A Third Revolution
Newington Green Meeting House is closely associated with two revolutions; the American and the French. These associations are largely through the work of Richard Price, the minister from 1758 to 1783.
Price’s 1776 pamphlet Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America asserted his support for the American colonists in their struggle against Britain and was obviously controversial but it did win Price friends among British radicals and American revolutionaries. Among the latter; future president, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams all visited Price at Newington Green and Franklin in particular kept up a lengthy correspondence with the minister for many years. Price later expressed support for the French Revolution of 1789 in a sermon (later also published as a pamphlet) entitled A Discourse on the Love of Our Country. Following Price, a host of Unitarians vocalised their support for the revolution including many with Newington Green connections such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Barbauld and Joseph Priestley.
However, the meeting house also has an historical association (or more accurately a pre-historical association) with another revolution; the English Revolution of the 1640’s.
The revolution or, as it is better known, English Civil War was actually three distinct wars; 1642-1646, 1648-1649 and 1649-1651. These took place in a wider conflict involving conflicts in Scotland and Ireland all known collectively as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In England these wars were fought between Parliament and the monarchy. The former supported by Protestant denominations that would soon be labelled non-conformist, notably Independents (later known as Congregationalists) and Presbyterians. These tended to draw from the urban rising merchant classes whereas the Royalists tended to be members of the established Anglican Church or even Catholics and included many from the aristocracy.
The revolution of course culminated in the execution of Charles I, the exiling of Charles II and the establishment of a republic, or protectorate, under Oliver Cromwell serving as Lord Protector. The demise of the protectorate under Richard Cromwell ushered in the return of the monarchy under Charles II. It was in this context that a Presbyterian community developed in Newington Green as supporters of the Protectorate were reconciled with the Restored monarchy.
Newington Green Meeting House was opened in 1708 as a Presbyterian church and only became Unitarian from the 1830’s. Many of the families that made up the Presbyterian community in the Newington Green area had roots that went back to the Parliamentarian side in the English Revolution and the subsequent Protectorate.
Fleetwood House used to face on to Stoke Newington Church Street. The house itself was situated where the current fire station is with its carriage entrance to the left hand side which now serves as the Church Street entrance to Abney Park Cemetery. The house, and the family who lived there, are memorialised today in nearby Fleetwood Street. The house was named after Charles Fleetwood who acquired it through marriage. Before this however, Fleetwood fought in Cromwell’s New Model Army (nicknamed ‘the Roundheads’) during the Civil Wars, most notably at their victory against Charles I at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 and later, while serving as Lieutenant General in their victory against Charles II at Worcester in 1651.
Fleetwood had become a Member of Parliament in 1646 and served throughout the Protectorate but whilst he would have been a hero to republicans like Richard Price he also left a less edifying legacy. As Lord Deputy of Ireland he oversaw the consolidation of Ireland as a British colony in the form of the Cromwellian Plantation which saw the deportation of many Irish Catholics, thereby sowing the seeds for centuries of conflict and bitterness.
Fleetwood gained the house that would bear his name in 1664 when he married Mary Hartopp. His previous wife had been Oliver Cromwell’s daughter, Brigit and this may be the reason for Abney Park being one of several contenders for the location of Oliver Cromwell’s buried head!
Cromwell had died in 1658 of natural causes and was buried at Westminster Abbey. After the Restoration, Cromwell’s body was disinterred, hung and then decapitated. There have since been several rumours as to the whereabouts of his severed head, with a number of locations competing for the rather morbid distinction of being its last resting place. Despite the family connection, Abney Park is one of the less favoured locations for this rather gory burial and more likely the result of a nineteenth century urban myth. Certainly recent excavations connected to the restoration of Abney Park Chapel failed to unearth it!
Returning to the property itself; at Fleetwood House was a secluded room where in the wake of the Restoration, Presbyterians could gather in secret for illegal worship. These services were led by one John Owen, a minister who, with his family, lodged at the house too.
In 1662 the Act of Uniformity defined and established the supremacy of the Church of England by prescribing the Book of Common Prayer, regulating the admission and retention of Anglican ministers based on their conformity to the latter. It was this act that gave rise to the term non-conformist, applied to any clergy (and ultimately the laity that followed them) who refused to conform to the Anglican standard. Among these were, of course, the Presbyterians.
Another secret Presbyterian congregation meeting in private homes (a so called conventicle) nearer to Newington Green was led by James Ashurst who plays a pivotal role in our story. Ashurst led services from the 1670’s until the need for secrecy was rendered redundant in 1689 when, now feeling more secure, the Royalist faction which dominated Parliament passed the Act of Toleration. This enabled non-conformists (but not Unitarians – they would have to wait until 1813) to worship openly in their own chapels. This legislation thereby provided the legal foundation for the building of the meeting house on Newington Green. According to Newington Green Unitarian Meeting House: A Guide to its History, James Ashurst is believed to have been one of the small group of men who raised money and organised the building of the chapel.
Another family closely associated with both the English Revolution and the local community were the Mildmays.
On a map of streets surrounding the Meeting House we can find Mildmay Park, Mildmay Road, Mildmay Street, Mildmay Grove (North and South), Mildmay Square; plus a Mildmay library, the Mildmay Working Men’s Club and the Lady Mildmay pub (previously called The Dissenting Academy); the last two on Newington Green itself.
The Mildmay family had been part of the establishment since Elizabethan times. Among many other offices Henry Mildmay was a Member of Parliament in the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War sitting during both the Short and Long Parliaments. During this period he switched from supporting the king to opposing him. When Charles I was put on trial Mildmay was one of the so called Regicides, those who presided over the case; though notably he did not sign the execution warrant.
Mildmay served in Cromwell’s government but then naturally suffered after the Restoration. Accounts vary, but, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, he died either during deportation or shortly after having been deported to Tangier (in modern day Morocco). Mildmay had owned extensive tracts of land to the south and south-east of Newington Green where many of the streets today that bear his name are located.
So, there is a strong thread running from Cromwell’s revolution, through the period of suppression and then, following a lessening of the restrictions on worship to the building of the Newington Green chapel itself.
One final point that is worth noting; on the wall inside the meeting house, among the many other plaques, is one to Thomas Cromwell who was the minister at the church for 25 years in the mid-nineteenth century. As far as we can tell he is not related to his famous namesake. However some of Oliver Cromwell’s family are buried in a family plot in Bunhill Fields Cemetery on City Road in Islington.