The end of March saw the launch of this year’s Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society at the General Assembly held in the Birmingham Hilton Metropole Hotel. There was a good attendance at the meeting to see the first appearance of the issue hot off the press – a Festschrift published in honour of Alan Ruston who edited the journal for 25 years and has contributed a massive amount to the study of Unitarian History over the past fifty years. Alan has been the first port of call for a great many people across the decades – amateur historians, genealogists, writers of congregational histories and professional researchers and it was so fitting to present this special enlarged edition to him. At almost 190 pages it is probably the largest edition of the Transactions ever published; a bargain at £10 for all who join the Society.
The articles cover a wide variety of themes, places and personalities. This is a fitting tribute to Alan Ruston who has researched in so many historical areas over the years. Indeed the book contains a full list of all of Alan’s publications in a vast number of journals and magazines dating back to 1967 right up to the present day. Leonard Smith writes about five Unitarians who served in senior positions in the Navy around the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. Technically members of dissenting churches were not allowed to take commissions in the Royal Navy before 1828. Yet ways around this were found and Dr Smith outlines the careers of five distinguished Unitarians who served in ‘Nelson’s Navy’. To give just two examples these included Captain Edward Rotheram, who led a squadron at the Battle of Trafalgar and paced up and down the deck of his ship Royal Sovereign wearing a large cocked hat which he refused to remove even though it made him a target for French snipers. Following the death of Admiral Nelson he headed the procession of captains at the front of the funeral carriage to St Paul’s in London. In his career he not only faced dangers at sea but also a troubled relationship with some other officers – at one stage being accused of threatening his Anglican chaplain! Yet throughout all of this he would appear to have been a thoughtful and devout Unitarian, keeping a Commonplace Book that displays very clearly his theological sentiments. Another Unitarian naval officer was Captain Thomas Thrush, whose ship Pickle carried the news of Nelson’s victory to Falmouth. Unlike Captain Rotheram, however, Captain Thrush converted to Unitarianism after his naval service and then engaged in vigorous pamphleteering against prominent Anglicans. He also became a pacifist and resigned his commission, literally at great cost to himself.
Other articles include Professor G.M. Ditchfield writing on William Tayleur of Shrewsbury. Born into a wealthy Anglican family he converted himself to Unitarianism through his own reading and became a friend of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley and a major supporter of all Unitarian endeavours towards the end of the eighteenth century. Professor Timothy Whelan discusses the ‘rational’ faith of Crabb Robinson, the famous diarist and writer, and the effect on his thinking of his friend Wilhelm Benecke a German manufacturer who came to live in London in 1813. Some of the articles are about institutions – David Wykes investigates the challenges at the start of the nineteenth century in maintaining suitable institutions to train students for the ministry after the closure of Hackney Academy and Horsey’s Academy in Northampton, particularly with regard to the position of poor students. Daniel Costley, recounts the fascinating and somewhat tragic life of the Rev Edward Hammond, the General Baptist minister of Bessels Green in Kent. Ann Peart examines the life of William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and a figure often overlooked and frequently in the shadow of his much more famous wife Elizabeth, the famous novelist. Andrew Hill tells the story of a controversial legal case that engulfed St Saviourgate Chapel in York in the 1890s which had important implications for the development of Unitarian thought and worship. I contribute an article on the Rev John Orr, the highly effective minister of the Comber NSP Church from 1850 to 1879, a member of a dynasty of ministers, a scholar of some repute who published at least two well regarded books in the 1850s and 1860s but who frequently found himself caught up in theological controversy. His career in county Down came to a sudden end in 1879 when he upped sticks and moved across the Atlantic for a new life in Massachusetts.
The meeting itself heard short papers by Daniel Costley, David Wykes and Ann Peart based on their articles in the Transactions as well as a paper by Ralph Waller on the early career of James Martineau. All four papers were very well received. Anyway it is good to see the issue published – a tribute to Alan Ruston.