14 February 2023

Stepney Meeting House
represents a 380-year
‘Dissenting’ tradition

Stepney Meeting House … a ‘Dissenting’ tradition dating back to 1644 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Stepney and the East End of London last week, and took time especially to visit Saint Dunstan’s Church in Stepney, which had close associations with one branch of the Comberford or Comerford family from the late 16th century into the early 18th century.

The story of Saint Dunstan’s in the mid-17th century is closely linked with the development of ‘Dissent’ in Stepney, particularly the Independents or Congregationalist and the Presbyterians, two traditions represented today in Stepney Meeting House.

Stepney Meeting House can be traced back to the first independent or Congregationalist congregation in East London. It was founded in 1644 by Henry Barton and his wife, William Parker, John Odinsell, William Greenhill, and John Pococke. Those present at that founding meeting included the Revd Henry Burton (1578-1648), the vicar of Saint Matthew’s, Friday Street, whose ears were cropped, along with those of William Prynne, in 1637, for publishing anti-Laudian tracts.

The Revd William Greenhill (1591-1671), a member of the Westminster Assembly, was the first minister of Stepney Meeting, from its foundation in 1644 until his death in 1671. He was probably born in Oxfordshire. At the age of 13 he matriculated at Oxford in 1604 and he studied at Magdalen College (BA 1609, MA 1612).

Greenhill was the Vicar of New Shoreham, Sussex, a living in the patronage of Magdalen College, from 1615 to 1633. He appears to have had a parish ministry in the Diocese of Norwich, but suffered the ire of Bishop Matthew Wren for refusing to read The Book of Sports, listing the sports and recreations permitted on Sundays and holy days.

Greenhill then moved to London, and was chosen afternoon preacher to the congregation at Stepney, while Jeremiah Burroughes ministered in the morning. He was a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, convened in 1643, and was one of the Independents. He preached before the House of Commons on 26 April 1643, and his sermon was published by command of the house, with the title The Axe at the Root.

Greenhill was present at the formation of Stepney Meeting House, the first independent of congregational church in Stepney, in 1644 and was appointed its first pastor. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, parliament appointed Greenhill as the chaplain to three of the king’s children: James, Duke of York, later James II, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and Lady Henrietta Anne.

Oliver Cromwell appointed Greenhill as one of the ‘commissioners for approbation of public preachers’ in 1654. He was a member of the committee that drafted the Savoy Declaration in 1658. Cromwell also seems to have appointed Greenhill as vicar of Saint Dunstan’s and All Saints, the old parish church of Stepney, while he continued as pastor of the independent church.

He was ejected from Stepney Parish immediately after the Caroline Restoration in 1660, but he remained the pastor of the independent church, Stepney Meeting House, until he died on 27 September 1671.

Between 1661 and 1689, more members of conventicles were taken to court from Stepney than anywhere else in Middlesex. The figures for these arrests reflect not only the strength of Dissent but also the availability of troops under the lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets.

Greenhill was succeeded at Stepney Meeting House in 1671 by Matthew Mead (1630-1699), who was born in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, and spent his childhood in Mursley, Buckinghamshire. Mead was elected a scholar of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1648, and became a fellow in 1649. He resigned on 6 June 1651, probably to avoid expulsion.

When the Revd Francis Charlett, rector of Great Brickhill, Buckinghamshire, died in 1653, Mead hoped to succeed him. When the patron, John Duncombe, presented the Revd Thomas Clutterbuck and then the Revd Robert Hocknell, Mead appealed to the Cromwellian authorities and called in a troop of horse as he forced himself on the parish. After violence and a stand-off, Mead stood back and became the morning lecturer at Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, where Greenhill was the afternoon lecturer.

Mead married Elizabeth Walton in Saint Mary Woolnoth Church in 1654. They lived in Gracechurch Street, and in 1656 he became a member of the congregational church in Stepney formed by Greenhill in 1644. Oliver Cromwell appointed Mead to the ‘new chapel’ of Saint Paul’s Church, Shadwell, in 1658.

Mead was ejected from Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, and Saint Paul’s, Shadwell, at the Restoration in 1660, and also lost his appointment at Saint Sepulchre’s, Holborn, at the Great Ejection in 1662. He was living at Worcester House, Stepney, in 1663, and he seems to have been in London during the Great Plague in 1665. But he was driven into exile in Holland in 1666.

Matthew Mead was ejected from Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, at the Restoration in 1660 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Stepney had several buildings in 1669 that were fitted up as meeting houses, besides conventicles in private houses. Presbyterians had fitted up a warehouse near Ratcliff Cross, where 200 were said to meet, and a purpose-built house in Spitalfields, where 800 met under Dr Samuel Annesley. They also had a chapel in Broad Street, Wapping-Stepney, from 1668.

The Quakers had a purpose-built brick house in Schoolhouse Lane, Ratcliff (Brook Street), for 500, and a meeting place for 500 in Westbury Street.

Baptists met at the houses of Thomas Launder, a rich butcher, in Limehouse, where the congregation was 100, and of Mr Cherry in Poplar, where Launder was the preacher. In Wapping, they had a purpose-built house in Artichoke Lane, with a congregation of 200, as well as the old meeting house in Meeting House Alley.

In addition to the congregation who shared the Meeting House Alley building with the Baptists and the Stepney Meeting at Greenhill’s house, Independents also met in Rose Lane, Spitalfields, at a house in Bethnal Green, and at a house in Red Maid Lane, Wapping, with a congregation of 300.

The Baptists and Independents were said to assemble daily at one or other of their meeting houses, and to baptise many of the children of the parish.

Mead was called back to Stepney in 1669 as the assistant to Greenhill, and shortly after Greenhill’s death in 1671 he was called to succeed him as pastor. Mead was ordained on 14 December 1671 by John Owen, Joseph Caryl and two others.

Mead’s congregation was the largest in London. On 1 May 1674, he instituted a May Day sermon to the young; he always held a Good Friday service. A meeting house was built for him in Stepney in 1674 on a piece of ground to the west of Saint Dunstan’s Church, south of Stepney Green and near what is now the corner of Stepney Way and Garden Street.

The meeting house opened on 13 September 1674. The roof was upheld by four round pine pillars, presented to Mead by the States of Holland. An attic above the ceiling had a concealed entrance, designed as a hiding-place for the congregation in troubled times.

Sir William Smith, the lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets, took a strong guard with him when he broke into the meeting house in December 1682, pulled down the pulpit, and broke up the benches.

Mead was apprehended in June 1683 on suspicion of complicity in the Rye House Plot. After his release, he was implicated in Monmouth’s Rebellion, and fled to the Netherlands once again in 1686 an stayed in Amsterdam and Utrecht. But he returned to Stepney after James II’s declaration on liberty of conscience in 1687.

After the Williamite Revolution, galleries were built in the meeting house in 1689, and the adjoining residence and garden were settled by the congregation on Mead and his heirs.

Mead supported the movement initiated by John Howe for an amalgamation of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist bodies. The ‘happy union’ held its meeting at Stepney on 6 April 1691, when Mead preached. When the union broke up in 1694 over the alleged heresies of Daniel Williams, Mead took a moderate part.

Mead preached his last sermon on May Day 1699. He died on 16 October 1699, aged 70, and was buried in Stepney churchyard, near the south door of Saint Dunstan’s Church.

The ‘Old Meeting House’ was demolished in 1863 and a new Meeting House was built close by on the same piece of ground. It was badly bombed during the Blitz in World War II, and the remains of this were demolished in 1950 and the site was incorporated into Stepney City Farm.

A third Meeting House was built and opened in 1960. This was on the south side of Stepney Way, on the corner with Copley Street. When the Congregational Church of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England amalgamated and formed the United Reformed Church in 1972, Stepney Meeting joined up with the John Knox Presbyterian Church some 400 yards further west along Stepney Way.

For a short while, both buildings continued to be used for worship. But in 1976 the building on the corner with Copley Street was sold to the John Cass Foundation for use as a school chapel. The United Church, now worshipping in what had been the John Knox Church, decided to use the name Stepney Meeting House.

John Knox Presbyterian Church, on Stepney Way, was founded in 1844. The church was built on the site of what is now Clichy House. The street at that time was Green Street, but the address of the church was Oxford Street, the name the street took just one block west. The whole street is now Stepney Way.

Redevelopment after the war led to the destroyed church being rebuilt in 1955, 55 yards to the west, and known as John Knox Presbyterian Church. Then, at the formation of the United Reformed Church in 1972, John Knox Church merged with and took on the name of Stepney Meeting House.

Stepney Meeting House … part of the United Reformed Church formed in 1972 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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