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

Willaston School “a public school education on modern lines”

The edition of Christian Life published to celebrate the centenary of the Trinity Act never fails to provide something of interest. Leafing through its pages the other day looking for something else I chanced upon the half page or so celebrating Willaston School. As with everything else in the whole issue it gives a celebratory account of the institution in question. I notice that the regular Sunday services were conducted by the headmaster or the Unitarian minister in Nantwich and that religious teaching in the school consisted of “instruction in the Bible, and in the history of liberal thought and religion”. The fees were £63 per annum although bursaries were available for the sons of ministers. It paints a positive picture of music, the classics, cricket etc. with every boy cultivating his own allotment in the twenty-four acres of grounds and “a resident staff of university men”.  It provided “a public school education on modern lines”. For those who could afford it, it was a golden age, the last days of the old order before everything was changed utterly by the First World War.

 

One of the things the recently published book Willaston School Nantwich edited by Andrew Lamberton and published by Willaston and District History Group brings out is how heavily militarised the school became after the war started. There is nothing unusual in that but nearly every boy and member of staff became a member of the Army Cadet Corps and many of them were to be killed at the front in a matter of years, a great many of them decorated for bravery as I have already noticed in the previous post. At least one founding pupil took a different view though. Although I have mentioned him in the forthcoming review of the book that will appear in the 2016 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society I didn’t mention him in the previous post. William Mellor joined the school in 1900 and went on to Exeter College, Oxford. He was a prefect and a captain of cricket and football. He ended up as editor of the Daily Herald and the Tribune and during the First World War was a conscientious objector. His career was not without significance in the development of the Labour party. William Mellor shared radical socialist views with his brother, the Rev Stanley Mellor, minister at Hope Street Church, Liverpool. William and Stanley were the sons of Rev William Mellor, Unitarian minister at Huddersfield before the First World War. I am grateful to Andrew Mellor, grandson of the William in the photograph below, for this family information.

But one other short passage from the Willaston book stuck in my mind. In the chapter on 1914-1924 short passages illustrating the activities of the Cadets are given, taken from the school magazine, including this one on page 45:

In April 1918, “We have only had one lecture this term; that was a most interesting one from Captain Kitchen, (Old Willastonian) Assistant Instructor at the Command Gas School Aldershot. Besides the description of the uses of gas, various specimens of gas masks displayed, practical demonstrations were given of tear-gas and smoke bombs.”

 

This must have been R.T. Kitchen who was at the school from 1903 to 1908. The first use of gas by British troops came at the battle of Loos in 1915. It was not a success, the wind blew the gas back into the British trenches. Later in the war the allies also utilised mustard gas. A grim job indeed to be assistant instructor at the Gas Command School.

 

HMC: England: Cheshire: Willaston School, Nantwich: "505"
Willaston School Football XI 1908. With thanks to Andrew Lamberton

In one of the many images in the Willaston School Nantwich book there is a picture of the Football XI in 1908 (page 60). There they sit, the first eleven, a confident looking W. Mellor (captain) seated in the centre. To his left is Norman Ebbutt who served in the RNVS throughout the First World War, and who later became The Times correspondent in Berlin until he was expelled by Goebbels. To William Mellor’s right is a young R.T. Kitchen.

 

Founder Philip Barker and a view of the school from the 'Christian Life' 1913
Founder Philip Barker and a view of the school from the ‘Christian Life’ 1913

Willaston School Nantwich

Willaston School Nantwich. Later St Joseph’s and Elim Bible College, Andrew Lamberton (ed.), Willaston and District History Group, Chester, 2015. ISBN 978-0-949001-56-6. £11.95.

 

The cover of the book
The cover of the book

 

The Willaston District History Group are to be congratulated on publishing this fascinating, well-illustrated book.

 

Willaston School was a relatively short-lived minor public school established under the provisions of the will of Philip Barker, a prominent member of the Unitarian Chapel in Nantwich. On his death in 1898, with no close living relatives, he left his house and estate to be turned into a school for boys of Unitarian families. He may also have intended to provide a service to the sons of Unitarian ministers and also hoped to create a feeder school for Manchester College, Oxford where pupils could go to train for the Unitarian ministry. In this last aim they don’t appear to have been successful, only three ex-pupils went into the Unitarian ministry.

 

Philip Barker, the founder of the school
Philip Barker, the founder of the school

 

Most of my knowledge of this school previously came from the writings of the late Rev John McLachlan and seeing the war memorial that he had moved to Harris Manchester College after the closure of the school. Founded right at the start of the twentieth century the school seemed to flourish in the decade before the First World War when so many ex-pupils joined up, many lost their lives and a large cohort of their number were decorated for gallantry – including a VC, three MCs, two Albert Medals, one DFC, a DSM and three further mentions in despatches. The VC was awarded posthumously to Philip Hirsch of Leeds. Later Sir Sydney Jones of Liverpool opened a memorial chapel in the school to those who had lost their lives in the war, and a new swimming pool was given in his memory by Philip Hirsch’s parents.

 

Willaston School Memorial - now situated in Harris Manchester College, Oxford
Willaston School Memorial – now situated in Harris Manchester College, Oxford

 

WIllaston School Nantwich is an impressive account of the life of a unique Unitarian educational institution from a vanished age. Based largely on the record of writings by four former pupils, including John McLachlan, the book gives a very full account of all aspects of school life including academic matters, sports, music, drama, excursions, clubs and societies and much more. The book includes a list of all the students and accounts of the lives of those who were killed in the First World War. What makes the book even more interesting is the tremendous selection of photographs taken from a collection of 230 glass lantern slides held at Harris Manchester College which really do give a very full picture of life in the school. The school was only operational from 1900 to 1937 but is clearly well remembered in the locality. After closure it became a Roman Catholic ‘Industrial School’ and later still became an Elim Bible College. But this book is mainly about its Unitarian era and is well worth reading.

It can be obtained from the Willaston District History Group via their website: http://www.willastonweb.co.uk/