On the road with the Unitarian Van Mission

I probably first came across the Unitarian Van Mission in the late Professor R.K. Webb’s masterful survey of ‘The Unitarian Background’ in the 1986 volume Truth Liberty Religion. Essays celebrating Two Hundred Years of Manchester College (edited by Barbara Smith). However, the end of his chapter takes on a very negative tone where he describes “precipitous decline” being caused by the “attenuation and fragmentation of Unitarian doctrine”. In this context he mentions “the touching Van Mission that wended its slow way through the country in the years after 1906”.

This really is a slightly patronising view of the Van Mission and, of course, is not really fair. From the perspective of the late twentieth century anything that relied on horse drawn power could be regarded as touching and slow. But in 1906 people would not regard such a mission in any such way.

It is clear from the response to my previous post that there is a great deal of latent interest in the Unitarian Van Mission. It is also the case that there is the material for a serious research project on it. John Roberts’ useful investigation into the Van Mission in the 1978 Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society is just about the only thing that has been written on it since the First World War. I don’t have much else to hand that can shed light on the Van Mission but the one thing I do have is the special centenary edition of the Christian Life from 1913 – a single issue of that magazine that never fails to provide something of interest.

It was published to mark the centenary of the Trinity Act and includes a vast amount of material. One of the shorter sections – only about half a page – is that on the Unitarian Van Mission written by the Rev T.P. Spedding and accompanied by five fascinating, if frustratingly small, images. The article is, like almost everything in that issue, quite relentlessly positive and upbeat. In part this reflects the celebratory nature of that publication but it also reflects the underlying truth – they were positive, things were going well, they didn’t know the world stood on the brink of a brutal world war, and they had every reason to feel that in religious terms their ideas, if not all-conquering, were at least gaining a positive reception and winning ground.

On teh Road Bucks
The Van on the move, the horse with its brasses and the Rev T.P. Spedding with three assistants on board

T.P. Spedding writes how the number of vans had increased to four thanks to donations by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, Cuthbert C. and John R. Grundy, and John Harrison. (John Roberts suggests that in the end there were six vans on the road.) But if T.P. Spedding’s statistics are accurate it had been an extraordinarily active movement:

The mission has now held over three thousand meetings, gathered nine hundred and fifty thousand people, reached half as many more in one way or another, and indirectly had to do with the holding of hundreds of outdoor meetings, chiefly conducted by ministers who are familiar with Van methods. We have distributed a million and a-half of pamphlets and leaflets, sold hundreds of books, kept in touch with correspondents all over the land, maintained a free lending library, found out lonely Unitarians, added members to the churches, tested likely and unlikely seed-plots for district societies…

At St Albans
A meeting at St Albans

Three thousand outdoor meetings in about seven years! Even with modern media gathering 950,00 people online would be something that any church publicity movement would be very proud of.

At Gorseinon
Gorseinon near Swansea

Its clear that the Mission didn’t just go into uncharted territory but also went to places where it supplemented an already established witness. It also faced competition from many other churches that were doing something similar and opposition from some who, T.P. Spedding seems to suggest, may have had this purpose in their design.

At Mossley
A busy meeting at Mossley where a church had existed since the 1840s

Nothing I have yet seen explains the logistics of operating the Mission – presumably horses were hired or loaned wherever they were needed by the local people. There must have been a lot of careful organisation behind its running. But there are records in various places that will repay careful examination and a fuller picture can be built up of the Mission’s operation.

At Finchley
Finchley, “Unitarian Christianity Explained. Tonight’s Speaker [Rev] W R Shanks” – the Rev William Rose Shanks (1856-1928)
The pictures in Christian Life are small and are not terribly well reproduced. The best picture of the Mission in operation is still the one I reproduced on this blog a few weeks ago. A lot of people have looked at it but we are still not able to identify the location. Both Len Smith and Rachel Eckersley are working hard on finding the spot, the presence of a number of named shops should be a help. It appears not to be Chesterfield, Northwich or Burslem which all had a branch of Scales and Sons. The town of Malton, which seemed a good possibility, can now be discounted, Len has discovered. Wrexham may be a possibility. But we still need to find the place where this interesting photograph was taken. If you have any suggestions please do send them in.

Van Mission Square

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.