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The History of Essex Hall

by Mortimer Rowe B.A., D.D.

Lindsey Press © 1959

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Preface  Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3   Chapter 4   Chapter 5   Chapter 6   Chapter 7   Chapter 8
Essex Hall

Chapter 2 - Lindsey's Chapel

We have traced the origin of a miscellany of "ale houses, cooks ­ shoppes" and what-not that filled Essex Street in the latter part of the 17th century, most of which were doubtless still there a hundred years later, with some improvement, it would appear, in the type of occupant.* [ This must have been so, for Lady Primrose, an ardent Jacobite, had a house there; and in 1750 Bonnie Prince Charlie, only four years after Culloden and his romantic escape to France, crossed over secretly and visited her; but suspecting that he had been recognized in the Strand, he slipped out under cover of darkness by way of Essex Steps to a boat that took him down river to shipboard and away. ] No trace remained of the Earl of Essex's spacious house and garden except the archway of the Water Gate and the flight of narrow steps still leading down to the river-side.

"A hundred years later"-to be precise, in November 1773- far away north in the rural village of Catterick in Yorkshire, the Vicar, the Rev. Theophilus Lindsey, M.A., had at last come to the momentous decision to resign his living, despite his love for the simple country folk who had been his flock for ten years, and despite their devotion to him; for after heart-searching self - examination he realized that his religious convictions were clearly Unitarian, and his conscience forbade further compromise. At fifty years of age, accompanied by his devoted wife, nearly twenty years his junior, he came to London with the full intention -strictly speaking, at that date an illegal intention-of gathering a congregation of people who would welcome Unitarian worship and preaching. His story in full must be read elsewhere, and has often been retold.* [ See especially Belsham, Memoir of Theophilus Lindsey; Gordon, Addresses Biographical and Historical; McLachlan, Letters of Theophilus Lindsey. This amazing hero of ours, possessing nothing but the unsold remnant of his modest goods and chattels, most of his books and furniture having been sold to pay for his journey, came almost unknown to the metropolis, convinced that this venture was God's will, and that he would assuredly prosper it. And his faith in God was fully justified, as we know. Quickly the initial interest and support of a few influential persons in London was won, and the warm encouragement of distinguished 'Presbyterian' ministers like Dr. Richard Price and Dr. Joseph Priestley (already holding definitely Unitarian views) was spontaneously extended to him in ample measure.

Thus it came about that one day in the early months of 1774 a little group of persons-Lindsey and his chiefpledged supporters -turned the corner out of the Strand into Essex Street and stood looking at a building near the top of the street, a building which alone kept alive the proud name 'Essex House', and which (they had learnt) Mr. Paterson the book auctioneer had vacated. They entered and were shown a large room, which they could see was capable of being transformed into a simple meeting-place to seat about 300 persons. Their search was ended; terms were settled for a tenancy; application was made to the Justices to have the house registered as a Dissenting place of worship. Obstacles were encountered and delays were wantonly imposed; but here one of Lindsey's chief supporters - Mr. John Lee the barrister (afterwards Solicitor General)-proved an invaluable legal friend, especially when questions (awkward questions!) concerning the doctrine to be preached and the person to preach it needed adroit parrying. At his threat of stern action against the Justices (for he was well aware of their limited powers) the delaying tactics were dropped and the registration was granted.

It must be remembered that the law against openly anti-trinitarian worship and preaching was not actually repealed until 1813, although at the date of Lindsey's application, thanks to the growth of latitudinarianism and easy-going toleration in the 18th century, it was feasible to run the risk of its enforcementwith all discreet and due caution! Alexander Gordon, with his characteristic combination of accurate scholarship and dry humour, speaks of Lindsey's venture as being "rather in the fashion, having the combined attraction of heresy and novelty", and also states that "one of its chief supporters had been drawn to the place by the eager report of a lady's maid, that 'a gentleman was going to open a room to preach a new religion"'. [ Gordon, Addresses Biographical and Historical, VIII and IX. ]

There were many who feared lest he should attract unwelcome attention and be visited with the penalties of this half-obsolete law, in the permanent loss of his freedom to gather any congrega,tion at all. Our 'Presbyterian' Unitarian ministers of that period did not indiscreetly wave the Unitarian flag. Nor is it to be supposed that Lindsey promptly put up a notice-board bearing the provocative title 'Essex Street Unitarian Chapel'. He cer-tainly did not. Gordon notes that the first we hear of such a signboard is in 1814, the year after the repeal of the 'Trinity Act', and then only of its having been recently put up and taken down again, as if on second thoughts! However, on the Sunday follow,ing the registration - April 17, 1774  there assembled for worship some two hundred persons in Essex House, now provisionally Essex Street Chapel, "a much larger and more respectable audi,ence than I could have expected", wrote Lindsey, "who behaved with great decency". He preached on the words in Ephes. IV. 3 "endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace". Joseph Priestley and also Benjamin Franklin, the agent of the Massachusetts Colony, were in that first Sunday's congregation, and many other persons of importance. Mr. John Lee the barrister was there, and next day he wrote to their friend the Rev. Newton Cappe of York, "After a little difficulty in getting his chapel registered at the Quarter Sessions, which I had the good luck to remove, he entered upon his ministry yesterday.... He was well attended, considering that no public notice was given of the intended service. There were about ten coaches at the door, which I was glad of, because it gave a degree of respectableness to the congregation in the eyes of the people living thereabouts." Over £400 had been subscribed by various well-wishers in London and elsewhere, including a contribution from the congregation of his good friend the Rev. Wm. Turner at Wakefield, to pay for adapting the auction-room for worship and to meet the cost of two year's rent at £50 per annum, leaving about #2oo in Mr. Lindsey's hands, sufficient for the simple needs of himself and his brave and devoted wife; for meanwhile they had sold their silver to meet the cost of board and lodging in London. All well went with the great adventure; substantial numbers regularly attended the services, including for some time an officer of the Government to see if anything politically seditious was being preached. Unitarian teaching and worship were for the first time in England quietly but publicly maintained in a registered Dissenting place of worship, apart from the older Presbyterian chapels; and within a few months Lindsey wrote to his friend Dr. Jebb at Cambridge, "I have not known what entire quiet of mind and perfect peace with God was for many years till now." Three years later, in 1777, the congregation was so firmly established that negotiations were entered into, and completed, for the purchase of this century-old building. Before the end of March 1778 'Essex House' was no more, except perhaps as a postal address for the minister, and the real 'Essex Street Chapel' was opened. This was no mere patching-up and adaptation of the old auction-room premises, but to a large extent a new building, some few of whose exterior features remained until its destruction by enemy action in 1944. Evidently the foundations and also the lower courses of the old house were retained. The wall front had to be taken down, and this prolonged the work. Internally, living accommodation for the minister and his wife was provided on the level of the former auction-room, subsequently often but misleadingly described as his 'house' (it must have been, in modern language, a 'flat'). Above this floor an imposing chapel in `meeting-house' style of architecture was erected, provided with gallery accommodation and furnished at the outset with the pulpit and, no doubt, the square box-pews shown in the centenary illustration opposite page 32; but not the organ there depicted, for at that early date only cathedrals and very large and important parish churches could boast the possession of such an aid to worship. Essex Street Chapel existed without one until as late as 1860! Rising from the centre of the lofty ceiling was a large circular lantern surmounted by a dome, as all knew the building in modem times, after its transformation into 'Essex Hall', will remember.

The opening service was held on Sunday, March 29, 1778, Lindsey preaching from the appropriate text, "The true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth" (John IV. 2 3). In a letter written six weeks later, he gives praise to that gallant and loyal wife of his for her hard work and practical efficiency: "It was owing to her that our new chapel was ready so soon. And she is now no less busily engaged in the habitation underneath, which we are to inhabit, and which requires much more to be done at it than we expected." Nevertheless they were glad to be there, after four years in inexpensive but miserable lodgings in Holborn.

Here an interesting legal question arises. Essex House was purchased, and the erection of the chapel was effected, at considerable cost - £1,900 for the purchase of the freehold premises and £2,000 "for pulling down and rebuilding the chapel". This heavy expenditure was certainly not borne entirely by Lindsey himself, for he was nearly as poor as the proverbial church mouse; it must clearly have been met, for the most part, by means of money raised by his supporters in London and elsewhere. Yet many years later, writing to a friend, he remarks that it included "not less than £500 of our own". In our days such a transaction would have involved the appointment without delay of a body of Trustees in whom the property would have been vested, and the drawing up of a Trust Deed prescribing the use of the building, the mode of appointing new trustees and so forth. But strange to say, it was Lindsey himself who was made the legal owner of the chapel, and it was not until five years later (1783) that by a Deed of Bargain and Sale, in return for a payment of ten shillings to him, he conveyed to thirteen trustees the freehold site and building thereon, "upon trust to permit so much of the said premises as was then used as a chapel and vestry to be used as such for the public worship of Almighty God ... and also to suffer the minister for the time being of the said chapel to use, occupy and enjoy such part of the said premises as had been fitted up and was used as a dwelling-house, and the gardens, cellars, yards and appurtenances thereto without paying any rent for the same". Note the inclusion of gardens; we refer to this in a later chapter.

Lindsey ministered there unaided until 1782, from which year onward his labours were shared by Dr. John Disney, Rector of Panton and Vicar of Swinderby, Lines, wholike Lindsey  resigned his living and left the Church of England on conscientious grounds. His wife was Mrs. Lindsey's step-sister. It is gratifying to read that "the congregation took up the matter warmly and increased their subscriptions; Lindsey was able to share with him a respectable income". In 1793 Lindsey resigned at the age of seventy because of advancing years and declining health, and Dr. Disney succeeded him; Mr. and Mrs. Lindsey continued to live in the Essex Street accommodation until he died in 1808, aged eighty-five; little more than three years later she also passed away there, in her seventy-second year.

So, in brief outline, ends the wonderful story of Theophilus Lindsey and his founding of Essex Street Chapel, and the establishment of the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in this country. We are primarily concerned, in this modest volume, with the history of a building, but we feel justified in linking this subject in its early stages with a pen-picture of the pioneer who first gave that building significance for us. More appropriate to these pages than any quotation from formal tributes to him and his work is the glimpse that Charles Lamb gives of him in Essays of Elia (Essay on 'My Relations'), referring to his boyhood days in the 1780's:

I had an aunt, a dear and good one . . . She went to church every Sabbath, as a good Protestant should do . . . Finding the door of the chapel in Essex Street open one dayit was in the infancy of that heresyshe went in, liked the sermon, and the man­ ner of worship, and frequented it at intervals for some time after.

And this sentence, from a letter written by Lindsey to a friend in the very year of the opening of the new chapel (1778), should comfort the heart of every parson and trouble the conscience of every layman" Few of the better sort attend twice a day, which shows there is a want of the zeal of our forefathers, and is a bad example, as I sometimes, but in vain, take the liberty to tell them."

The subsequent record of the congregation for almost a century is outside our province, but after that lapse of time we shall be closely concerned with it again in a later chapter. Dr. John Disney until ney continued as minister until 1804, Thomas Belsham (Lindsey' s biographer) followed him from 1805 to 1829, with Thomas Madge as his assistant (1825-29) and successor (1829-59). Madge was the first to kick against living in the domestic flat beneath the chapel, and after occupying it fora few years he took up his abode elsewhere. This was the point at which no doubt 'Essex House' disappeared even as a postal address. [ A century later (1929) it was resuscitated by the late Mr. Kenneth Brown, when Nos. 12 and 13 Essex Street were pulled down and replaced by a hand,some office building. His firm occupied this, and he very sensibly named it 'Essex House'. ] What use the congrega­ tion made of the vacant rooms we cannot say, except for two or three years during which the empty flat and cellars suddenly come into, and equally suddenly vanish out of, our next chapter.

Rescued undamaged from the rubble that remained when Essex Hall was bombed in 1944 is the marble slab which was built into wall between the two doors that opened into the Upper Hall and which reads:

APRIL 17 1774

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