Just over 300 years ago, a small meeting house was built for non-conformists escaping the religious constraints of the City of London, and it’s still here, and now open for tours.
The Newington Green Unitarian Church is also London’s oldest nonconformist place of worship that’s still in use.
The original building was constructed in 1708, on land donated for the purpose, in a classic Queen Anne style externally and with a very spartan interior. It was substantially expanded at the rear in the mid-19th century, and the front given its current design.
As a nonconformist building close to London it was home to many of the leading dissenting figures in English life, and was visited by many of the founding fathers of the USA, philosophers, and political agitators, such as prison reformer John Howard, and voting reform campaigners, John and Ann Jebb.
The most famous visitor, and the subject of a recent very controversial statue in the Green outside, was Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and writer. The statue is supposed to represent feminism as an idea rather than Mary Wollstonecraft herself, which would be quite understandable if only the plinth didn’t have her name and birth/death dates on it.
Although the congregation nearly died out at the turn of the millennium, it’s thriving again, and last year they completed a major restoration of the building.
And they offer tours.
It’s candidly a small building and not ornate or richly decorated, but it’s a good building to visit to learn about the radical history of the area and get to poke your nose inside.
After a visit to that sculpture, you get to go to the upper seating with good views of the main area. A modern sound system sits in the space once occupied by a long since removed church organ.
Alongside the very few memorials on the wall is a modern one, a plaque added in 2020 in memory of Mary Wollstonecraft, and upstairs in the back is a bust of her, mounted on a pedestal that’s also the correct height for the lady. She was quite short, and it makes a pleasing change from grand statues up high on big plinths.
A brief tour done, you’re left to wander around if you want, and read the history display on the ground floor. The history of the church is still alive though, and it regularly campaigns on current issues affecting society. At the moment, if you want to get married in the church you can’t – as they have banned them until everyone is allowed to get married in a church.
You’ll learn more about the history of radicalism than you will see of a 300-year-old building, but if you were to want to learn about this less well-known aspect of our history, this is is probably the best place to do so.