by Christine and Francis Clark-Lowes
Late eighteenth century: Foundation of Brighton Calvinist Baptist chapel
At an unknown date a Calvinist Baptist chapel was founded in New Street (now Bond Street). Its theology included predestination, the idea that some are predestined to be saved and others not. In 1787 Elhanan Winchester, an American Universalist preacher, arrived in London, and the following year published The Universal Restoration opposing predestination. William Vidler, minister at the Battle Calvinist Chapel, and William Stevens of the Brighton chapel, both read Winchester’s book.
1792-97: Universalist preaches at the chapel, causing schism
In 1792 Vidler preached the Universalist principle at the Brighton chapel and in 1793 nineteen members of the congregation who agreed with him were excommunicated. Among them were a minister called Vine and William Stevens. These dissenters from dissent met irregularly in each other’s houses for worship and discussion, but their number dwindled as some drifted back to New Street and others left the town. Meanwhile, Vidler’s Battle congregation also split in 1793, the larger party joining his Universalist chapel. In 1894 Vidler became Winchester’s associate at his Parliament Court chapel in London, and on the latter’s sudden departure for the US the same year, succeeded him as minister.
1797-1806: William Stevens and Mr Gillam; Establishment of the General Baptist Church
In 1797 Stevens started to hold regular services in his home in Queens Road, out of which a General Baptist chapel emerged with a congregation of just fourteen. Their first official leader was a lay pastor, Mr Gillam, under whose leadership the congregation increased to fifty, far too many for a private house. In 1806 they rented on favourable terms premises in Jew Street, probably at the first synagogue-cum-school in Brighton. Ministers came from Lewes, Ditchling and elsewhere to take the services, while evening lectures drew large audiences.
1807-1812: Unitarianism comes to Brighton via Ditchling
It was at the chapel in Jew Street that the ideas of the congregation began to crystallize into Unitarian theology. This change was associated with the Chatfield family. Robert Chatfield of Streat had financed the establishment of Ditchling General Baptist Chapel in 1740, and by 1800 this congregation had become Unitarian. In 1807 Robert’s descendant, John Chatfield, came to the aid of the ailing chapel in Jew Street, introducing it to the newly founded Unitarian Trust, from which financial aid was received.
1812-1817: The Rev Robert Aspland
In 1812 the new Unitarian church moved to a Biblical Lecture Room in Cavendish Street, Kemp Town. Robert Aspland, a leading Unitarian figure, became minister while continuing (1) his ministry in Hackney, (2) his directorship of the Unitarian Academy for intending ministers in the same place, (3 & 4)) his editorship of the Monthly Repository (the successor to Vidler’s Universalist Miscellany which he bought out in 1806) & the Christian Reformer which he founded in 1815, and (5) his secretarial post with the Unitarian Fund (founded 1806). Morning and evening services were held and, on Sunday afternoons, there were often debates and discussions, known as conferences.
1817-1820: Intermittently, The Rev Dr John Morell
In 1817 Aspland, who was suffering from overwork, withdrew, and in January 1818 an experienced minister of Huguenot extraction, Dr John Morell (1775-1840), who’d taught classics & maths at the Hackney Academy in 1816 & 1817, took over. However, there was friction between him and some of the congregation, probably over the use of Theophilus Lindsey’s Essex Street liturgy, and Morell withdrew to nearby Devonshire Place, where he opened a boys’ school. This doubled as the meeting place of a separate congregation which continued to meet at the school when it moved to Gloucester Place.
Aspland may have mediated in the dispute, probably suggesting a compromise whereby morning services would in future follow a liturgy, while evening services would have a freer format. At any rate, Morell soon became actively involved in plans to open a much larger church which would accommodate both congregations.
The trust deed dated 1819 for a plot of land in what is now New Road and was then opposite the construction site of the Royal Pavilion, was signed by the Prince Regent, and stated that £650 was paid ‘by the said John Chatfield on account of himself and several other persons and of the members and friends of the Society of Protestant Dissenters established or intended to be established in Brighton.’ Evidently the Prince Regent needed the money badly enough to overlook the inconsistency of selling land for the construction of a ‘heretical’ place of worship. The following year he would, after all, succeed to the throne as George IV and become head of the established Church of England!
The architect for the new building was Amon Wilds (1762-1833) who also provided much of the great Regency architecture around us in Brighton. Dr Morell was largely instrumental in having it designed along classical lines, its model being the Temple of Theseus in Athens.
1820-1826: The Rev Dr John Morell continued; New Road Church opens
Morell was re-appointed minister, and the first service in the new building took place on 20th August 1820, at which it is said 350 people attended. In an announcement in the Brighton Advertiser readers were informed that ‘The Liturgy of the Church of England will be used, as formed by the late Dr. Samuel Clarke, and as it is now used in Essex-street Chapel, London.’ Morell continued to use this liturgy for the morning services, but in the evening a less structured format was adopted.
As well as performing his duties as minister of the new church, Morell now moved his school, which also served as the manse, to where the King Alfred Centre now stands in Hove. This was, for its time, had a very progressive regime; corporal punishment and fagging were forbidden, and the celebration of Bonfire Night was banned on the grounds that it would ‘offend our Catholic brethren.’ There were twenty-two boys, and girls would have been included had space permitted. The boys didn’t have to be Unitarian but were obliged to attend the services at the church in Brighton every Sunday.
Among the pupils at the school was Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), the famous engineer, who entered around the time of its foundation. Another was CP Scott (1846-1932), for years the editor, and eventually the owner, of the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian). Henry Solly (1813-1903) also attended. He was the son of Isaac Solly, the founding chairman of the London and Birmingham Railway. Henry Solly went on to become a Unitarian minister as well as a famous social reformer and founder of the garden city movement.
1827-1829: The Rev James Cowdan Wallace
Morell stood down as minister in 1826, though apparently not as headmaster of the school, and was succeeded the following year by James Cowdan Wallace of Dudley (?1793-1841), ‘a prolific writer of hymns’ and brother of two other Unitarian ministers. A guide to Brighton at this time described the church as ‘built in the manner of a heathen temple.’
1829-1859: The Rev John Philip Malleson
JP Malleson, who occupied the Brighton pulpit for thirty-one years, was by far the longest serving minister, a measure of how much he was respected. In his time the congregation fluctuated between 100 and 150. He was a close friend of James Martineau (like Morell, of Huguenot extraction, but unlike him in theology), and was no doubt influenced by his opposition to ‘rigid scriptural Unitarianism’ and his promotion of a ‘free faith based on the inner authority of the enlightened conscience.’ He took over the headmastership of the school in Hove, possibly directly from Morell, and continued in this post until he stood down as minister. But his combined roles took their toll and he was eventually forced to retire.
1860-1874: The Rev Robert Ainslie
Robert Ainslie came to Brighton from London where he had already had a distinguished career as a Congregational Minister. It is not known why or when he changed his theological standpoint from being an evangelical minister with a flair for spreading the Gospel. As well as having been secretary of the Congregational Board of Education, he was also secretary of the London City Mission for many years, initiating in that capacity a large-scale distribution of copies of the New Testament in London.
Ainslie translated the Greek text of the New Testament which Constantin von Tischendorf discovered in 1859 at St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. He is said to have risen every day at four in the morning to accomplish this task, thereby avoiding any interference with his pastoral duties.
Ainslie was accustomed to controversy and was an able and fearless debater, in recognition of which he had a strong personal following. The interior of the church was improved during his ministry, and its name was changed to ‘Unsectarian.’ He paid particular attention to the musical side of worship. At the time of Ainslie’s retirement the name had again changed, this time to ‘Christ Church.’
1875-1886: The Rev TR Dobson
After Ainslie’s resignation, his personal following left with him. A number of the remaining church members therefore established a committee to rescue the church from extinction. They relied for a while on visiting preachers, before appointing the Rev TR Dobson, ‘a man with plain outspoken views with regard to Unitarian doctrine and not afraid to avow them.’ Dobson initiated a number of social gatherings as well as discourses on doctrinal matters, which were extremely popular. Once again the church adopted a new description, this time ‘Free Christian.’ Dobson objected to any religious inscriptions on the outside of the church, which accounts for the removal of the Greek text at the top of the portico. Inside the porch, however, there was a biblical citation on the wall.
Dobson compiled a church book containing around ten short services for Sunday morning and evening with alternative psalms and prayers. The latter were read by the Minister, with responses given by the congregation. Psalms were chanted by the choir and congregation, and conventional hymns were sung to the words in James Martineau’s Unitarian compilation.
Dobson also set up an appeal to raise the necessary finance for a lecture hall in which to establish a Sunday school. A donation of £200 by a Miss Mocatta formed the nucleus of this building fund. A successful bazaar was also held at the Royal Pavilion and members of the congregation made generous donations. Six hundred pounds was raised in all, which was enough to build and furnish a lecture room, our present church hall. When the Sunday school was started it had a regular attendance of thirty children, with five teachers in charge.
A Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society, with a membership of up to forty, arranged lectures and entertainment in the new lecture room during the autumn and winter months. Likewise, a Ladies Social Society, meeting one evening a week for music and conversation, was established and flourished for many years. A piano was purchased for their use. Another innovation at this time was a Benevolent Society to give relief to the sick. It was financed by a four-shilling a year contribution by all members of the congregation. Beneficiaries did not have to belong to the Church; their need was all that mattered.
In 1885, after the death of his first wife, Dobson married Miss Jessie Mocatta, the same lady who had given the money towards the building of the church hall. She came from a well-known Jewish family, being related to David Mocatta, Chief Architect of the London and Brighton Railway.
1886-1900: The Rev Alfred Hood
Around 1888, during Hood’s time, William Dallaway, a member of the church whose family had a long association with the congregation, became the first member of the newly founded Brighton Equitable Co-operative Society. In 1898 the church was described as a ‘Free Christian Church.’ On Hood’s retirement, the then Chair expressed the hope that the church would soon “have welcomed a new Pastor who will take up Mr Hood’s work and persevere with it as earnestly as he did”.
1900-1904: The Rev HM Livens
The church report for 1900 shows George Jacob Holyoake, the eminent pioneer of the co-operative movement, as a member of the congregation. He gave a speech welcoming the new minister. By 1901, the church’s description had changed again, this time to the ‘Free Christian Church (Christ Church)’.
1905-1916: The Rev Priestley Prime
Prime had a successful ministry at the church, particularly in the social aspect of its life. A Reading Circle was started in 1906 and a Glee Society (a male-voice choir or, more generally, a musical group) a year later. Two football clubs were also formed, one for junior and another for senior boys who were members of the church choir and/or Sunday school. It was said that many people were attracted to the church by the personality and preaching of Prime and it was feared that when he left the congregation would decline.
1916-1930: The Rev RHU Bloor
Despite the war and post-war conditions, Bloor seems to have maintained the congregation that Prime had built up. A war memorial commemorates those who served, a number of whom were killed in active service. Just opposite the church, in the Royal Pavilion, there was a wartime hospital for Indian soldiers, and it’s probable that members of the church assisted there and also contributed to the war effort in other ways.
It was during Bloor’s ministry that much was done to improve the outside appearance of the building. As originally built, the Doric pillars at the front of the building were a striking feature. However, large metal railings in front of the church and a thick growth of evergreen behind them had obscured much of the portico. In 1927 the railings and shrubs were therefore removed, revealing the building again in all its glory. The Brighton and Hove Herald commented that the work had altered the appearance ‘from a tomb to a temple.’
By 1913 the ‘Christ Church’ suffix to the title of the church had been dropped and it had reverted simply to ‘Free Christian Church.’ Change had come again by 1922, when the church appeared as ‘Free Christian Church (Unitarian).’ Bloor left Brighton in 1930 to take up the ministry at Essex Church, Kensington.
1930-1935: The Rev Dr Henry Gow
Gow was the former Vice-Principal of Manchester College Oxford, and therefore a man of considerable stature in Unitarian circles. He changed the name of the church yet again to ‘Christ Church (Unitarian).’ A keen bird-lover, he lectured at meetings of the Brighton and Hove Natural History Society. Brighton was Gow’s last ministerial post before retirement.
1935-1944: The Rev Gordon Stuart
During Stuart’s time, prompted by the economic depression, the church played an active part in charitable causes. Despite the hardship which many in the congregation were also experiencing, a considerable sum was raised to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War. The Women’s League was very strong at this time and a rallying point for various activities. It organised and sent substantial donations to a deprived area in South Wales.
On top of this, much money was spent on improvements of various kinds. The floor in the hall was reconstructed, making it more attractive as a dance venue, padded seating was provided in the pews, better lighting was installed in the pulpit, and the outer fabric was redecorated. This work was supervised by one William John Werry, ARIBA, who was at the time a lecturer at Brighton Technical College. He served on the church committee, of which he eventually became chairman, while another member, RB Walklin served as secretary for eighteen years. A plaque on the north wall commemorates Werry.
During the war, services were held in the hall because of difficulties with blacking out the large church windows. In 1941 the Brighton church took on the responsibility for the Ditchling pulpit. In 1944 Stuart, who had been an extremely popular minister, accepted an invitation to the pulpit of the Church of the Messiah in Birmingham.
1945-1951: The Rev FM Ryde
It was in the post-war years that the name ‘Unitarian Church’ came into use.
In 1946 the church committee felt the provision of a manse for the minister was essential and this was made possible by the generosity of, among others, Mr Bibby, who gave £2,000, and Mrs Joyce Gow, widow of Dr Henry Gow, who donated £100. The property purchased was on the new Ladies Mile estate, from which it would be easy to get to both the Brighton and Ditchling churches.
A drama society was formed in the church not long after the war, and this soon established itself as one of the more distinguished amateur societies in Brighton.
The Rev Ryde left the Church in 1951 to take up the ministry of a church in Bury, Lancashire, after which the pulpits of Brighton and Ditchling remained vacant for a year.
1952-1963: The Rev John Rowland
Rowland, who came from a Methodist family in Cornwall and received a scientific training, was for some time editorial assistant to C Frederick Watts, whose father founded the Rationalist Press Association. Rowland was appointed editor of The Free Thinker's Digest. While working for the Scientific Civil Service, he began to feel the need for a synthesis between reason and religion.
At Brighton he was initially (1952-55) lay pastor alongside his ministerial training at Manchester College, Oxford. Other outside activities included positions in the World Congress of Faiths, and writing both scientific non-fiction and crime fiction. He set up a successful literary society at New Road, which often attracted audiences of over a hundred to hear distinguished speakers such as J C Trewin, the theatre critic; A G Strong, the novelist; and Lady Mander, the biographer. Rowland’s position within World Congress of Faiths also enabled him to attract some outstanding religious speakers to Brighton, including Christmas Humphreys QC, a leading Buddhist teacher who was later to become a judge; Lord Sorenson, Unitarian Minister and Labour Party politician; Sir John Glubb (known as Glubb Pasha), Commander of Transjordan’s Arab Legion; and Lady Ravensdale.
Rowland had a close relationship with Denbigh Hilton, the minister at Hastings for many years. They regularly exchanged pulpits, and the two congregations supported each other’s events.
During Rowland’s time, extensive work was done to the portico of the church.
After he left, the congregations of Ditchling and Brighton were left once more without a Minister for a year, during which the congregations were well served by visiting ministers and lay preachers.
1964-1972: The Rev Graham Short
The Rev Short was the former minister of Essex Church, Kensington, and took on both Brighton and Ditchling. On becoming minister, Short, with the committee, realised that much work was urgently needed on the building. But they only had enough funds for attending to the platoons and downspouts, and repainting the window frames and the large outer doors and notice boards.
However, in 1966 a Chairman’s Fund was launched, accompanied by an illustrated brochure, and a programme of restoration was started, financed by donations from members and friends. The London District Provincial Assembly, convinced that the scheme would improve the Unitarian image in Brighton, made a generous grant of £1,000, interest-free and repayable over a period of 10 years.
It was whilst the work was being carried out that the Sussex Unitarian Union was formed, consisting of the churches at Horsham, Lewes, Billingshurst, Ditchling and Brighton, along with the Worthing Fellowship. A year later a smaller South Downs group of churches was established within the Union, comprising the churches of Brighton, Lewes and Ditchling. Brighton’s Minister, the Rev Short, was appointed Minister of all three, with the former minister of Lewes, the Rev Basil Viney, becoming the associate minister.
1973-1984: The Rev Kenneth Sherratt
Sherratt, born at Prestwich in 1917, trained for the ministry at Unitarian College, Manchester, from which he graduated in 1944. He came to us from Mansfield, before which he’d served at Oldham and Blackley (Manchester). He took over the South Downs Group ministry, while his wife, Dorothy, played a supporting role, among other things helping to run the Women’s League. This was Sherratt’s last post, after which he retired to Worthing where he died in 1994.
1984-1990: The Rev Gerald Munro
Munro also took on the South Downs Group, but early during his ministry at Brighton this was dissolved, and so he continued as minister of Brighton alone. He left to join the United Reformed Church. In their assembly record for 2004 & 2005 a Rev Dr Gerald Munro appears, as well as a Miss Hilary Munro for the latter year. In 2016 Gerald Munro recurs in the report of a meeting of the Wessex Synod at Winchester as retiring from Weybridge and moving to the Southern Synod.
1990-1991: The Rev Ashley Hills
The Rev Ashley Hills came to Brighton from Lewisham, to which he returned after his short stay at BUC. In 2017 he gave the address at Hastings Unitarian Church’s 150th anniversary service. He has served three separate terms as President of the London District and South Eastern Provincial Assembly, the last for the 2020-21 year, and has also sat as Chair of the Stamford Street and Hackney Trusts.
1991-1997: Mr and Mrs Felix Gorton
For about six years, with no minister in place, Mr & Mrs Gorton looked after the ministry of the Church, with the support of the church committee. The record they kept of their team effort shows what a gigantic effort they put into keeping the church afloat. One solution considered in the absence of a suitable and willing candidate to take over as minister was a revival of a joint ministry along the lines of the South Downs Group. It wasn’t, however, acted on.
The Gortons retired to the Isle of Wight and have, from time to time, come back to visit us. In 2011 they kindly financed a wonderful cello concert, performed by a friend of theirs, to raise money for the church’s Building Appeal Fund.
1997-2008: The Rev Jane Barton
The Rev Jane Barton (previously Eisenhauer) was Lay Pastor from 1997 to 2001 and Minister from 2001 to 2008. She was known for the inspiring and inclusive nature of her services, as a result of which the congregation grew substantially during her ministry.
The Rev Barton steered the church through two periods of major renovation: the first of these involved vital work to the structure of the building. Then, in 2002, it became clear that the building would require significant expenditure and repairs to be viable.
At an Extraordinary General Meeting the members debated the question of moving to more modern premises. However most agreed that the church, with its unique, tranquil atmosphere and central location, was indispensable as a spiritual home for Unitarianism in Brighton. A dedicated team of volunteers raised £120,000 to pay for this work. In 2004 a new floor was installed in the main church, the pews were removed and the pillars beneath the gallery reinforced. The stained glass windows were taken out and repaired, the kitchen and toilets were improved and the organ console was moved to the gallery.
Apart from these crucial, practical achievements, Jane Barton also developed the church as a lively, welcoming and liberal religious centre in the heart of Brighton. She promoted an open-spirited, modern style of Unitarianism, free-thinking but not overly permissive. Her ethos drew on world religions and philosophies, with an emphasis on mysticism and pagan wisdom.
The Rev Peter Roberts, the minister`s husband and founder of the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network, led quarterly solstice and equinox services, and these are now embedded in the church calendar. During this time the church developed a close relationship with Brighton’s World Sacred Music Festival and was home to many of its concerts and special events.
One of the key features of Rev Barton’s ministry was the training of six members of the congregation as lay preachers whose contribution to worship in the church became a distinctive feature thereafter. Three of these eventually went on to ministerial training, and moved on to pastures new.
Quiet reflection gatherings were held one evening each month consisting of candle lighting and stillness, a feature which was continued until quite recently. (‘Heart and Soul’ meetings, though more topic-focussed, have taken their place.)
Another venture was the Chalit children’s group, which met once a month in the hall. The children joined the congregation for the usual service, which would begin on those Sundays with a story. They would then go to the hall for activities organised by volunteers. Rev Barton usually led these services and for many years kept the congregation enthralled with the serial adventures of Tallis, a troll. But sadly attendance dropped off, and the group was dissolved in 2009.
In 2007 Jane Barton, together with photographer Tony Tree, created an exhibition about funerals, one of her particular interests. This explored the history of funerals through the medium of fascinating photographs and objects chosen to stimulate discussion on this subject.
Jane Barton continued to run the Worthing Unitarian Fellowship, which met in the Friends Meeting House, until 2015 when it was wound up. In 2017 she and her husband Peter moved to Heysham in Lancashire.
Since 2010: Current Lay Leader, Jef Jones
In 2009, after a series of congregation meetings, Jef Jones was appointed as Lay Leader and took up his post in June 2010. He had been a committed and active member of the church since 2000, regularly leading worship and group work. He has maintained the church’s progressive and open-spirited approach. He is a convinced Unitarian, with interests in world religions, Unitarian history and Christian mysticism.
During his time as Lay Leader, attendance at services has remained steady, and like his predecessor, he encourages congregational participation. New members are now leading worship and contributing to services.
In 2015 it became apparent that very substantial repairs were required to the church building, at a cost of around £300,000. A Heritage Lottery Fund grant and other funding was obtained, and the work was completed in September 2018. On conclusion of the renovations, in fulfilment of the terms of the lottery grant, an exhibition was held at which a film documenting the progress of the project was shown. Janet Sate, a professional writer, was commissioned by a member of the congregation to write a humorous, but also factually-based, play about the early history of the church called The Prince and the Pillars. It was performed by professional actors, with members of the congregation in supporting roles, and was a great success.
In 2019 Jef announced his intention to stand down immediately after the 200th anniversary of the church building’s inauguration. He postponed his leaving date, however, in the light of the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, which came into force in March 2020. Because of this crisis, services had to be suspended, and were conducted online instead, through the medium of Zoom. On the evening of 20th August, 2020, the day of the anniversary, two consecutive services were held to celebrate this remarkable landmark. Numbers had to be limited to allow for the required social distancing, but by holding two services no one who wished to come was excluded.
Thanks to Ron Sharratt, long associated with our church, for the research on which this timeline is based. Further information came from various sources, especially Vestiges of Protestant Dissent (1897) by GE Evans. No doubt Ron referred to The Story of Brighton Unitarian Church (second edition 1972) by John Rowland, the minister from 1952 to 1963. In this booklet Vidler’s part in the foundation of the Brighton congregation is not mentioned, with William Stevens playing a similar role in converting some of the congregation to Universalism. Richard Wright, in his long obituary of Vidler in the Monthly Repository also fails to mention the 1792 visit to Brighton. Vidler’s involvement is, however, consistent with what we know about his life, including the fact that members of his wife’s family lived in Brighton. There’s no doubt that he, together with his fellow Unitarian Trust missionaries, Richard Wright and Abraham Bennet (of Ditchling), were involved in guiding the church from 1806 onwards.