“But before he had spent so much time in Oxford as he could have wished that he might have done; the People in Toxteth, whose Children had been taught by him, sent to him, desiring that he would return unto them to instruct not so much their Children as themselves, and that not in meer Humane Literature, but in the things of God. This Call, after due Consideration, for weighty Reasons he accepted of. Being then returned to Toxteth, he Preached his first Sermon November 30. 1618. There was a very great Concourse of people to hear him, and his Labours were highly accepted of by the judicious.”
…part of the reading given by Beryl Black at the 400th anniversary service of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth on Sunday, 25th November. This section of the reading (from: The Life and Death of That Reverend Man of GOD, Mr. Richard Mather Teacher of the Church in Dorchester in New-England by Increase Mather, Cambridge Mass. 1670) was also reproduced on the back page of the printed order of service.
At the opening of worship (Photo: Sue Steers)
It was a tremendous occasion; well attended and enthusiastically received by all who were present. Readings were also given by Graham Murphy, Annette Butler and Leslie Gabriel while Cliff Barton played the organ.
Graham Murphy gives a reading (Photo: Sue Steers)
In addition to the above reading there were readings from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, from Robert Griffith’s The History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth, Liverpool (1907) and from Joshua ch.4 v.1-9 and John ch.4 v.31-38.
A message was also read from the First Parish Dorchester, Massachusetts, to which place Richard Mather, emigrated in 1635.
Reading the message from Dorchester (Photo: Sue Steers)
The message from Dorchester:
Dear Members of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth:
First Parish Dorchester sends you our heartfelt greetings and best wishes upon the occasion of your 400th anniversary of your founding. It is rare for us to know a Unitarian congregation older than ours, as we will not mark our 400th anniversary until 2030! Rev Richard Mather, your first minister and our third minister (1636-1669), certainly sowed good seeds in our two long-standing faith communities.
It may interest you to know that First Parish Dorchester established the oldest elementary public school in the United States, which is situated right next to the church- and it is called the Mather School!
In our weekly service, we have a time when we light candles of celebration or concern. This Sunday, November 25th, I will light a candle for the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, in celebration of your four centuries as a gathered community. We rejoice with you in spirit.
Rev Patricia Brennan
First Parish Dorchester
Yo can read more about the Ancient Chapel via these links:
Glen Huntley has posted another fascinating and informative piece on his blog, this time about three houses which once stood close to the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth. These are Elm House, Chapelville and Cooper’s Folly. All three houses long disappeared to make way for the Victorian Tram Sheds and the later twentieth-century extension. The Tram Sheds themselves were demolished in 1993. But you can read Glen Huntley’s excellent post here:
William Roscoe, the famous Unitarian and abolitionist is believed to have lived at Elm House, although his connection with this particular house doesn’t seem to have been proved conclusively. The ‘Dingle’ was the inspiration for one of his poems and he certainly did live locally at one point. He was definitely a member of the Ancient Chapel as well, I have the original ‘call’ issued to the Rev John Porter in 1827 and it includes William Roscoe’s signature.
The image is fully zoomable and gives some remarkable detail of the city in the middle of the nineteenth century. The city without the cathedrals, the Liver Buildings and some other landmarks has a different look to it and it is not always easy to find your way about. However, Glen has found the Ancient Chapel and Elm House, Chapelville and Cooper’s Folly and includes an annotated close up of that part of the picture similar to this one:
The tall church on the right is St Paul’s Church which is another place I intend to return to on this blog at some point. (The Ancient Chapel can be seen in the bottom left hand corner behind the stage coach).
But looking at the map I discovered another group of churches in Liverpool which must be a unique image of some long-lost buildings.
If you zoom in to the centre of the picture (and it is amazing how much detail can be uncovered there) you get this view:
It’s interesting because it shows a collection of now almost all vanished churches still clean and complete: unstained by the smoke and pollution that would gradually turn their stone work black and still with their towers and steeples.
At the centre of this scene is Hope Street Unitarian Church. Once the church of James Martineau and demolished in the 1960s. I blogged about Hope Street on a number of occasions but primarily here:
and again it is interesting to see a church looking clean and bright when every photograph of it shows it as black and grimy. The same is true of Canning Street Presbyterian Church in the bottom right hand corner of the image, also demolished in the 1960s and now the site of a modern German Church. To the left of this church is the Catholic Apostolic Church, still with its tower in place, a remarkable building, burnt down in the 1980s.
The long building without a tower in the bottom left corner is St Bride’s Church of England, still there today. St Bride’s can be seen in a rare film of 1901 on the BFI Player. Although the church is not identified it clearly is St Bride’s:
In the top left hand corner you can see Rodney Street Church of Scotland, a building saved from destruction but now flats, and just in front is St Philip’s Church Hardman Street, a ‘cast iron’ church like St Michael’s in the Hamlet which disappeared inside another building in 1882 only to be partly uncovered again when that building was knocked down in 2017! You can read about that remarkable discovery on this very interesting blog:
This exhibition runs at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery from 12 February to 5 June and I was glad to get the opportunity to see it. Anyone who has ever visited any of the galleries in Merseyside will have had the chance to see many of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite pictures and this exhibition brings many of them together, and more, and develops their story in the context of the wealthy patrons of the artists, many of which were Liverpool merchants.
It is interesting to see the paintings placed alongside the wealthy benefactors who bought or commissioned them. Frederick Leyland is described in the catalogue by Christopher Newall as exemplifying a:
new breed of Liverpool oligarch. Born into dire poverty (his mother hawked pies in the streets of Liverpool and was deserted by Leyland’s father, who was a shipping clerk), at a young age he was taken on as an apprentice at the Bibby Line. There, by sheer ruthless determination and with astonishing rapidity, he first became manager and designer of the steamships that formed the fleet and then in 1873 took control of the company.
In recent years the Speke Hall interlude of Frederick Leyland has come to the fore much more and I was pleased to see (for the first time although it is owned by the Walker Art Gallery) James McNeill Whistler’s sketch Speke Hall No 1 (1870) which shows Mrs Frances Leyland on the drive in front of Speke Hall. Also included is a painting by a lesser known artist, James Campbell (1828-93), The Courtyard at Speke Hall (1854) which was painted before the Leylands moved in but shows how it must have looked at the time, warmer and more colourful than the stark black and white over-restoration so beloved of the National Trust.
James Campbell also painted Waiting for Legal Advice (1857) which shows an older man accompanied by a young boy waiting to see a solicitor. The catalogue suggests the man is a “stubborn client” who sits in the ante room whilst two clerks gossip behind him. It is not the only interpretation that could be put on the look that runs across his face.
For me the paintings of William Holman Hunt always stand out. So we have The Scapegoat (1854-4), sent out to the wilderness to carry the sins of the congregation and standing on the salt encrusted shore of the Dead Sea, looking forlorn and fearful. Another painting from his period in the Holy Land is The Sphinx, Gizeh, looking towards the Pyramids of Sakhara (1854). It towers up like a sand blown natural feature in the desert, rich in layered colours.
Another fascinating painting by the same artist is The finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1862) which was owned by George Holt.
The finding of the Saviour in the Temple
Unimaginably rich in colour and detail it shows the holy family finally catching up with Jesus in the temple after realising they had left Jerusalem without him. Opposite Jesus in the picture sits a crowd of figures including a number of rabbis, representing the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Some of these are symbolically depicted in shadow while Jesus and his family stand in the light. The whole picture is replete with imagery and symbol. It is a smaller version of a painting which in 1866 claimed the most expensive fee ever paid to a living artist at that time. Such religious scenes were favourites of some of the Pre-Raphaelites although they ranged across mythology, history and other themes.
B. Guiness Orchard in Liverpool’s Legion of Honour (1893) describes George Holt as a member of a family that had “occupied and still occupy so great a place in Liverpool” and listed his commercial and philanthropic achievements:
The present George Holt, has emulated and equalled the father, University College having no more generous friend. To the Dock Estate he rendered great services. He acted as a magistrate for the borough and the county. From 1835-56 he sat in the Town Council, acting on the Library and Museum Committee, and as chairman of the Water Committee. His time and money were freely at the services of the Liberal cause in politics, while in business schemes outside his own office his enterprise and breadth of view were conspicuous, as when he joined Isaac Cooke and Adam Hodgson in establishing the Bank of Liverpool, or as when his fellow Unitarian, Swinton Boult, being anxious to form a great insurance company, turned for support to Mr Holt…[his] father arranged a partnership with young William James Lamport, son of a nonconformist minister…and the two established the firm of Lamport & Holt, shipowners and merchants, chiefly in the South American trade, which soon came to the front, and during many years has enjoyed the highest reputation alike for the extent of its operations and the unsullied honour and singular wisdom with which they are conducted.
Another painting owned by George Holt is Love’s Palace (1893) by John Milhuish Strudwick (1849-1937). Holt was a major collector of Strudwick’s work and this is an intriguing picture. The catalogue describes it like this:
The painting is an allegory of love based on a poem by the architect GF Bodley. Love is enthroned in the centre of the composition, while the three fates sit on the steps. Around them, as if on a stage, woman, knights and Amorini – the winged boys – enact love’s ups and downs.
The three fates are draped in dark, shroud like garments, they languidly spin or cast lots while the Amorini gambol around them. It’s a strange picture but what particularly fascinates me is that it was commissioned by George Holt. He was a genuine connoisseur and a very generous benefactor to the city but is this what really was inside his head? As he examined ship’s manifests, did his calculations for insurance, prepared his ships to sail for Buenos Aires, assembled his finances for the bank and planned the strategies for the Liberal party, was he actually lost in reverie for this imaginative picture of love and the random possibilities of fate?
In his excellent short article on Jeremiah Horrocks in the book Liverpool Unitarians Faith and Action Bernard Cliffe is very cautious about making too many definite assertions about his life. As Bernard puts it “an account of the life of the boy and the young man has to be a matter of conjecture, with the generous use of qualifying words.” The truth is we have very few hard facts about the life of this pioneer astronomer who died at the young age of 22. Inevitably though this hasn’t stopped others from drawing all sorts of conclusions about his life.
One of the things we do know for sure was the extent of his achievement as a youthful astronomer – indeed there are some parallels here with the life of Clyde Tombaugh who first identified Pluto in his 20s. Clyde Tombaugh now has a feature on Pluto’s surface named after him while Jeremiah Horrocks himself has been memorialized in a number of places since his initial observation of the transit of Venus across the Sun.
Horrocks’s discoveries were only published posthumously and, gradually, in the centuries after that, places – and churches – were keen to claim him as one of their own. But his scientific importance is pretty well established. Allan Chapman (in ‘Jeremiah Horrocks, the transit of Venus and the ‘New Astronomy’ in early seventeenth-century England’, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1990, 31) says that despite a scientific hagiography that has also built up around him “the plain fact [is] that his documented contributions to astronomy were formidable by any standard…he was one of the first men in England to grasp the significance of what was going on in contemporary European astronomy. Not only did he repeat many of the techniques of Kepler and Galileo, but he went on to develop the New Astronomy to produce conclusions which substantially advanced those of its continental founders” (pp.33-334).
A plaque in the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth records that Jeremiah Horrocks (or Horrox) “foretold, and was the first to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun’s disc on the 24. Nov. 1639”. But the plaque, which was put up in 1891, is, in fact, only one of four church memorials to him around the country.
Without doubt the best known of these is in Westminster Abbey erected opposite that of Isaac Newton (who had praised his work) in 1874 following a petition from the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society (actually inscribed on part of the marble monument to John Conduitt, who was married to the niece of Isaac Newton). Certainly the Abbey is a fitting place for a memorial to such a person. On it his scientific achievements are listed but it also states that he was “Curate of Hoole”. Now there is no doubt that Hoole is where Jeremiah Horrocks lived for a while and where he observed the transit of Venus. But there is no evidence that he was ever curate of Hoole, or indeed an ordained clergyman of any sort.
The Victorians were not slow to extend or embellish their assessment of his religious affiliations. The church at Hoole has its own memorials too including a Horrocks Chapel, memorial windows, a weather vane and a plaque, although the website of St Michael’s Church, Hoole now describes the text of this plaque as “largely fictional”.
Jeremiah Horrocks seems to have spent about a year in Hoole. Rather than being a curate or holding any position in the church he was probably a tutor to the children of a local family, in whose home he observed the transit of Venus. But there can be little doubt that he will have attended the church at Hoole while he was resident there. At the time there will have been little difference in the theological outlook of Hoole and the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth. Both were centres of Puritanism – comprising earnest, godly, and devout parishioners, in both places members being technically part of the Church of England (there was little leeway to be anything else at the time) but possessing a no-nonsense approach to faith and a fair degree of suspicion of ecclesiastical hierarchies. During his time there the church was still a just a chapel of ease and the curate (later rector) was eventually ejected for non-conformity.
Although no records of Horrocks’ baptism or burial survive he seems both to have been born and died in Toxteth where his family names illustrate the Puritanism of his background. The names of Horrocks and Aspinwall (his mother’s maiden name) were amongst those puritan settlers who arrived in Toxteth in the late sixteenth century and began clearing the hunting park and built the chapel. They were part of the group who called Richard Mather to be first their schoolmaster and then their minister. The same Richard Mather was reluctant to accept Episcopal ordination. He eventually did so but was alarmed after being ordained (so the story goes) when the bishop approached him and asked to speak to him in confidence. Fearing that some admonishment was imminent he was surprised instead to hear the bishop say “I have an earnest request unto you, and you must not deny me; it is that you will pray for me; for I know that the prayers of men that fear God will avail much, and such an one I believe you to be.” Despite this unusual alleged exchange with the bishop he was eventually suspended for nonconformity and subsequently left with many of his followers for New England.
It was probably here that Horrocks was educated and his religious opinions formed. From Toxteth he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a sizar, basically the lowest form of student life, working as a college servant alongside his studies. He left without taking a degree but developed a passion for astronomy while there and was soon manufacturing his own astronomical instruments. Members of the Horrocks family, quite probably including his father, were watchmakers which must have been an assistance in developing precision instruments.
But following his death on 3rd January 1641 two hundred and fifty years were to pass before the Ancient Chapel erected its own memorial in his memory.
But this is not the only church memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks in Liverpool. In 1826 Moses Holden, described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a “popular astronomer,” used the proceeds of one of his lectures to pay for the erection of a memorial tablet in St Michael’s in the Hamlet church in Aigburth, not far from the Ancient Chapel. It may well have been awareness of this tablet that encouraged the Unitarians to put up their own. Holden seems himself to have been a Methodist lay preacher but was on good terms with the established church. Nevertheless Jeremiah Horrocks can never have had any connection with St Michael’s in the Hamlet, since it was not founded until 1815.
Horrocks is commemorated in other ways too – additional memorials in Hoole and Liverpool; an observatory; an institute of the University of Central Lancaster – but it is curious how a variety of religious traditions have all sought to harness him for their own adornment. All of them have some claim on him but – in my view at least – it is the memorial that is the least known and acknowledged, the one in the Unitarian Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, that is most appropriate. Not because he was a Unitarian – because he wasn’t, such an idea would have been absurd to him. Not because he was a dissenter, because he wasn’t that either. As I have suggested his own views were almost certainly very strongly puritan and he held them within the context (technically at least) of the Church of England. But the little chapel in Toxteth Park was the place where he grew up and was educated. He was therefore part of a particular religious community founded in the last years of the sixteenth century and continuing ever since. The memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks was unveiled on Sunday, 11th October 1891, the minister, the Rev Valentine D. Davis preaching a sermon based on Genesis ch.1 v.1,3:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
I wonder how many Unitarian churches have their images engraved on the reverse of a coin? I only know of one example, it is not a particularly beautiful example of the medallist’s art but it is very interesting and tells an unusual tale.
The church in question is Paradise Street Chapel in Liverpool, now long demolished, indeed the whole street has disappeared under the shopping development known today as Liverpool One. But Paradise Street was built in 1791 and was a dissenting church of some importance in Liverpool at the time. In the nineteenth century no less a person than James Martineau became the minister – a fitting appointment to a congregation that was cultured, wealthy and influential. They had built their meeting house on the grand scale, with a central cupola it was octagonal with a classical frontage and adorned with elegant stone urns along the balustrade. Martineau arrived in 1832 and established a name for himself as a preacher, teacher and philosopher linking up with other prominent figures in Liverpool and the north west including John Hamilton Thom, Charles Wicksteed, and John James Tayler.
But partly through the changing environment around the old chapel, which had become more commercially orientated and less like an area the well-to-do might want to visit, and partly also because of the more devotional worship that Martineau introduced, the congregation felt a need to abandon their old church and build something new. Accordingly a grand gothic church was built on Hope Street and Martineau and his congregation departed to their new home, selling the old place off. (For Hope Street Church see my earlier post – the Church on Hope Street).
James Martineau and his congregation, perhaps out of financial necessity from building anew on an extravagant scale, showed little sentimentality in disposing of their old place of worship. Yet one can’t help suspecting that a man of such high-brow intellectual tastes as Martineau can hardly have approved of the new use to which the old chapel was now put. It was purchased by a man called Joseph Heath who intended to turn it into a music hall.
After the Unitarians left it in 1849 the spacious chapel, with its well-constructed gallery all built of the finest materials and to the highest standards, was converted into the Royal Colosseum Theatre and Music Hall. The pews were re-used for seating and one can see how a large chapel could easily be adapted for use as a theatre. However, Joseph Heath must have been an ingenious individual because he managed to turn Paradise Street into the first multiplex: there were twin auditoria for both a theatre and a music hall. According to The Liverpool Stage by Harold Ackroyd the theatre “presented what were described as full blooded dramatic plays for a patronage of mariners”, while the front part of the old chapel was converted into a music hall where variety performances were put on “well suited to the taste of those for whom Mr. Heath catered.”
One can’t imagine Martineau really approving of such an undignified end to his old church but there was greater indignity to come. The Colly, as it became known, was reputedly haunted, an association encouraged by the continuing presence of the chapel’s graveyard around the building. This also presented a practical advantage to the thespians. According to Harold Ackroyd again: …there was never any shortage of a skull during a performance of Hamlet. These were easily obtained, the artists’ dressing room, below the stage, formerly having been a grave vault, the artist had only to put his hand through an opening in the thin dividing wall, to seize hold of the grisly relic, as did Hamlet.
So it was the music hall owners who had the coin engraved with the unmistakable likeness of the Paradise Street Chapel. The Heath family owned the former chapel until about 1895 although it went through a number of refurbishments and changes of name in that time. But it remained known as the Royal Colosseum Theatre until 1875 at which time it was being run by Thomas Theodore Heath, Joseph’s son. Presumably this is the ‘T. Heath’ whose name is inscribed on the coin as the owner of the theatre. This would date the coin to the early 1870s when it functioned as an admission token for those eager for Victorian melodrama or the bawdy delights of an evening at the music hall. On the other side of the coin is a Liver bird, a belt and the name of the theatre. Some examples of the coins have a large letter ‘H’ stamped on them. I don’t know precisely what this indicated, at first I thought it was a reference to a seat or a row or an entrance but ‘H’ seems to be the only letter used in this way and it rather spoils the look of the engraving. Whatever meaning it had to the person at the theatre door this is now long forgotten.
By the late 1870s the theatre was said to be able hold 3,000 people, and must have been returned to a single auditorium, but at this stage in its history it was struck by a terrible tragedy. On the night of 11th October 1878, during a performance before a full house, a portion of the ceiling fell onto the pit and caused panic amongst the audience. Thirty-seven people were killed in the crush to escape and many more injured. Pictures in the Illustrated London News at the time show a building that was already extensively remodelled from the one that appears on the back of the token but it had fallen victim to the sort of tragedy that was not unknown in Victorian Britain. Following this the theatre was rebuilt, frequently renamed and continued in use up to the First World War. By then known as Kelly’s Theatre, it finally closed its doors in October 1916 and was sold to Cooper’s Ltd who used it as a warehouse for their greengrocery and restaurant business.
The whole story of Paradise Street Chapel and the Royal Colosseum Theatre was brought to a close by a German bomb during the blitz of 1941. Precisely how much of the building of 1791 had survived within the much enlarged edifice is hard to know but by then the building’s origins as a place of worship were hardly remembered. The link is maintained though by these little tokens which record a small element of theatre history and, almost by accident, help to preserve the image of a building that had a quite different history and purpose.
(This is an amended version of an article that first appeared in the ‘Inquirer’ 4 July 2015)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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 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 ActionEssays 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 firstname.lastname@example.org also available for purchase on Amazon