18 September 2019
I was speaking last night [17 September 2019] in Lichfield on the Comberford family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth. The lecture marked the opening of a new season or programme for Lichfield Civic Trust for 2019-2020 and about 60 or 65 people were present in the Wade Street Church Community Hall on Frog Lane.
Wade Street Church represents the continuity of a religious tradition that dates back to 1672, when five houses in Lichfield were licensed for Presbyterian worship. The Congregationalists met in Tunstalls Yard in 1790, grew into the United Reformed Church in Wade Street, which is now both a United Reformed and a Baptist church.
Shortly before last night’s lecture, I had an interesting, personal guided tour of the church.
Despite the evangelical revival in the late 18th century, Lichfield remained a staunchly Anglican city. A storeroom on Sandford Street was fitted for public worship by George Burder of Coventry and John Moody of Warwick in 1790, but by 1796 the congregation had declined and closed.
But the situation changed again in 1802, and the former chapel on Sandford Street reopened in 1802 as an ‘Independent’ or Congregationalist chapel. William Salt from Cannock was one of the first leaders of the new church, and the Christian Society, as it then called itself, was formally set up on 13 June 1808.
However, Salt wrote of how the new congregation faced considerable local opposition, and the numbers attending dwindled to 60. As a consequence of this strong local opposition, 19-year-old Henry Fairbrother, a tailor’s apprentice, poisoned himself. The jury at his inquest agreed his suicide was caused by ‘lunacy due to the effects produced by the doctrines he had heard at the meeting of the persons called “The Methodists”.’
The entry for his burial at Saint Chad’s Church reads: ‘buried Henry Fairbrother, an exemplary young man until driven to despair and suicide by the denunciation of the peopled called “Methodists”.’
Of course, the Congregationalists were not Methodists, but at the time the two groups were often confused by people in Lichfield.
Meanwhile, Salt was attacked in pamphlets circulated throughout Lichfield. In response, he preached a sermon and distributed 1,000 copies to every house in Lichfield. The response was positive, and a fund was set up to build an ‘Independent’ or Congregationalist chapel by subscription.
Salem Chapel on Wade Street was registered for public worship on 17 September 1811, the church was officially opened on Wednesday 18 March 1812, and the Revd William Salt was ordained as its first full-time minister.
The church was designed as a simple ‘preaching box,’ with a central pulpit but with no stained glass or any other decoration. The style of a lecture hall emphasised the centrality of the preaching of the word of God.
To meet the needs of a growing congregation, the rear gallery was opened on Christmas Day 1815, and the side galleries added by 1824. One of these side galleries still has the original numbered box pews that continued to be rented until the early 20th century.
Salt, who was the pastor of the Independent Church in Lichfield for 33 years, died on 1 June 1857.
The church was renovated in the 1870s, when new pews in light wood were installed downstairs and the interior was painted. The Lichfield Mercury reported that the once ‘dingy and uninviting interior now had a cheerful and inviting aspect.’
A celebratory party in the Corn Exchange – now McKenzie’s Restaurant – was attended by 350 people.
A new organ with 566 pipes was bought for £180 in 1884.
The Revd William Francis Dawson was appointed minister in 1895, with an annual stipend of £100. But the stipend was insufficient, and things began to decline in the church. The Sunday school closed in 1900, the trustees closed the chapel in 1902 and Dawson resigned.
The church remained closed for 15 months. But seven members met in 1903 to discuss reopening the chapel. Staffordshire Congregational Union made a grant of £70 towards a minister’s stipend, and in turn was given a voice in running the church and calling its ministers.
The church reopened in June 1903 along with the Sunday School, and things continued to improve. A new pulpit was erected in 1916, and a new hall was built on Frog Lane in 1932. In the decades that followed, the congregation grew and declined, following national trends.
The Congregationalist churches in Britain united with the Presbyterian Church in 1972 to form the United Reformed Church, and Wade Street Church was part of this new union.
An attempt was made to sell the church in 1980s. But Lichfield District Council listed the building, it was refurbished, a new floor was provided, the pews were ‘dipped’ and cleaned, new carpets were laid, and the old tortoise stove was removed.
The congregation grew steadily in the 1990s, and the church became an ecumenical partnership with the Baptists.
The organ was removed in 1997, creating more space, and new seating was installed throughout the building.
A £500,000 project was launched to redevelop the premises, and new multipurpose facilities opened in 2005, ahead of target and under budget.
The Revd Ian Hayter is the minister of Wade Street Church. The church and its halls are used today by a variety of community groups, including Lichfield Civic Trust, who hosted last night’s lectures, as well as the Cathedral Chorus, the Wildlife Folk, Weightwatchers and the Food Bank.
I have been staying overnight in Lichfield, having spoken last night at the invitation of Lichfield Civic Society on the Comberford Family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth.
I am staying in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, on the northern fringes of Lichfield, with views across the open countryside, and a glimpse of the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral in the distance.
My room in the Hedgehog is named Erasmus Darwin, after the physician who lived in Lichfield for much of the 18th century and who was one of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment.
As I walked in out of Lichfield a few times yesterday, along Stafford Road and Beacon Street, I also visited the grounds of Erasmus Darwin House, close to the Cathedral Close, where Darwin lived and raised many of his children, and enjoyed some time in his gardens between the house and Vicars’ Close.
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) is best-known as the grandfather of Charles Darwin, the naturalist, but in his own right he was also a physician, a natural philosopher, a physiologist, and an inventor, and he was also an advocate of the abolition of slavery and a poet, whose poems included a discourse on evolution and the relatedness of all forms of life.
He was a member of the Darwin-Wedgwood family nexus that includes his grandsons Charles Darwin and Francis Galton, and he was a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers. On one occasion, it is said, he turned down an invitation from George III to become a physician to the King.
Erasmus Darwin was born on 12 December 1731 at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire near Newark-on-Trent, the youngest of seven children of Robert Darwin (1682-1754) of Elston, a lawyer and physician, and his wife Elizabeth Hill (1702-1797). The name Erasmus had been used by a number of members of his family and derives from an ancestor, Erasmus Earle, Common Sergeant of England under Oliver Cromwell.
He was educated at Chesterfield Grammar School and then later at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. However, it is not known whether Darwin ever obtained the formal degree of MD.
He started working as a physician at Nottingham in 1756, but he met with little success. He moved to Lichfield the following year to try to set up a practice in this cathedral city. A few weeks after his arrival in Lichfield, he used a novel course of treatment and restored the health of a young man whose death seemed inevitable.
This ensured his success in Lichfield, and for more than 50 years Darwin was a highly successful physician in the Midlands.
In Lichfield, he wrote ‘didactic poetry,’ developed his system of evolution, and invented amongst other things, a carriage steering mechanism, a manuscript copier and a speaking machine.
Darwin married twice and had 14 children, and also had two illegitimate daughters with his children’s governess, and he may have had at least one other illegitimate child.
He married Mary (Polly) Howard (1740-1770) in 1757, and they were the parents of four sons and a daughter, including Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), the father of the naturalist Charles Darwin.
When Polly died in 1770, Darwin employed Mary Parker as a governess to look after young Robert. By late 1771, Erasmus and Mary were intimately involved and they were the parents of two daughters, Susanna and Mary, who later set up a boarding school for girls. Erasmus may have fathered another child with Lucy Swift, a married woman.
Darwin met Elizabeth Pole in 1775. She was a daughter of Charles Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore and wife of Colonel Edward Pole (1718-1780), which led to a family connection with Comberford Hall. But, as Elizabeth was married at the time, Erasmus could only make his feelings known for her through poetry.
When Edward Pole died in 1780, Erasmus and Elizabeth were married and they moved to her home, Radbourne Hall, 6 km west of Derby. In 1782, they moved to Full Street, Derby, and they were parents of four more sons.
Darwin’s personal appearance is described in unflattering detail in his Biographical Memoirs, printed by the Monthly Magazine in 1802. He is described as ‘of middle stature, in person gross and corpulent; his features were coarse, and his countenance heavy; if not wholly void of animation, it certainly was by no means expressive. The print of him, from a painting of Mr Wright, is a good likeness. In his gait and dress he was rather clumsy and slovenly, and frequently walked with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.’
Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory, north of Derby. He was buried in All Saints’ Church, Breadsall.
Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstones, a series of monuments in Birmingham, and Erasmus Darwin House, his home in Lichfield, is now a museum dedicated to Erasmus Darwin and his life’s work.