Postcard from Crumlin

Postcard from Crumlin, June 1908
Message on postcard

I purchased this postcard on eBay recently. It is not in great condition but it is a fairly rare example of a Baird of Belfast postcard of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church at Crumlin. It came with added interest because it was sent by Mrs Ashworth to her friend Mrs Arbuckle of 16 Danube Street, Belfast in June 1908. The message gives us a little glimpse into Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church life in 1908.

Mrs Ashworth, the author, writes in friendly, yet also fairly formal tones to Mrs Arbuckle. Mrs Ashworth (as she describes herself) was the wife of the Rev Alexander Osborne Ashworth minister of York Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church at the time. She refers to her husband only as Mr Ashworth in her short note although also mentions a person called Blanche who appears to be their daughter. They are also staying in the manse at Crumlin. ‘Mr Ashworth, Blanche and I’ came to the manse on 1st June, ‘Mr & Mrs Bowen & Jack’ left the same evening for Wales where they would remain for most of the month before returning for a six week stay at Carnlough. Prior to sending the card the Ashworths had made some unsuccessful attempts to meet up with Mrs Arbuckle and her family.

It’s not possible to identify the Mrs Arbuckle, but there is a good chance that she was a member of York Street Church, indeed there was a Mary Arbuckle living on York Street itself in the 1901 census and Danube Street is certainly within the catchment area of York Street Church.

Most of the contents reveal mundane domestic arrangements involving three Belfast families over 110 years ago. But knowing that two of those families were the families of NSP ministers and the fact that it was all written on a postcard depicting Crumlin Church enables us to put some flesh on the bones of this brief correspondence.

Mr and Mrs Bowen were the Rev Samuel Evans Bowen and his wife. S. E. Bowen was called to be minister of Crumlin in 1908, he was ordained later in the year on 3rd September by the Presbytery of Templepatrick. It may be that Alexander Ashworth and his wife were preparing the manse for their arrival, although he was clerk of the Presbytery of Antrim at that time and was still minister of York Street until 1909 when he retired, although he continued as a very active senior minister until 1913 and remained active in his denomination for many years afterwards until his death in 1935. Ashworth was born in the Rossendale valley in Lancashire in 1846 and trained at the Unitarian Home Missionary College. He came to York Street in 1893 after previous ministries in Chatham, Stalybridge, Doncaster and South Shields. For many years he was also the Sunday School Convenor for the Non-Subscribers. This job was no sinecure, in 1909, for instance, he organised the Annual Sunday School Conference at Downpatrick, an event which attracted 450 participants.

Rev A. O. Ashworth in 1909

The Rev Alexander Ashworth is probably hardly remembered today, for one thing the church where he had his longest and most significant ministry was destroyed in the blitz of 1941, but he gave devoted service in many different ways for decades.

Rev S. E. Bowen in 1908

The same was true of S.E. Bowen. Another former student of the Unitarian College in Manchester he was minister in Crumlin for over twenty years (to 1929) before returning to his native Wales to minister at Allt-y-placa, Capel-y-bryn and Cwm Sychbant for 27 years. But with this postcard we get a view of the Crumlin meeting-house. Judging by the trees it is of a similar, although not identical, vintage to the photograph that appeared in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine in October 1908 to accompany the account of his ordination. In both pictures the ivy seems to be contained in identical positions but the postcard shows a small tree or bush to the right of the church which is not there in the magazine image. The postcard could be quite a few years older than the other photograph.

The Crumlin meeting-house is fairly secluded and can’t be seen from the main road. Built in 1835 it replaced an earlier church of 1715. It is a miniature replica of Belfast’s First Presbyterian Church designed by Roger Mulholland. It is interesting that the congregation of Crumlin took that building as a template for their new church over 60 years later.

Crumlin in 1908 (NSP Magazine)
Crumlin in 2019

Whenever I try to take an architectural photograph I always aim to get a shot of the building without the distractions of either people or vehicles. I wasn’t able to do this with this picture of Crumlin taken in the autumn of 2019. The foreground is crowded with cars. But in the long term a photograph of something like a church which includes other details that date it actually makes it more interesting to the viewer. But if I was going to compose the cars for a photograph I wouldn’t park them like that!

The interior of Crumlin has an elegant charm.

Pulpit
Pews

The account of S.E. Bowen’s ordination published in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine is quite full and interesting. In the service the Rev S.E. Bowen said that ‘Unitarians were a people who believed not so much in attempting a definition of religion as in working for truth and liberty, being bound together by a profound belief in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.’ Later, over the welcome dinner there were a number of speeches given. Representing the Presbytery of Antrim the Rev W.S. Smith told the whole congregation to pick a day in October and arrive at the manse with a spade ready for three hours of work, leading the author of the report to note that the manse garden must ‘to say the least, be inferior in condition to the Garden of Eden when it was given to the father of all living to dress it and keep it’. The Rev Alexander Gordon was also there speaking highly of S.E. Bowen as a former student of his. He also related how he had recently been in the south of France and attended worship in a Protestant congregation there where the service was conducted by a young man in a congregation that only numbered sixteen, ‘yet he had been favourably impressed with the manifest consciousness of the congregation that they had come to worship, and with the energy and the earnestness of the preacher.’ It made me wonder what else Alexander Gordon did in the south of France in the summer of 1908, I can’t imagine that he just went there to sunbathe.

Front entrance

The regal heads of Mountpottinger

On my History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland blog I have been gradually posting two images of every church in the denomination together with a short description of the building. My aim is to include every active church plus as many of the former churches for which images survive. You can view them here:

https://nonsubscribingpresbyterian.wordpress.com/blog/

I have amassed a large database of images in various formats over the years but passing near the Mountpottinger church in Belfast recently I decided to stop to take an up to date view.

Mountpottinger front 03 2017

Looking at the church close up I noticed something that I had never seen before, namely that there are four corbel heads at the base of the main entrance arches which depict crowned heads. I know I am not alone in having previously missed this intriguing detail but close up you can see four regal faces, two of them male and two female:

 

 

Who are they meant to represent? Biblical figures? Historical? Shakespearean perhaps? Or are they purely decorative? It seems clear that they were added when the church was extended in 1899. The foundation stone for the original church was laid in 1874 but the young congregation was very successful and in 1899 they extended the building.

Adrian Moir, the congregational treasurer and representative elder, has sent me the follwing interesting photograph of the original building as it looked before 1899. Standing in front, he thinks, is the Rev William Jenkin Davies minister from 1896 – 1903 who was married to the niece of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence who donated the new schoolroom as a memorial to her following her death:

MountpottingerChurchpre1899 01AMcropped

Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence was a major Unitarian benefactor, an MP who declared the Unitarian College, Manchester open when it moved to Summerville in 1905, a friend of the Rev Alexander Gordon and the leading proponent of the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were actually the work of Francis Bacon!

A comparison of the new buildings of 1899 with the old one shows how they added a schoolroom and ancillary rooms on both sides of the original church with a common frontage uniting all the structures. In very recent times a disabled ramp was added to the church.

Belfast Mountpottinger 1907

A view of the church published in 1907, showing the new additions to the building

But it would be interesting to know the identity of the four regal heads who adorn the outside wall of Mountpottinger church.

Pictures of Harvest Festivals

Pictures of Harvest Festivals are amongst the most frequent early survivors of photographs of church or chapel interiors. The modern Harvest Festival, as it is known in churches today, was really invented by the Rev Robert Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall, in the 1840s. He was as colourful and eccentric as they come but devised the notion of a service in which the produce of the fields was brought into the church and used as decoration as an act of thanksgiving. The idea of the service quickly caught on and became a big part of the year for most churches, whether urban or rural. Harvest Festivals became and remain very popular with Unitarians, it would be interesting to study when and how they began to be incorporated into the cycle of services.

 

I don’t have any information to hand as to how harvest services spread and became popular but I see that in 1881, for instance, Alexander Gordon introduced the first Harvest Festival service to the First Presbyterian, Rosemary Street congregation in Belfast. This must be quite late, I would imagine. Was that something he had previously done over the preceding twenty years at Norwich, Hope Street, Liverpool, or Aberdeen? It would be an interesting avenue to pursue.

 

With the gradual development of photography as a medium, pictures were taken of churches and chapels. However, the difficulty – for all except the most skilled photographers – of taking good interior shots, and also, perhaps, a reluctance to take a picture of a scene that was so familiar as to be seen as hardly worth recording means that early shots of interiors of chapels and meetings houses are not that common. This seems to change when it comes to Harvest Festivals and a number of pictures that I have of now closed churches were taken to show off the harvest decoration that had been thoughtfully and faithfully put there by some parishioners.

 

In the recent posts about Nantwich Unitarian Chapel I asked if anyone had any photographs of the interior. Andrew Lamberton has again found a fascinating image. He has sent me this picture of the area around the organ decorated for harvest. There is no date on the picture and it is very difficult to be at all precise although I would guess it was taken probably in the first decade of the twentieth century.

 

I gather the organ was installed in the 1870s so the picture shows a decorated scene around the organ sometime after that date. As I have mentioned in previous posts the chapel of 1725-26 was rebuilt and ‘turned’ in 1846-49 and this picture would appear to show the area on the plan between the windows and marked as ‘former site of Pulpit’ in Christopher Stell’s Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England:

 

Inventory Nantwich
Plan from Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England

 

It’s hard to make out too much detail in the photograph but it confirms the description also found in Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England (page 28) that the pews which incorporated original features from the 1720s were laid out in tiers:

“Seating: against E and W walls, two tiers of pews, partly reconstructed, include much early 18th-century fielded panelling, fronts renewed. The centre pews also incorporate original material.”

It is not an easy thing to take a picture of what is a dark wood-panelled interior while including the main source of light from two large windows. The light floods in through the window and the dark areas remain dark. But for all its limitations we have in this print a rare and useful image of a long forgotten building.

Organ Harvest Festival
(Photo: Andrew Lamberton and Nantwich Museum Archives)

A First World War Roll of Honour

Another resource that will be added to the Faith and Freedom Great War Project in the near future is the Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland – or at least as much of this that was printed in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine at the time.

Not surprisingly that magazine carries a great deal of information about the impact of the war on the denomination. The war brings about much comment and theological reflection from ministers and lay people but the extent of the impact only gradually comes to be realised as more and more members take up arms. The magazine decided to compile a Roll of Honour and in December 1914, four or so months after the outbreak, this was printed for the first time. Already it contained 141 names, all of them obviously volunteers, and representing 24 congregations. The list includes two who have been wounded and already the first loss – a member of the Dromore congregation – David Prentice who was lost in action on HMS Monmouth in a naval engagement off the coast of Chile. HMS Monmouth was an armoured cruiser that was built in 1901 and used mostly around Chinese waters. At the start of the First World War it was sent to the West Indies fleet and was part of the battle of Coronel, here it was sunk by the Germans with the loss of all hands.

In the next year the Roll of Honour was reprinted in March 1915, when it had been expanded to include 27 congregations. In January 1916 the list is updated when 360 names (including some women involved in nursing and other war work in some congregations) were listed in 29 congregations (out of a notional total of about 35). To this denominational list an additional three names were added in February. For the denomination as a whole of these 363 names eleven were listed as killed, missing or lost.

Rev Alfred Turner, minister of Templepatrick, at the front in the uniform of the YMCA
Rev Alfred Turner, minister of Templepatrick, at the front in the uniform of the YMCA

Having kept this Roll of Honour up until February 1916, strangely, it is not updated in the pages of the magazine again. At one point mention is made of an intention to publish on card the full Roll of Honour for the congregations but it is not clear if this was ever done. Why the Roll was never updated is hard to tell. The editor, the Rev Alfred Turner, was now working in France with the YMCA but the responsibility for providing this information lay with the individual congregations. Having begun keeping the record it seems strange that it stops.

A result of the Roll never being completed is that we do not know the exact numbers of those who served in the First World War. But both the total number on the Roll of Honour and the number of those killed in the war are likely to be far greater than the numbers published between 1914 and 1916. There are, for instance, 16 obituaries of men killed in action (in two cases died of war wounds) in the magazine. Of these only three died before the publication of the January 1916 list and they do appear on the Roll of Honour but of the other thirteen only seven are listed and six are not, possibly because they had not joined up until after that date. The number of fatal casualties is likely to be much higher and a perusal of each church’s war memorial would give the true figure. If we look at the example of the Dublin congregation, for instance, on the January 1916 list there are eleven names included as having joined the armed forces. Yet the war memorial in the Church lists only those who were killed (all of them in 1917 and 1918) and of the five names preserved there three do not appear on the January 1916 list. To take another example in the case of Clough there are seven names on the published Roll of Honour, and no fatalities. However, on the Roll of Honour in the Church there are ten names, three of whom were killed in the war.

Detail of the Dublin names in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian January 1916
Detail of the Dublin names in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian January 1916

Memorial to 2nd Lieut. Frederick E.B. Falkiner MC in Dublin Unitarian Church. Killed serving with the Royal Flying Corps near Ypres August 1917 aged 22. (With thanks to P. Spain for photo)
Memorial to 2nd Lieut. Frederick E.B. Falkiner MC in Dublin Unitarian Church. Killed serving with the Royal Flying Corps near Ypres August 1917 aged 22. (With thanks to P. Spain for photo)

But taking the denomination as a whole the Roll of Honour plus the additional obituaries makes a total of 24 killed in the First World War noted in the magazine in this way although clearly this cannot be the final total.

Of the 16 obituaries in the magazine 14 are of officers and most include a photograph of the deceased. Four obituaries appear in the August 1916 issue, all of them of soldiers apparently killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Whether an obituary appeared or not seemed to be entirely due to chance but was very unlikely for those who weren’t commissioned. There are in addition three brief notices, one of them of one of the sons of the Rev Alexander Gordon, and one mention of a death in a Rademon ‘News of the Churches’ report. This would make a total of 28 names of men killed in the war mentioned in the magazine, again certainly not the final total.

But a careful comparison of all the church memorials plus the obituaries found in the magazine plus the names on the Roll of Honour would at least give us a working total for those from the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches in Ireland who served and lost their lives in the First World War.

Although so many of those who died did not receive an obituary in the magazine some of the obituaries in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian are quite informative. Most of the casualties were people who joined up at the start of the war but some had been career soldiers. One such was Captain Craig Nelson of Downpatrick who was killed in action on 26th September 1915. He was an officer in the 3rd Brahman regiment, part of the Indian army and a grandson of Rev S.C. Nelson, minister of Downpatrick. His father was Dr Edwin Field Nelson, the fifth son of Samuel Craig Nelson, a senior surgeon in the locality who had himself attained the rank of Surgeon-Major in the local Militia and continued as medical officer for soldiers in the Downpatrick district during the war up to his death in May 1916. But his son, Craig Nelson, was killed the year before, his other two sons both serving officers in the navy or the army. Craig Nelson was a career officer who had been commissioned into the Royal Irish Rifles and served throughout the South African war. He subsequently transferred to the Indian Army and served first in Egypt and then on the Western Front.

The Downpatrick minister, Rev M.S. Dunbar, said of him:

We cannot help our feelings being moved when we think of the thousands of our countrymen who have fallen in this titanic struggle, but our feelings are still more acute when we suddenly learn of the fate of one who we knew, with whom we conversed not so long ago, and who, when we bade him good-bye, was in perfect health and the best of spirits. The War, with all its dread consequences, comes home to us as it never did before. Captain Nelson was brought up amongst us, and when on furlough from India, was always pleased to join in our service here, and to recall his associations with the church and the people connected with it.

Captain Craig Nelson
Captain Craig Nelson

The Faith and Freedom Great War Project can be seen here:

http://www.faithandfreedom.org.uk/GWindex.htm

The Church on Hope Street

I have sometimes been tempted to write a blog or a column entitled ‘The things I buy on eBay’. I have picked up lots of pieces of ephemera at very low cost on eBay which while certainly bearing very little intrinsic value and generally falling into the category of junk nevertheless have some historical interest.

Hope Street Church, demolition 1962
Hope Street Church, demolition 1962

 

The photograph above is a good example of this. It cost just 99p (which I suppose is actually quite a lot for a single, slightly blurry print) but it shows the very end of Hope Street Unitarian Church in Liverpool. Taken in 1962, probably by someone who habitually recorded views of buildings which he thought might one day be interesting, it catches the tower in the final stage of demolition. Somewhere under the rubble was a brass plate and a “hermetically sealed vase” containing a list of members, ground plans of the old and new chapels, a report of the congregation’s school, a plan of Liverpool, a print of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, an engraved portrait of the minister and all the local papers from the week before the laying of the foundation stone on 9th May 1848. It was a sad end to a building that was opened for worship in 1849 and which occupied a prominent place in the city. Indeed it seems a shame that such a site, midway between the two cathedrals, could not have been saved for future use. It would be a great site today with enormous potential. But it is easy to be wise after the event, the world must have looked quite different to what was presumably a small and discouraged congregation by the early 1960s.

 

Hope Street had certainly known rather more glorious days. Built by James Martineau’s congregation to provide a place of worship that suited his style and popularity it was a thorough-going gothic construction that reflected his devotional approach. The classic image of it is this one:

Hope Street Church
Hope Street Church

 

Its relationship to the next-door Philharmonic Hall can be seen from this Edwardian postcard. The original Philharmonic burnt down in the 1930s and was replaced by the present building in 1939. In the picture the classical church opposite, the corner of which can just be seen on the right of the postcard, was the Church for the Blind, attached to the Liverpool School for the Blind which was situated on Hardman Street.

Next door to the Philharmonic
Next door to the Philharmonic

 

Nothing really remains of Hope Street Church today. Photographs of the interior are intriguing. This scan isn’t great but it shows the view looking towards the pulpit, the chancel and the font.

Church interior
Church interior

 

After James Martineau and before the First World War the congregation had some high profile ministers including Charles Wicksteed, Alexander Gordon and Richard Acland Armstrong. The 1920s saw a revival of fortunes under the radical ministry of Stanley A. Mellor who mixed an advanced theology with Socialist ideas. But the crowds that came out to hear him did not last and by the time of the eccentric ministry of the highly scholarly Sidney Spencer the numbers were starting to reduce.

 

In the Winter 2008/9 of the Merseyside District Unitarian Newsletter The Honourable Dr Frank Paterson, a former member of Hope Street and a very distinguished circuit judge who died in 2014, wrote his reminiscences of the Church. They are a fascinating and rare account of the congregation in the twentieth century. I place them here with due acknowledgment to the MDMA Newsletter:

 

I reflect with pleasure on my childhood and early manhood, when I frequently accompanied my father to the morning and evening services. He had a wide interest in almost every religious creed. In latter years he reminded me of a character in Shaw’s Major Barbara who declared that he had studied several religions and found that he would be perfectly at home in any one of them. Having been born into a Scots Presbyterian household, he was attracted by the preaching of Dr Charles Aked, the charismatic minister of the then Pembroke Baptist Chapel in Liverpool, where he met my mother, whom he married in 1911. After the departure of Dr Aked for the United States (to what was known as ‘The Millionaires’ Church’ on 5th Avenue), my parents transferred their allegiance to Hope Street Unitarian Church to enjoy the benefits of the preaching of the Reverend Stanley Mellor. Following his death, they continued to attend Hope Street church throughout the ministry of the Reverend Sidney Spencer, I do not think my mother took any interest in the details of religious faiths, but was content to fulfil what she regarded as a spiritual duty by attendance at a church on a Sunday. It is perhaps not surprising that the idea of a free religious faith always appealed to me. It gave me great pleasure to follow in my father’s footsteps as chairman of the Hope Street Committee, which awakened in me the desire to enter a calling where I could participate in the cut and thrust of debate, and to promote harmony where there has been discord.

 

It has therefore been a source of satisfaction to me to find that Hope Street had its origins on the site of what is now The Queen Elizabeth II Law Courts, where I have spent the greater part of my professional life. When the buildings were opened by Queen Elizabeth II, I happened to be one of the longest standing circuit judges of the court and had the honour of being presented to Her Majesty. Whilst waiting for the ceremony I was placed in a line of those about to be presented immediately between the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool on one side and the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool on the other. I regret I didn’t have the courage or the time to remind these prelates that I felt like the wonderful white church that once stood half way between the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals in Hope Street.

 

When I was a child services at Hope Street were almost as well attended as the Hope Hall Cinema (now the Everyman Theatre) down the road, and in order to secure two seats together my father was obliged to apply to the Church Secretary, Mr William Letcher. There was an interval of several weeks before a reply was received notifying my father that two places had been reserved for himself and my mother, and on the following Sunday they were met in the vestibule by Mr Letcher to be escorted past the queue waiting to be seated and down the aisle to a pew four rows from the front, on the back of which was a card bearing their names. This remained what we regarded as our family pew until the church was demolished several decades later. William Letcher remains in my memory as a formidable figure, well-suited to the task of controlling the crowds at Hope Street. He was, I believe, employed by one of Liverpool’s principle banks, in charge of the Stationary Department. As a small boy he appeared to me as a person of enormous power and influence. Whatever it meant for the Trinity to be present in one person, it seemed to me that person might as well be Mr William Letcher. He was highly thought of, and in due course enjoyed the distinction of becoming the subject of a light-hearted song, composed by my father and another member of the congregation, which recommended a variety of facetious changes to forms of worship, each one punctuated by the refrain: “But Will `e Letch `ya?” The authors sang it at a Christmas party.

 

Another innovation of my father’s as Chairman was the collection of “bun pennies`”. These were coins dating from the early days of the reign of Queen Victoria on which the monarch’s head appeared with hair drawn back in a bun, still current in the inter-war years but invariably worn very smooth. My father encouraged members of the congregation to deposit any they found in their possession in a wooden casket he had placed on the window-ledge of the church vestibule, similar to those designed for holding ashes with an incision made in the top and inscribed with the words: “The Hope Street Church Ancient Victorian Secret Society”. To what objects the fund accumulated therein was applied remains uncertain to this day.

 

The only photograph of the church I recall seeing was taken by a photographer from the Liverpool Daily Post and showed the spire wrapped in smoke. It dated from an evening on which my father had had to move a Committee Meeting from the Library to the Church Hall, and eventually – very reluctantly – to adjourn with business unfinished, because the premises had become unbearably hot. The neighbouring Philharmonic Hall was on fire. My father had a print framed and hung in the church to illustrate the perils to which the members of the Committee were prepared to subject themselves in pursuance of their duties.

 

Hope Street Church also survived the blitz a few years later. It may be that the enemy found the white spire of that Unitarian stronghold a useful pointer to the Liverpool docks and to the Cammell Laird shipyards and it took care to spare it. Be that as it may, incendiary bombs were such a menace that the government required all males over a certain age to register for fire-watching duties. The minister of Hope Street, the Reverend Sidney Spencer, an ardent pacifist, had no hesitation in fire-watching at his own church or anywhere else, but objected to doing so under compulsion of the State. He refused to register. The magistrates fined him £10 which he steadfastly refused to pay. In due course, he was sent to prison for a term of 14 days. The minister (an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi) was adamant that he did not wish the fine to be paid, but after a few days the Committee felt that he had made his point, and that somehow the fine should be paid anonymously. It was decided that, as a law student with access via the Magistrates’ Entrance to the courts on Dale Street, the Chairman’s son was best able to make the payment without drawing attention to himself. This I did. The first clerk I approached hesitated: “But Mr Spencer has said he doesn’t want this fine paid. I don’t think I can take it.” “If anyone offers us money – we take it!” declared his senior. A few hours later, the Reverend Sidney Spencer was a free man.

 

My father reimbursed me, from what source I do not know. Possibly he unlocked the coffer of the Hope Street Church Ancient Victorian Secret Society!

The last photograph of Alexander Gordon

The Rev Alexander Gordon was one of the leading Unitarian scholars of the late nineteenth century. He had an international reputation and connections that spanned continents, languages and areas of research. He also combined his academic work with committed pastoral ministry much of which he exercised in Ireland.

The brief notes that follow illuminate something of his life and work but were prompted by the discovery of this delightful photograph:

Alexander Gordon, 18th January 1931
Alexander Gordon, 18th January 1931

I am indebted to Alan Ruston for discovering it. He found it, printed up as a post card, inside a copy of Herbert McLachlan’s biography of Gordon published in 1932. The card itself is dated 18th January 1931 and it must represent the last photograph taken of this distinguished minister since he died just over a month later. It is a remarkably sharp and clear picture, presumably taken on something like a Box Brownie, with, we must suspect no prior warning and no attempt to pose the main subject.

Alexander Gordon is shown walking up to the meeting house at Dunmurry, county Antrim, indeed the section of wall (at the rear going towards the entrance to the vestry) is still clearly recognisable today, although greatly restored. The significance of the day the photograph was taken is underlined by a quotation from page 123 of Herbert McLachlan’s biography part of which is written on the back of the card:

On Sunday, 18 January 1931, Alexander Gordon drove in a jaunting-car from Belfast to Dunmurry to take service for an old friend laid aside by illness. It was to be his fare-well office of faith and affection. His last public appearance was on the 11th of February, when he took the chair at a Meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland. Ten days later, after a week’s illness and a day in bed, he passed into the world of light. In the grave-yard attached to the ancient Meeting-House at Dunmurry his body was interred on Monday, 23 February, when amongst those who took part in the service was the Very Rev Dr John McMillan of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Together with old pupils and friends who gathered to pay him a last tribute of respect and love was the old driver with the car which had carried him to and fro in the north of Ireland for fifty years save one, with whom, I doubt not, he had oft exchanged a merry jest.

Describing himself as “an Englishman by birth, a Scotsman by education and an Irishman by inclination”, Alexander Gordon was the leading historian of religious dissent in Britain and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. I contributed the short biography of him which can be read online at the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography – .http://uudb.org/articles/alexandergordon.html. Alan Ruston wrote the entry on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which can also be read online although this requires a subscription. Gordon himself is particualrly remembered as one of the most prolific contributors to the original nineteenth-century Dictionary of National Biography. Amongst many other publications he contributed 778 biographies to that landmark publication. His scholarly commitment and devotion to detail was unsurpassed. Alongside this he was both a minister and educator, combining his ministry at Rosemary Street in Belfast, between 1877 and 1889, with the role of divinity tutor to students for the Non-Subscribing ministry. In 1890 he became principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary College, Manchester and the first lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Manchester in what is always described as the first ‘free’ faculty of theology in the UK, in other words one that taught theology without any denominational affiliation or confessional standpoint. Throughout his time in Manchester he maintained his contact with Belfast, serving as a governor of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution for around fifty years and regularly travelling back to Dunmurry to attend communion there under the ministry of his friend the Rev. J.A. Kelly who regarded him as an ‘unpaid assistant’. He was closely involved with the consolidation of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian denomination in 1910 and for the rest of his life was a regular traveller across the Irish Sea, continuing throughout the First World War and at one point losing some proofs of his Cheshire Classis Minutes with the sinking of the Leinster in 1918.

This is an intriguing photograph of a venerable old clergyman, then in his 90th year, making his way to preach what was to be his last sermon. Who was there waiting with a camera? Who is the member of the congregation in bowler hat, carnation, white gloves and spats? Who had it printed and distributed? And which person – possibly a former student – had this copy which, judging by marks left by drawing pins, seems to have pinned it up in a place of honour?

We probably won’t ever know the answer to these particular questions but it is nice to have such a photograph, a link with our history.

And here is a picture of a more youthful (and hatless) Alexander Gordon, also carrying his distinctive signature:

Alx Gordon