Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society December 2020

An additional special issue of the Transactions is now on its way to subscribers (new subscribers are also very welcome, if you would like to join go to the Unitarian Historical Society website here).

This issue features:

WILLIAM HAZLITT, JOSEPH PRIESTLEY AND THE ORIGINS OF UNITARIANISM
IN AMERICA
by STEPHEN BURLEY

The “dark, cracked, dusty and unframed” portrait of the Rev William Hazlitt (1737-1820) painted by his son in 1805. (Image and quote from ‘The Day-Star of Liberty William Hazlitt’s Radical Style’ by Tom Paulin)
Rev Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Portrait by Ellen Sharples (Source: Wikipedia)

Dr Stephen Burley’s paper is a radical reassessment of the role of William Hazlitt in the development of Unitarianism in the United States. A difficult man, Hazlitt was a fervent propagandist for Unitarianism whose contribution has frequently been overlooked or downplayed. This article adds a great deal to our understanding of him.

Rev William Hazlitt, from a miniature portrait by his son John (Source: Wikipedia)

‘STEADFAST THROUGH TROUBLES’: MOUNTPOTTINGER AND THE LAWRENCES
by SANDRA GILPIN

Ellen Mary Lawrence, from a portrait in Mountpottinger Church. (Photo: Adrian Moir)
Plaque in the schoolroom in Mountpottinger Church in memory of Ellen Mary Lawrence (Photo: Adrian Moir)

Sandra Gilpin tells a story that weaves together Unitarian life in London, Wales and Belfast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the lens of the Lawrence family. Its main focus is Ellen Mary Lawrence who was born in London and who married the Rev William Jenkin Davies. She died at a tragically young age and her memorial forms part of Mountpottinger NSP Church in east Belfast.

Mountpottinger Church before the extension was added in memory of Ellen Mary Lawrence and probably featuring Rev William Jenkin Davies standing in the centre. To read more about the building of Mountpottinger click on the above image.

HELEN K. WATTS – A UNITARIAN SUFFRAGETTE
by ALAN RUSTON

The daughter of an Anglican vicar, Helen K. Watts became a Unitarian in Nottingham (Picture: Alan Ruston. From a booklet by Rowena Edlin-White, Nottingham Women’s History Group, Piecemeal Pamphlets, £2)
Plaque unveiled in Nottingham on 14 December 2018 in memory of Helen K. Watts (Picture: Alan Ruston. From a booklet by Rowena Edlin-White, Nottingham Women’s History Group, Piecemeal Pamphlets)

Alan Ruston brings together two sides of the life of Helen K. Watts. A ‘stalwart’ Unitarian, well-known in London and Sussex up until her death in 1972. She was also an active suffragette between 1907 to 1911 who was arrested for her campaigning and threatened with force feeding. This remarkable aspect of her life seems to have been forgotten in Unitarian circles and Alan paints a full picture of her life and achievements.

(Picture: Alan Ruston. From a booklet by Rowena Edlin-White, Nottingham Women’s History Group, Piecemeal Pamphlets)

In our Record Section Derek McAuley has used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover hitherto unknown aspects of the life of the Rev Gábor Kereki (1914-1995) who fled Hungary for Britain at the start of the Cold War in 1947. Throughout the rest of his life he made a great contribution to the Unitarian ministry in Britain and this will continue thanks to a substantial legacy left by his wife in 2016. She has established the ‘Gábor Kereki Trust’ to benefit ministers and students of the Hungarian Unitarian Church and enable them to study in the UK.

In our Reviews Derek McAuley begins what must be a long-overdue examination of the role Unitarians played in slavery prior to its abolition in 1833 with his review of Kate Donnington’s brand new book on the Hibbert family. Alan Ruston reviews the important Lindsey Press book Unitarian Women A Legacy of Dissent, edited by Ann Peart, and Andrew Hill reviews a new publication of the diaries of James Losh, a Newcastle Unitarian who observed and recorded detailed changes in nature, the environment and weather in his local area between 1803 and 1833.

Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society

Volume 27 Number 3 December 2020
Edited by David Steers

is now available. An annual subscription costs £10. Contact the treasurer via our website to join: https://www.unitarianhistory.org.uk/hsmembership4.html

The Warrington Academy

 

On a recent visit to Warrington I realised that I had been in the town many times but had never knowingly seen the famous Academy, or what remains of it. Famously the Academy was physically moved on rollers to preserve it after road widening in the early 1980s. I hadn’t realised, however, that this careful and no doubt expensive feat of engineering had not prevented it being demolished and rebuilt with hardly any original features in the 1990s.

 

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Two plaques still stand on either side of the entrance of what is left of the Academy. One commemorates the Academy, and another which is difficult, if not impossible, to read, was deciphered for me by Luke who tells me it recalls Arthur Bennett. The wording of the plaque is recorded on the Open Plaques site (http://openplaques.org/)  as being:

A poet who had dreams and to his dreams gave life. Arthur Bennett 1862-1931 Honorary Freeman and Alderman of the Borough of Warrington Mayor 1925-1927 A founder and president of the Warrington Society, the members of which erected this tablet in recognition of his services to the town he loved.

Clearly very proud of his Warrington heritage Arthur Bennett’s poem on eighteenth-century prison reformer, humanitarian and Warrington citizen ‘John Howard’ concludes with a stanza on his friendship with Dr John Aikin, son of one the founding tutors of the Academy and brother of Anna Laetitia Barbauld:

Then to “the Doctor’s, whom he loved so well,
Past the still halls with Memory’s laurels wreathed,
The sacred “seats where Science loved to dwell
Where liberty her ardent spirit breathed”.
The day’s work tested, he would journey home
To take his simple cup of tea and creep
Up the quaint old stairs in the familiar gloom,
Content to catch four fleeting hours of sleep.

I am sure Anna Laetitia’s poems relating to the Academy are better known today, one of her earliest poems discussed its educational role:

 

The Muses here have fixed their sacred seats.

Mark where its simple front yon mansion rears,

The nursery of men for future years!

Here callow chiefs and embryo statesmen lie,

And unfledged poets short excursions try….

Here Nature opens all her secret springs,

And heaven-born Science plumes her eagle-wings.

 

The Open Plaques site also tells me there is a plaque for Joseph Priestley in Warrington which I didn’t realise. He was perhaps the most eminent of all the staff of the Warrington Academy and another subject that inspired Anna Laetitia to poetry, writing to tease Priestley after she found a mouse caught in a trap which was destined to be a part of his experiments on air. She wrote:

 

O hear a pensive prisoner’s prayer,

For liberty that sighs;

And never let thine heart be shut

Against the wretch’s cries!

 

For here forlorn and sad I sit,

Within the wiry grate;

And tremble at the approaching morn,

Which brings impending fate.

 

If e’er thy breast with freedom glowed,

And spurned a tyrant’s chain,

Let not thy strong oppressive force

A free-born mouse detain!

 

The cheerful light, the vital air,

Are blessings widely given;

Let Nature’s commoners enjoy

The common gifts of Heaven.

 

One of the things you notice when you visit Warrington is that even if the original building of the Academy has not been preserved its story is still valued in the town. An advertising hoarding promoting the town outside the Golden Square shopping centre makes use of the image of the first Academy:

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I am not sure what the date 1775 is meant to commemorate. It may be an error for the date of foundation in 1757.

The most notable feature of the modern Academy building is a large statue of Oliver Cromwell. This was put up in 1899 although I am not sure if this was the original site.

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Nantwich Unitarian Chapel

Willaston School Nantwich was created through the will of Philip Barker who lived at the Grove, a house originally built by his brother in 1837. It’s clear also that Philip Barker and his brothers were the main supporters of the Unitarian Chapel, their vision – and financial contribution – seems to have been what maintained what was otherwise quite a weak cause.

 

Nantwich 1950s

The chapel and associated buildings, probably dating from the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Andrew Lamberton

 

I found myself in Nantwich once, almost by accident, and carried out an ineffective and inevitably fruitless search for anything left of the Chapel. If I had checked The Unitarian Heritage book first I would have known that it was long demolished (in 1969), eventually meeting, it would appear, quite a sad end. However, the town of Nantwich is fortunate in having a very active History Group (which published Willaston School Nantwich – see the two previous posts) and through the kind help of Andrew Lamberton – who supplied me with a number of fascinating images and other information –  I’ve been able to piece together something of the history of the congregation that was once served by Joseph Priestley.

 

The congregation dated from the ejection and registered a former malt-kiln on Pepper Street as a meeting house in 1689. Between 1725 and 1726 they built the Chapel on Hospital Street.

 

The lively painting of the interior on this page was painted in 1942 by George Hooper as part of the ‘Recording Britain’ series of images, held in the V & A which describes the scheme in the following way:

The ‘Recording Britain’ collection of topographical watercolours and drawings [was] made in the early 1940s during the Second World War. In 1940 the Committee for the Employment of Artists in Wartime, part of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, launched a scheme to employ artists to record the home front in Britain, funded by a grant from the Pilgrim Trust. It ran until 1943 and some of the country’s finest watercolour painters, such as John Piper, Sir William Russell Flint and Rowland Hilder, were commissioned to make paintings and drawings of buildings, scenes, and places which captured a sense of national identity. Their subjects were typically English: market towns and villages, churches and country estates, rural landscapes and industries, rivers and wild places, monuments and ruins. 

 

It’s an interesting choice of subject and shows the pulpit with memorials to Joseph Priestley and Philip Barker on either side. You probably wouldn’t guess from the painting but the interior had been completely re-ordered. The chapel had been turned through 180 degrees and the pulpit placed on a false wall with a vestibule and ancillary rooms located behind it. Andrew Lamberton has supplied me with this plan of the interior of the remodelled chapel (from the Cheshire Record Office):

 

Nantwich plan

Plan of the interior c.1850 (Cheshire Record Office)

Strangely this plan does not show the pulpit which would have been in the centre of the wall on the right hand side of the drawing as we look at it. Opposite it is an area described as ‘orchestra’ on the plan. Is this meant to imply some instrumental accompaniment for hymns or would it be the place for the choir? Philip Barker’s pew can be seen in the top left hand corner.

 

The major repairs that resulted in the re-ordering of the interior took place in 1846-49 according to Christoper Stell’s Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England (1994). His plan of the interior can be compared with the one above. By 1850, however, it was not a large congregation as this subscription list, also supplied by Andrew Lamberton from the Cheshire Record Office, shows

 

Nantwich subscribers

Subscribers List 1850 (Cheshire Record Office)

The chapel was clearly very dependent on the Barker family and the Rev J Morley Mills, minister at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, recorded that it was known in those days as “Mr Barker’s Chapel”. By the time of the Second World War it was clearly at a very low ebb. Surviving photographs show the building in a very sorry state.

In 1896 a schoolroom had been built right in front of the chapel. This obscured the distinctive outline of the frontage with the Dutch style gables. However, Christopher Stell suggests this design may not have been original and could have been added in a rebuilding of 1870. Either way the Victorian schoolroom obscured the look of the chapel:

Nantwich 1960s

The chapel probably in the 1960s. Photo from Andrew Lamberton

Curiously The Unitarian Heritage carries a photograph of Nantwich chapel taken, presumably, after the school house had been demolished and showing the frontage as it had been built:

Nantwich UH

From The Unitarian Heritage

It seems a reasonable assumption to make that this photograph was taken at the start of the demolition process, after the Victorian school house had been taken down. However, if you compare this photograph and the previous one which dates from the 1960s it is clear that the two long windows are both intact and fully glazed and the stone work and frames around the window are no longer painted. Could this photograph actually date from a different period?

 

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has any more information and any additional photographs of the chapel, especially of the interior.

 

Andrew Lamberton has also sent me this newspaper cutting taken form the Nantwich Chronicle in about 1966 and indicating the sad end the chapel faced:

Nantwich Chronicle

From the Nantwich Chronicle c.1966

It is a shame that such a an unusual and interesting building was lost to the locality, one that had been thought significant enough to record for posterity during the  darkest years of the Second World War.

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The Presbyterian Unitarian Chapel, Nantwich; Recording Britain; Chapel, Hospital Street, Nantwich. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London