Derby Unitarians

In 1893 Rev. John Birks published a book dedicated as follows:


John Birks

Memorials of Friar Gate Chapel, Derby

Chapter 1: The Ministers

The first ministers were the Rev. W. Cross, who had been ejected from Beeston, in Nottinghamshire, and the Rev. Robert More, who also had been ejected from Brompton, in this county. For many years they were joint pastors, the former dying in 1698 and the later in 1704.
In 1699 the Rev. Fernando Shaw M.A., became pastor, and his writings were of great repute. The first Nonconformist burial in Derby took place in the chapel burial ground, under the ministry of Mr Shaw, in consequence of Mr Cantrell, the vicar of St Alkmund's refusing to bury a child of Mr Wood, of Little Chester, because it has not been baptized by a clergyman.
The next minister was the Rev. Josiah Rogerson, who came to Derby in 1724, and remained till his death in 1763. Dr Ebenezer Latham became the assistant preacher to Mr Rogerson, and, dying in 1754, was succeeded by the Rev. Thomas White. This gentleman had several assistants. First, the Rev. Hezekiah Kirkpatrick, then the Rev. John Wilding. Afterwards the Rev. Edward Thomas, and the Rev. James Pilkington, who succeeded Mr White in 1788, and continued minister until 1797.
The Rev. James Pilkington was the author of 'A View to Derbyshire' and other important works. In 1796, just after the French Revolution, he gave such great offence by a publication entitled 'The Doctrine of Equality', that it caused him to tender his resignation; but at a meeting called to consider the matter it was unanimously agreed:
"That persecution or punishment for speculative opinions would be inconsistent with the principles of the friends of truth and free inquiry, and therefore that the objections urged do not appear sufficient for an acquiescence in Mr Pilkington's resignation".
Mr Pilkington also wrote 'A Short Account of the Origin and Establishment of Sunday Schools in the Town of Derby'. This interesting document, which is in manuscript, in the handwriting of Mr Pilkington, furnishes a curious illustration of the altered relative position and numbers of Churchmen and Dissenters since that period, and will be found in another part of this book.
Next came Revs. N. Philips and Winstanley, followed by the Rev. Mr Whitehouse, who resigned in 1810 on account of the congregation decreasing. The Rev. E. Higginson was then invited to the pastorate, and speedily raised the congregation to a flourishing condition. He resigned in 1831, after a successful ministry of 21 years. The Rev. W. Rowe, who accepted the call in 1831, died in 1833. This gentleman was succeeded by the Rev. Noah Jones, who removed to Gateacre in 1848. The Rev. W.H. Crosskey accepted the charge the same year and was called to Glasgow in 1852, when the venerable Dr. Hutton entered upon the office, and filled it until his death in 1860. He was succeeded by the Rev. A.H. McMaster, who died, however, after preaching only three times. The Rev W. Oats began his ministry on the 8th February 1862, and continued until March 1868.
The Rev. R.C.Jones, B.A., followed in 1869, with only a short pastorate, being succeeded by the Rev. T.R. Dobson in 1871. On the removal of the Rev T.R.Dobson to Brighton, the Rev C.D. Badland, M.A., was appointed in 1875, and remained in charge of the congregation until 1880. After Mr Badland came Rev.Barbard Gisby, who held the appointment until 1882.

The Rev.J.Birks., F.G.S., after a pastorate of nearly 14 years at Taunton, in Somerset, was invited to take charge of the congregation, and commenced his ministry in connection with Friar Gate Chapel, Derby, on the first Sunday in July 1883, where at present he remains.

Chapter II: The Chapel

Next to the ancient Parish Churches this is one of the oldest places of worship in Derby, and the history of the Society connected with it very interesting. For Friar Gate Chapel is one of the numerous foundations of Puritan Nonconformity, which owe its origin to the disruption of the Church of England by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, and to the spirit of resistance and loyalty to conscience, so powerfully fostered by the period of persecution which followed on the passing of the Act. Two thousand clergymen left their churches and their homes, and went with their wives, their families, and their little ones, to perish - if god provided them not another home - to perish in the open streets and fields, and to preserve their integrity. As one has well said: "It is occasions of this kind, occurring from time to time in the history of our race, which redeem religion and religious men from the doubts and sarcasms of the careless and the profane: and sure I am that there are at this moment, as there were then, thousands of men who quietly and unobtrusively occupy posts of usefulness and happiness, whose sincerity and independence the thoughtless may disbelieve, or the mean spirited, from the knowledge of themselves, may question; but who would, on no consideration that earth can offer, make a single compliance that would bring dishonour on the truth they hold: and who would lose with thankfulness the whole world, rather than the integrity and independence of their own characters. Religion is always redeemed to its own high and true position by the sacrifices of such men; who count no martyrdom; who will use all prudent and innocent means to say it; but who, if the day comes upon them, are found equal to the day. Instead of penury, and homelessness, and persecution, and dishonour, the leaders of these men were offered the thrones of Bishops if they would conform, but they refused: and their memory shall be forever held in honour; and - for that noble army of confessors that followed them - as long as truth is prized in England, and liberty is cherished, and conscience is revered, there shall be engraved in our hearts of hearts, 'the Immortal memory of the glorious Two Thousand.' "

The congregation is older than the Chapel. In the reign of Charles the Second it met for worship in the Chapel of St Mary-on-the-Bridge, now used as a mission station for St Alkmund's Church. From this place they removed in the reign of James the Second to a building situated at the corner of Irongate, near the Market Place. Mr. J.Charles Cox in his Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire thus refers to it: "After St Bartholomew's Day, 1662, the Presbyterians of Derby were not a little harassed and persecuted, but Bishop Hacket at length, according to Hutton, in his History of Derby, sanctioned their assembly in this old chapel. But they did not long avail themselves of this permission, for in the reign of James II they housed themselves in a wide yard on the east of Irongate."
Originally, the only Protestant Dissenters in Derby were Presbyterians, and it appears that the congregation worshipping here are the direct representatives of the earliest Nonconformists in the town. They removed from Irongate in 1698 to their new Chapel in Friar Gate, of which the proceeding page contains an engraving.
In the grounds at the back of the Chapel are interred the remains of Mr Joseph Strutt, together with those of his wife, to whose memory a marble tablet was erected, and is still in the chapel.
Mr Strutt was the third son of Mr. Jedediah Strutt, the partner of Arkwright, the inventor of the ribbed stocking frame. He was the benefactor of the Derby Arboretum, occupying an area of about eleven acres, laid out and planted under the superintendence of the late Mr Loundon, vested in trustees 'as a place of recreation for the inhabitants of Derby and its neighbourhood', on certain conditions, one of which was that no intoxicating liquor should at any time be sold or allows within its precincts.
Various alterations, additions and improvements have been made from time to time, notably the erection of porches, the raising of the front of the chapel, the building of school rooms, new organ, and the re-seating of the body of the chapel.
Within ten years of the present ministry have been erected new vestries, additional class-room, gallery for organ and choir, new arrangement for pulpit and communion, covered portico in front of the chapel, together with the re-lighting and thorough renovation of the interior, at a cost of near upon £600.

Here also may find fitting a record of the valuable gift by the late Mr Councillor Jackson to the congregation of his residence, Brook Villa, now occupied by the minister.
The Friar Gate Chapel congregation for a long time included many of the principal families in the district, and still sustains an honourable position in the life and work of our town. Many changes have passed over our church life. As a former minister has said, "Those who built this place of worship, not knowing, of course, what would be the result, left it free to be used for teaching whatever new truth might be learned as the years rolled on; so that we can still occupy it with perfect honesty".
"The liberty they granted soon bore fruit, and we have reached our present position, not by a sudden revolutionary bound, but by a process of steady growth, honest and outspoken all along."
"It is a noble history that has occupied our attention; a history of brave, obscure work; of learning, piety, fidelity to principle, and devotion to truth; continued, up to quite recent days, beneath civil disabilities, and many losses of wealth, reputation, and social esteem, and still under religious reproach and outlawry. It is a glorious inheritance to which we have succeeded, and the house in which we pray is hallowed by many sacred memories."
And we may conclude in the words of Professor Carpenter, in connection with a similar occasion, "From the humblest beginnings of trembling endeavour to the supreme triumph of duty and faith upon the cross, it is within this sanctuary that all souls have worshipped. For it is built on love and reverence and faithfulness which have neither youth nor age. These are not open questions which one generation propounds and another solves: they are the divine roots of immortal life. In this Church we may all take our place: from this, thank God, no man, can shut us out. And when it shall be established within every heart, how gladly will we drop our separate 'witness to truth', blend our affections with universal spirit, and repose with one accord on those great truths which are 'the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever'."

Chapter IV: The Sunday School.

One of the first, if not the first, Sunday schools in Derby was established and supported by the congregation of Friar Gate Chapel. The Rev. James Pilkington minister from 1788 to 1797, wrote a history of the proceedings in connection therewith, which cannot fail to be of interest, and may affectionately find a place in this memorial Volume. It is here given.

A short account of the origin and establishment of Sunday Schools in the town of Derby, and the motives by which the protestant Dissenters were actuated, at first in forming, and afterwards in dissolving, a connection with the Established Church, in the support and management of these institutions.

In the year 1784 the idea of Sunday Schools was first suggested by Mr. Raikes, printer of the Gloucester newspaper; and in the month of September in the same year, the inhabitants of the town of Derby having been led to entertain a favourable opinion of such institutions, and imagining them to be peculiarly adapted for the use and instruction of children in a manufacturing country, came to a general resolution of adopting and promoting them as a liberal and extensive plan as possible.
For this purpose it was judged expedient that the Established Church and the Dissenters should lay aside all prejudices, and unite their exertions for the support and management of as large a number of schools as could be formed. And this business might be conducted with the greatest unanimity and success, it was proposed that a school should be appointed for the Dissenters as soon as could be collected a number of their religious persuasion sufficient to fill it. But, upon examination, it was found there was little or no possibility of forming such a school. All thoughts of carrying this design into execution were, therefore, at the time laid aside.
At Michaelmas, 1785, a second general subscription for the continuance and support of the Sunday Schools was made throughout the town, and the same proposals respecting the Dissenters was renewed and agreed to, which had been made on a former similar occasion. But the prospect of forming a school from children belonging to then appearing no better than formerly, no steps were taken for promoting and establishing one.
However, in the month of March following, the establishment of such a school was thought practicable. It was found that though a sufficient number of children whose parents divine service in the Dissenting Chapel could not be met with, yet there were several children whose parents so far approved the Dissenting mode of worship as to prefer it to that of the Established Church. It was, therefore, thought right to open a school for the reception and instruction of all children who belonged to such parents.
As many of them had not connected themselves with any denomination of Christians, it was supposed that by this means they would be furnished with an opportunity of making choice of religious persuasion, and of declaring that choice by sending their children to the Established Church or the Dissenting Chapel. Accordingly, at Lady Day, it was agreed that a master should be appointed as soon as thirty scholars of the above description could be collected. In consequence of this resolution an attempt was made to establish a school for Dissenters. But some subscribers belonging to the Established Church being much alarmed by seeing children going the next Sabbath day to the Dissenting Chapel, it was thought proper to suspend the school for a few weeks and to enquire into the cause of their uneasiness. For this purpose a general meeting of the subscribers was appointed to be held at the Town Hall on the 29th April. At this meeting it was proposed that a school should be opened for the instruction of those children whose parents should wish to send them to attend divine service in the Dissenting Chapel. Such a proposal, though highly reasonable and liberal, was very strongly opposed and rejected by all the clergymen who were present, one of whom declared that it was not just his opinion, but alss the opinion of all his parishioners, that no school should be opened for the Dissenters, unless the parents of the children, with whom it were to be filled, were themselves Dissenters. After much warm debate, the following was given as the ultimate resolution of the Established Church:
April 29th - "It was proposed that a school be opened and a master chosen for Dissenters, as soon as twenty scholars shall be found, whose parents are Dissenters."

This determination was communicated to the members of the Dissenting congregation, and was generally disapproved. They considered it as a virtual prohibition and refusal of a school, as it was well known by the Established Church that the number of children required could not be found in the Dissenting place of worship. Such a resolution appeared also incompatible with that freedom of choice in matters of religion, to the exercise of which every man has an unquestionable claim. As a considerable majority of the parents of the children, who attend Sunday Schools, frequent no place of worship, nor class themselves with any denomination of Christians, the Dissenters are desirous of affording them an opportunity of making a choice, but find themselves opposed in the execution of such a purpose. For these reasons think themselves justified in dissolving their connections with the Established Church, and in opening a school upon mre liberal principles, and hope that their conduct upon the present occasion will be approved by every friend to the rights of private judgement and religious liberty.
With a view of carrying out the above determination into execution, a meeting of the members of the Dissenting congregation was appointed, and held on Thursday, the 4th of May, at their place of worship, when resolutions in accordance therewith were unanimously formed and approved.
At the time when the above meeting was held, several members of the Dissenting congregation refused to contribute to the support of the schools, which were then opened. Some alleged that as they had paid their subscription for the whole year, they did not think it proper to make another till it was concluded. Others imagined that if time was given to the established Church for cool reflection, they would see the impropriety and folly of their conduct, and consent to the proposals made by the Dissenters.
In this state matters continued until the evening of Michaelmas, when all subscribers to the Sunday Schools were desired, by public advertisement in the Derby Mercury, to meet at the Town Hall, to deliver their sentiments respecting the appropriation of separate schools for the Dissenters. At this meeting few besides the clergy attended. Some of these appeared to be more moderate than they had been on any former occasion, and seemed inclined to grant Dissenters what they required. However, two of the clergymen who were present positively declared that if schools were allowed upon the terms they proposed, they would not subscribe any longer to the support of these institutions.
The number of subscribers who attended this meeting being small, and the sentiments of those who were present being divided, no decisive steps were taken on regard to the admission or refusal of the schools opened by the Dissenters.
It was now seen, both by the Established Church and the Dissenters, that a separation was almost, if not wholly unavoidable, yet neither party seemed willing to declare such a separation. After waiting three weeks, another meeting of subscribers was called at the Town Hall, on the same subject with that last mentioned. Several of the laity as well as clergy belonging to the Established Church attended, and it appeared to be their unanimous opinion that no schools should be appropriated to the Dissenters on the terms on which they wished them to be established. This was expressed by the confirmation of the resolution which was formed on the 29th April.
Moreover, being asked whether they would allow that every subscriber should have the power of recommending children to schools opened for the use of the Established Church or the Dissenters, they with one voice rejected such a proposal.
Upon hearing of these determinations of the Established Church, the Dissenters on the 30th October began a subscription for the support of Sunday Schools upon the plan they has already laid down.

The Sunday School thus commenced continued its useful and important work through varying times and seasons, and in the small room, now the Congregational Vestry; several classes having at different periods been taught in the Chapel.
In 1862 two large Sunday School-rooms were built over a portion of land forming the old burial-ground at the rear of the Chapel, providing excellent accommodation for girls in the upper room and for boys in the lower room, the later being also used for social and other gatherings in connection with the life and work of the congregation.
There are two memorial tablets erected in the Schools, one to Rev. Dr. Hutton, and the other to his daughter, Miss Hutton; their work of faith and labour of love being thus gratefully appreciated and recorded. In 1890 the old School-room was rebuilt, with an addition class-room over it, in connection with the large upper Scholl-room.
Several improvements have from time to time been made, such as new seats with comfortable backs in place of the old forms, and a platform with Superintendent's or lecturer's desk, in the lower School-room. There is an effort being made to still further improve the lighting and ventilation of the Schools, which are well attended, and have a good staff of teachers at the present time.

The Chapel building shown in the photo, above, was demolished in 1975. [read more about why]

Friar Gate Chapel today