Black Country Unitarians
Dudley, Oldbury & Wolverhampton Congregations

"Faith is reason grown courageous." Sir Wilfred Grenfell

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the old meeting house wolverhampton street dudley

By Arthur A. Rollason (1899)

Introduction

The Old Meeting Congregation legally known as ‘Protestant Dissenters’ were originally Presbyterians but are now Unitarians. And can be traced back to the year 1662, when something like 2,000 Ministers throughout England were ejected from the Church of England, as a result of the Act of Uniformity. The first Chapel was erected in 1702, and was destroyed by rioters in 1715. It was rebuilt in 1717. The transition from old Presbyterianism to Unitarianism was apparently brough about by reason of the trust deed being one of the open kind ‘for the worship of God’ and the progressive change of thought. The Rev. George Eyre Evans (author of Vestiges of Protestant Dissent) in his coming work on ‘Midland Churches’ being the history of all the congregations now on the roll of the Midland Christian Union, and in which this congregation is included, has devoted special attention to the history of this Meeting House. It will contain biographies of the ministers with numerous facsimile autographs, particulars of the buildings, of the now extinct but important Dudley Double Lecture of Baylies’ and Parsons’ Schools, extracted from early prints and government documents, of the Inhedge Burial Ground and the Dudley Book Society. Mr. Eyre Evans having submitted to me his valuable manuscript for perusal and revision, it would be an ungracious act on my part to narrate here what he has written and intends for publication. His work will probably be in the hands of the public during the current year (1899).

Next to the most interesting Quakers’ (or more properly Friends’) register, which began in 1656, those of the Old Meeting are the oldest of the local Non-Parochial records. The original registers were deposited by the Rev. John Palmer BA, with the Registrar-General, and are now at Somerset House.

They comprise two volumes – number I includes baptisms for the periods 1743 – 1772, and is a thin, square volume bound in vellum, and contains mainly entries by the Rev. James Hancox, who was minister from 1733 to 1769, he being the fourth after the beginning of the congregation. His predecessors were the Revs. John Southwell, William Willetts, and Joseph Stokes. Register number II is an octavo volume, bound in vellum, and contains entries of births and baptisms from 1775 to 1837, and burials from 1831 to 1835. This period covers the ministries of the Revs. William Denny Wood (1771 – 1804), James Hews Bransby (1805 – 1828), Samuel Bache (1829 – 1832) and John Palmer BA.

Before the registers were sent to public custody, a transcript was taken of them by the foresight of Mr. Palmer, and from this transcript now in the keeping of the trustees of the Old Meeting House, the entries have been taken. The original registers have been carefully examined by Mr. Eyre Evans in connection with his work on ‘Midland Churches’.

In addition to the Registers at Somerset House, the trustees have in their keeping a book containing deaths and burials from 1811. The entries from this book to the year 1837 will be found at the end of the other registers of this meeting. Those names which appear in the registers lodged with the Registrar-General are not repeated in the additional list.

Antiquarian Notes by Arthur A. Rollason, Member of the William Salt (Staffordshire) Archaeological Society, British Record Society etc)

the old meeting house dudley

The Finch Family and Baylies’ and Parsons’ Charities.

The attempts which have been made for some time past and are still being made at the instance of certain members of Dudley Town Council to force the Charity Commissioners to divert the moneys of Baylies and Parsons Charities contrary to the intentions of the Founders, brings to my mind a Dudley family who were instrumental in bringing about the foundation of those schools. I refer to the Finch Family. Their names are to be found in the very early registers of Dudley. The principal branch of this family came of an old Puritan stock, and for several generations as nail ironmongers, merchants and bankers, they were the leaders of commerce in Dudley. After the disruption in the Church on the restoration of Charles II, they are found as staunch supporters of Non-Conformity. […]

In consequence of the laws which were passed against Nonconformity, those old Puritans who ultimately founded the Old Meeting House had to meet secretly in private houses for worship, but after the relaxation of those restrictions by an Act passed in the reign of William and Mary, a licence was obtained to preach the Word of God in the Meeting House in Wolverhampton Street, which was erected in 1702; to be set on fire and destroyed in July 1715, in the Sacheverell Riots, the mob crying out ‘Down with the Roundheads’ and ‘High Church and Dr. Sacheverell for ever’. The present Meeting House was built in 1717, and is therefore the oldest existing building as a place of worship in Dudley. For many years the Old Meeting House and the Quakers Meeting House were the only dissenting places of worship in Dudley.

Robert Baylies, Samuel Baylies and Anne Baylies were members of the Old Meeting, and in 1732, 1726 and 1739 they munificently gave of their substance to found the school which bears their name for the education and clothing of poor boys.

It was John Finch, of Dudley, a fellow member of the Old Meeting who was instrumental in bringing about this trust and John Finch was the first-named of the seven trustees in whom the charity property was vested by the Baylies family.

This John Finch, like his forebears, was a nail, ironmonger and merchant. He married in 1732 Jane (born 1706) daughter of Samuel Shore, a wealthy merchant of Sheffield, by whom there was issue: one son, John Finch, who died (in 1791) without issue; and a daughter, Jane Finch, who married at Dudley in 1766, John Simpson Esq. of Launde Abbey in Leicestershire, by whom she had one son, John Finch Simpson, and a daughter who became the wife of Mark Anthony Whyte Esq. The Shore family of Sheffield were staunch Protestant Dissenters and Unitarians. Jane’s brother Samuel Shore was also a merchant of Sheffield, whose sons John and William became bankers in Sheffield. William Edward Shore was born in 1794, on whom was settled and who in pursuance of his uncle’s will assumed the name of Nightingale by royal licence in 1815. This William Edward Nightingale married in 1818 Frances, daughter of William Smith Esq, MP of Norwich, another staunch Unitarian and who succeeded in 1819 in getting the Act of Parliament passed relieving persons who impugned the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from certain disabilities to which they were then subject, and which is known to this day as William Smith’s Act. Of this marriage there were two daughters, one of whom is no other than that famous and well-known lady Miss Florence Nightingale.

Reverting back to the Finch family, John Finch gave in 1751 the two silver chalices still in use at the Old Meeting House. John Finch’s partner, William Brett, married Mary (born 1711), the youngest daughter of the great Rev. Matthew Henry of Chester, and the baptism of their only child, Mary, is duly recorded in the Old Meeting registers of 1750. William Finch, a nephew of John Finch, married Sarah, daughter of the great Dr. Priestley, and there are entries in the registers of the Old Meeting House of the baptisms of their children. It was to the house of this William Finch that Dr. Priestley fled, after the riots in Birmingham, for assistance to get him to London. John Finch in 1781 gave £400 to Baylies’ Charity. John Finch’s only son continued his father’s business, and also was a banker. He lived at Horseley House in Wolverhampton Street. He died in 1791 without issue, and lies buried at St. Edmund’s, where his forbears were interred.

William Hutton, the historian, of Birmingham and a supporter of Dr. Priestley, had his business premises and residence destroyed in the Priestley riots at Birmingham in 1791. His history continues the following pathetic story – “While I was hidden at Castle Bromwich, a gentleman sent up his compliments and requested admission. We appeared personal strangers. He expressed a sorrow for my misfortunes, and observed in the course of our conversation ‘That as I was obliged to leave home abruptly and had uncertainty before me, perhaps I was not supplied with a sufficiency of cash, that he was returning from a journey and had not much left, but that what he and his servant had was at my service, and tomorrow he would send him with whatever sum I should name.’ Surprised at so singular a kindness, which I could neither merit nor expect, I requested the name of the person to whom I was indebted for so benevolent an act. He replied ‘John Finch, banker of Dudley’. Those generous traits of character fictitiously ascribed to heroes of romance were realized in this gentleman. With sorrow I read in the public papers in December following, the death of this worthy man whom I never saw before or after.”

If outsiders of the Old Meeting House have forgotten the treatment meted out to the Finch family by the Established Church in Dudley, those within its fold have not. The failure to carry out the expressed wishes of the dead over which the Old Meeting had no control doubtless influenced Daniel Parsons, a member of the Old Meeting, to vest in trustees a piece of land in the Inhedge as a burial ground for the Old Meeting House congregation.

The late Mr. John Noakes, in ‘The Rambler in Worcestershire’, published in 1851, in writing of the monuments and names then in St. Edmund’s Church says – “The beadle (a jolly looking official whose nasal promontory was well lined with snuff) informed me that the sum of £5 had been left for the repair and preservation of this Finch monument, but that although he had held office for twenty-nine years, he had never known the fund to be so applied. It appears that the £5 left for the repair of this monument is an annual sum of £5 charged upon the mansion house of John Finch Esq. in Wolverhampton Street Dudley, which now belongs to and is in the occupation of Edward Dixon Esq. It is payable to the Vicar of Dudley under the will of Finch, but little or no part of it seems to have been spent upon the repair and keeping in order the family tablets, three in number, which are by no means in a good state of preservation. The family is become extinct in Dudley, and hence probably the neglect, they were Unitarian Dissenters. This annual sum of £5 is, I believe, still receivable by the Vicar of Dudley. I quite believe the present Vicar cannot be aware of its object.”

Daniel Parsons was a son of Richard and Mary Parsons of Dudley, and was baptized in the Old Meeting House on 16th September 1748, and his brother Richard was baptized there on 23rd February 1752, and his sister Mary in April 1754. Daniel Parsons, who was a nail and ironmonger of Dudley, was a member of the Old Meeting. He made his will in 1814, and codicil in 1816. His will was proved in 1826. His executors and trustees were his sister Mary Parsons, Rev. J.H. Bransby, minister of the Old Meeting, Charles Finch and Henry Hunt. He directed his sister to have the income of his estate for her life, and after her death £10,000 was to be paid to certain persons as trustees, one of whom was Francis Finch of Dudley, to found a school for the education and clothing of boys and girls being children of poor persons, parishioners of Dudley or within a mile and a half thereof. Miss Parsons lived to the very advanced age of 96, and died in 1849. Miss Parsons outlived the original trustees of the will, and on her death, the £10,000 was not forthcoming. The memory of some Dudley people may be rather short, but those interested in the Old Meeting do not forget the three Chancery suits extending to the year 1863 he had to fight before the moneys could be obtained, and but for which the moneys would have been absolutely lost. One of the trustees under the scheme for the management of Daniel Parsons School direct by Vice Chancellor Kindersley in 1863 was another John Finch.

In respect of this charity, most important lead questions are likely to arise. The residue of Daniel Parsons’ estate was left to his representatives, who have already made sundry inquiries as to this charitable fund. They are keeping their hawk eyes on the actions of the Dudley Corporation in its attendance at confiscation. They are disposed to contend that in case the funds are diverted, the trust created by Daniel Parsons will become spent, and the moneys fall into the residue of Daniel Parsons’ estate, and to which they will then become entitled. The Old Meeting for many years fought for recovery of the moneys, and there seems to be another all-round fight ahead if the Corporation of Dudley persists in the course it wishes, to force on the Charity Commissioners to put an end to the trust.

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