04 June 2024

Leicester Secular Hall,
built in 1881, is part of
the diversity of belief
in a multi-faith city

Leicester Secular Hall at Leicester Secular Hall at 73-75 Humberstone Gate was designed by William Larner Sugden in 1881 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Leicester is known for its multi-faith environment and as Britain’s most ethnically diverse city. It had a rich tapestry of religious support and facilities and the city’s inclusivity is reflected in its places of worship, religious shops, community spaces, and prayer facilities.

Leicester’s diverse communities worship in the many churches, mosques, temples, mandirs, gurdwaras and synagogues throughout the city. But non-religious belief also plays a role in the life of Leicester, and the city has one of the only buildings in Britain that is dedicated to secularism.

Leicester Secular Society claims it is the world’s oldest secular society, and seeks ‘an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.’ It owes its survival to the long tradition of radical thought in Leicester and to the building of the Secular Hall in 1881.

Apart from Conway Hall in London, Leicester Secular Hall in Leicester city centre is the only building in Britain that is entirely devoted to secularism. Leicester Secular Hall at 73-75 Humberstone Gate was built in 1881 and today is a Grade II listed building.

Secularism was a very controversial idea in Victorian times, and the hall has a long tradition of hosting radical speakers from atheist, humanist and radical traditions.

Secularism in Leicester dates back to the 1780s, when artisans in the town corresponded with Thomas Paine. The first formal secular organisation was Branch 26 of Robert Owen’s Association of All Classes of All Nations. Branch 26 was founded in 1838 and meet in the Commercial Rooms near the market.

The first Leicester Secular Society was formed in 1852, and was re-established in 1867. The early Secular Society was led for many years by Josiah Gimson (1818-1883), an engineer and councillor, and William Henry Holyoak (1818-1907), a tailor.

Josiah Gimson, who was born into a Leicester Quaker family, was an active supporter of Robert Owen and was President of the local Owenite branch in Leicester. He became a secularist leader in Leicester in the 1850s, influenced by the ideas of George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the term ‘secularism’. Two of Gimson’s lectures to the society had the titles ‘Jesus Christ: a Witness for Secularism and against doctrinal Christianity’, and ‘The Ethical Teachings of Christ testify to the all-sufficiency of Secular Conduct’.

William Henry Holyoak’s family had attended the Great Meeting or Unitarian chapel in Leicester.

The terracotta busts by the sculptor Ambrose Lewis Vago represent Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and Jesus (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

By the late 1860s, the activities of Leicester Secular Society mainly involved discussion classes and it met regularly when it could find venues willing to host it. Frederick James Gould (1855-1938), the society secretary, claimed Josiah Gimson proposed building the hall came after George Holyoake was prevented from using a public room for a lecture in 1873. However, other sources suggest the inspiration came from articles Holyoake published in 1871, when he proposed a series of secular halls across Britain.

The Leicester Secular Hall Co Ltd was formed to build the hall, with Josiah Gimson as the main shareholder. A site was bought and Gimson engaged William Larner Sugden (1850-1901) of Leek, Staffordshire, as the architect, engaged the sculptor Ambrose Louis Vago, and was responsible for the controversial inclusion of a bust of Jesus on the façade.

The architect William Larner Sugden was a secularist who had worked for his father, also an architect, in Leek. There he had encountered the ideas of William Morris, who was studying textile dyeing in Leek in the 1870s. Sugden’s designs are described in the Historic England listing as ‘Free Flemish Renaissance’. Non-Gothic styles were used for civic buildings in Leicester at this time to distinguish them from the buildings of the Church of England.

The five terracotta busts by the sculptor Ambrose Lewis Vago (1839-1896) on the façade represent Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and Jesus. In the original plans, bronze belts round the pillars were to be inscribed with quotations from the five figures. They were chosen as ‘world-menders and social reformers’, but the choices caused uproar in 1881. Further up the façade there are representations of Libertas, Justitia, Veritas (Freedom, Truth, Justice).

Ambrose Lewis Vago was born in Holborn, London, the son of Ambrogio Vago, an Italian immigrant figure maker. He is listed in 1861 as a phrenological bust maker at 111 Gray’s Inn Lane, in 1871 as a moulder at 114 Gray’s Inn Lane, and in 1881 as a modeller and phrenological bust maker. His terracotta bust of Dr Samuel Johnson belongs to the Athenaeum Club in London.

The inclusion of Jesus among Vago’s terracotta busts caused uproar in Victorian Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The hall was opened on Sunday 6 March 1881, with speeches from Josiah Gimson, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant.

Since then, Leicester Secular Society helped promote new ideas, inviting the advanced thinkers of the day to give lectures in the hall. William Morris gave his famous lecture, ‘Art and Socialism’, in the hall in 1884, and this speech marked the beginning of the Socialist movement in Leicester. Later visitors and speakers included George Bernard Shaw, HM Hyndman, John Burns and Prince Kropotkin.

After Gimson died in 1883, his son Sidney Gimson became the mainstay of the society until shortly before his death in 1938. He was assisted by FJ Gould as secretary from 1899 to 1908. Another son, Ernest Gimson, became a designer in the Arts and Crafts movement.

The society was once well financed, employing a full-time librarian and manager and running a swimming club, gymnasium, Sunday School, evening classes and a women’s group. To accommodate an increased working class membership, the hall opened a bar and was used by shoe workers to host their annual Saint Crispin’s Day celebrations. The membership began to actively debate socialism versus individualism.

The Leicester branch of the Socialist League held its meetings in the hall, and several founders were members of Leicester Secular Society.

The society has continued to provide a haven for the pursuit of knowledge, a shelter for free thought and radical politics, and a forum for literary, scientific and philosophical debate. Leicester Secular Hall is also home to one of the oldest libraries in Leicester, with five bookcases filled with philosophical and political books, pamphlets and journals.

The society went into a decline after World War II, and average weekly attendances dropped from a high of 50 to a low of 20. However, the recent resurgence of religion as a political issue seems to have reinvigorated the membership. The ground floor was partially refurbished and accessible toilets were installed in 2013. There are ambitious plans to fully refurbish the building to meet modern standards.

Leicester Secular Hall is one of only two buildings in Britain devoted entirely to secularism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
26, 4 June 2024

Trinity College, Cambridge, was founded by Henry VIII in 1546 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The week began with the First Sunday after Trinity (Trinity I, 2 June 2024). Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Saint Petroc of Cornwall, sixth century Abbot of Padstow.

In the week after Trinity Sunday, I illustrated my prayers and reflections with images and memories of six churches, chapels and monasteries in Greece I know that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity. I am continuing that theme this week with images from churches, chapels or cathedral in England that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

StonyLive!, a celebration of the cultural talent in and around Stony Stratford, began on Saturday and continues until next Sunday (9 June). The StonyLive! Programme continues today with a number of creative events at venues throughout Stony Stratford. They include a free lunchtime concert by Stony Harmonies in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church from 12:30 to 1:30, with an eclectic repertoire that covers folk songs from around the world, and Jazz rounds – and with a little bit of Gospel thrown in.

But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Inside the chapel of Trinity College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 12: 13-17 (NRSVUE):

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

The Cambridge Triumvirate commemorated in Trinity College Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Chapel, Trinity College, Cambridge:

My images this morning (4 June 2024) are from Trinity College Cambridge, founded by Henry VIII in 1546 and one of the oldest and largest colleges in Cambridge. Trinity College Chapel, which dates from the mid-16th century, was begun in 1554-1555 by Queen Mary and was completed in 1567 by Elizabeth I.

The architectural style is Tudor-Gothic, with Perpendicular tracery and pinnacles. The roof is of an earlier style than the rest of the building, and may have been re-used from the chapel of King’s Hall, the college that preceded Trinity on this site. Only the walls and roof date from the Tudor era.

The chapel has memorials to the Cambridge Triumvirate – Brooke Foss Westcott, Joseph Barber Lightfoot and Fenton Hort – and to Isaac Newton, Bishop John Robinson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Villiers Stanford, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Babington Macaulay and AE Housman.

The chapel has a fine organ, originally built by ‘Father’ Smith in 1694. Many alterations were made over the years until, in 1913, an almost totally new organ was built. Some of the pipes were so large that they would not fit in the organ loft and instead had to stand in a corner of the ante-chapel. In 1976 the present mechanical-action instrument, based on the surviving pipework and within the original cases, was completed by the Swiss firm Metzler Söhne. There are regular recitals on Sundays during term time.

The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, is composed of around 30 male and female Choral Scholars and two Organ Scholars, all undergraduates of the college. As well as singing the liturgy in the chapel, the choir has an extensive programme of performances and recordings.

The Dean of Chapel is the Revd Dr Michael Banner, and the Director of Music is Dr Steven Grahl. Trinity College has two Chaplains, the Revd Anne Strauss and the Revd Alastair Mansfield, who share responsibility for pastoral care, as well as leading daily worship and running many groups and activities.

The entrance to Trinity Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 4 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Volunteers Week.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Carol Miller, Church Engagement Manager, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (4 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Thank you Lord, for all those who faithfully volunteer for charities they believe in. Restore to them the resources they expend, doing good for and on behalf of others.

The Collect:

O God,
the strength of all those who put their trust in you,
mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts:
may our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

God of truth,
help us to keep your law of love
and to walk in ways of wisdom,
that we may find true life
in Jesus Christ your Son.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Tennyson’s statue in the Ante-Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Key figures in the story of the Anglican Reformation depicted in a window in Trinity College, Cambridge, from left (top row): Hugh Latimer, Edward VI, Nicholas Ridley, Elizabeth I; (second row): John Wycliffe, Erasmus, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)