On Wednesday, 23rd March a group from the four Belfast Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches enjoyed an excellent visit to the Belfast City Cemetery. We were blessed by good weather, almost like a summer’s day, which showed off the whole site to its fullest advantage. Designed in the shape of a bell and opened in 1869 it has been the burial place of approximately 225,153 people ranging from the some of the poorest members of society, buried in paupers’ graves, to some of the wealthiest merchants, industrialists and businessmen of Victorian Belfast. Years of neglect and vandalism obscured the importance of the cemetery in the city’s history for a long time, but the remarkable work done by Tom Hartley on the graves and history of the cemetery, not least reflected in his book Belfast City Cemetery, has opened up the cemetery to a wider and appreciative public. It is good too to see the construction of a visitors’ centre and the restoration of some of the larger memorials. Tom Hartley has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and significance of the site and was our informative guide as he showed us round a large proportion of the original Victorian graveyard, so attractively laid out with the Belfast hills providing a dramatic backdrop. Tom made special reference to some of the Presbyterian and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian graves in the cemetery and we encountered the last resting places of some familiar figures from our tradition. Among others we saw the grave of Margaret Byers, the founder of Victoria College, and Elisha Scott, legendary Liverpool goalkeeper. Cemeteries are such important repositories of history: funeral monuments, grave inscriptions, memorial artwork all tell us a great deal and in this case Belfast City Cemetery provides a fascinating window into the growth, development and history of Belfast as a city. After the tour we had lunch at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich. Below are some images of what we saw:
A small but historically important liberal Christian denomination, the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church was born out of the interaction between faith and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. This act of worship includes this first part of a video series telling the history of the Church. In this film detailing the origins of the denomination in the Presbytery of Antrim in 1725, the work of John Abernethy, the Belfast Society, the influence of Glasgow University, and the Church’s place in a Europe-wide movement are all discussed.
The service is filmed at Downpatrick, a distinctive building of 1711, and one of the best examples in Ulster of a traditional T-shaped meeting house. The organist is Laura Patterson, who plays ‘Christ be our light’ and ‘The power of the Cross’. The reading is Isaiah ch.51 v.1-6.
You can see the service and the address on the history of the denomination in the following video:
Service of Worship from Downpatrick, including part one of the History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (available from 9.45 am on Sunday, 14th February)
At the end of February a meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society took place at the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Newry when the speaker was the Rev Dr John Nelson who spoke about the life and ministry of Rev Andrew George Malcom, minister at Newry from 1809 to 1823.
Rev Dr John Nelson addresses the Society
It is always an interesting church to visit, said to be one of the first Presbyterian churches in Ireland to adopt the Gothic style, designed by W.J. Barre in 1853, the first commission of the Newry-born architect then aged just 22. It was my task to introduce the speaker and I also made mention of the magnificent organ built in Belfast in 1806 for the Second Congregation, first played by Edward Bunting and sold to the Newry congregation in the 1920s. It was one of the first organs to be introduced to any dissenting congregation in Ireland and undoubtedly is the organ in longest continuous use in any Presbyterian church in Ireland. The Very Rev John Dunlop asked if there was any chance of hearing the instrument being played and church member Florence Berry kindly stepped up to give everyone the chance to hear it.
Florence Berry plays the organ
I have an example of a postcard of the interior of All Souls’ Church, Belfast which includes a partial view of the instrument in what was its second location:
I have blogged about this postcard and the ‘ghost’ in the picture in a previous post – Postcards from All Souls’.
By chance I recently became the proud possessor of an Edwardian postcard featuring the Newry church.
The card was posted in Newry on 12th August 1905 by ‘May’ to ‘Mr A.N. Jackson, 17 Scholar Street, Liverpool’. She said simply ‘This is a picture of our Church.’
I only know of eight or nine Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches which appear on postcards, although there are other oddities such as a postcard featuring the Newry manse from this era, although I don’t have a copy of it. The Newry card of the church is not particularly rare and this is not a wonderful example, bearing, as it does, a fair amount of foxing. But it is interesting nevertheless, complete with a knot of school age children standing at the corner of the road.
Closer inspection reveals that this little crowd might contain some of the Sunday School as the solitary figure a bit further to the right appears to be a clergyman. Since we can date this exactly to 1905 this would be the Rev George Vance Crook. After serving as a Wesleyan Methodist minister he changed denomination and ministered successively at the Unitarian Church, Taunton, then at Newry and Warrenpoint, then Cork and finally at Antrim where he had a long ministry from 1913 until his death in 1949. He had a kindly disposition and although in many ways a figure from the distant past in my first ministry in Belfast one member of the congregation could recall him very well from his Antrim days.
I took a picture of the exterior, complete with scaffolding, a couple of years ago:
An engraving of the church appears in an 1866 edition of The Christian Freeman, later also reproduced in Emily Sharpe’s 1901 Pictures of Unitarian Churches, one of only three Irish churches to appear there. It is reproduced at the top of this page.
One of the things that always catches the eye at Newry is the large model of a steam engine and its coach mounted high on the wall of the church hall. It was made by Mr Henning a church member who worked as a wheelwright in Newry railway station and who died in 1930. He bequeathed his model to the Newry Sunday School and it has been in the church hall ever since.
Robert Spears was a tireless propagandist for Unitarianism in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of his projects was the establishment in 1856 of The Christian Freeman, “a monthly journal devoted to religious, moral and social progress”. One of the novel features of this was that, from 1866, it was illustrated, at least to the extent that every issue carried an engraving of a Unitarian church or building. In January 1866 the editor promised that “during the present year our readers may expect in our pages every month one engraving at least of our largest churches.”
I have a bound collection of volumes 10 to 12 and in them most of these illustrations seem to have been produced by the same artist, although one is provided by the architect of a church (Southampton) and one other is signed ‘Macintosh’ which may be by a different engraver.
Most of the illustrations are exterior views and although Robert Spears promised “our largest churches” he didn’t stick to this and gives pictures of smaller congregations such as Pudsey, Styal or Dewsbury. Some of the churches illustrated are long gone, fallen by the way as congregations have closed or moved to newer premises or were destroyed in the blitz or by 1960s developers. But these illustrations are often very valuable because of a paucity of photographic or drawn records of the building concerned. So Matthew Henry’s Chapel in Chester lasted until the early 1960s but little survives that tells us as much about the building as Robert Spears’ engraving:
Glasgow’s magnificent St Vincent Street Church was demolished as recently as the 1980s but The Christian Freeman shows us how it was intended to appear:
Other chapels might have survived but are still under threat, such as Newington Green Unitarian Chapel which in October 2016 was added to Historic England’s latest register of English historical buildings and sites considered to be at risk. See: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/oct/21/feminism-birthplace-old-brighton-london-zoo-aviary-historic-sites-risk-endangered-english-heritage.
Interestingly then, as now, the media made a connection between the chapel and a woman writer. In 1866 it was Anna Laetitia Barbauld in 2016 Mary Wollstonecraft:
Knutsford also was identified with a particular writer in the form of Elizabeth Gaskell:
Probably the best known of the illustrations from The Christian Freeman of 1867 is that of Madras which has been reproduced many times:
But many of the illustrations were later reprinted in Emily Sharpe’s Pictures of Unitarian Churches published in 1901. This included pictures “nearly all of them printed from the wood-blocks lent by Mrs Spears, having been brought out by her late husband, at intervals, through several years, in the pages of the “CHRISTIAN LIFE” [also edited by Robert Spears] and “CHRISTIAN FREEMAN”.
In fact the illustration of Matthew Henry’s Chapel in Emily Sharpe’s book is inferior to that published in The Christian Freeman (although see Jim Nugent’s comment below) and some quite striking pictures such as the Norwich Octagon do not appear in the 1901 book:
Perhaps the wooden block had gone astray by 1901?
Many of the illustrations feature figures wandering nonchalantly into view. Not always quite to scale, Quality Street couples amble amiably by, and carriages and carts heave into view. The occasional street urchin appears on the scene and dogs, never on a lead, often show up as does one man on horseback:
Detail from the Memorial Hall, Manchester
Detail from Conigre Chapel. Trowbridge
They may not all be architecturally accurate and liberties are certainly taken with some of the views but taken together they are all a charming and valuable record of Unitarian buildings.