Ancient Chapel: then and now

‘Then and now’ pictures can be interesting and informative. Standing outside the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth on 4 August 2019 I thought I would try and get a shot of the building from approximately the same position as the print that I have of the same view dating from about one hundred and fifteen years previously.

Ancient Chapel Tram 02

You can read about this photograph from between 1901 and 1904 and see some details from it here.

Ancient Chapel 2019

Whenever I take pictures of buildings I spend a lot of time trying to keep cars, buses, people, street furniture etc. out of shot. But, of course, for the historian it is the other details that often make the photograph useful and interesting. I picked this spot for the picture without referring to the old print and was half inclined to try and get a nice big Arriva bus coming up Park Road at the same time but there was a limit to how long I wanted to stand in the road! It’s a busy place and I suspect modern buses travel faster than old trams. So no buses in the picture but still a view that enables us to compare ‘then’ with ‘now’.

The picture at the top of the page is the wildflower meadow at St Agnes Field on the edge of Sefton Park.

 

Sefton Park Heron

In Liverpool recently I was pleased to get these pictures of the heron in Sefton Park. The heron seemed quite unperturbed by my presence and that of many other people quite nearby as he watched the lake for signs of a potential meal.

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Sefton Park Heron 06

Sefton Park Heron 07

 

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’:

jwstarseries

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.

A walk in Sefton Park

Sefton Park is a source of never-ending delight for anyone familiar with it. As the seasons change so its vistas change, the Victorian redesign of the ancient parkland created an urban space that must be unique in Britain. So much space, so much variety, all in the centre of a city.

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The park looks well-cared for and well-maintained by the council when you walk through it now, something that has not always been the case.

 

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What I notice most about it these days though is the abundance of wildlife you see, quite different from how it used to be. Most of all you see the large quantities of waterfowl, more numerous than in days gone by, mallards, swans, Canada Geese, Aylesbury ducks, coots, moorhens and so on.

20160404_120036Nesting Coots

But other birdlife is even more striking – the impressive sight of a heron perched high above the lake is something astonishing to my mind. I was very impressed to see the heron in February although in a recent visit at the start of April it didn’t seem to be there. Nor did I find the parakeets which I also saw in February. I don’t know where they can have gone, I know they are not uncommon in many places in Britain these days but I was surprised to find a load of them in Liverpool.

 

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The park has long been full of squirrels. Not everyone approves of grey squirrels but they always attract the eye. The ones in the park are virtually tame as well and not averse to posing for photographs, like this one.

 

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Another thing I saw recently – new to me – was a fox. Foxes are clever enough to learn that urban humans generally won’t bother them which is why they colonise cities so much. There have long been foxes in Belfast but I’ve never seen them. I saw a fox in Glasgow once, a mangy, dangerous looking thing walking along the middle of the road. But this fox looked sleek and healthy, although it didn’t hang around.

 

 

Rev John Watson: Ogden’s ‘Guinea Gold Cigarettes’

Some people like collecting things, other people discard anything that has no practical usefulness. For some collecting is a bug and whether it is stickers containing the likenesses of premiership footballers or paintings by Picasso costing millions of pounds or anything in between there is no shortage of those who, in the search for completeness or because of a desire to own something rare or unique, will buy things, sometimes at any price. While the artistic merit of a Picasso may (or may not) be appreciated by all and sundry the wonders of a sticker book containing all the footballers of the 1970 World Cup, for instance, will appeal only to the cognoscenti. But little things, small objects, printed ephemera and all the material that so many people would condemn as junk do tell a story, they can be interesting and open up another view of the world and who we are.

Rev John Watson
Rev John Watson

The picture above is a cigarette card. Starting before the end of the nineteenth century these became keenly collected, often by children and no doubt they helped to introduce new generations to smoking. They faded away in the 1950s and wouldn’t be allowed now, but old sets are still collected, early and rare examples attracting high prices of over £1,000 per card. Some of the early series are very informative, and others are very attractive in their design. But this card, once given away free and now worth a couple of pounds, is both a symbol of the early development of the modern cult of celebrity and an illustration of how important non-conformist churches were 100 years ago.

The card depicts Ian MacLaren an incredibly popular writer in about 1905 when the card was printed. He was one of the members of the kailyard school, writers of sentimental stories of Scottish rural life which enjoyed great popularity at the time. Their title came from a line of Burns quoted in MacLaren’s most popular book Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush:

There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kail-yard

And white are the blossoms on’t in our kail-yard.

J.M Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) was the most notable of this group but MacLaren’s books sold in Britain and America in their tens of thousands, indeed some are still in print today although read by a fairly specialised audience. But MacLaren’s fame as an author was closely bound up with his career as a Presbyterian minister. Ian MacLaren was a pseudonym and as John Watson he ministered to the Presbyterian Church in Sefton Park, Liverpool for 25 years with great success, from 1880 to 1905. He assembled an enormous congregation, those who held seats in his church had to be in place half an hour before the service began or else their seats would be given to visitors who queued up outside. Developing out of his ministry he became the most popular writer on theological topics of his day, certainly from within the non-conformist churches. His theology was quite liberal and at one point he was threatened with a charge of heresy from within his denomination (the Presbyterian Church of England). He was certainly liberal enough for the Rev John Hamilton Thom to complain about the removal of the Renshaw Street Unitarian congregation to Ullet Road – a location very close to Ian MacLaren’s church. He claimed that a number of Unitarians had already joined his church without changing their theology and that a move to the suburbs might result in further drift away to hear such a successful preacher.

But above everything else John Watson was the most prominent of all the Presbyterian Church of England ministers of his day. He assisted in the establishment of the University of Liverpool (which brought him into the orbit of many Unitarians) and his leadership and fundraising exertions resulted in the establishment of Westminster College, Cambridge in 1899, which became the main Presbyterian theological college. The following year he was moderator of his church. Invited to tour the United States and lecture in Yale University and other places his theological publications also became best sellers and his influence spread far and wide within the churches. And so famous was he that when Ogden’s produced a new series of ‘Famous People’ Cigarette Cards in about 1905, a set that possibly included actors, actresses, generals, politicians, sportsmen and writers they couldn’t leave out John Watson/Ian MacLaren. It was all part of the level of fame he had achieved in his day and age and so his portrait, in his clerical collar, was printed to go inside packs of Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes and no doubt eagerly sought by those anxious for the full set. It is hard to imagine what the exact equivalent would be in today’s celebrity terms but we can be pretty certain that no member of the clergy, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, could expect to reach such a dizzy height.