What do those stones mean to you? The 400th anniversary of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth

“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.

 

Ancient Chapel 25 November 04

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.

Ancient Chapel 25 November 03

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.

Ancient Chapel 25 November 16

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.

Faithfully,

Rev Patricia Brennan

Interim Minister

First Parish Dorchester

Massachusetts

Yo can read more about the Ancient Chapel via these links:

Then and now pictures

Richard Mather and the Ancient Chapel

Jeremiah Horrocks and the Ancient Chapel

Jeremiah Horrocks and the transit of Venus

Two views of a junction in Toxteth

This post has been made on the day of the 400th anniversary of Richard Mather’s first sermon in Toxteth.

With special thanks to Jim Kenny who devised the logo used for the 400th anniversary.

ACoT landscape logo

 

Chapels of England, Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity

Chapels of England, Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity, Christopher Wakeling, Historic England, 2017, hardback, 312 pages, ISBN 978-1-84802-032-0, £50

Review

Nonconformist chapels, churches and meeting-houses have attracted an increasing amount of interest in recent years. They are an important part of religious and cultural history and remain a notable part of the topography of cities, towns and rural areas. The foundation of the Chapels Society has been a major contributor to this growth in interest as well as a great variety of publications that tell the story from denominational, local history and architectural points of view. Christopher Stell’s substantial four-volume Inventory of Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-Houses in England provided an essential guide to chapels all over England, many of which had disappeared. Unitarians are fortunate to have Graham and Judy Hague’s The Unitarian Heritage An Architectural Survey of Chapels and Churches in the Unitarian Tradition in the British Isles, published in 1986 and still an indispensable source. Across denominations there has been an increasing awareness of the need to preserve this aspect of our history and where congregations have been unable to sustain some buildings the Historic Chapels Trust has taken over their maintenance. With the publication of this new book, Chapels of England, Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity, by Christopher Wakeling, we now have a beautifully illustrated scholarly account of the patterns of chapel buildings amongst all branches of nonconformity from separatist, pre-ejection times up to the twenty-first century.

Chapels of England

The author brings a thorough architectural appreciation of these kinds of buildings and relates their historical development to the different denominations, the streams of theological thinking and liturgical practice within each of them, local architectural traditions and influences, and the interplay between dissent and the patterns of church building and the use of different styles by the established church. As such it is a tremendously impressive guide to what is a complicated and diffuse subject. Christopher Wakeling is well versed in the varieties of attitudes found within the different churches and sects that built chapels outside of the Church of England. Apparently the total number of surviving examples of Nonconformist chapels is still around 20,000 today, which is a significant number of buildings of one particular type. Dr Wakeling shows how chapel building accelerated at different times, such as the second decade of the nineteenth century when an average of five new meeting-houses were built a week, so that “nonconformist chapels became as characteristic a part of the Regency scene as cinemas were of the 1930s  or supermarkets have become today” (page 73).

Not all dissenters deliberately chose that path. In the first chapter Dr Wakeling makes good use of the sermon preached by John Fairfax at the opening of the Ipswich meeting-house in 1700 when he stated: “Had we the liberty of those places [ie. the parish churches], we should seek no other” (page 2).

And the Ipswich meeting-house with its spiral turned balusters and carved doves and cherubs worthy of Grinling Gibbons is clear evidence that early dissenters (particularly Presbyterians) were not averse to decoration.

But the whole book is an impressively thorough examination of the development of different styles of buildings as theologies changed, as denominations developed, as political circumstances evolved and as economic opportunity came and went. For Unitarians the Dissenters’ Chapels Act gave an added impetus to the frequent nonconformist impulse to build on the grand scale. Dr Wakeling quotes the preacher at the opening of Hyde Gee Cross in 1848 (not named in the text but presumably Charles Wicksteed) as saying the new church was:

Asserting the right of a Dissenting Chapel to look like a parish church, and to be used as a parish church without the least danger of our worship being interrupted (page 128).

But not all nonconformity took this form. Some was uncompromisingly evangelical and required a vast preaching station or a massive complex of buildings surrounding a central hall. In villages and towns small, unobtrusive chapels continued to be built throughout the nineteenth century. The period after the First World War and on into this century has brought a whole new set of challenges. Dr Wakeling shows how different circumstances, both local and national, produced these changes in architecture and the different types of building. The book is also peppered with ‘boxed essays’ which explain some of the terms used or the role practices such as communion had in chapel building over time or features such as seating and graveyards. This helps make for a very complete treatment of the whole subject since what might otherwise be a dry account of architectural history is, rather, rooted in the cultural, theological and liturgical experiences of the people who built the chapels. Consequently the book is also a history of nonconformity told through its buildings.

The book is richly illustrated in colour throughout, with page after page of striking photographs of interior and exterior shots, this is a particularly appealing feature of the book. If I was going to be hyper-critical I would say that the full-page picture of the chancel of Ullet Road Church (page 204) is astonishingly dark and gloomy, it is a much better lit area than this photo suggests. But this is to nit-pick, it’s the only disappointing picture in the book, generally the photographs are sharp and detailed throughout and are a really strong accompaniment to the text.

The author provides a glossary of the various nonconformist groups referred to in the book and is clearly familiar with the ethos and history of each of them, moving assuredly from one tradition to another. Historic England should be commended for producing such an impressive book, it is destined to become an essential publication for anyone with an interest in this aspect of religious history.

This review appears in Volume 26, Number 4, April 2018 of the ‘Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society’.

See

https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2018/03/28/transactions-of-the-unitarian-historical-society-2018/

for details of how to subscribe.

 

Hugh Stowell Brown’s carte de visite

Following on the previous post on Hugh Stowell Brown we can add this image featuring his carte de visite. These were enormously popular aspects of life for the middle classes in the 1860s and represented an extension of portrait photography used more for collecting as keepsakes rather than as part of the niceties of Victorian social encounters as the name might indicate. They were seldom named and were probably kept more by families and, in the case of celebrities, by fans who liked to amass collections. This was probably as true for clergy as for other minor celebrities and one suspects that many members of Myrtle Street Chapel will have been quite proud of the cdv of their minister that they were able to stick into their album or lean on the mantelpiece.

 

hsbrowncdv01

 

This is quite a characterful study of the Rev Hugh Stowell Brown. It shows what a good job was done by the creator of the statue that was set outside his chapel some years later. He could almost be wearing the same coat. The card was produced by E. Swift & Son of 126 Bold Street, Liverpool and is quite a minimalist picture. Almost certainly this will have reflected Mr Brown’s own taste. Most of E. Swift & Son’s cartes feature other objects dragged in to add variety to the picture. Sometimes the curtain was removed to reveal a trompe l’oeil painting of a window and some plants. It’s probably better covered up to honest. He also eschewed the selection of decorated urns and Corinthian pillars that many liked to lean on for their photo shoots in Swifts and also didn’t need the Abbotsford chairs that were wheeled out from time to time. Perhaps wisest of all he didn’t use the cut-out ballustrade that sometimes appears behind the subject. Only the distinctive and perhaps slightly gaudy carpet detracts from the sober no-nonsense image.

So Hugh Stowell Brown created a carte de visite that managed to express quite a lot about who he was. He looks every inch the respectable and respected Baptist pastor, without adornment, and with integrity and a seriousness of purpose that could not be doubted.

Hugh Stowell Brown and Myrtle Street Chapel

It is nice to see the statue of the Rev Hugh Stowell Brown beautifully restored and re-erected on Hope Street, just around the corner from the location of his old church where he stood for many years. It is a slightly less edifying view for him now, gazing as he does at the main entrance of the Philharmonic pub, he formerly looked across the road towards the Philharmonic Hall itself. But for many years he stood at the end of Princes Avenue, caught in mid-sermon, notes in hand, looking into the entrance of Princes Park.

hsbstatue

 

It is remarkable that the statue should be rescued and so well restored, having been taken down in 1982 and left to decay in a council yard for decades. But all credit to those who repaired it. You can read a bit more about the restoration of the statue, including before and after pictures of the sculpture, on the site of the restorer:

http://www.robersonstonecarving.co.uk/restoration-hugh.html

 

Hugh Stowell Brown was one of the giants of the pulpit in nineteenth-century Liverpool, minister of Myrtle Street Baptist Chapel from 1847 up to his death in 1886. Politically engaged (with a radical streak – he was president of the Liverpool Peace Society, established a savings bank for the poor and attempted to break down class barriers in his preaching) he was recognised on a national stage by his denomination and by wider society. He was a great success in Myrtle Street, causing the chapel to be enlarged and on his death what must be the only statue of a nonconformist minister in the city was erected in front of his church and paid for by public subscription.

hsbmyrtlestreet

 

The place of Myrtle Street in the life of Liverpool is illustrated by some remarks by B. Guinness Orchard in his 1893 collection of civic biographies Liverpool’s Legion of Honour. While discussing ‘Our Local Society’ he inevitably gets round to the place of religion and has some remarkably candid assessments of the role of the great dissenting chapels in the city as sources of capital and, indeed, a spouse:

 

It is impossible to view social life without reference to Churches and Chapels especially those Nonconformist ones where there is deliberate effort to occupy the attendants so as to make them intimately acquainted. For a vast number of respectable, intelligent, fairly prosperous families the chapel is the only social centre; its meetings the only approach to amusement, its friendships the chief road to desirable marriage, and often the chief source of prosperity in business. A steady young man commencing life in Liverpool, without capital or good friends, cannot do better for his own business future than by joining and becoming active, useful and respected in a large dissenting congregation. Whoever knows intimately the ways by which such have again and again secured public positions, or obtained capital when a good opening presented itself, or found a generous supporter in a sudden emergency – whoever has enquired what brought excellent maidens and excellent youths into happy wedlock, while thousands of others loudly complain that no choice of acquaintance is open to them, will confirm this. Scores of instances will at once occur to attendants at Great George Street Independent, or Myrtle Street Baptist, or Sefton Park Presbyterian, or Grove Street Wesleyan Chapel; though the matter is much too private for names to be mentioned here.

 

This paragraph is actually a prelude to a longer discourse on “the most influential sectional meeting place in Liverpool” which he declared to be Renshaw Street Unitarian Chapel. But the whole chapter is indicative of the importance of nonconformist chapels in the life of the city in the late nineteenth century. It is hard to imagine today Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian or Unitarian churches being either so large or so influential. But some of them, often under the leadership of charismatic and very high profile ministers, were places of some significance in a city which was then at the high point of its own economic success.

 

Nothing today really remains of Myrtle Street Baptist Chapel, except the statue. The congregation clearly had an eye for tasteful commemorative china as can be seen by examples of what they produced to celebrate the opening of the chapel in 1844:

hsb-msb-crockery

 

The church had been formed by members of Byrom Street Chapel in 1800 and opened their own meeting house on Lime Street in 1803. This was taken down in 1844 by which time they were prosperous enough to move to Myrtle Street. Hugh Stowell Brown was called as a young and inexperienced minister after a preaching a sermon which he considered both poor and embarrassing. Although the chapel was fairly new he did not appreciate the interior, finding the chandeliers somewhat threatening:

 

Those who never saw them have reason to be thankful that they have been spared the sight of one form of ugliness which it would be hard to equal. Those chandeliers were like nothing else in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. I do not know to whose singular genius the chapel was indebted for them. How shall I describe them? Nay, they are indescribable. Had one of them been hung outside the chapel I don’t believe that any horse in Liverpool could have been persuaded to approach within a hundred yards of it. I will only say that one of them, the central one, weighed, I believe, a couple of tons. It was made fast to a windlass in the garret, and people who were rather nervous, and had a regard for their safety, very properly declined to sit beneath it, for had the chain snapped, it would have crushed through people, pews and floor, not stopping until it had buried its victims in earth. Another of these monsters not quite so heavy was hung right over the pulpit, and although I am not a particularly nervous man, I preached for years with the unpleasant thought that my life hung by a rapidly-rusting chain, and that one day I might be jammed into a mince-pie in the pulpit, in the very sight of a terrified and mourning congregation.

 

But despite this he received a call and under his ministry the chapel was extended and renewed on several occasions. Not only that it was involved in establishing nine new causes around Merseyside including Princes Gate Baptist Chapel in 1881 which no doubt was the reason for the relocation of his statue near that building in 1954, some years after the closure of Myrtle Street.

 

Princes Gate was far less ornate than Myrtle Street but it too is now long gone, having been demolished in the late 1970s. But, for the sake of completeness, here are the exterior and interior views of Princes Gate Chapel:

hsbprincesgateext

Princes Gate exterior. The statue stood just opposite in the centre of the boulevard.

hsbprincesgateint

Princes Gate interior

Presbyterian Church, Grosvenor Square

Like the photograph of Platt Chapel in the previous post this picture did not come cheap but it is a very rare, relatively early picture of a long vanished church. I can’t find any other picture of this church as good as this online.

The Scotch Presbyterian Church was situated on Grosvenor Square, near the top of Oxford Road in Manchester, an area that has long been colonised by academic buildings although the square still exists as a small green space. In the centre of the square stood All Saints’ Church and the Presbyterian Church was on the far side of the square, on Lower Ormond Street, the road parallel with Oxford Road. Both churches are long gone the Presbyterian Church ending its days in the 1950s as a wallpaper shop and later as a paint shop before demolition in the early 1970s. All Saints’ was damaged in the blitz.

In the foreground of the picture the graves seen there form part of the church yard of All Saints’ Church. It is an untidy looking area in the picture – there are two lifeless looking trees, denuded of leaves and branches, and the gravestones stand in the middle of a scruffy no-man’s land which is covered in either sand or bare earth amidst clumps of grass. Was it taken in the middle of some building work or renovation or did it always look a mess? Either way it is nothing to do with the Presbyterian Church other than it crops up in the foreground of the picture.

There is a very full set of records for the congregation deposited in Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives. Amongst these the Communicants’ roll books begin in 1832 which suggests a foundation of that date. The pew rents/seat lettings books begin in 1850 when the church was opened for worship, the foundation stone of the new building having been laid on 17th September 1849.

Grosvenor Presbyterian MLIA

An architectural drawing of the church at the time of its opening (Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives)

 

The church closed in 1940 and merged with Withington Presbyterian Church to form Withington Grosvenor Presbyterian Church further out of Manchester. This congregation closed in 1971 to form Grosvenor St Aidan’s Presbyterian (later URC) Church in Didsbury (now called simply Didsbury United Reformed Church).

The photograph is quite small, it only measures about 8 cm by 6 cm, but it is very sharp and very old. The sister photograph that shows Platt Chapel dates from before 1874 so there is no reason to date this one to any other period. But here it is, the oldest photograph of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, Grosvenor Square, Chorlton-on-Medlock. Long vanished but preserved in this little study, a very precise architectural photograph taken on a sunny day sometime in the middle of the reign of Queen Victoria.

Grosvenor Square 04

The original photograph attached to its card

 

Google Street View, from a position along Oxford Road just past Manchester Metropolitan University, shows this view looking towards where the church once stood. It would have been visible beyond the trees on the other side of the square (now called ‘All Saints Park’).

Grosvenor Square Google Maps Streetview

Google Street View – Oxford Road

 

No pictures or text may be reproduced from this site without the express permission of the author.

 

Thy return posterity shall witness, years must roll away, but then at length the splendid sight again shall greet our distant children’s eyes

Back in August I wrote about the short but significant life of Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641) and his connection with the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth. You can read the post here:

 

https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/jeremiah-horrocks-1618-1641/

 

Jeremiah Horrocks is interesting for a variety of reasons but it is a curious fact that as a scientist he has collected memorials in at least four churches around the country, including the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth in Liverpool and Westminster Abbey.

 

As I also mentioned in my last posting on this topic there are a number of other memorials and commemorations of him in different places, all of them dating from long after he lived. One of the most recent and impressive is near the Pier Head in Liverpool. This is an exciting installation, well-sited in front of the Liver Buildings amongst the ever-growing collection of statuary and memorials that is accumulating there.

 

Horrocks 04

 

Entitled Heaven and Earth and created by Andy Plant the work was installed in 2011. The base is inscribed with the words:

 

Thy return posterity shall witness, years must roll away, but then at length the splendid sight again shall greet our distant children’s eyes

a quotation from Jeremiah Horrocks’ posthumously published book on the transit of Venus.

 

Horrocks 02

 

The work is both a sculpture and an orrery. Andy Plant (http://www.andyplant.co.uk/recent-work/) himself describes Heaven and Earth in these terms:

The sculpture has a working hand powered mechanical orrery, the position of Venus has been replaced by a copper angel version of Jeremiah and as his wings flap he orbits the other planets. Inside the large telescope there is a video animation of the life of Jeremiah by Tim Hunkin.

 

Horrocks 05

 

Unfortunately when I visited the sculpture on a crisp January afternoon this year none of these features were working. They may not have been intended to function beyond the time of the original exhibition of which the sculpture formed a part, I don’t know. But Tim Hunkin is something of a genius and it is great to think that some of his work is part of the installation. In fact you can read about how Tim Hunkin created A Short Life of Jeremiah Horrocks and see the animation on his own website here:

 

http://www.timhunkin.com/a151_sawmill%20animation.htm

 

Heaven and Earth is another exciting addition to the Liverpool waterfront, and another fitting memorial to a remarkable person.

Horrocks 01

Chowbent Chapel

The building of Chowbent Chapel in 1722 speaks volumes for the determination of Lancastrian dissent in the early eighteenth century. Having retained possession of the chapel of ease after the ejections of 1662 it wasn’t until the 1720s that the local landlord managed to expel dissenters from the essentially Anglican chapel, allegedly because of the part played by the minister ‘General’ James Wood and his congregation in suppressing the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

The eighteenth-century three decker pulpit
The eighteenth-century three decker pulpit

 

The new chapel was built on land owned by the Mort family who appear to have been generous supporters and benefactors and who had a great importance in Lancashire non-conformity in general. But the chapel, to me at least, always has something of the sense of a fortress about it – the solid, square walls, the ancient oak pillars, the studded door into the church, the large memorial to ‘General’ Wood above the pulpit.

But it is also full of interesting details that would be easy to miss. There is a large amount of stained glass but I had forgotten about the appearance of an image of the chapel itself in the window depicting Jesus and the children. The three decker pulpit is incredibly impressive and with the traditional pulpit cushions very much looks the part still. You can’t miss the pulpits and reading desk but you might miss the small section of panel cut out from behind the top pulpit. Here it was said they had to make space for the door to open wider in order to admit the well-fed frame of the Rev Thomas Belsham when he visited in the nineteenth century!

 

The Victorian stained glass window featuring the picture of the chapel
The Victorian stained glass window featuring the picture of the chapel

 

It has been some years since I was last at the chapel and I had a recollection of seeing the grave of the Rev John Taylor laid flat in the grounds of the chapel. John Taylor being the first Tutor in Divinity at the Warrington Academy. But this is not the case – John Taylor is certainly buried there but his gravestone was removed when the front of the church was extended to make way for the organ and vestibule in 1901. There is however, a touching memorial to him and his wife.

 

Memorial to John and Elizabeth Taylor
Memorial to John and Elizabeth Taylor

 

The reason for my visit in January was to be part of the congregation to celebrate 25 years of ministry by the Rev Brenda Catherall and I was delighted to play a small part in that special service. Brenda has been minister there since 2007 following ministries in Bank Street, Bolton and Monton and has given 25 years of devoted service to the Unitarian ministry and touched the lives of a great many people through her outstanding work. There is something so appropriate about her ministry in the congregation in which she grew up and which has always had a special place in her affections.

 

Rev Brenda Catherall in the pulpit
Rev Brenda Catherall in the pulpit

 

The chapel encapsulates the proud tradition of dissent and non-conformity in the town and it is so encouraging to see the congregation in such good heart and in such good hands.

 

The studded door from the vestry to the chapel
The studded door from the vestry to the chapel

Ordination and Induction at Ullet Road

It was a tremendous privilege and pleasure to take part in the induction and ordination of the Rev Philip Waldron as minister of Ullet Road Church, Southport and Wirral Unitarians as part of the Merseyside Partnership at Ullet Road on Saturday, 9th January.

 

Rev Phil Waldron in the chancel
Rev Phil Waldron in the chancel

 

It was an impressive service that drew on the traditions and ethos of Unitarianism on Merseyside and which resonated effectively with the august building that is Ullet Road Church. It is testimony to the high regard in which Phil is held by his colleagues that so many ministers took part and that so many people were present. The music supplied by the organ and the singing by the choir Liverpool Voices were also of a very high standard and added greatly to the service.

 

Refreshments after the service in the hall
Refreshments after the service in the hall

 

Ullet Road is certainly one of the most remarkable sets of buildings within the Unitarian tradition in England and ranks highly amongst all branches of dissent. The hall, designed by Percy Worthington and built slightly later than the Church at the start of the twentieth century, is a delight in itself. On occasions such as this (with appropriate winter decorations left over from a wedding) it really comes into its own with the feel of something like a medieval hall, not least because of the open fire that provides such a focus.

 

The fireplace in the hall which stands beneath the Arms of Sir John Brunner and Sir Henry Tate
The fireplace in the hall which stands beneath the Arms of Sir John Brunner and Sir Henry Tate

 

In the course of his own statement Phil quoted the Rev Stanley Mellor, the highly successful minister of Hope Street Church in the first half of the twentieth century, which encapsulates some of his own aspirations for ministry:

 

“[the purpose] of the Christian religion, is the awakening of the soul to the discovery of its own eternal character, the conversation of the heart to knowledge of its other-worldly destiny and duty.

 

The congregation are much blessed to possess such a building that reflects this quest so effectively and Merseyside District can look with satisfaction upon such an auspicious start to a new ministry.

Jeremiah Horrocks 1618 – 1641

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.

A Victorian depiction of Jeremiah Horrocks observing the transit of Venus
A Victorian depiction of Jeremiah Horrocks observing the transit of Venus

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.

The staied glass window at Hoole Church and the title page of Horrocks' posthumous work
The stained glass window at Hoole Church and the title page of Horrocks’ posthumous work

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.

Richard Mather
Richard Mather

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.

The Memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks in the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth
The Memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks in the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, Liverpool

From Rational Piety to Music Hall

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 reverse of the token
The reverse of the token

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.

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Close up of the Chapel

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.”

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Detail of the tower

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.

An example of the coin with the letter 'H' stamped on it
An example of the coin with the letter ‘H’ stamped on it

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.

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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)