01 June 2024

Unitarians have been
at the Great Meeting
chapel in Leicester for
more than 300 years

The Unitarian Chapel in Leicester, known as the Great Meeting … built in 1708 and the oldest complete brick building in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, in the six days following Trinity Sunday, I have been illustrating my prayer diary each morning with photographs and memories of churches in Greece that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

By way of contrast this evening, I am looking back on my visit last week to the Unitarian Chapel in Leicester, known historically as the Great Meeting. It was built in 1708, and it is the oldest complete brick building in Leicester, making it an important historic building in the city.

The chapel or Great Meeting is in a city centre location, close to the main shopping and recreational facilities in Leicester, and is included in a conservation area. It is engaged in a £250,000 restoration programme.

The chapel or Great Meeting In Leicester … built in 1708 to meet the needs of Congregationalists and Presbyterians (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Unitarian origins go back to the Presbyterian presence in Leicester after the English civil war in the mid-17th century. The congregation in Leicester was founded around 1672, after King Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence allowed nonconformist ministers the freedom to preach under license. For the next 36 years, the dissenters or nonconformists in Leicester met in cramped and unsuitable buildings, including one in what is now called Infirmary Square.

There was a close connexion between the Congregationalists and Presbyterians in Leicester by 1692, and in that year Edmund Spencer was the preacher to both congregations. Meanwhile, the Toleration Act (1689) allowed dissenters to build their own places of worship, and the chapel or Great Meeting was built in 1708 as a ‘Meeting House of Protestant Dissenters’, to meet the needs of Congregationalists and Presbyterians.

Together they bought the site, originally an orchard beside the Butt Close. The Cherry Tree pub, to this day next door to the chapel, is named because the orchard had cherry trees.

The two-storey red brick and stucco chapel and the central porch has Tuscan columns. The roof is a fine and intact example of early 18th century oak vernacular carpentry and has a unique and ingenious structure that suspends an octagonal plaster ceiling that dates from 1786.

The graveyard was converted into a garden in 1945 and is one of the few green spaces in that part of Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Although the Great Meeting is now Unitarian, it only became so at the beginning of the 19th century. The trust deeds of the chapel do not place any condition on the religious views of the congregation, but a members of the Great Meeting who did not welcome the move towards Unitarianism seceded and set up another Congregational chapel in 1800.

A tablet on one wall in the chapel records the marriage in 1837 of William Rowlett, reputedly the first marriage in a non-conformist chapel in England.

The chapel was extensively modified in 1866, when the seating capacity was expanded to 1,160, the chancel was added and an early 19th century gallery on three sides was replaced by the present gallery. The concert organ dates from 1882 and is in working order. Another Unitarian chapel was built in Wellington Street about 1876, but it was closed in 1901, when a chapel in Narborough Road was opened.

A garden room with kitchen and basement meeting room were added in 1995, allowing lettings for a variety of educational uses and to groups such as those providing refugee support.

The graveyard was converted into a garden in 1945. It is one of the few green spaces in that part of the city. It is an attractive resource and is open to the public several times a year.

The restored old school rooms accommodate a health centre for homeless people and asylum seekers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The old school rooms have been restored and modified and are rented out by the chapel to a NHS funded Health Centre for the homeless and asylum seekers.

The congregation supported a charity school from the early 18th century, clothing 20 boys and 20 girls, and teaching them to read and write. Children were vaccinated against smallpox and an invoice was submitted in 1750 for ‘washing the children’.

The congregation built a new school-building beside the Cherry Tree pub in 1813, and it was enlarged in 1848. Threatened with the loss of the government grants unless they reduced overcrowding, the congregation built a new range of schoolrooms to accommodate 1,000 children at a cost of £1,800, raised entirely from the members.

At first, only reading and writing were taught but by 1860 the curriculum included reading, writing, grammar, geography, scripture, history, arithmetic, vocal music and drawing. In addition, the boys were taught algebra, geometry, French and drill, and the girls were taught needlework.

The Great Meeting Day School closed in 1872 after the Education Act was passed, but the rooms continued to be used for the Sunday School and adult schools, and were rented out to the ‘Board School’.

Inside the Great Meeting … the chancel and galleries were added in 1866 (Photograph: Leicester Great Meeting)

Joseph Dare (1800-1883) ran the Leicester Domestic Mission for the Great Meeting Chapel from 1847 until he retired in 1876. He was a Unitarian, a teacher, accountant and enthusiastic voluntary worker.

The Domestic Mission aimed to provide social and practical help to the poor, coupled with encouragement to lead a more religiously observant life, leading to self-reliance and moral rectitude. Dare wrote a comprehensive report every year describing both living conditions in Victorian Leicester and his work. It is a unique and record of working class life and of his vocation as an early prototype social worker.

He visited thousands of homes each year to assess need, provide moral support and to comfort the dying. He was concerned at the lack of educational opportunity and set up an additional Sunday School, a library and adult evening classes supported by chapel volunteers.

Inside the Great Meeting … generations of members were active in many progressive causes (Photograph: Leicester Great Meeting)

The congregation was influential in Leicester in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the Unitarians in the Great Meeting providing many of the leading thinkers in Leicester. The contribution of members to the political, economic and cultural life of the town was out of proportion to their size or numbers.

They were active in many progressive causes including opposing slavery and demanding municipal reform, votes for women and universal education. Many members were also involved developing the hosiery trade in Leicester and in establishing banking and mechanised worsted spinning.

William Gardiner (1770-1853), a renowned composer and choirmaster, is credited with introducing Beethoven to England, with his first performance in 1794.

In the 19th century, chapel members helped found the Mechanics Institute, the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society and the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, which laid the foundations of the city’s modern museums.

The first seven mayors of Leicester following municipal reform in 1835 were all Unitarians, and the chapel became known locally as ‘The Mayor’s Nest’. The first of these seven mayors, Thomas Paget (1778-1862), was mayor in 1836-1837.

Other Unitarians who made great contributions to the political, economic and cultural life of Leicester included John Biggs (1801-1871), a hosiery merchant, political reformer, MP and three times Mayor of Leicester. The business leader John Mason Cook was a son of Thomas Cook, the pioneering travel agent.

In the 20th century, Joseph Fielding Johnson, a member of the congregation, was a major benefactor of University College, now the University of Leicester. The main administrative block, once the old ‘County Lunatic Asylum’, is now named after him.

Today a number of members of the congregation are active in public and political life, including Leicester’s first elected Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby.

The World War I war memorial in the porch of the Great Meeting (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The congregation has had many distinguished ministers. Early ministers included the Revd James Watson, who died in 1741, and the Revd Hugh Worthington, who died in 1797. The Revd Charles Berry (1783-1877) became the minister of the Great Meeting in 1803 at the age of 20, in succession to the Revd Robert Jacomb, and remained until 1859. During his time, the building was substantially re-modelled.

Berry was descended from a long line of Independent or Congregational ministers and was also descended from Sir Charles Wolseley. With leading members of his congregation, Berry played a major part in the movement for political reform in the town, and he was one of the founders of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, and of the Leicester Town Museum.

The Revd Thomas William Johnson Barker (1831-1895), who was ordained a Congregationalist minister, was the minister of the Bond Street Chapel from 1858 to 1867, and he wrote a history of the chapel in 1866. He returned to London as the minister of New College Chapel (1868-1889).

Barker rejoined the Church of England int 1890, was ordained that same year, and was a priest in Devonport, Plymouth, and Cullompton in Devon. He was succeeded at the Bond Street Chapel by the Revd Robert Harley (1828-1910), who later served as a Congregationalist minister in Huddersfield, Oxford, Sydney and London.

The Revd Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952) was chosen as the minister of the Narborough Road chapel in 1904 and was the first female minister in any denomination in England. A German Unitarian, she trained at Manchester College (now Harris Manchester College), Oxford, and also served in Birmingham. The 1905 communion set given to her as a gift was used at the Whitsun Communion on Sunday 19 May 2024.

The Revd Dr Arthur Stewart recently retired after 33 years of ministry. The Revd Arek Malecki was appointed last summer, with an induction service on 18 November 2023.

Great Meeting Chapel was the first religious establishment in Leicester to offer same-sex marriages.

Sunday services at 11 am usually follow the pattern of prayers, hymns, readings and an address, with coffee afterwards. There is a mid-week ‘Soul Haven’ meeting with short prayers and meditation on Thursdays. The chapel offers marriages, including same sex unions, naming ceremonies and funerals, which are also available on a humanist, non-theistic basis.

The Great Meeting Chapel and school … an artist's impression

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