Bowlalley Lane

Bowlalley Lane: Puritans Before Unitarians
in Hull (from 1688)

Although the Elizabethan Church intended to retain and contain its Puritans, the yo-yo of liberty under Cromwell and then the Restoration in 1660 meant that many Puritans could not accept reintegration via assent to the Book of Common Prayer in 1662.
What is Puritan religion? It is a belief in God already knowing your salvation or damnation. They were trinitarians. Many a Puritan looked for and demonstrated signs of personal salvation, and this was through godly living. You might be favoured with a large income, but you didn't consume. Many were merchants, and made good early capitalists by preferring to invest than consume, and they also built charities. But they also rejected earthly displays of being religious in favour of a severe simplicty in worship.
The Presbyterian Puritans believed in the broad parish Church, not in the supremacy of the local congregation like the Independents, and they would have preferred to stay in the Church of England.
Then the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672 (for only a year) allowed licensed congregations to meet legally. Hull's libertarian governor (the Duke of Monmouth) made the city a haven for outcasts.
The Puritan Samuel Charles, ordained in 1655 and ejected at Mickleover in 1662, came to Hull and began his ministry when two meeting houses (Blackfriargate, a chapel, and Richard Barnes' house where Joseph Wilson preached) merged. They formed one congregation at Bowl Alley Lane in Christopher Fanthrope's house in 1680.
The repressive Lord Plymouth replaced the the Duke of Monmouth in 1682. This soon led to much fear. When in 1685 the Duke of Monmouth was discovered and executed, many non-conformists, including Leonard Chamberlain, were put under house arrest and feared for their lives.
However, another Declaration of Indulgence was issued in 1687 to Roman Catholics and non-conformists. Bowl Alley Lane was reopened and the Reverend Charles returned. Then William of Orange replaced James II and Protestant liberties were granted in the 1689 Act of Toleration.
The congregation left Christopher Fanthrope's house for a new chapel built by 1693. The Trust Deed of 1689 under his name gives no doctrines to be preached: only the worship of God and the administration of the Sacrament. They relied on their Bibles. Chapels built in this period copied their style from the Halls of the London Merchants' Companies. They had pan-tile roofs, strong benches and alleys between them. Self-government by trustees reflected the Gilds own governing system too. Samuel Charles died and the next minister, Reverend John Billingsley, appointed 1694, was the son of an ejected minister.
The Octagonal chapel in Bowlalley Lane Chapel was not built until 1803, and three years later the first declared Unitarian minister, William Severn, friend of John Wesley and ex-Wesleyan, took office. Unitarianism was still, as such, illegal until 1813.
Puritan faith changed because it was difficult for wealthy trust leaders to retain a severe and disciplined faith, and secondly they allowed their ministers to be their own preachers of religion. Ministers had to train in the dissenters' academies that were seedbeds for different ideas of biblical interpretation, and English Presbyterian chapels did not demand assent to credal declarations of membership. You rented your pew and the minister preached. Thus they evolved and later there was a new distinct movement that argued that the doctrine of the Trinity was not in the Bible; thus an identified Unitarianism inhabited Presbyterian chapels.

Bowlalley Lane: Why Octagonal (from 1803)

The Hull congregation started out as Presbyterian, not Unitarian. It only fully became Unitarian as the 1800s began, and it was at this time that the old mercantilist influenced chapel was replaced by an octagonal building. Why would they choose an octagon - twice as many walls as usual?
The answer probably is because the Presbyterian denomination had something of an identity crisis, and yet by now the chapel had established continuing wealthy and influential trustees with families providing generations of worshippers (something that ended recently with the last of the Strachans as members).
Examples of significant individuals at this time might be Benjamin Blaydes, who became a chapel trustee in 1744. He commenced the Hull and Hamburg trade and was important in civic life. Dr. John Alderson was a senior physician (remembered to this day in health circles), and he was one of the founders of the Literary and Philosophical Society. Another significant person was Joseph R. Pease and in 1802 he chaired a committee for rebuilding the chapel. W. Spence F.R.S. was probably involved, the first editor of the Hull Rockingham.
The Presbyterian denomination never really took off in England. When it began, and wished to retain a parish outlook rather than become a closed gathering of believers, it was prevented by repression from creating the presbyteries of ministers for governance (instead of bishops). When it was possible to create the presbyteries, no one bothered to set them up. Trustees managed the church. Perhaps they thought it would ease a merger back in to the Church of England.
The reason for an octagonal chapel was not because the devil was unable to hide in any corners, a popular view of the architecture, or even the satisfying effect that no corners were particularly more distant from the pulpit. The shape was chosen because the Church of England would not be offended. The design, also in Norwich, and also seen at the oldest continuous Methodist chapel in Heptonstall, made it more of a meeting house than a church. However, although different from anything in the Church of England, it was a church design on the continent, most noticably at Aachen Cathedral where the octagonal chapel was built by Charlemagne. The Palatine chapel is now a world heritage site. The chapel, completed in 547 CE, was based on a Byzantine design at San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.
The Hull building cost £1300 and was opened in August 1803, housing identifiably illegal beliefs until 1813.
So the particularly middle class church and denomination in this place was able to find a prestigious design and one that recognised its long restricted historical place in the religious landscape. It was a time of transition, and soon a sharper denominational identity took hold as the church agitated towards the all important 1832 Reform Act and 1835 Municipal Reform Act that recognised the place of the middle class in political life, nationally and at root locally.
By the time the original Presbyterian identity was but a mythicised memory, there was a different ethos for a new building in Park Street. Through the nineteenth century, Unitarianism in Hull entered a denominational phase (and absorbed Unitarian Baptists) and then was surely deeply affected by York losing its trust money and parliamentary rescue. At the time Hull resisted a suggestion to safeguard itself by adopting Presbyterian authority and licensing its ministers. The distinctive denominationalists were blamed for upsetting trinitarian churches by their competitive enthusiasm. After twenty years Hull employed the broader based ministers that rose in influence nationally after the York loss. Given the rise of middle class families in status and politically, it was now thought to be both with the grain of religion and prestigious to draw on Anglican high church, romantic, liturgical and intellectual influences to produce a steepled church in 1881 costing £3800 in what was a well off suburb of Hull. Unitarianism might not ever merge with Anglicanism, but it could be recognisable and not in its shadow as before.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful