History of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church Downpatrick

The meeting house of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church in Downpatrick was opened in 1711 at the start of the ministry of the Rev Thomas Nevin. Recognised as one of the most significant architectural examples of the T-shaped meeting-house in Ireland the building celebrated 300 years of continuous worship and witness in 2011.

Central high pulpit originally built for Thomas Nevin (Down Museum photograph)
Central high pulpit originally built for Thomas Nevin (Down Museum photograph)

To mark the tercentenary of the church building the congregation published the History of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church Downpatrick. Written and compiled by Mary Stewart, the church secretary, the book is a remarkable record of three centuries of church life in the historic building. The book details the history of the congregation in the context of Downpatrick and Irish Presbyterianism, the conflict between subscribers and non-subscribers in the 18th century, the history of the building, the congregation’s engagement with education and much more. The book includes biographies of all the ministers of the congregation going back to the 17th century, extracts from the records of the Synod of Ulster, accounts of services, special events and financial matters, and contains details of committee and session members over the centuries, lists of members going back to the 1860s, and a complete record of all the graveyard inscriptions. It will be valued by all those with an interest in Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church history, local history, and genealogy.

Celebrating the tercentenary
Celebrating the tercentenary

In the first of the two Forewords the Very Rev William McMillan says:

Miss Stewart is to be congratulated on a truly comprehensive publication. She not only presents us with a history of the Downpatrick congregation but has collated a remarkable number of newspaper accounts, together with other printed material which will be of considerable help to future historians.

 Her commitment to the congregation is evident from the immense research that she has done and I am delighted to recommend this valuable contribution to the Denomination’s Historical Record in which Downpatrick congregation has played such an important role.

and in the second Foreword the Rev Dr JohnNelson says:

The congregation of Downpatrick has a long and notable history, reflected in the lives of the ministers and lay people who have been part of that church. A congregation which has held a significant place both within Non-Subscribing Presbyterian circles and the wider Presbyterian community.

 Perhaps the most outstanding theme of that history is the fact that for the last 300 years the congregation have worshiped in the wonderful building that is Stream Street Meeting House. While that building has always been well maintained, the interior has never been substantially altered, leaving it to-day essentially as built and evoking a sense of history, of presence, and of worship in all who enter there. It is highly appropriate that this book is published as part of the celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of that meeting house.

Mary Stewart is to be congratulated in producing such a thorough and detailed history of the congregation. Not only does she give the story of the church, but her painstaking researches have produced a wealth of source material which will be a delight to historians, church members, and everyone interested in the heritage of Downpatrick town and community.

This book both opens a door on the past and links it with the living present.

At the tercentenary service
At the tercentenary service

The book contains 408 pages and over 150 illustrations. It is bound in a full colour hard-back cover the book and is excellent value at only £15.

The cover of the book
The cover of the book

A sense of what it contains can be seen from the list of contents:

Chapter 1        Background History of Downpatrick

Chapter 2        Arrival and Settlement of Presbyterians

Chapter 3        Subscribers and Non-Subscribers, the Faith of the Non-Subscribers

Chapter 4        Presbytery Records from 1691 including Thomas Nevin’s Trial and Consequences

Chapter 5        List of Ministers of Downpatrick, Details of Ministers

Chapter 6        The Church Building

Chapter 7        Church Site and Schools

Chapter 8        Life and Times of Samuel Craig Nelson   

Chapter 9        Special Services

Chapter 10      Special Events and Reports

Chapter 11      Church Excursions from 1881

Chapter 12      Social Evenings and Gatherings

Chapter 13      Harvest Services from 1908

Chapter 14      Financial Matters (Inc. Committee Record from 1886)

Appendix I       Rules and Regulations of the Downpatrick Congregation

Appendix II    Church Elders, Committee and Sunday School Teachers (From 1861-2007)

Appendix III   The Church Graveyard and Inscriptions

Appendix IV   Sermon by Alexander Colvill A.M. M.D. on the Death of Thomas Nevin 24th March 1744

Congregation at the tercentenary service
Congregation at the tercentenary service

The cost of the book is just £15. Postage within the UK is £5. If you are interested in having a copy posted abroad please enquire for postal rates. Details of how to purchase the book can be found on the Church’s website: http://www.downpatricknsp.org.uk/History.html

Faith in the World – next year’s Faith and Freedom Calendar

If you saw a copy of last year’s Faith and Freedom Calendar then you will recognise the three images on this page as from that publication. Last year’s Faith and Freedom Calendar was well received and helped to raise a good sum for the charity Send a Child to Hucklow Fund (SACH). The journal is planning to publish another Calendar for 2016 the proceeds from which will again go to the SACH.


Princes Road Synagogue Liverpool
Princes Road Synagogue Liverpool (January 2015)



Next year’s theme will be:
Faith in the World

The publishers invite anyone to submit photographs for consideration for inclusion in next year’s Calendar in accordance with this theme. Please interpret the theme as broadly as you like – an act of worship, a faithful community or individual at work, a symbol of faith, a place of worship, it is up to you. However, the photograph should be your own work and you must be happy to give permission for it to be used in the Calendar should it be selected for inclusion. Photographs can be in colour or black and white, they should be landscape in orientation, of high resolution and sent, by email, to n.clarke884@btinternet.com


Pet service at St Andrew's United Church, Kirton Lindsey, North Lincolnshire
Pet service at St Andrew’s United Church, Kirton Lindsey, North Lincolnshire (March 2015)


All successful entrants will be sent a free copy of the Calendar and have the satisfaction of being part of an interesting project that shares the diversity and vibrancy of faith and which will also help to raise money for SACH. We may be able to include a broader number of pictures submitted in the journal’s website.
If there is a seasonal element to your entry please state it in your accompanying email as well as when and where it was taken. Please remember also that parental permission is usually required if your picture includes children under the age of 18. The deadline for submissions will be 18th September 2015.


Buddhist Temple, Fo Guang Shan Monastery, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Buddhist Temple, Fo Guang Shan Monastery, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (August 2015)

The Church on Hope Street

I have sometimes been tempted to write a blog or a column entitled ‘The things I buy on eBay’. I have picked up lots of pieces of ephemera at very low cost on eBay which while certainly bearing very little intrinsic value and generally falling into the category of junk nevertheless have some historical interest.

Hope Street Church, demolition 1962
Hope Street Church, demolition 1962


The photograph above is a good example of this. It cost just 99p (which I suppose is actually quite a lot for a single, slightly blurry print) but it shows the very end of Hope Street Unitarian Church in Liverpool. Taken in 1962, probably by someone who habitually recorded views of buildings which he thought might one day be interesting, it catches the tower in the final stage of demolition. Somewhere under the rubble was a brass plate and a “hermetically sealed vase” containing a list of members, ground plans of the old and new chapels, a report of the congregation’s school, a plan of Liverpool, a print of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, an engraved portrait of the minister and all the local papers from the week before the laying of the foundation stone on 9th May 1848. It was a sad end to a building that was opened for worship in 1849 and which occupied a prominent place in the city. Indeed it seems a shame that such a site, midway between the two cathedrals, could not have been saved for future use. It would be a great site today with enormous potential. But it is easy to be wise after the event, the world must have looked quite different to what was presumably a small and discouraged congregation by the early 1960s.


Hope Street had certainly known rather more glorious days. Built by James Martineau’s congregation to provide a place of worship that suited his style and popularity it was a thorough-going gothic construction that reflected his devotional approach. The classic image of it is this one:

Hope Street Church
Hope Street Church


Its relationship to the next-door Philharmonic Hall can be seen from this Edwardian postcard. The original Philharmonic burnt down in the 1930s and was replaced by the present building in 1939. In the picture the classical church opposite, the corner of which can just be seen on the right of the postcard, was the Church for the Blind, attached to the Liverpool School for the Blind which was situated on Hardman Street.

Next door to the Philharmonic
Next door to the Philharmonic


Nothing really remains of Hope Street Church today. Photographs of the interior are intriguing. This scan isn’t great but it shows the view looking towards the pulpit, the chancel and the font.

Church interior
Church interior


After James Martineau and before the First World War the congregation had some high profile ministers including Charles Wicksteed, Alexander Gordon and Richard Acland Armstrong. The 1920s saw a revival of fortunes under the radical ministry of Stanley A. Mellor who mixed an advanced theology with Socialist ideas. But the crowds that came out to hear him did not last and by the time of the eccentric ministry of the highly scholarly Sidney Spencer the numbers were starting to reduce.


In the Winter 2008/9 of the Merseyside District Unitarian Newsletter The Honourable Dr Frank Paterson, a former member of Hope Street and a very distinguished circuit judge who died in 2014, wrote his reminiscences of the Church. They are a fascinating and rare account of the congregation in the twentieth century. I place them here with due acknowledgment to the MDMA Newsletter:


I reflect with pleasure on my childhood and early manhood, when I frequently accompanied my father to the morning and evening services. He had a wide interest in almost every religious creed. In latter years he reminded me of a character in Shaw’s Major Barbara who declared that he had studied several religions and found that he would be perfectly at home in any one of them. Having been born into a Scots Presbyterian household, he was attracted by the preaching of Dr Charles Aked, the charismatic minister of the then Pembroke Baptist Chapel in Liverpool, where he met my mother, whom he married in 1911. After the departure of Dr Aked for the United States (to what was known as ‘The Millionaires’ Church’ on 5th Avenue), my parents transferred their allegiance to Hope Street Unitarian Church to enjoy the benefits of the preaching of the Reverend Stanley Mellor. Following his death, they continued to attend Hope Street church throughout the ministry of the Reverend Sidney Spencer, I do not think my mother took any interest in the details of religious faiths, but was content to fulfil what she regarded as a spiritual duty by attendance at a church on a Sunday. It is perhaps not surprising that the idea of a free religious faith always appealed to me. It gave me great pleasure to follow in my father’s footsteps as chairman of the Hope Street Committee, which awakened in me the desire to enter a calling where I could participate in the cut and thrust of debate, and to promote harmony where there has been discord.


It has therefore been a source of satisfaction to me to find that Hope Street had its origins on the site of what is now The Queen Elizabeth II Law Courts, where I have spent the greater part of my professional life. When the buildings were opened by Queen Elizabeth II, I happened to be one of the longest standing circuit judges of the court and had the honour of being presented to Her Majesty. Whilst waiting for the ceremony I was placed in a line of those about to be presented immediately between the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool on one side and the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool on the other. I regret I didn’t have the courage or the time to remind these prelates that I felt like the wonderful white church that once stood half way between the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals in Hope Street.


When I was a child services at Hope Street were almost as well attended as the Hope Hall Cinema (now the Everyman Theatre) down the road, and in order to secure two seats together my father was obliged to apply to the Church Secretary, Mr William Letcher. There was an interval of several weeks before a reply was received notifying my father that two places had been reserved for himself and my mother, and on the following Sunday they were met in the vestibule by Mr Letcher to be escorted past the queue waiting to be seated and down the aisle to a pew four rows from the front, on the back of which was a card bearing their names. This remained what we regarded as our family pew until the church was demolished several decades later. William Letcher remains in my memory as a formidable figure, well-suited to the task of controlling the crowds at Hope Street. He was, I believe, employed by one of Liverpool’s principle banks, in charge of the Stationary Department. As a small boy he appeared to me as a person of enormous power and influence. Whatever it meant for the Trinity to be present in one person, it seemed to me that person might as well be Mr William Letcher. He was highly thought of, and in due course enjoyed the distinction of becoming the subject of a light-hearted song, composed by my father and another member of the congregation, which recommended a variety of facetious changes to forms of worship, each one punctuated by the refrain: “But Will `e Letch `ya?” The authors sang it at a Christmas party.


Another innovation of my father’s as Chairman was the collection of “bun pennies`”. These were coins dating from the early days of the reign of Queen Victoria on which the monarch’s head appeared with hair drawn back in a bun, still current in the inter-war years but invariably worn very smooth. My father encouraged members of the congregation to deposit any they found in their possession in a wooden casket he had placed on the window-ledge of the church vestibule, similar to those designed for holding ashes with an incision made in the top and inscribed with the words: “The Hope Street Church Ancient Victorian Secret Society”. To what objects the fund accumulated therein was applied remains uncertain to this day.


The only photograph of the church I recall seeing was taken by a photographer from the Liverpool Daily Post and showed the spire wrapped in smoke. It dated from an evening on which my father had had to move a Committee Meeting from the Library to the Church Hall, and eventually – very reluctantly – to adjourn with business unfinished, because the premises had become unbearably hot. The neighbouring Philharmonic Hall was on fire. My father had a print framed and hung in the church to illustrate the perils to which the members of the Committee were prepared to subject themselves in pursuance of their duties.


Hope Street Church also survived the blitz a few years later. It may be that the enemy found the white spire of that Unitarian stronghold a useful pointer to the Liverpool docks and to the Cammell Laird shipyards and it took care to spare it. Be that as it may, incendiary bombs were such a menace that the government required all males over a certain age to register for fire-watching duties. The minister of Hope Street, the Reverend Sidney Spencer, an ardent pacifist, had no hesitation in fire-watching at his own church or anywhere else, but objected to doing so under compulsion of the State. He refused to register. The magistrates fined him £10 which he steadfastly refused to pay. In due course, he was sent to prison for a term of 14 days. The minister (an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi) was adamant that he did not wish the fine to be paid, but after a few days the Committee felt that he had made his point, and that somehow the fine should be paid anonymously. It was decided that, as a law student with access via the Magistrates’ Entrance to the courts on Dale Street, the Chairman’s son was best able to make the payment without drawing attention to himself. This I did. The first clerk I approached hesitated: “But Mr Spencer has said he doesn’t want this fine paid. I don’t think I can take it.” “If anyone offers us money – we take it!” declared his senior. A few hours later, the Reverend Sidney Spencer was a free man.


My father reimbursed me, from what source I do not know. Possibly he unlocked the coffer of the Hope Street Church Ancient Victorian Secret Society!

A Vestige of Protestant Dissent – in Antrim town

Lots of towns now have heritage trails and in many places in Northern Ireland Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches feature on the itinerary. Not so long ago I was interested to pick up a copy of the Antrim Town Heritage Trail published by Antrim Borough Council. Here I found a reference to the original Antrim congregation. Although the building closed for worship in the 1970s it dates back to the year 1700 and so it was no surprise to see it featuring as part of the town’s heritage. What was surprising though was the building that featured next to it on the list. You could be forgiven for overlooking this because it is known locally, and named in the text, as ‘Castle Puff’. Yet this was apparently, at one time at least, the manse for the NSP church. The blurb went on:


This is an imposing three-storey building which was built as the manse for the nearby Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Guests who were not quite elegant enough to stay at Antrim Castle were lodged at the manse. In the opinion of the townsfolk, they were sufficiently puffed-up to lodge at the ostentatious Castle Puff.


Castle Puff Antrim 01

There was no picture in the printed trail and so I went to have a look at the building. It certainly is one of the most imposing buildings in the whole area. But despite being the only three storey building in the locality it is still quite easy to miss because of the horrendous modern frontages that occupy street level. It is also unusual because it is not often that you see a manse that is actually bigger than the church but this building towers over the low rise meeting house. What one is to make of the claim that surplus guests at Antrim Castle were housed in the manse is anyone’s guess. It is not obvious why Lord Masserene should need to use the manse, even for the most pretentious of his potential house guests, nor why the unfortunate minister should be saddled with them! But it is fascinating to think of such a place being home to the minister and his family.


I don’t know when it was built or when it ceased to be used as the manse. A bit of searching on the internet reveals an undated but probably late nineteenth-century picture of the house being used for commercial purposes. The main entrance was situated under a porch supported by two substantial columns. These seem to have gone now but if you peer through the door of the taxi office you can see through to a light and airy hall and a substantial staircase.


The building has fallen on hard times now. The glory has long since departed. But here, once upon a time, erudite sermons were penned by the thoughtful minister in his well-stocked study; the staircase clattered with the sounds of the children of the manse; respectful servants moved about the building doing the bidding of the minister and his lady and – apparently – pretentious but insufficiently elegant surplus guests from Antrim Castle turned up for the weekend from time to time. If you are so minded you can still hear echoes of a Non-Subscribing past when you go in search of them.

Castle Puff Antrim 02

The Unitarian Van Mission – identifying the location of an old photograph

This photograph has been featured on the Unitarian Historical Society website for a number of years with the caption “Unitarian Van Mission in an unidentified town” and the suggestion that if anyone could identify it they should write in. Nobody ever has responded to the invitation so I thought I might post the picture here in the hope that someone might be able to suggest a likely location for where it was taken.

Click on the photograph to enlarge
Click on the photograph to enlarge

It shows the Unitarian Van Mission fully operational at some point early in the twentieth century – somewhere between 1906 and 1914. It is a fascinating picture: a minister (probably the Rev T.P. Spedding) stands in the van, a helper sits stiffly behind the literature table and a few other variously attired men appear amongst a large contingent of children, all of them quite well dressed and well shod. Had the children been brought out from some local chapel to see the van or did they just gather when they saw a photograph being taken?

But where was the photograph taken? It looks like a town square which should be identifiable to anyone who has sufficient local knowledge. Chances are the cobbled square no longer exists in anything like this form, even it didn’t get destroyed during the war the planners of the 1960s will have had some effect on the scene. I wonder – without any real evidence – if it was taken somewhere in the Midlands? Perhaps the chimney in the background just left of centre is suggestive of the Potteries? Behind the van can be seen a few shops – a tea merchant looks like it belongs to a Phillips & Co but it is not clear what Scales & Sons are selling immediately behind the ornate lamppost. On the right an unnamed shop sells buckets and similar items.

Can anyone identify the location of this photograph? It would be nice to know where it was taken.

It is an interesting photograph because it shows the van in action, with its stall set out, attracting a crowd. Postcards of the van itself are not difficult to find. Here’s a good example of one:

Unitarian Mission Van

This seems to show that there was even some sort of stove on board to keep the occupants warm and perhaps to make a cup of tea. The Van Mission began its first tour in 1906 and within a few years there were a total of six vans all paid for by generous donations and travelling around many parts of England, Wales and Scotland.

Unitarians often claim to have never had any interest in mission work, especially overseas, which is true up to a point. At home, however, they did experience a number of missionary impulses from the 1820s onwards and without the activities of some individuals and the contributions of a number of institutions would not have experienced any growth or development in the nineteenth century.

The Van Mission itself was a late flowering of Unitarian missionary endeavour in the years just before the First World War, something of a golden age for non-conformity and for more liberally minded religious groups. In a book, Open Air Theology and Sketches of the Unitarian Van Mission, the Rev H. Bodell Smith outlined the way the mission operated:

…this is not an ordinary mission movement. There is, of course, an utter absence of the appeals usually made at street ‘religious’ meetings. They are not invited to become ‘washed in the blood’; they are not told, ‘only believe and you will be saved’; there is not the slightest attempt to dictate to them what they must believe, with the alternative that otherwise they will perish ever-lastingly. The appeal is to their own reason and every-day experience. Hearers are asked to judge for themselves as to the truth of what is said to them. They are told frankly: “We do not say that you must believe as we do. You cannot believe to order. You can only believe according to the evidence that comes before your minds, that is, according to your light. We are here to give you such light as we have. We ask you to listen to what we have to say, and then leave it to you for what it is worth.”

I have never seen Open Air Theology and Sketches of the Unitarian Van Mission, this quotation comes from Rev John Roberts’ short but interesting article in the ‘Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society’ for 1978. In it he names T. P. Spedding as becoming the first missioner after resigning from his pulpit in Rochdale. He was joined by Bertram Taylor as the lay missioner, who possibly is the figure seated behind the desk. He volunteered to accompany the whole of the first tour of 1906 when the Van visited a succession of towns, generally staying for three days in each one, while visiting ministers conducted afternoon and evening meetings. A journey of 163 days apparently attracted a total of 24,516 hearers. Not a bad total at all.

As with so much else the First World War brought this particular enterprise to an end but it would be nice to know just where they were located when this picture was taken.


Rachel Eckersley has suggested that Scales is possibly a Yorkshire name and has found three boot manufacturers (which appears to be the trade the firm is engaged in according to the sign) which might fit the bill – in Leeds; Armthorpe, Doncaster; and Malton. She suggests Malton might be the most likely contender although it is hard to identify this as the definite location. Rachel has also found a Scales shop in Chesterfield although photographic evidence shows its location close to the crooked spire.