveller across the Irish Sea, continuing throughout the First World War and at one point losing some proofs of his Cheshire Classis Minutes with the sinking of the Leinster in 1918.

This is an intriguing photograph of a venerable old clergyman, then in his 90th year, making his way to preach what was to be his last sermon. Who was there waiting with a camera? Who is the member of the congregation in bowler hat, carnation, white gloves and spats? Who had it printed and distributed? And which person – possibly a former student – had this copy which, judging by marks left by drawing pins, seems to have pinned it up in a place of honour?

We probably won’t ever know the answer to these particular questions but it is nice to have such a photograph, a link with our history.

And here is a picture of a more youthful (and hatless) Alexander Gordon, also carrying his distinctive signature:

Alx Gordon

Rev John Watson: Ogden’s ‘Guinea Gold Cigarettes’

Some people like collecting things, other people discard anything that has no practical usefulness. For some collecting is a bug and whether it is stickers containing the likenesses of premiership footballers or paintings by Picasso costing millions of pounds or anything in between there is no shortage of those who, in the search for completeness or because of a desire to own something rare or unique, will buy things, sometimes at any price. While the artistic merit of a Picasso may (or may not) be appreciated by all and sundry the wonders of a sticker book containing all the footballers of the 1970 World Cup, for instance, will appeal only to the cognoscenti. But little things, small objects, printed ephemera and all the material that so many people would condemn as junk do tell a story, they can be interesting and open up another view of the world and who we are.

Rev John Watson
Rev John Watson

The picture above is a cigarette card. Starting before the end of the nineteenth century these became keenly collected, often by children and no doubt they helped to introduce new generations to smoking. They faded away in the 1950s and wouldn’t be allowed now, but old sets are still collected, early and rare examples attracting high prices of over £1,000 per card. Some of the early series are very informative, and others are very attractive in their design. But this card, once given away free and now worth a couple of pounds, is both a symbol of the early development of the modern cult of celebrity and an illustration of how important non-conformist churches were 100 years ago.

The card depicts Ian MacLaren an incredibly popular writer in about 1905 when the card was printed. He was one of the members of the kailyard school, writers of sentimental stories of Scottish rural life which enjoyed great popularity at the time. Their title came from a line of Burns quoted in MacLaren’s most popular book Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush:

There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kail-yard

And white are the blossoms on’t in our kail-yard.

J.M Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) was the most notable of this group but MacLaren’s books sold in Britain and America in their tens of thousands, indeed some are still in print today although read by a fairly specialised audience. But MacLaren’s fame as an author was closely bound up with his career as a Presbyterian minister. Ian MacLaren was a pseudonym and as John Watson he ministered to the Presbyterian Church in Sefton Park, Liverpool for 25 years with great success, from 1880 to 1905. He assembled an enormous congregation, those who held seats in his church had to be in place half an hour before the service began or else their seats would be given to visitors who queued up outside. Developing out of his ministry he became the most popular writer on theological topics of his day, certainly from within the non-conformist churches. His theology was quite liberal and at one point he was threatened with a charge of heresy from within his denomination (the Presbyterian Church of England). He was certainly liberal enough for the Rev John Hamilton Thom to complain about the removal of the Renshaw Street Unitarian congregation to Ullet Road – a location very close to Ian MacLaren’s church. He claimed that a number of Unitarians had already joined his church without changing their theology and that a move to the suburbs might result in further drift away to hear such a successful preacher.

But above everything else John Watson was the most prominent of all the Presbyterian Church of England ministers of his day. He assisted in the establishment of the University of Liverpool (which brought him into the orbit of many Unitarians) and his leadership and fundraising exertions resulted in the establishment of Westminster College, Cambridge in 1899, which became the main Presbyterian theological college. The following year he was moderator of his church. Invited to tour the United States and lecture in Yale University and other places his theological publications also became best sellers and his influence spread far and wide within the churches. And so famous was he that when Ogden’s produced a new series of ‘Famous People’ Cigarette Cards in about 1905, a set that possibly included actors, actresses, generals, politicians, sportsmen and writers they couldn’t leave out John Watson/Ian MacLaren. It was all part of the level of fame he had achieved in his day and age and so his portrait, in his clerical collar, was printed to go inside packs of Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes and no doubt eagerly sought by those anxious for the full set. It is hard to imagine what the exact equivalent would be in today’s celebrity terms but we can be pretty certain that no member of the clergy, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, could expect to reach such a dizzy height.

Counting Non-Subscribers

When I was editor of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian I wrote a column entitled ‘Ponder Anew’ (and might still do from time to time – indeed my initial intention was to give this blog the same name but this proved not to be possible). Anyway I thought I would review some of those pieces and came across the following which was published in March 2011 and concerned the number of members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland counted in the 2001 Census in Northern Ireland. The Census showed what is certainly an underestimate of the total numbers of Non-Subscribers by a large degree. Having looked at this piece I suddenly realised that I had not noticed what the 2011 Census itself actually recorded – happily the information is easily found. I will add a short appendix to the original  article to make a comparison with 2001. But here is the slightly amended article from the March 2011 Non-Subscribing Presbyterian:

Ponder Anew

…and statistics

This year sees another Census. Every ten years the citizens of the United Kingdom are asked to provide a vast amount of information for the government’s use. At the last Census, for the first time, residents of England, Scotland and Wales were invited to disclose their religious affiliation. This revealed a large number of people (390,127 no less) who declared their religion as being Jedi…..However, a very curious result was thrown up in Northern Ireland in the most recent, 2001 Census, concerning this denomination which I have never seen referred to by anyone in our churches.

The 2001 Census reported that the total membership of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland was 1,233. That figure includes adults and children but obviously excludes those resident in the Republic. That means that only 1,233 people identified themselves as Non-Subscribers. This is a very small number and without doubt is a significant underestimate. First of all, we might ask, does it matter? Well, the Census figures are used, not unreasonably, by authors producing surveys of religious affiliation. Indeed, in a paper produced for the Irish Council of Churches Norman Richardson has said that the apparent drop in our numbers “indicates one of the most notable proportionate declines in comparison with the 1991 figures.” But secondly, is this true? Without doubt we can answer that question with a resounding ‘No’. Our own statistics for 2001 reveal 3,529 adult members and 511 Sunday School members making a total of 4,040, that is a full 228% higher than the official government figure. The Synod’s figure, with members in the Republic excluded, is largely made up of those who make a financial contribution to a church. Yet every minister knows that beyond the official list of members there is generally a large mass of individuals who at times will claim membership, famously described by the late Rev Robin Williamson as “those who neither pay nor pray”. Indeed in Northern Ireland it is said that of those who don’t go to church everyone knows which church they stay away from. This is reflected in much of the Census statistics where most denominations (unlike us) actually record higher figures in the government numbers than in their own records. But how then do we explain this enormous reverse discrepancy in our figures? Well part of it is explained by the 342 people who recorded themselves as Unitarians. If we add this figure to the 1,233 we get a total of 1,575. But this is still far less than half of our official and hardly exaggerated total. If my memory serves me right the Non-Subscribers/Unitarians appeared as a single category in 1991, although generally they had been separated out in previous years, this in itself being an interesting area of analysis. Another difference between 1991 and 2001 was the complete disappearance of the 152 people who declared themselves as Old Presbyterians in 1991 (certainly part of our group as well) by 2001. It may be that some of our members simply wrote Presbyterian (another separate category totalling 985) but it must be also true that a very large number of those who belong to our denomination chose not to answer the religious question. There is some evidence that this has been a long term practice. However, one person has suggested to me that the sudden drop in those declaring themselves as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians was caused simply by the lack of space on the form for the answer to the religious question. There may be something in this. The ‘big four’ denominations all had a tick box, while all others had to be written in, in a space with less characters than we have in the first two words of our name! However, whatever the reason, with the next Census due at the end of this month we all have the chance to declare our allegiance. If we all do that then on paper our numbers will enjoy a massive jump and we can produce a notable proportional increase this time. It will at least give the statisticians something to talk about.

So what was the result of the 2011 Census for Non-Subscribers? Well, it does not look good. Non-Subscribing Presbyterians numbered only 646 (down from 1,233). Unitarians numbered 265 (down from 342). Once again there were no Old Presbyterians at all and those who could be no more specific than stating ‘Presbyterian’ were up from 985 to 1,494. So adding the  Non-Subscribing Presbyterians to the Unitarians this makes a total of 911. How does this compare with the denomination’s own statistics? With the numbers for those resident in the Republic of Ireland again removed the total number of adult members recorded in 2012 (which effectively means those counted in the same year as the Census) was 2,900 plus 373 children – a total of 3,273. Again, as in 2001, there is no reason for this figure to be inflated. Admittedly there may be some people who are members of more than one church and so are counted twice but they will be more than outweighed by those whose allegiance is only important when a rite of passage is suddenly required. It is a big drop from the 4,040 of 2001 but still a far greater total than the government statistic. The most recent numbers issued by the denomination in 2014 show numbers for adults and children (again excluding the numbers for the Republic) of 3,133 and 368 respectively, a total of 3,501. So numbers are actually going up. It is certainly my experience that some churches are growing. But what a curious statistical anomaly the Census provides.

2015 Transactions Launched

Transactions 2015

The end of March saw the launch of this year’s Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society at the General Assembly held in the Birmingham Hilton Metropole Hotel. There was a good attendance at the meeting to see the first appearance of the issue hot off the press – a Festschrift published in honour of Alan Ruston who edited the journal for 25 years and has contributed a massive amount to the study of Unitarian History over the past fifty years. Alan has been the first port of call for a great many people across the decades – amateur historians, genealogists, writers of congregational histories and professional researchers and it was so fitting to present this special enlarged edition to him. At almost 190 pages it is probably the largest edition of the Transactions ever published; a bargain at £10 for all who join the Society.

The articles cover a wide variety of themes, places and personalities. This is a fitting tribute to Alan Ruston who has researched in so many historical areas over the years. Indeed the book contains a full list of all of Alan’s publications in a vast number of journals and magazines dating back to 1967 right up to the present day. Leonard Smith writes about five Unitarians who served in senior positions in the Navy around the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. Technically members of dissenting churches were not allowed to take commissions in the Royal Navy before 1828. Yet ways around this were found and Dr Smith outlines the careers of five distinguished Unitarians who served in ‘Nelson’s Navy’. To give just two examples these included Captain Edward Rotheram, who led a squadron at the Battle of Trafalgar and paced up and down the deck of his ship Royal Sovereign wearing a large cocked hat which he refused to remove even though it made him a target for French snipers. Following the death of Admiral Nelson he headed the procession of captains at the front of the funeral carriage to St Paul’s in London. In his career he not only faced dangers at sea but also a troubled relationship with some other officers – at one stage being accused of threatening his Anglican chaplain! Yet throughout all of this he would appear to have been a thoughtful and devout Unitarian, keeping a Commonplace Book that displays very clearly his theological sentiments. Another Unitarian naval officer was Captain Thomas Thrush, whose ship Pickle carried the news of Nelson’s victory to Falmouth. Unlike Captain Rotheram, however, Captain Thrush converted to Unitarianism after his naval service and then engaged in vigorous pamphleteering against prominent Anglicans. He also became a pacifist and resigned his commission, literally at great cost to himself.

Other articles include Professor G.M. Ditchfield writing on William Tayleur of Shrewsbury. Born into a wealthy Anglican family he converted himself to Unitarianism through his own reading and became a friend of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley and a major supporter of all Unitarian endeavours towards the end of the eighteenth century. Professor Timothy Whelan discusses the ‘rational’ faith of Crabb Robinson, the famous diarist and writer, and the effect on his thinking of his friend Wilhelm Benecke a German manufacturer who came to live in London in 1813. Some of the articles are about institutions – David Wykes investigates the challenges at the start of the nineteenth century in maintaining suitable institutions to train students for the ministry after the closure of Hackney Academy and Horsey’s Academy in Northampton, particularly with regard to the position of poor students. Daniel Costley, recounts the fascinating and somewhat tragic life of the Rev Edward Hammond, the General Baptist minister of Bessels Green in Kent. Ann Peart examines the life of William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and a figure often overlooked and frequently in the shadow of his much more famous wife Elizabeth, the famous novelist. Andrew Hill tells the story of a controversial legal case that engulfed St Saviourgate Chapel in York in the 1890s which had important implications for the development of Unitarian thought and worship. I contribute an article on the Rev John Orr, the highly effective minister of the Comber NSP Church from 1850 to 1879, a member of a dynasty of ministers, a scholar of some repute who published at least two well regarded books in the 1850s and 1860s but who frequently found himself caught up in theological controversy. His career in county Down came to a sudden end in 1879 when he upped sticks and moved across the Atlantic for a new life in Massachusetts.

The meeting itself heard short papers by Daniel Costley, David Wykes and Ann Peart based on their articles in the Transactions as well as a paper by Ralph Waller on the early career of James Martineau. All four papers were very well received. Anyway it is good to see the issue published – a tribute to Alan Ruston.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

These words of the Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu seem appropriate for the beginning of any new enterprise, they also tie in, for me personally, with the picture of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, a place which was very much a starting point for me. But the purpose of this blog will be to flag up things that interest me particularly in relation to the journals Faith and Freedom and the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, both of which I edit. Not that I intend to confine myself to either of those publications – anything that catches my eye will go in here – the blog will have a special remit towards faith, religious history and associated matters but it will by no means confine itself to matters of religion.