Joseph Priestley, St. Thomas Square and the Roe family: Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I suggested that there might be a religious reason behind the fact that Kezia Eliza Roe was born in St. Thomas Square, Hackney. The longstanding associations of Hackney with Protestant Nonconformity are well known, and the south of the borough where St. Thomas Square is located had a particular significance in the history of Dissent. Not only was the Unitarian chapel where Joseph Priestley preached only a few streets away (I think it was in Chatham Place), but Priestley’s associate and fellow radical clergyman Richard Price had lived in the square – at No. 2 – when he was minister at the same chapel. Even more importantly for our purposes, St. Thomas Square was dominated by a large Congregational chapel, built in 1772.

The first image below shows the chapel, viewed from Mare Street in (I think) 1861, while the second (from Google street view) shows the arch which is the only remaining trace of the building today.

The chapel in St. Thomas Square was served by a number of distinguished ministers over the years, including Matthew Henry, author of the eponymous Bible commentary. The minister at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries was Samuel Palmer, who was succeeded by his assistant, Henry Forster Burder, who also taught at the Dissenting academy at Hoxton (the predecessor to the Hackney academy). Perhaps significantly, Burder was a fellow student and close friend of Rev. Joseph Fletcher, whose ministry at the Stepney Meeting would have been contemporaneous with Burder’s at St. Thomas Square. Burder served at St. Thomas Square until about 1850. In 1851 attendance for morning service was 414 with 120 in the Sunday school; the afternoon and evening services attracted 125 and 400 worshippers respectively. I’m not sure who succeeded Rev. Burder but in 1869 the ministry fell to James Allanson Picton, who achieved notoriety for his radical theological and political opinions. Apparently he dismayed his more orthodox brethren by delivering popular lectures to working class audiences on Sunday afternoons, on secular themes such as English history and the principles of radical and conservative politics.

Is it fanciful to imagine that the Roes’ brief sojourn in St. Thomas Square had something to do with an association with the ¬†Congregational chapel? Without consulting the chapel’s records, we can’t be sure of the exact nature of this imagined connection. However, a number of their relations were associated with the Stepney meeting – Mary Ann’s mother’s cousin Joseph Edward Holdsworth was definitely a member, and her aunt Eliza was the Fletchers’ family servant, and these are only the links we know about. Perhaps the connection with the St. Thomas Square chapel came about through one of these relatives. Did the chapel offer charity – housing? work? – to a struggling newly-married couple with a child on the way?

At some point, it will be useful to examine the records of the Stepney Meeting and St. Thomas Square chapel – which are held by the Tower Hamlets and Hackney archives departments respectively – to see whether the Roes had any affiliation with either place. ¬†Of course, Daniel’s and/or Mary Ann’s admiration for Joseph Priestley may have had nothing to do with this brief Hackney connection. Perhaps one of the 18th century writer’s works was on Daniel’s shelf – along with the writings of Thomas Paine, one gathers that they were popular among the literate and reform-minded working classes – or perhaps he inherited it from one of his Dissenting forebears among the Baptist Roes or Holdsworths.

If anyone, particularly anyone with a knowledge of Priestley’s popularity among later religious and political radicals, has any other theories as to why a Victorian shoemaker should name his son after him, I’d be glad to hear from them.

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