Since 2012, I’ve been telling the remarkable story on walks of the Dissenters of Newington Green and a remarkable ‘church’ where anybody and everybody is welcome. You don’t even have to believe in God to attend the Sunday service (motto: “Believe in good”). Many of us will be familiar with the Enlightenment icon Mary Wollstonecraft – of Mary on the Green monument campaign fame – who attended this historic chapel (top left of the pic). But you may not know that, like her, people who meet in this building are still trying to change the world for the better.
With the help of Community & Learning Manager Amy Todd and the sponsorship of Newington Green Meeting House, we hosted an Alternative Statue Tour (see end of article) to ask who we might look to for future inspiration. Amy brings a lot of upbeat energy to what are weighty issues and here she explains her involvement in the project. Please take it as an invitation to get involved; exciting things are afoot in Newington Green. Mary is long gone, but on the edge of Hackney, people still dare to dream.
“This area has a radical heritage, from anti-sugar groups during the fight for abolition to places like Sisterwrite [Britain’s first Feminist book store, Upper Street]. I am proud to work somewhere that is part of that radical heritage. It is really important, if you have a dissenting voice, to feel that you are cared for, that you aren’t on your own and that the world can change. Newington Green Meeting House has been and will continue to be somewhere in Hackney that offers that.
If you’re familiar with Newington Green, then you’ve probably seen the Meeting House countless times. Lots of people I meet say they know the building – but haven’t been inside and don’t know its story. This is the starting point for the project I work on. New Unity are a non-religious Church that own, manage and call this building home. They applied for National Lottery Heritage Funding to restore the historic building, renovate it for essential mod-cons and accessibility, and hire a small team to engage the local community with its important history.
So why is the building so important? Well it depends on what you personally value: London’s oldest non-conformist place of worship; only standing building integral to Mary Wollstonecraft’s story; direct involvement in both the French and American revolutions; home to prominent abolitionists and so on. It was emblematic of the struggle for civil rights for those who did not conform to the Church of England, home to the wonderfully progressive Unitarian religion in the area and also a corner of London full of the intelligentsia of the Enlightenment.
Hooked yet? Essentially, it was a safe place that encouraged anti-establishment, radical and revolutionary thought: an antidote to all those who look back to the past as traditional, quaint and conservative.
I started as the only full-time staff member on the project about a year ago now. When people ask me what I do for a living, it’s never an easy answer. Vernacular historian? Public engagement? Work for a charity? As I finished of my MA in Public History and came to the end of a temporary contract – I saw the job advertised, read about the history of the building, then applied on the spot.
One of my lecturers had leant me a book on Unitarianism and Unbelief after expressing interest in those wonderful protestant sects of the 17th and 18th centuries and I was hooked. He said: “Anyone cool in history was probably Unitarian.” He was right!
What a year it’s been to open a historic building to the public: for free; five days a week for the first time; with all new audio tours and interpretation; and an exciting events programme! Unfortunately everything was cancelled and we have had to re-think our re-opening in October to ensure the community is safe. But I am really looking forward to being able to welcome people into the building and for them to learn more about their former neighbours. And it’s not only a building to come and learn about local history, radical history and political struggles that we still fight today; it will also be a place where you can pop in knowing you’ll always get a cuppa in your local community.
We want to know how to work with the local community in meaningful and mutually beneficial ways; did you get into photography during lockdown and want a place to exhibit? Do you think local parents need somewhere they can get free childcare on a Saturday for a bit of respite? Would you benefit from some free English conversation classes to improve your language skills? The Meeting House is a space with a super cool past, and we want it to have a super cool future.
Stay up to date with all the interesting events and news through the website ngmh.org.uk and social media handles: T: @NGMeetingHouse F: @NGDissenters I: ngmeetinghouse
If you want to know more about Hackney Changemakers and get inspired – and involved – then check out tomorrow’s walk in Dalston, Hackney.