Friday 24 March 2017

5 Things: The St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York

Recently I added the archive of the Unitarian Chapel on St Saviourgate, York, to our online catalogue Borthcat. I knew next to nothing about the chapel or the archive when I began, not even that it was the oldest surviving non-conformist place of worship in the city, dating to 1693! I expected to find administrative and financial records, perhaps some publications and ephemera collected over the chapel's long history, but instead I found a wonderfully rich archive that reveals as much about the private lives of its congregation as it does the working life of the chapel.

The following are five items (out of hundreds) that I have selected to demonstrate the wealth of interesting and unusual items that can be found in the archives of local institutions.

1. Pardon of Christopher Brooke of Lincoln’s Inn, 1626.

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One of the earliest items in the archive is this grant of pardon made by King Charles I to Christopher Brooke of Lincoln’s Inn, one of the London Inns of Court.  It is a grant of general pardon, covering everything from murder and insurrection to theft, and it has a large Royal Seal attached displaying the enthroned King on one side and the King on horseback on the other.  

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 It’s not clear from the document itself why Brooke should need such a blanket exemption, or indeed who exactly Brooke is.  Speculation in the office that he was a seventeenth century spy sadly proved unfounded.  A more likely bet is that he was the son of Robert Brooke, a merchant and alderman of York in the late sixteenth century.  Christopher was his eldest son and was educated at Cambridge before becoming a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn in 1610.  In 1626 he returned to York to take up the post of Justice of the Council of the North and it is probable that he was granted the pardon to ensure his clean criminal record before taking public office, and not for any nefarious reasons.

2. An Account of Mr Driffield’s Household Furniture, 1791

This small book is from a cache of papers in the archive labelled ‘Driffield and Bielby’, and named for two local Unitarian mercantile families who entered into a business partnership in the late eighteenth century. Again it is unclear how their papers, which include business accounts, property papers and plans, came to be in the archive but this particular item offers a fascinating glimpse into the layout and contents of what must have been a comfortably situated eighteenth century house and shop.  Compiled by a Thomas Hardisty of Castlegate, York, the account most closely resembles the inventory often found with probate documents.  However a search of the probate indexes here at the Borthwick has found no Driffield wills registered around 1791 and certainly the Driffield most closely connected to St Saviourgate Chapel, merchant Robert Driffield of Mount House who has a handsome memorial on the chapel wall, did not die until 1816.


The account shows us that Mr Driffield had 14 rooms in his house, including his ‘shop’.  The rooms included six bedrooms, all with feather beds, hangings, dressing tables and looking glasses.  Some had additional chests of drawers, desks and washstands in mahogany and oak.  One had a ‘glass Fearne and glass’, another a ‘picture.’  Downstairs he had a dining room with ‘Scotch carpits’, a ‘Mahogany Tea Table’ and six chairs.  The room adjoining contained his ‘oak dining table’ and all his tableware.  The account lists cups, saucers, coffee mugs, three tea pots, ‘blue China plates’, decanters and glasses.  He had both a large and small kitchen filled with pots, pans, kettles and ‘toasting prickers’. Finally his parlour with its mahogany table, oak desk, chairs, stool, ‘Hair seat’ and tea chest, as well as a bird cage, ‘4 Pictures’ and ‘carpits.’  The total value came to £110, with a further £23 and 4 shillings added from the value of fixtures and fittings in his shop.


3. Laws of a Book Society established at York, 1795.

The archive includes another small cache of books and papers, this time belonging to the Wellbeloved family.  Their connection to the St Saviourgate Chapel is an obvious one, Charles Wellbeloved had come to York in 1792 as assistant to the chapel’s minister Newcome Cappe.  He succeeded to the ministry at Cappe’s death in 1800 and was a prominent York figure, active in reformist and antiquarian circles for the rest of his life.  

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Just one of the many clubs and societies he played a part in was the York Book Society, established in 1794 as a circulating subscription library.   The society initially met at Reverend Wellbeloved’s home.  It was later reconstituted as the Subscription Library Society and from 1812 it had its own premises on the corner of Lendal and St Helen’s Square.   The early ‘Laws’ of the society kept by Wellbeloved show that subscription was one guinea a year, with an additional sixpence charged for missing the monthly society meeting.  Books were to be borrowed first by the member who suggested it, and then passed on to other members in order of seniority.  

The library at that time comprised 35 titles, although this had risen to 140 by 1799 and included such titles as the ‘Life of the Empress of Russia’, ‘Miss Williams’ Tour in Switzerland’ and ‘Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible.’

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4. Journal of travels on the continent, 1819

Whilst these family papers showcase the involvement of Charles Wellbeloved in York civic life, the majority of items in this small cache are actually by his son, John, including lecture notes, poems and a journal detailing his all too short trip to Europe in the summer of 1819, when he was 21 years old.    

John Wellbeloved was the second son and the one expected to follow his father into the ministry.  He had studied divinity at Manchester College, winning the prize for Greek composition, and the poems he wrote there are a reminder that student life has not changed as much as we may think.  In his poem ‘In Praise of Coffee’ he writes of long hours studying and the reviving effects of his favourite drink,

When late at night we weary trudge,
In learning’s thorny way.
Our strength and spirits will revive,
And all our pains allay.

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His father wished for him to become more fluent in German and so in July 1819 he left for the continent with a friend of his father’s, Dr John Kenrick.  In spite of the ‘villanous coffee’ he had to drink in Germany, his journal gives a lively account of the trip, describing the beauty of the countryside and addressing remarks to his family at home who would read it upon his return.  On one evening,

‘Being encouraged by the ladies I ventured to make an attempt at a Waltz with Miss Acherbach.  And now Anne [his younger sister], you must not think a Waltz in Germany the horrible thing which it is thought to be in England.  The ladies here stand up as naturally to a Waltz as they do in England to a country dance & nothing more is thought of it.’

John and Kenrick had planned to spend the winter in Göttingen but tragically it was not to be.  At the end of September, the pair were at Homburg, near Frankfurt, when John became ill with typhus.  He died within the fortnight and was buried in the cemetery of the Reformed Church there.  A college friend described him as ‘gifted by nature with superior talents’ whilst possessing ‘a thoroughly warm, benevolent and guileless heart.’  Years later, Kenrick wrote that his parents never recovered from his loss.

5.  'Reflections on the Public Ministry of Christ deduced from the Records of the Four Evangelists' by Catharine Cappe, 1821

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This is the only book in the archive authored by Catharine Cappe alone, yet Catharine looms large in the history of St Saviourgate Chapel and indeed in the cause of Unitarianism and York life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  The daughter of Jeremiah Harrison, the incumbent of Long Preston and Skipton, and later of Catterick, Catharine converted to Unitarianism as an adult.  In the eighteenth century Unitarianism was considered as a radical form of dissent from Anglican orthodoxy.  Catharine argued that philanthropy was a way of countering negative views of the movement and encouraged women to take an active role in public life, as she herself did following her move to York in 1782.  She set up a spinning school for girls with her friend, Mrs Gray, that same year, and went on to reorganise the city’s Grey Coat School for Girls from 1785.  In 1788 she set up a female Friendly Society to provide financial support to women in times of hardship.  

In 1788 she also became the second wife of Newcome Cappe, the minister of St Saviourgate between 1755 and 1800.   During their marriage Catharine assisted her husband with his ministry, transcribing his earlier religious writings and taking dictation of his new sermons.  After his death in 1800 she edited her husband’s work into a number of publications, including ‘Discourses chiefly on Devotional Subjects’ in 1805 and ‘Discourses Chiefly on Practical Subjects’ in 1815.  She was also an important benefactor to the Yorkshire Romantic poet Charlotte Richardson, arranging for her first book of verse to be published by subscription in 1806.
On her own account, Catharine published at least three books.  Her ‘Account of Two Charity Schools for the Education of Girls’ was printed in 1800, and her autobiography ‘Memoirs of the Life of Mrs Catherine Cappe’ and ‘Reflections on the Public Ministry of Christ deduced from the Records of the Four Evangelists’ were both published after her death in July 1821.


If you would like to read more about the St Saviourgate Chapel Archive, you can read the entry on our online catalogue HERE, or why not visit the chapel's own website.

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