St. John's Lane Meeting House

In 1701 a substantial meeting house was built in St. John's Lane, later called St. John's Street. The Nonconformists formed the society of "Protestant Dissenters" and elected Mr. John Stubbs, a Trinitarian and a Calvinist as their first minister.

The meeting house is clearly drawn on Isaac Taylor's map of 1750. It consisted of a square building with large round-headed windows at the front; a dark interior with a lofty pulpit standing on four pillars, accessed by a rear door from the adjoining vestry; a clerk's desk from which hymns were announced, and two galleries, one on either side of the pulpit and supported by dark, massive pillars.

Mr. Stubbs remained as minister for 39 years, but Nonconformists were unpopular at the time and these were difficult years for the country. George I came to the throne in 1714 at a time when the country was suffering from the aftermath of the war against France that was won by the Duke of Marlborough.

The St. John’s Street meeting house as shown on Isaac Taylor’s map of 1750.
Taxes were high, trade was depressed and the Whig government was unpopular. Many people were unhappy with the situation and a scapegoat was sought on which to vent their anger. The religious dissenters were chosen for the purpose and rioting broke out in the summer of 1715.

The disturbances were mainly confined to the Midlands and Staffordshire in particular, and Nonconformists suffered greatly from the violence of the mob. Disorder spread like wildfire and many meeting houses including the one in St. John's Lane, Wolverhampton were seriously damaged or completely destroyed.

A vivid narrative of the Wolverhampton riot appeared in the "Flying Post" a Whig journal that was making capital against its political opponents. On the evening after the annual fair, on Wednesday 29th June, 1715, Squire Archibald Grosvenor and his friends were sat enjoying themselves in a public house. From an adjacent room they heard someone singing "an old seditious song". The singer refused to be quiet and after shouting "Down with the roundheads" he was confined to a back room. A rescue attempt soon followed and Mr. Grosvenor drew his sword to fend off the rescuers and in the process injured one or two of them. This enraged the other rescuers who would probably have killed him had he not made his escape.

The rabble then ran down St. John's Lane and defaced the meeting house. One of the ring leaders climbed onto the roof and shouted "God damn King George and the Duke of Marlborough and God bless King James. Fall on my boys". They carried all of the pews and movable furniture to the market place and set them on fire.

Meanwhile Mr. Stubbs fled from the town and a group of 20 to 30 men guarded his house. Meeting house stalwart Mr. John Scott lived higher up the street and his house was threatened, and next door neighbour Samuel Clemson's house was badly damaged. Samuel was a member of the congregation at the meeting house and the mob broke the windows and threw stones and pieces of timber at the house. They also threw down pewter from the shelves and threatened Samuel's life. The damage was assessed at £20 by the government commission.

Only a few of the rioters were punished for their night's work, the heaviest sentence being passed on John Wild who received two years imprisonment and "to be whipped twice around the Town Hall at Stafford for rioting at Wolverhampton and West Bromwich". Although badly damaged, the meeting house survived and in due course was returned to its former glory at the expense of the tax payer. The damage was assessed at £254.16s.2d. by the government commission. The congregation numbered about 400 and the meeting house flourished.

John Stubbs was eventually succeeded as minister by Mr. John Cole, of whom little is known. In the mid 18th century the Mander family lived at 48 St. John's Lane, in the house that was previously occupied by Samuel Clemson. They became interested in the movement and in 1772 the name of Benjamin Mander was added to the list of trustees, he was 20 at the time.

St. John’s Street meeting house. From the Wolverhampton Antiquary, volume 1, number 5.

An article from The Wolverhampton Antiquary, December 1915.

The Riots of 1715

Two hundred years ago Queen Anne was dead; nor was it a matter for jesting. Then, as now, the country was faced with a serious political outlook. A German monarch, a Whig triumph had come to rule the land, and the people were divided. The question was complicated by religious differences: the views of those who went, or should have gone, to church, ran counter to those of people who attended chapel.

The change of dynasty having offered an excuse for rioting, the meeting houses of the Non-Conformists became the object of attack. This indeed was customary, if not expected. Not long previously a change in the reigning house had afforded the mob, one of a Protestant denomination, an opportunity for demolishing all the Popish chapels in or near Wolverhampton and Birmingham. Mob opinion now turned against the Protestant Dissenters.

Staffordshire (proudly, or not) heads the list in the amount of damage done during these riots, about one third of that of the whole country and in this Wolverhampton played its part.

The chapel which the Presbyterians had erected in 1701 was situated, and what is left of it remains, some distance off the road, at the bottom of John's Street. From there to the Market Place (Queen Square) was not a far cry.

If newspapers are to be believed, and it is not necessary wholly to rely on them in this matter, the riots of 1715, at Wolverhampton, took the following form.

The cause of the rising was this. On Wednesday, 29th June, the day of the fair, a certain Mr. Grosvenor and some other gentlemen were "in a public house" (for what purpose there is no hint) when they "heard some men in another room singing some old seditious song, and sent to desire them to stop. They refused: upon which Mr. Grosvenor committed one of them to a constable who put him in the crib or stone-house. Whereupon the mob rescued him, knocked down Mr. Grosvenor though he ran one or two of them through the body, and then went to the Meeting House."

It was seven o'clock at night, a time when the steady potations of the day were beginning to take effect, and a "large mob" collected, as mobs do. The spirit of destruction led the rioters to the meeting house, where they set about its demolition. The proceedings were opened by an address from the roof, at which point of vantage a ring leader had safely arrived, who, sitting astride upon the top of it, waved his hat and cried out: 'God Damn King George and the Duke of Marlborough, and God bless King James III.' He then called out to the surging crowd below, 'Fall on, boys.'

The mob, which was described, by the sufferers at least as "a Gang of Ragamuffins, Pick Pockets and Gaol Birds," fell to with a will. Idlers were not permitted. 'Tis said that "a man standing by without putting hand to assist" was seized for a spy, and so threatened that he was forced to "fall down on his knees and cry, 'God bless King James III.'

The seats and moveables were taken for the purpose of combustion to the Market Place, a most unsuitable locality for any such demonstration. This space, "open" only to the air, could hardly have been one-third its present size, and on Fair days would have presented a most congested spectacle. The market stalls without doubt lent fuel to the flames, and "the Blaze was so great that it endangered the firing of the Town."

"To mention particulars is too tedious for a letter," wrote a correspondent; yet he adds: "Mr. Stubbs the Minister was desired and accordingly did go out of the town somewhere: that night a guard of 20 or 30 men with arms was before his door, that his dwelling house might not be broke up and plundered. Mr. Scott was threatened by the mob that they would break and plunder his house that night, but I have not heard whether they have or not. He is very rich and a Non-Conformist." The property of Samuel Clemson, another member of the congregation, certainly suffered.

The disturbance noticeably bears a Jacobite and Tory complexion. Ministers of the established church do not seem here to have participated and the Whig journal fastens the blame on "those pretenders to passive obedience and non-resistance" who have thus given "a new proof that 'tis the nature of the creature to rebel against principle." The evidence of a reporter, who had "talked with some of the faction there," absolves the crowd from any special bias.

"So, gentlemen," he said, "have you pulled down the Meeting House?" "Aye, Master," replied one of the mob, "we have done it, and will pull down the church too for the same pay we have had for that."

Similar riots occurred at Stafford, Stone and Walsall, and the Sheriff was called upon "to raise the posse." The Wolverhampton enthusiasts, finding destruction an agreeable pursuit, lent a hand at West Bromwich, where they had the misfortune to experience considerable roughness.

"Tis said those who came from Wolverhampton returned home short of 40, and that many of 'em are found dead among the corn and in the road." Injured innocents! They gave the coroner a list of 140 of their killed and wounded, and demanded a verdict of murder against those who had put up such a defence against them. The military, however (July 23rd), had the matter in hand, and the appearance of Dragoons found the "rebels" quite ready to listen to arguments put before them in the right way.

The government's estimate of the damage done (which may be regarded as the lowest possible figure) was:
            To the Meeting House. . . . . . . £254 16s. 2d.
            To Samuel Clemson's House. . . . £20

It is evident that the damage must have been very material; possibly only the most permanent features of the building survived the attack. Why Samuel Clemson should have been singled out for special treatment is a matter for conjecture: perhaps he was particularly odious, perhaps less able to command protection. His property suffered depreciation; but his sentiments lived again in his descendants, who (if truth be told) have vexed the town not a little and continue unto the present day.

As a postscript, may be, added an extract from a new year's letter of old Sir Henry Gough (of Oldfallings and Perry Hall) to his son, written from Perry Hall, where he was snowed-up in the good old fashioned way:

"This weather almost kills me, and impoverishes the country to that degree, that, if it continue, it will ruin many families, and destroy abundance of creatures. It seems a just judgment on the mob, for their wantonness and wickedness in raising such tumults amongst us. I cannot but pity many of the poor and ignorant, but wish the first promoters were well known and punished. Many (women especially) continue insolent and foolish in their talk; but a little time perhaps may calm them. We are much easier than we have been hereabouts. We must be content to pay for our disorders. God grant the rebels may be everywhere suppressed, and the King and Government no more forced to extremity, which must be when no other method will do. This was what I told my neighbours when you were here, who now seem to be convinced, and join in wishing success to King and Parliament."

The Dispute From Within

Within the next few years great changes were to take place because the congregation became divided on the question of doctrine. Unitarianism was becoming popular at the time. Followers were liberal thinkers who denied the Trinity and believed in the oneness of God. The religious movement is still well supported today and encourages freedom of religious thought. Their religious ideas are based on rational thought and their religious principles are derived from conscience, thinking, and life's experiences. The movement also tolerates a wide range of religious ideas, including humanism. The most important proponent of Unitarianism in the 18th century was minister and scientist, Joseph Priestley. A series of lawsuits followed at Wolverhampton over a period of 32 years, the fundamental issue being whether a Unitarian Congregation could lawfully claim ownership of a property that had been left by Trinitarians for the maintenance of the Trinitarian form of faith.

In 1740 John Stubbs resigned and James Barr took over. James remained at Wolverhampton for 10 years but was eventually forced out by the filing of a bill in chancery. At this time part of the congregation left the meeting house and worshipped in a large rented room in Mr. Turton's house.

James Barr was replaced by Philip Holland who had just finished his college course at Doddridge's Academy in Northampton. He only survived in St. John's Lane for 4 years because he was not acceptable to the predominantly Unitarian congregation.

Mr John Cole, Holland's successor suffered a similar fate. In September 1780 he received a letter signed by John Mander (Benjamin's brother), his cousin John Hanbury and Joseph Linney, three prominent members of the congregation. The letter was basically an ultimatum demanding Mr. Cole's resignation. It included the following:

"We have with concern for some time looked upon the congregation as dwindling in numbers and destitute of those Christian graces that were the beauty and excellence of dissenting congregations in bygone days." They reflected on Mr. Cole for not preaching "natural depravity and salvation through Christ" and also for his connection with ministers of the neighbourhood whom they regarded as wanting in grace and sound doctrine. They added that they had found difficulty in getting Mr. Cole to allow Calvinist preachers to occupy the pulpit at the meeting house, and that they had approached the congregation at Barn Street and were helping them to raise money for a new chapel where they might enjoy the ministrations of their Calvinistic friends.

John Cole, being a peaceful man decided to leave rather than fight the issue and resigned after finding another post at Narborough in Leicestershire. Before leaving Mr. Cole did his best to ensure that his successor would have the same views as himself, and on his suggestion William Jameson was appointed to succeed him on 24th April, 1781 following a two thirds majority vote of the trustees and subscribers. The majority of the congregation were opposed to the succession as where the six Unitarian members of the trustees.

When Mr. Jameson arrived with his wife, family and all of his worldly possessions to take charge of the manse, he found the doors locked and Mr. Peter Pearson, leader of the Unitarian trustees waiting to inform him that he would not be admitted. After being faced with this unexpected turn of events, Mr. Jameson and his family duly fled from the scene, giving up any idea of taking up the promised post.

It seemed as though the Calvinist Trinitarians under the Manders had lost their battle and the Unitarians under Joseph Pearson and his son Peter had won the day. Benjamin and John Mander's stepfather was Charles Hunter a Scottish Presbyterian. He attempted to take over the meeting house but found that Pearson's Unitarians were firmly in control and he had to retire leaving them in charge.

As a result of the row, part of the congregation including Mr. Jameson moved to a converted barn in Pountney's Fold off Dudley Street, where they worshipped for some time. Meanwhile Charles Hunter, the Manders and their friends founded a little chapel in Grey Pea Walk, now Temple Street, where John and Benjamin Mander both became deacons.

The legal proceedings following the arguments at the St. John's Lane meeting house eventually led to its demise. In 1849 under the title of St. Michael and All Angels it became a chapel of ease to St. Peter's Church, and remained so until 1890 when its religious life came to an end and the building became part of Mander Brothers works.

The meeting house, just before demolition.

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