300 years of radical history

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Newington Green Unitarian Church is in desperate need of repair. Nothing unusual there. What sets it apart, finds James Morris, are the 300 years of radical history witnessed by its crumbling walls.

In keeping with Newington Green’s radical history, its Unitarian church has been preaching progressive politics since it was built in 1708. But on Friday, it was added to Historic England’s “at risk” register. The church, which was rebuilt in 1860, is beginning to crumble. Funding is needed.

Part of Historic England’s pitch was the church’s famous association with Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century women’s rights activist. A banner across the church front proclaims itself the “birthplace of feminism”.

But its radical ties actually go back much further – to before it was even built. Tour guide Rob Smith explains: “On the site of the church is where Charles Morton [a nonconformist minister] ran his academy in the late 1600s. At that time, there was a lot of suspicion of dissenters, as they were not part of the Church of England. They were prevented from taking roles in society, such as teaching at university. So Morton educated people himself. He taught more modern subjects, like science and politics. And it was all taught in English rather than Latin. His school was very popular, but he was harassed by the authorities. He was raided, arrested and sent to the US. But he became a scientist at Harvard University, so you could say that science at one of the world’s greatest universities originates from Newington Green!”

In the late 19th century, Islington was stricken by proverty. It was Unity that led the fightback, Rob says. “One preacher, William Wooding, did a lot of community work: things like Sunday outings for kids. It was to keep poor people from the clutches of drink, as alcoholism was a big problem in those days. Unity had a big role in tackling poverty.”

This continued in the aftermath of the Second World War. “Another Unity preacher, John Rhys Walker, was one of the first people in Islington to bring communities together after the war. People were coming to Islington from all over the world and he was trying to build bridges.''

In 2008, it became Britain’s first religious establishment to refuse to take weddings until same-sex couples had equal marriage rights. “Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013. We weren’t going to collude with unfair law,” says Rev Andy Pakula.

Rev Pakula’s focus is now on preserving the church’s legacy: “We want to make our extraordinary heritage more accessible.''