Images of Rev John Watson

 

In 1893 B. Guinness Orchard in Liverpool’s Legion of Honour declared the Rev John Watson to be “the successful pastor of the most important and active among our local congregations.” In (by his standards) fairly restrained prose Orchard outlined the minister’s achievements: every sitting in the church was let, the number of communicants had risen from 133 to 949, three new causes had been founded, £70,000 raised for congregational activities. The list of achievements was a long one and, Orchard added rather cryptically, “To his congregation his doctrinal teaching is quite acceptable”.

John Watson had already achieved a position of some eminence in his adopted city. In his twenty five years in the ministry at Sefton Park Presbyterian Church he also became centrally involved and prominent in civic life. But Orchard was writing just on the cusp of a new departure for John Watson; his first novel – Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush – was published in the following year. As Ian Maclaren he became a top selling novelist whose fame stretched around the English-speaking world.

As a clergyman/novelist he reached an extraordinary level of fame. He published theology under his own name which sold exceptionally well resulting in highly popular lecturing tours of the USA and honorary DDs from St Andrews and Yale.

As I have mentioned in a previous post

https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/rev-john-watson-ogdens-guinea-gold-cigarettes/

his fame was such that his image was reproduced on a cigarette card. It is a very small card but it is very cleanly printed.

jwogdengc

I recently discovered that a separate series of cigarette cards was also issued in Australia by Ogden’s in about 1905 which also included an image of John Watson. I don’t possess an example of this card although it was less well printed than the British one. It re-used a photograph taken by top London photographers Elliot & Fry. The same image was published as a postcard in the ‘Star Series’:

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There was a great demand for images of John Watson. Popular prints of him were sold but with the sudden impact of the postcard at the turn of the century his image became rather more widely diffused. Market leaders Rotary sold this postcard of John Watson:

jwrotary

Taken probably for a magazine in what is almost certainly the front room of the manse in Sefton Drive he leans against the fireplace in front of a picture of the Last Supper. It is interesting how the different aspects of his character blended into one. He was an effective and highly successful minister with extensive involvement in many aspects of local life and national church life. But he was also a much sought after author of popular novels. Yet although his novels are still in print and although something of a niche area are still read, his theology, which also sold in tens of thousands, is now forgotten.

His fame was tied up with his church. I have many examples of postcards of his church in Sefton Park, it was a popular subject. The one at the top of this post shows the church in the background but suggests the importance of its site on a main arterial route through the suburbs. Tram conductors would call out the name of the nearby stop as Dr Watson’s church and the detail on this postcard shows a tram stopped near the junction, its driver and conductor hanging around to be in the photograph:

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Another feature of all photographs of the exterior of the church is that someone (or sometimes two people) always stood in the middle of the road slightly to the right of the main gate. Was this something demanded by the photographers to give some idea of scale? It is strange how that space is always occupied. Sometimes by a young person staring at the camera other times by someone with their back to the camera and sometimes by a couple in animated conversation. But the title always takes the same form, it is ‘Dr Watsons’s Church’ or ‘Ian Maclaren’s Chapel’. The terms are used interchangeably even by local publishers Wrench.

The Walker Art Gallery has two contemporary portraits of John Watson but these are not on show and I suspect have never been on show. They are both striking examples of late nineteenth-century portraiture and can be found online. But his likeness still circulates on postcards and cigarette cards, a continuing reflection of his late Victorian and Edwardian fame.

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.

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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.

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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:

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

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Princes Gate interior