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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unitarian Mission Van

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

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

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

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

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

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


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