On Saturday, 25th July around 125 people took part in the Treasure Hunt organised by the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Downpatrick. It was a fantastic night helped by good weather and the great venue that is the Lakeside Inn, Ballydugan, where church member and recent NI Bar Person of the Year Margaret Ferguson is the licensee. Those taking part went on a fifteen mile journey around the local countryside, answering clues along the way and coming back to a magnificent Hog Roast. As well as being a great night it also raised a very good sum for church funds.
I wonder how many Unitarian churches have their images engraved on the reverse of a coin? I only know of one example, it is not a particularly beautiful example of the medallist’s art but it is very interesting and tells an unusual tale.
The church in question is Paradise Street Chapel in Liverpool, now long demolished, indeed the whole street has disappeared under the shopping development known today as Liverpool One. But Paradise Street was built in 1791 and was a dissenting church of some importance in Liverpool at the time. In the nineteenth century no less a person than James Martineau became the minister – a fitting appointment to a congregation that was cultured, wealthy and influential. They had built their meeting house on the grand scale, with a central cupola it was octagonal with a classical frontage and adorned with elegant stone urns along the balustrade. Martineau arrived in 1832 and established a name for himself as a preacher, teacher and philosopher linking up with other prominent figures in Liverpool and the north west including John Hamilton Thom, Charles Wicksteed, and John James Tayler.
But partly through the changing environment around the old chapel, which had become more commercially orientated and less like an area the well-to-do might want to visit, and partly also because of the more devotional worship that Martineau introduced, the congregation felt a need to abandon their old church and build something new. Accordingly a grand gothic church was built on Hope Street and Martineau and his congregation departed to their new home, selling the old place off. (For Hope Street Church see my earlier post – the Church on Hope Street).
James Martineau and his congregation, perhaps out of financial necessity from building anew on an extravagant scale, showed little sentimentality in disposing of their old place of worship. Yet one can’t help suspecting that a man of such high-brow intellectual tastes as Martineau can hardly have approved of the new use to which the old chapel was now put. It was purchased by a man called Joseph Heath who intended to turn it into a music hall.
After the Unitarians left it in 1849 the spacious chapel, with its well-constructed gallery all built of the finest materials and to the highest standards, was converted into the Royal Colosseum Theatre and Music Hall. The pews were re-used for seating and one can see how a large chapel could easily be adapted for use as a theatre. However, Joseph Heath must have been an ingenious individual because he managed to turn Paradise Street into the first multiplex: there were twin auditoria for both a theatre and a music hall. According to The Liverpool Stage by Harold Ackroyd the theatre “presented what were described as full blooded dramatic plays for a patronage of mariners”, while the front part of the old chapel was converted into a music hall where variety performances were put on “well suited to the taste of those for whom Mr. Heath catered.”
One can’t imagine Martineau really approving of such an undignified end to his old church but there was greater indignity to come. The Colly, as it became known, was reputedly haunted, an association encouraged by the continuing presence of the chapel’s graveyard around the building. This also presented a practical advantage to the thespians. According to Harold Ackroyd again:
…there was never any shortage of a skull during a performance of Hamlet. These were easily obtained, the artists’ dressing room, below the stage, formerly having been a grave vault, the artist had only to put his hand through an opening in the thin dividing wall, to seize hold of the grisly relic, as did Hamlet.
So it was the music hall owners who had the coin engraved with the unmistakable likeness of the Paradise Street Chapel. The Heath family owned the former chapel until about 1895 although it went through a number of refurbishments and changes of name in that time. But it remained known as the Royal Colosseum Theatre until 1875 at which time it was being run by Thomas Theodore Heath, Joseph’s son. Presumably this is the ‘T. Heath’ whose name is inscribed on the coin as the owner of the theatre. This would date the coin to the early 1870s when it functioned as an admission token for those eager for Victorian melodrama or the bawdy delights of an evening at the music hall. On the other side of the coin is a Liver bird, a belt and the name of the theatre. Some examples of the coins have a large letter ‘H’ stamped on them. I don’t know precisely what this indicated, at first I thought it was a reference to a seat or a row or an entrance but ‘H’ seems to be the only letter used in this way and it rather spoils the look of the engraving. Whatever meaning it had to the person at the theatre door this is now long forgotten.
By the late 1870s the theatre was said to be able hold 3,000 people, and must have been returned to a single auditorium, but at this stage in its history it was struck by a terrible tragedy. On the night of 11th October 1878, during a performance before a full house, a portion of the ceiling fell onto the pit and caused panic amongst the audience. Thirty-seven people were killed in the crush to escape and many more injured. Pictures in the Illustrated London News at the time show a building that was already extensively remodelled from the one that appears on the back of the token but it had fallen victim to the sort of tragedy that was not unknown in Victorian Britain. Following this the theatre was rebuilt, frequently renamed and continued in use up to the First World War. By then known as Kelly’s Theatre, it finally closed its doors in October 1916 and was sold to Cooper’s Ltd who used it as a warehouse for their greengrocery and restaurant business.
The whole story of Paradise Street Chapel and the Royal Colosseum Theatre was brought to a close by a German bomb during the blitz of 1941. Precisely how much of the building of 1791 had survived within the much enlarged edifice is hard to know but by then the building’s origins as a place of worship were hardly remembered. The link is maintained though by these little tokens which record a small element of theatre history and, almost by accident, help to preserve the image of a building that had a quite different history and purpose.
(This is an amended version of an article that first appeared in the ‘Inquirer’ 4 July 2015)
On Sunday, 19th July worship at Clough was led by Sam Shaw and Godshandiwork Puppets. There was a large congregation of members, both young and old, and from Ballee and Downpatrick as well as Clough and everyone was enthralled by the wonderful, varied presentation given by Sam and his team which included puppets, music, drawing and lots of fun.
Over the last year Clough Sunday School have also been raising money for the Downpatrick and District Autism NI Parents Support Group and at the end of the service Sunday School member Thomas Rooney presented a cheque for £230 to Ashley McKinley on behalf of the Parents Support Group.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you look up at the night sky on a clear night you will gradually see hundreds and hundreds of stars. In fact we know there are hundreds of thousands of millions of them, each one of them a star like our Sun. Around our Sun there orbit a number of planets and around all the other stars in the universe there must be planets of different shapes and sizes. Astronomers know of the existence of about 170 of these, light years away from us and discovered, so I read, by a process called microlensing.
If you were asked how many planets there were in our solar system you might say that there were eight or nine. Officially now there are eight although Pluto, the planet most recently discovered – as recently as 1930 – has now been demoted and is officially regarded only as a dwarf planet. It is also a very long way away – so far away that it takes 248 years for it to orbit around the Sun compared to the 365 days it takes our Earth. But because it is quite small and exists in an area where there are lots of other things floating around – the Kuiper Belt – it has been denied its planetary status by astronomers in the last ten years. However, this is still controversial and not everyone agrees with it.
But Pluto is in the news again this week as the US spaceship, New Horizons, which was launched nine years ago in 2006, will become the first space craft to visit Pluto.
Having journeyed through space for more than three billion miles, New Horizons will come within 7,800 miles of Pluto at 12.49pm Tuesday, 14th July UK time. As it hurtles past it will take photographs and make measurements of the distant planet which will tell us something about its composition and atmosphere.
But the story of Pluto’s discovery is not without interest. It was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. Although he was the first to discover it and he later helped to found the New Mexico State University’s astronomy department he didn’t start out as an astronomer. He grew up on a farm in Kansas and became interested in the stars and the planets as a boy. He built all his first telescopes out of farm machinery and the telescope he used to search for Pluto was made from things he found on the farm when he was 24. Other astronomers had predicted the existence of Pluto but Clyde Tombaugh, using a telescope made from a grain elevator, a cream separator and an old car axle together with lenses he had ground himself, was the first to see the planet. Clyde died in 1997 and, fittingly, when New Horizons was launched some of his ashes were sent into space onboard the ship.
I am always impressed by stories like this. It is a truly human trait to wonder at the stars and the majesty of creation, and to want to explore its vastness. This is something the Psalmist felt as he gazed at the night sky over Jerusalem maybe three thousand years ago:
When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
what is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?
(Psalm 8 v.3-4)
Isaac Watts expressed something similar in one of his hymns in the eighteenth century:
Eternal Power, whose high abode
Becomes the grandeur of a God:
Infinite length beyond the bounds
Where stars revolve their finite rounds.
But what particularly caught my eye with this story was that Clyde Tombaugh also helped to found a new church in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Not only that when he died they put in a very striking stained glass window in his memory in the Unitarian Universalist church there of which he was a member. It is a very large and attractive window, eight feet tall and eighteen feet wide and shows the figure of Clyde Tombaugh making one of his lenses and the solar system stretched out in the night sky including Pluto. Appropriately enough it also includes the church’s motto: “That all souls shall grow into harmony with creation”.
If you would like to see the window this link should take you there:
Picture credit at the top of the page is “ForestWander Nature Photography” Wikimedia Commons
In the latest issue of Faith and Freedom Clair Linzey contributes ‘Animal theology: a view from the periphery’. Clair is the Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and the article is based on a sermon she delivered in the Chapel of Harris Manchester College. In it she takes her lead from Jesus’s concern for the poor and Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff’s theology of liberation which extends concern for the poor and marginalised to the planet itself and its non-human inhabitants. She makes a case for concern for animal welfare to be moved from the margins of our thought and discourse to a more central place in our consideration for the sake of our own spiritual and personal well-being. It is well worth reading.
Those who attended the Old Students Association at Harris Manchester College in June will also have seen Nigel Clarke’s excellent presentation on the journal over the past twelve months. This included our own modest foray into animal matters with the appointment last year of Billy as the custodian of the Faith and Freedom archive.
Billy had initially done an excellent job in minding the archive and expressed evident delight at being appointed to such an illustrious role.
This has led to calls for the position to be offered to Caspian, the cat. Caspian, however, indicated that he had other things to consider and was not at all minded to be tied down to such a position. His friend Rosie, however, has given it consideration and seems at home in a bookish world.