A car is parked at the roadside on a sunny day. The driver is dressed for some serious motoring whilst his passenger is a clergyman without an overcoat. He looks slightly uncomfortable perched on the seat of the open car. Who is he? Could he be the owner, or a friend or relative of the driver? It’s hard to say but here we have a glimpse into a pioneering moment in motoring history.
I picked this glass lantern slide up on eBay for a couple of pounds. It interested me because it is an early example of an automobile, probably dating from about 1903. I haven’t been able to identify the make of the car (indeed I would be grateful for any suggestions) but what is clear is that it was registered in Liverpool and was probably photographed on Princes Avenue. I don’t know who the clergyman was or the driver but the letter K was used for cars in Liverpool from 1903 to 1914. The records for these early registrations no longer exist but presumably this car was the 218th car to be registered in Liverpool. Whether that means the photograph was taken in 1903 I don’t know (would at least 218 cars be registered in the first year of the registration system?), but judging from the style of the car, which doesn’t have a steering wheel, I would guess that it was manufactured closer to 1903 than 1914. I had thought it might have been a Liver Phaeton, manufactured in Birkenhead by William Lea, of which only one example survives in the Museum of Liverpool. However, the car in the Museum has a number of differences and this clearly isn’t a Liver Phaeton. Having said that William Lea was a highly successful entrepreneur who made his own cars using imported Benz engines including a larger version of the Phaeton. His showrooms in Birkenhead had an indoor track that could be used for test drives with room, apparently, for fifty cars. By 1909 he was also the agent for “Benz, Progress, Darracq and English Benz Cars”, all available from his depot on Berry Street in Liverpool. He also advertised a very large stock of vehicles for sale. But he was far from being the only car dealer in Liverpool at the time. The city had its own Self-propelled Traffic Association from 1896 (President, the Earl of Derby) and The Liverpool Show of 1903 at St George’s Hall claimed to possess the largest (and best) exhibition of motors outside of London. It is possible to search back issues of TheAutocar online courtesy of Grace’s Guide (http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Main_Page) but that just confirms the massive variety of vehicles available to early enthusiasts of motoring. If this clergyman was one of them he must have caused quite a stir being able to shoot around his parish in his own motor car, but I rather suspect that he was induced to climb aboard by a car-owning parishioner and have his photograph taken for posterity.
Writing in the mid-1960s in his examination of the place of art in Liverpool (Art in a City) John Willett observes:
“In 1967 the new Roman Catholic cathedral will be consecrated. With its novel circular plan, like a vast upturned funnel, its windows by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens and its sculptures by William Mitchell, Frederick Gibberd’s great building quite possibly will take the breath away, and seems likely to provide for some years a religious-artistic sensation to rival Coventry.”
It was a striking addition to the cityscape and was described by Liverpool architect Quentin Hughes as “undoubtedly the major modern architectural attraction of the city”. At the time it was being built this maybe wasn’t so clear. In the 1960s Liverpool was undergoing a period of renewal that promised and threatened much in terms of architecture. City councillors had long been obsessed with constructing a ‘worthy’ civic centre and had identified the back of St George’s Hall for the location of this. By the 1960s this vision had taken on a grandiose form and encompassed an enormous series of buildings that would have snaked around the centre of the city. With a huge cross-shaped building impinging on St John’s Gardens behind St George’s Hall, Colin St John Wilson, the architect responsible, promised:
“…this is not an abstract building in space it is part of a whole texture – buildings, roads, Mersey Tunnel, Lime Street Station, with energy passing through a web of paths and creating points of focus. That’s the essence of it, to see this thing not isolated but as part of a whole traverse across the city.”
In the end most of this did not get built except for a ridiculous walkway at the back of the museums. But in the context of all this potential upheaval the new, defiantly modern Catholic Cathedral began to take shape. These two pictures by amateur photographers capture the process of building in the early 1960s:
As the “vast upturned funnel” began to take shape it must have been a challenging sight for passers-by. Certainly quite unlike anything else in Liverpool and a considerable contrast to every other church building in the city:
The building was completed and consecrated on 14th May 1967. In the Architectural Review of June 1967 Nicholas Taylor spoke of the new building’s “challenging relationship with Sir Giles Scott’s Catalan Gothic splendour for the Protestant ship-owners further along the ridge”. He also went on to draw a parallel with the other great post-war English cathedral of Coventry:
“The loosely defined image of the ‘big top’ or ‘wigwam’ will probably prove as big a success with the people in general as Spence’s Coventry, and there are already signs that it may acquire the same identity with Liverpool’s own civic image that Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City towers have with Chicago’s.
The reason is that it expresses with uncommon force one particular historical emotion: at Coventry it was the War Memorial with its symbolism of Sacrifice in the ruins and of Resurrection in the new church; at Liverpool it is the ecclesia triumphans of the Foleys and O’Reillys, a symbol of Catholic kingship riding high above the former Protestant ascendancy of merchants in the quaysides below.”
In some ways this analysis seems both patronising and sectarian although it is entirely understandable in the context of the times. But, in my view at least, the building expresses something more positive and is a hugely impressive spiritual space, a place worthy of pilgrimage. A rather more worthwhile legacy of the 1960s than what the city planners envisaged elsewhere.
At the time of its opening the council arranged for this floral decoration to adorn the roundabout in front of the Adelphi Hotel at the end of Lime Street. In the distance you can see St George’s Hall and plenty of evidence of ongoing construction work. And at the now demolished Futurist cinema they were showing Dr Zhivago:
I’ve written before about the Metropolitan Cathedral:
The three images above were all acquired on eBay for 99p. The photograph at the top of the page is one I took from the top of the Anglican Cathedral. Hope Street Church stood where the square-shaped white building stands at the bottom of the picture on the right hand side of the main road.
Following on the previous post on Hugh Stowell Brown we can add this image featuring his carte de visite. These were enormously popular aspects of life for the middle classes in the 1860s and represented an extension of portrait photography used more for collecting as keepsakes rather than as part of the niceties of Victorian social encounters as the name might indicate. They were seldom named and were probably kept more by families and, in the case of celebrities, by fans who liked to amass collections. This was probably as true for clergy as for other minor celebrities and one suspects that many members of Myrtle Street Chapel will have been quite proud of the cdv of their minister that they were able to stick into their album or lean on the mantelpiece.
This is quite a characterful study of the Rev Hugh Stowell Brown. It shows what a good job was done by the creator of the statue that was set outside his chapel some years later. He could almost be wearing the same coat. The card was produced by E. Swift & Son of 126 Bold Street, Liverpool and is quite a minimalist picture. Almost certainly this will have reflected Mr Brown’s own taste. Most of E. Swift & Son’s cartes feature other objects dragged in to add variety to the picture. Sometimes the curtain was removed to reveal a trompe l’oeil painting of a window and some plants. It’s probably better covered up to honest. He also eschewed the selection of decorated urns and Corinthian pillars that many liked to lean on for their photo shoots in Swifts and also didn’t need the Abbotsford chairs that were wheeled out from time to time. Perhaps wisest of all he didn’t use the cut-out ballustrade that sometimes appears behind the subject. Only the distinctive and perhaps slightly gaudy carpet detracts from the sober no-nonsense image.
So Hugh Stowell Brown created a carte de visite that managed to express quite a lot about who he was. He looks every inch the respectable and respected Baptist pastor, without adornment, and with integrity and a seriousness of purpose that could not be doubted.
The edition of Christian Life published to celebrate the centenary of the Trinity Act never fails to provide something of interest. Leafing through its pages the other day looking for something else I chanced upon the half page or so celebrating Willaston School. As with everything else in the whole issue it gives a celebratory account of the institution in question. I notice that the regular Sunday services were conducted by the headmaster or the Unitarian minister in Nantwich and that religious teaching in the school consisted of “instruction in the Bible, and in the history of liberal thought and religion”. The fees were £63 per annum although bursaries were available for the sons of ministers. It paints a positive picture of music, the classics, cricket etc. with every boy cultivating his own allotment in the twenty-four acres of grounds and “a resident staff of university men”. It provided “a public school education on modern lines”. For those who could afford it, it was a golden age, the last days of the old order before everything was changed utterly by the First World War.
One of the things the recently published book Willaston School Nantwich edited by Andrew Lamberton and published by Willaston and District History Group brings out is how heavily militarised the school became after the war started. There is nothing unusual in that but nearly every boy and member of staff became a member of the Army Cadet Corps and many of them were to be killed at the front in a matter of years, a great many of them decorated for bravery as I have already noticed in the previous post. At least one founding pupil took a different view though. Although I have mentioned him in the forthcoming review of the book that will appear in the 2016 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society I didn’t mention him in the previous post. William Mellor joined the school in 1900 and went on to Exeter College, Oxford. He was a prefect and a captain of cricket and football. He ended up as editor of the Daily Herald and the Tribune. He got his radical socialism from his father, the Rev Stanley Mellor, and was a conscientious objector in the First World War. His career was not without significance in the development of the Labour party.
But one other short passage from the Willaston book stuck in my mind. In the chapter on 1914-1924 short passages illustrating the activities of the Cadets are given, taken from the school magazine, including this one on page 45:
In April 1918, “We have only had one lecture this term; that was a most interesting one from Captain Kitchen, (Old Willastonian) Assistant Instructor at the Command Gas School Aldershot. Besides the description of the uses of gas, various specimens of gas masks displayed, practical demonstrations were given of tear-gas and smoke bombs.”
This must have been R.T. Kitchen who was at the school from 1903 to 1908. The first use of gas by British troops came at the battle of Loos in 1915. It was not a success, the wind blew the gas back into the British trenches. Later in the war the allies also utilised mustard gas. A grim job indeed to be assistant instructor at the Gas Command School.
In one of the many images in the Willaston School Nantwich book there is a picture of the Football XI in 1908 (page 60). There they sit, the first eleven, a confident looking W. Mellor (captain) seated in the centre. To his left is Norman Ebbutt who served in the RNVS throughout the First World War, and who later became The Times correspondent in Berlin until he was expelled by Goebbels. To William Mellor’s right is a young R.T. Kitchen.
Willaston School Nantwich. Later St Joseph’s and Elim Bible College, Andrew Lamberton (ed.), Willaston and District History Group, Chester, 2015. ISBN 978-0-949001-56-6. £11.95.
The Willaston District History Group are to be congratulated on publishing this fascinating, well-illustrated book.
Willaston School was a relatively short-lived minor public school established under the provisions of the will of Philip Barker, a prominent member of the Unitarian Chapel in Nantwich. On his death in 1898, with no close living relatives, he left his house and estate to be turned into a school for boys of Unitarian families. He may also have intended to provide a service to the sons of Unitarian ministers and also hoped to create a feeder school for Manchester College, Oxford where pupils could go to train for the Unitarian ministry. In this last aim they don’t appear to have been successful, only three ex-pupils went into the Unitarian ministry.
Most of my knowledge of this school previously came from the writings of the late Rev John McLachlan and seeing the war memorial that he had moved to Harris Manchester College after the closure of the school. Founded right at the start of the twentieth century the school seemed to flourish in the decade before the First World War when so many ex-pupils joined up, many lost their lives and a large cohort of their number were decorated for gallantry – including a VC, three MCs, two Albert Medals, one DFC, a DSM and three further mentions in despatches. The VC was awarded posthumously to Philip Hirsch of Leeds. Later Sir Sydney Jones of Liverpool opened a memorial chapel in the school to those who had lost their lives in the war, and a new swimming pool was given in his memory by Philip Hirsch’s parents.
WIllaston School Nantwich is an impressive account of the life of a unique Unitarian educational institution from a vanished age. Based largely on the record of writings by four former pupils, including John McLachlan, the book gives a very full account of all aspects of school life including academic matters, sports, music, drama, excursions, clubs and societies and much more. The book includes a list of all the students and accounts of the lives of those who were killed in the First World War. What makes the book even more interesting is the tremendous selection of photographs taken from a collection of 230 glass lantern slides held at Harris Manchester College which really do give a very full picture of life in the school. The school was only operational from 1900 to 1937 but is clearly well remembered in the locality. After closure it became a Roman Catholic ‘Industrial School’ and later still became an Elim Bible College. But this book is mainly about its Unitarian era and is well worth reading.
In 2014 the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was in place at the Tower of London. It seemed to capture the popular imagination in a powerful way. Created by artist Paul Cummins and designed by Tom Piper 888,246 ceramic poppies cascaded out of the Tower of London to progressively fill the moat. Each poppy represented a British military fatality in the First World War.
The story of the poppies at the Tower of London can be seen here:
It is interesting how art and remembrance could combine so effectively in people’s minds and the poppies from the installation have continued to be used in different ways around the country since, part of the installation moving to St George’s Hall in Liverpool in November.
I was fortunate to be able to see the ‘Weeping Windows’ installation in Liverpool shortly before it ended on 17th January 2016.
Several thousand poppies poured from a high vantage point in the Hall on to the ground below. As such a significant building St George’s Hall made a magnificent backdrop for the poppies and over 300,000 visitors are estimated to have travelled to see it in place.
As the notice at the installation made clear this was a particularly appropriate venue for such a display. The plateau outside St George’s Hall became the rallying point for the men who formed the Liverpool Pals under the direction of Lord Derby in the First World War. In March 1915 Lord Kitchener inspected nine battalions of Liverpool Pals formed up outside the Hall, local men who had volunteered to serve together. In the years after the First World War the memorial for the dead of the city was placed outside the Hall and near here the installation was placed.
The building of Chowbent Chapel in 1722 speaks volumes for the determination of Lancastrian dissent in the early eighteenth century. Having retained possession of the chapel of ease after the ejections of 1662 it wasn’t until the 1720s that the local landlord managed to expel dissenters from the essentially Anglican chapel, allegedly because of the part played by the minister ‘General’ James Wood and his congregation in suppressing the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.
The new chapel was built on land owned by the Mort family who appear to have been generous supporters and benefactors and who had a great importance in Lancashire non-conformity in general. But the chapel, to me at least, always has something of the sense of a fortress about it – the solid, square walls, the ancient oak pillars, the studded door into the church, the large memorial to ‘General’ Wood above the pulpit.
But it is also full of interesting details that would be easy to miss. There is a large amount of stained glass but I had forgotten about the appearance of an image of the chapel itself in the window depicting Jesus and the children. The three decker pulpit is incredibly impressive and with the traditional pulpit cushions very much looks the part still. You can’t miss the pulpits and reading desk but you might miss the small section of panel cut out from behind the top pulpit. Here it was said they had to make space for the door to open wider in order to admit the well-fed frame of the Rev Thomas Belsham when he visited in the nineteenth century!
It has been some years since I was last at the chapel and I had a recollection of seeing the grave of the Rev John Taylor laid flat in the grounds of the chapel. John Taylor being the first Tutor in Divinity at the Warrington Academy. But this is not the case – John Taylor is certainly buried there but his gravestone was removed when the front of the church was extended to make way for the organ and vestibule in 1901. There is however, a touching memorial to him and his wife.
The reason for my visit in January was to be part of the congregation to celebrate 25 years of ministry by the Rev Brenda Catherall and I was delighted to play a small part in that special service. Brenda has been minister there since 2007 following ministries in Bank Street, Bolton and Monton and has given 25 years of devoted service to the Unitarian ministry and touched the lives of a great many people through her outstanding work. There is something so appropriate about her ministry in the congregation in which she grew up and which has always had a special place in her affections.
The chapel encapsulates the proud tradition of dissent and non-conformity in the town and it is so encouraging to see the congregation in such good heart and in such good hands.
A good number of people braved winter weather, heavy traffic and seasonal busy-ness to attend the unveiling of the Ulster History Circle Blue Plaque commemorating the Rev Henry Montgomery (1788-1865) on the walls of his old meeting house in Dunmurry on 18th December 2015. Appropriately enough the unveiling was done by the Very Rev William McMillan, Henry Montgomery’s successor for 45 years and undoubtedly the person most knowledgeable about his life and career.
The premises and grounds of Dunmurry have always been immaculately kept and the meeting house provided a very suitable space for the speeches immediately after the unveiling. This has been a year of commemoration marking the 150th anniversary of Henry Montgomery’s death and, as Ian Crozier observed in his speech, the Ulster Scots Agency had assisted in the republication of Bill McMillan’s booklet on Montgomery, A Profile in Courage, first published fifty years ago and still the most useful introduction to his life and work.
As was also pointed out in the speeches this is not the first blue plaque to a Rev Henry Montgomery (the other one being the founder of the Shankill Road Mission), and it is certainly not the first blue plaque for a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, but I think it is the first blue plaque for a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister (although at least two sons of the manse have already made it onto a blue plaque).
In his speech the Rev Bill McMillan quoted comments made by the Banner of Ulster, a newspaper not sympathetic to Montgomery’s religious position. At the time of his death it said:
Never did his powers of eloquence shine out more conspicuously than when he was denouncing tyranny, in other lands or his own; or pleading for the rights of humanity. He contended that a man’s religion should never subject him to penalty or inconvenience and he claimed liberty alike for Protestant and Catholic, for Christian, Jew and Deist.
Very much a pioneer and champion of what today would be called human rights it seems fitting that he should be remembered. Henry Cooke, his old opponent, after all has a prominent statue, Henry Montgomery certainly deserves his plaque.
In my previous post about Rev Porter Orr I mentioned St Thomas’ Unitarian Chapel in Ringwood, Hampshire. This particular meeting house (which closed in the mid-1970s) had the rare designation for a Unitarian chapel of being dedicated to (or at least named after) a saint. This is not unique – by far the most famous Unitarian church named after a saint is St Mark’s in Edinburgh – but it is worth giving some consideration to.
Victorian Unitarian church builders could often be quite keen on saints, of course. In the era of gothic rebuilding in the nineteenth century decorative windows featuring Burne Jones saints were often inserted, as the above view of the chancel of Ullet Road Church shows.
Most Unitarian churches get very dull names, they usually get called after the street they are situated on or the district they are in although sometimes more interesting terminology can be applied such as ‘Great Meeting’ or ‘New Meeting’ (or indeed ‘Old Chapel’). What they tend not to be is named after saints.
That is not to say that Unitarians couldn’t be creative – and also very orthodox – in their church names when they wanted to be. A quick trawl through the invaluable Vestiges of Protestant Dissent published by George Eyre Evans in 1897 (which contains a list of all the Unitarian congregations at that time) reveals no less than eight congregations called ‘Christ Church’ ( I think Bridgwater may be the only survivor of this group). Not mentioned in Vestiges are most of the three churches that I can think of called ‘All Souls’’. This designation probably comes from a slightly later period (All Souls’, Belfast had just been built in 1896) and although to outsiders this probably comes across as a very high Anglican name it is really a more typically Unitarian name in the twentieth century than Christ Church, although the use of this name in England, at least, has ceased I think.
Other popular nineteenth-century Unitarian names (none of them still in use so far as I know) were ‘Church of the Saviour’, which was used by three congregations, and the ‘Church of the Messiah’ and the ‘Church of our Father’ which each had a single use. More overtly Unitarian names were ‘Unity’, which had five takers in 1897 some of them still continuing today, and one ‘Church of the Divine Unity’.
What Unitarians have tended not to do is name churches after individuals –saints in the sense of the people of God – but there are three examples of this that I can think of – Matthew Henry, John Pounds and Edmund Kell, who all have their congregational memorials.
Methodist Unitarians were very keen on Biblical names for their churches – ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘Nazareth’ being the best-known examples of this. In Vestiges there is also one obscure ‘Salem’ founded as a break away from Calvinistic Baptists in King’s Lynn in 1811.
But naming a Unitarian church after a saint is something that does raise questions. How and why did the congregation select that saint? Which saint of that name did they actually mean? Was there ever any suggestion of the congregation being directly inspired by that saint?
It is often thought that St Mark’s Church is a unique example of the naming of a Unitarian church after a saint but clearly that is not so. What is curious about Ringwood is that the chapel (which is now an interpretative centre for local history) was built in 1727 but only started using the name of St Thomas some time in the first half of the nineteenth century. Why this was so is anybody’s guess. The name was certainly used for a long time, the Rev John Midgely has found instances of it being used in advertisements in the Inquirer in the 1930s, although it seems to have been dropped before it closed in 1975. What is different about St Mark’s in Edinburgh is that this was the name chosen at the time of its building in 1835 and in use ever since. The Rev Andrew Hill has suggested that no one knows why the name was chosen, but presumably the gospel writer was regarded with favour by the Edinburgh people.
But, according to the Vestiges, there was another chapel that took the name of a saint. This was St Michael’s Chapel in Selby. This congregation dated from 1672 and built a new chapel in 1699 which G.E. Evans suggests was called St Michael’s from the start. This seems unlikely in 1699 but the name was definitely in use for a long time and was transferred to the modest new building that was finally opened in 1903 (following some years in a temporary building from 1886). The congregation closed in 1968 according to The Unitarian Heritage and the building passed into other uses, although it still seems to stand.
So there we have the three Unitarian churches named after saints. There were quite a number of churches built on streets with saints’ names – St Nicholas’ Street etc – and there are a few examples of Unitarian chapels later being consecrated by the Church of England and being given a saint’s name. But these are the only three that are definitely named after saints. Can anyone shed any further light on them? It would be interesting to hear any accounts of either St Thomas’ or St Michael’s or indeed of any other saintly churches. In the meantime we have a Unitarian trinity – St Mark, St Thomas and St Michael.
With regard to St Michael’s Chapel, Selby the Rev Andrew Hill has sent the following interesting information:
“The congregation at Selby traces its origin to the visit of a puritan preacher, Noah Ward, from York, in the year 1660. As an itinerant minister he continued to make frequent visits to Selby down to the time of his death, which occurred in 1699. It is said that in honour of the memory of this preacher St. Michael’s Chapel was built in that same year by a gentleman of the name of Barstow. It seems to have owed its name to the fact that one of the Christian names of the said gentleman was Michael, whose good deed it was thought would be perpetuated by calling the place after Michael the archangel. After the death of Mr. Barstow the Chapel was given in trust by his widow, Alice Barstow. contemporary with the Barstow family there were two other families of similar social standing who were associated with the Chapel; these were the Bacons and the Morritts. Beatrix Bacon, wife of Christopher Bacon, bequeathed the land near the town, from which a portion of the minister’s stipend is still paid. A silver Communion Cup is still preserved, on which is engraved: “The Gift of Beatrix Bacon to the Selby Chapel.” The first minister was John Troviss; who was followed by a John Hodgson, and on the removal of the latter to Lincoln, a Mr. Foljamb took his place. From this date until nearly the end of 1886, when worship in the old Chapel ceased on account of its dilapidated state, there were eight ministers of whom Thomas Smith was the first and J. M. Pilkington the last. The new chapel, which is of red brick and on the old site, has been erected to an approximate cost of £400, including the interior fittings, and has accommodation for 125 It was opened on September 24th, 1903, the Rev. Ceredig Jones, M.A., of Bradford, preaching on the occasion. the present minister is the Rev. John Dale.” From: The Unitarian Chapels of Yorkshire.
Does anyone remember the chapel built in 1903? Dare one ask is the silver communion cup still preserved today?
In two recent articles [in the April 2015 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society and the June 2015 issue of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine] I have written about the Rev John Orr (1829-1896) a scholarly and successful minister in nineteenth-century Ireland whose career took a strange and unexpected turn when he emigrated to the United States in 1879. Whatever the intention of his move to New England his career didn’t flourish on the other side of the Atlantic and by the time of his death he was little remembered in his homeland. This is a pity because he was an important figure in his own day whose two major published works won plaudits and whose ministry at Comber, co. Down helped to establish and grow a fairly new congregation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he had been almost forgotten since leaving Comber for Cambridge, Massachusetts in June 1879, although the first step towards raising his profile probably came with the publication of the Thoemmes Dictionary of Irish Philosophers in 2004 in which I co-wrote the entry on him with Professor M.A. Stewart.
But following my article on John Orr in the 2015 Transactions the second article in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian is as much about his family background – as both the son and the brother of Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers he was part of a notable dynasty – and this also deserves to be noticed.
His father, Alexander, was born in about the year 1798 and grew up in the Moneyreagh congregation. Alexander’s friend the Rev S.C. Nelson of Downpatrick reported of his background that:
there he was brought up under the guidance and auspices of that foremost champion of Unitarian Christianity, that true and consistent representative of the earnest loving spirit of the pure and living faith of the Gospel – the buoyant, persevering, and self-sacrificing Fletcher Blakely.
This input, together, no doubt, with his education at Moses Neilson’s Rademon Academy, (supplemented by time at Glasgow University and the Belfast Academical Institution) led him to incline towards the non-subscribers by the time of the second subscription controversy. Alexander Orr was already minister of Second Anaghlone by this time but although his sympathies were with Henry Montgomery and his followers he and his congregation did not join the Remonstrant Synod in 1829 and he waited until 1838 before joining them when he became minister of Ballyhemlin. Here he kept a classical school and remained as minister until his death in 1869.
This provides the background for the ministry of his son, the Rev John Orr who was both minister at Comber and, from 1866, Professor of Church History, Pastoral Theology and Moral Philosophy for his denomination. If you want to read about him, his publications, his ideas, his importance, and his mysterious emigration to the USA at the age of 50 then the full story can be found in my article ‘Rev John Orr of Comber, county Down and Cambridge, Massachusetts’ in the April 2015 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, but I will attempt now to place him in the context of his family.
Alexander married Nancy Porter and all three of their children (at least those that we know about) were born while he was minister at Anaghlone. Unfortunately no baptismal register survives for that congregation so we can’t check for additional siblings and we don’t have accurate dates of birth for two of the three brothers. The eldest son, however, was named Porter Orr and must have been born in about 1826 and he was the first to follow his father into the ministry.
Like his father, and his brother John, Porter Orr trained for the ministry at the Belfast Academical Institution. College records at the time are not complete, however, and although we know that his time as a student overlapped with John Orr we don’t know so much about his time there. At the end of his time as a Remonstrant student he became part of the export of ministers produced by the non-subscribers. Training ministers to a high standard there was a surplus of potential ministers over vacancies and a number of students took up pulpits at churches in England. After being licensed by the Presbytery of Bangor Porter Orr accepted a call to the Unitarian church at Ringwood in Hampshire in 1845. With its origins in the seventeenth century the meeting house, then known as St Thomas’ Chapel, was built in 1728. Porter Orr stayed here for five years before accepting a call to Strabane and returned to Ireland in 1850.
As a new congregation Strabane was part of the fruit of the quite committed and successful missionary effort of the Remonstrant Synod and one of the few congregations to be founded west of the Bann. Porter Orr was the third minister of the congregation and had succeeded his brother John who had been minister there from March 1848 to May 1850.
Recently a portrait has come to light of a minister painted in about 1850. Generously donated to the Comber Church by a direct descendant of John Orr this shows a youngish man in the clerical attire of the mid-nineteenth century. It is undated and has been reframed in modern times, when someone has written on the back the name Thomas Porter Orr. I think we can fairly confidently assume that this is a portrait of the Rev Porter Orr. It is only small in size, the books in the portrait cannot be identified, but its provenance in the Orr family and the fact that it is certainly a clergyman would suggest – to me at least – that Thomas Porter Orr and the Rev Porter Orr were one and the same person. The portrait could have been made in Ringwood or Strabane, we can’t know for sure, but it is a charming and touching memento of a life that was cut short. Porter Orr resigned his charge on 30th January 1855, he died less than two weeks later on 12th February.
The congregation of Strabane did not last much longer, Porter Orr was the last minister and the congregation effectively ceased in 1857. But it was important to the Orrs and the denomination. John Orr was there long enough to meet his wife – Sarah Jane Porter – the daughter of James Porter, one of the founders of the Strabane congregation, and they married in October 1851. Sarah Jane’s sister, Catherine, married the Rev David Maginnis, another prominent minister in the last half of the century, in 1845.
Of his brother John Orr we can say that he was one of the outstanding intellects of his generation of ministers within the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches, but despite his highly successful ministerial and academic careers, along with David Maginnis, his brother in law, he often found himself at the centre of the increasingly strident infighting that bedevilled the non-subscribers at the time, although he was held in high regard by his colleagues, especially those who shared his radical theological views.
What impelled Orr to leave for America? Was it a sense of bereavement following the death of his first wife at the age of 42 in 1865? Or was it some sense of unfulfilled ambition? Or a sense of dissatisfaction with his denomination? Or had some issue arisen in Comber that meant he should depart? Again we will never know exactly. But we know quite a lot about what he did in America, the introductions he had and the aims he carried with him across the Atlantic. We know also that he died on 19th August 1896 and was buried in Mount Auburn cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. His second son Alexander, who was a journalist, joined him in the Boston area but predeceased him in 1891 aged 35 and was buried in the same cemetery. His youngest daughter lived in Boston until 1960 when she died and was buried in the same plot as her father. What became of his second wife Agnes is not known. Most of the rest of the family are commemorated on the imposing memorial in the graveyard in Comber.