Brook Street Chapel Manchester

The information presented in this section comes from a historic building report commissioned by Church Converts from historian Maxwell Craven, MBE, FSA, AMA, and is reproduced with his kind permission.

Introduction

The former Unitarian chapel, now standing largely roofless on Upper Brook Street, Chorlton on Medlock, is an important building in the history of Manchester, in the history of religious dissent in England and in terms of architecture.

The Chapel was originally built for the Unitarians, and it is this connection which renders the building more than usually important. To establish the importance of the building, it is necessary to put it in context and sketch in some of the background (section 1 below).
The former Unitarian chapel, now standing largely roofless on Upper Brook Street, Chorlton on Medlock, is an important building in the history of Manchester, in the history of religious dissent in England and in terms of architecture.

The Chapel was originally built for the Unitarians, and it is this connection which renders the building more than usually important. To establish the importance of the building, it is necessary to put it in context and sketch in some of the background (section 1 below).

The Unitarians: Origins and Belief

Unitarians believe in the unity or single personality of God, as opposite to the more orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in which God is manifest in the three persons of father, son and Holy Spirit. In the early days of Christianity, this would have been condemned as Arianism. This concept of God as a single, or unitary, entity led to the term Unitarian to be applied to those who so believed.

The rationalism that lay behind much of the philosophical thought of the English Enlightenment tended to produce a Unitarian cast of mind amongst those who were unwilling, like the natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin FRS, to reject any belief on God at all. Furthermore, due to the strictures of the Test and Corporation Acts, any hope of a career in Parliament, at Court, or in the Foreign Service was closed to dissenters and Roman Catholics. As a result, many dissenters threw their energies into wealth creation and it was the Quakers and Unitarians who were at the fore in this respect. In Derbyshire, for instance Jedediah Strutt, former partner of Sir Richard Arkwright (whose first Manchester mill was founded on Angel Street in 1782), was brought up a Unitarian and he and his family persuaded the Presbyterian congregation in Derby to embrace their beliefs and adapt to them, later founding a dedicated Unitarian Chapel in Belper which still exists.

The English Presbyterian congregations were largely founded by Anglican ministers ejected from their livings in 1662 for non-conformity and were essentially low-church Anglicans free from episcopal control. Yet in the third quarter of the 18th century many congregations began to adopt a more overtly Unitarian view. This was true of Manchester especially, where the congregation of the Presbyterian Chapel at Cross Street moved to a Unitarian position at this period.

The Unitarians in Manchester

The Unitarians were particularly strong in Manchester and amongst their number in the early 19th century can be counted the core of that Radicalism which underpinned the rise of Manchester as a manufacturing city of international standing and the gradual elimination of the worst excesses of working class housing, lack of education and social deprivation.

Manchester at the beginning of the 19th century had no standing as a settlement, despite is long history. Yet this overgrown parish had, since the huge expansion of the cotton spinning industry following on from the improvements made to the process by Sir Richard Arkwright in the 1770s, expanded in an uncontrolled way and had become a byword for the abysmal quality of its workers’ housing and its random development spreading out at the whim of a group of go-getting entrepreneurs, their backers and various members of the local gentry, eager to make their estates pay by leasing or selling land for mill and house building.

The Cross Street Chapel

Cross Street Unitarian Chapel

The Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in the early 19th century.

The Cross Street Chapel had been erected originally as a Presbyterian place of worship in 1694 (Manchester’s first) and soon occupied a significant position not only in the religious but also the social and political life of the town. During the 18th century, together with the nearby Parish Church of St. Ann (erected some 18 years later), it supported the Hanoverian and Reform interests as against the High Tory (and often Jacobite) sympathies of the town’s Collegiate Church. The congregation gradually moved from its early Presbyterian persuasion to a Unitarian position, a transition completed during the ministry of Rev. John Grundy (1810-1824). This was aided by the repeal in Parliament of the law declaring that denial of the Trinity was illegal (1813) which accelerated the process by which numerous dissenting congregations turned towards the Unitarian position. Later, the Dissenters’ Chapels Act of 1844 ensured that congregations which had been Unitarian for over 25 years could keep their buildings and trust funds.

This increase in numbers, however, led to some strains in that some (like the Strutts in Derby) followed James Martineau and others to develop a faith where authority is based on internal conscience rather than scripture, whilst the other tendency was more rationalist, as in Manchester, where the movement was much influenced by the theology of another enlightenment figure (and member of the celebrated Lunar Society) Joseph Priestley. At Cross Street Chapel, it was considered that too much emphasis on doctrine tended to divide congregations.

The Unitarian Radical élite

Cross Street Unitarians thus formed the majority of the group of Manchester reformers, which centred on the Cannon Street warehouse of two of their members, (Sir) Thomas Potter (1773-1843) and Richard (‘’Radical Dick’) Potter (1778-1842). By the 1820s Thomas was a leading member of the Chamber of Commerce with a country residence at Buile Hill, Salford. He preferred a backroom role in committee or administration, whilst Richard was more of an agitator. Both were heavily involved in philanthropy and reform. Before the incorporation of Manchester in 1838, when it was still technically the “biggest village in Britain”, both of them were Police Commissioners. After the Reform Act of 1832, Richard became MP for Wigan. Thomas became the first Mayor of Manchester, served for two years and was knighted by Queen Victoria. Ten out of the first twenty-eight Mayors of Manchester were associated with Cross Street Chapel. The propaganda arm of the Cross Street Unitarians was the Manchester Guardian of which John Edward Taylor, a Trustee of the Chapel, was first editor.

Unitarian expansion: Mosley Street

Mosley Street Unitarian Chapel

Mosley Street Unitarian Chapel in 1789.

The Cross Street Chapel also had an offshoot in another chapel in nearby Mosley Street, which had been founded in 1788 and a new chapel built in the following year. Again, the congregation rapidly became Unitarian. Mosley Street residents in the early 19th century included Hugh Birley, S L Behrens, Samuel Brooks and Nathan Meyer Rothschild. In 1827 a house on corner of Market Street and Mosley Street was converted into coaching inn, allowing David Bannerman to use land behind to build a warehouse. This triggered a rash of warehouse building there, often achieved by the conversion of gentry town houses.  Indeed John Macfarlane, a commission agent, purchased some buildings at the corner of Mosley Street and York Street, converting them into warehouses with the stipulation that the windows should resemble those of private residences. In 1832 the radical Richard Cobden wrote to his brother Frederick:

“My next-door neighbour [Samuel] Brooks, of the firm Cunliffe & Brooks, bankers, has sold his house to be converted into a warehouse. The owner of the house on the other side has given his tenant notice for the same purpose. The house immediately opposite me has been announced for sale and my architect is commissioned by George Hole, the calico printer, to bid six thousand guineas for it; but they want eight thousand for what they paid only four thousand five hundred for only five years ago.”

In August 1834 the old club house in Mosley Street was sold for conversion to John Dugdale for £7,500, double the sum it was worth a few years before. Within a decade most of the private residences had been converted into warehouses and the gentry were moving out of the City centre.

Unitarian Expansion: Upper Brook Street

Thus it was that the Mosley Street Chapel gradually lost is congregation, and closed in 1835, being demolished for a new warehouse a year later. The minister of the mother-chapel at Cross Street was the energetic social reformer, Revd. William Gaskell, who was determined to re-found the congregation where it would do the most good, somewhere further out from the City centre being favoured.