Friends of The Unitarian Meeting House
operating under guise of the Unitarian Trustees, an excepted charity
Unitarian Meeting House launch new publications
Give the Christmas gifts of photos of Bury’s finest building and a booklet about. its history. These gifts last all year long and help maintain this architectural treasure.
The Friends of Bury Unitarian Meeting House are pleased to highlight two new publications available for purchase that celebrate a beautiful and remarkable place of worship in Churchgate Street, which has become a much-loved venue for concerts, theatre and other social gatherings in the town.
A Very Special Building is a 16-page full colour monograph, packed with illustrations, and written by local conservation architect Peter Riddington. The booklet is based on a well-attended talk given by Peter at this early eighteenth-century gem back in March 2018.
The Friends felt Peter’s lecture was such an informative evening that they wanted to ensure the material was made available to everyone in an attractive book form. In the booklet, Peter details what makes the building so distinctive – It has an important cultural history which reflects the history of the town and country, It is an extremely rare survivor of an early non-conformist building and architecturally it is an extremely rare example of a very finely designed and built English baroque building, remarkably in tact.
Additionally, the Friends have produced an attractive 2021 Meeting House calendar. The A4 and A3 size productions feature a large colour picture each month – including some of the architectural detailing showing why the Meeting House is recognised as a building of national importance and Grade One Listed. Secretary of the Friends, Martin Gienke, said “We’re very pleased that even more people can enjoy this magnificent building through the beautiful calendar and informative monograph.”
The Calendars and A Very Special Building are on sale for £9 each or £15 if you purchase both together. They are available from Martin Gienke ([email protected]) or from Martin Lightfoot ([email protected]) Chantry House, 5 Hatter Street, B.S.E. Proceeds go to the Friends to help maintain the building.
After the restoration of the Unitarian Meeting House was completed in 1991 the administration of the building including lettings and maintenance was put in the hands of a Management Company until 2016 when the Unitarian Trustees, who own the building, formed a House Committee to look after it. A manager and caretaker were employed.
At the same time the Friends of the Unitarian Meeting House was established to keep the Meeting House open for the public to enjoy and use. Keen people are encouraged to join the Friends – and get involved in activities to support the Meeting House – for an annual subscription of just £10. In working parties they helped with the maintenance if the building and garden and also fund raising.
PETER RIDDINGTON is a Conservation Architect with expertise in repairing buildings and advising on what makes a building special. He has worked on some of the country’s most important buildings; Windsor Castle; Palace of Westminster; Royal Hospital Chelsea; Kensington Palace; Kew Gardens and has advised on changing such historic locations as Battersea Power Station, Regent Street and very many sites across the West End.
Friends of the Unitarian Meeting House
The aim of the Friends of the Unitarian Meeting House is to keep the Unitarian Meeting House open for the public to enjoy and use. The organisation provides chances for members of the public to participate in the maintenance and fund-raising activities for the UMH and to belong to a group supporting the UMH. Working Parties and social gatherings are arranged and Friends have a say in the operation of the meeting house as well as providing financial help. For more information and to become a member go to http://www.hireunitarianmeetinghouse.org.uk/friends.html
Bury St Edmunds Unitarian Congregation is the living successor to that enterprising community of Presbyterians who built this remarkable Meeting House in Churchgate Street in 1711. We share with our Dissenter forebears a strong preference for the exercise of personal judgement concerning ultimate questions of life purpose and meaning. Our liberal and progressive faith is rooted in the notion that mutual goodwill is the ideal basis for spiritual fellowship, rather than common assent to particular doctrines or dogmas. Further information is available via our website – www.bury-st-edmundsunitarians.org.
If you pass quickly along Churchgate Street in Bury St Edmunds, you may wonder about the mellow brick building near the top of the street. Is it an old house, or some kind of public hall? In fact it is a meeting house built in 1711 for public worship by Protestant dissenters from the Church of England known as Presbyterians. It is one of the few such buildings to survive still much as they were in the eighteenth century (though downstairs the old pews have been replaced by much more comfortable chairs!). In the nineteenth century prosperous nonconformist congregations often demolished their old meeting houses to build newly fashionable Gothic churches. Something almost like this happened nearby in Bury. The United Reformed Church (formerly Congregationalist or Independent) in Whiting Street is a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century building, one end of which has been given a Victorian Gothic facade. Fortunately the Presbyterians (who later became known as the Unitarians) were too poor to do the same. Rich Unitarian congregations in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and London led the way in replacing their meeting houses with impressive Gothic churches, rivalling the ancient parish churches of their area.
We are lucky to have virtually intact this fine old building of great character. In the eighteenth-century brick was used more extensively than ever before. Soon no builder thought of using anything else. The first memorable brick building in Bury is the Unitarian Meeting House. Alec Clifton-Taylor, the architectural historian, writes: ‘’This is a nonconformist chapel of quite unusual distinction …. the brickwork, laid still in English bond (that is, with alternating courses of headers and stretchers), is of very fine quality in two shades of red, with rubbed brick employed for the dressings. Especially attractive are the oval window in the centre and the lifting of the attic cornice in an arc over the sundial.” (Alec Clifton- Taylor: Another Six English Towns, BBC, 1984, p.98)“High arched windows flank an elegant central section containing a pedimented door, oval window with petal shaped panes, and circular sun dial. The details too are charming. Curved key blocks around the oval window, scrolled keystones in the arches, and rainwater heads with the date 1711 still clearly visible on them.” (Elsie McCutcheon: Bury St Edmunds Historic Town, Alastair Press, 1987)
The impressive two-decker pulpit with its great sounding board is opposite the entrance, lifting the minister well over six feet above contradiction. It is flanked by two oval windows giving light to the preacher in his pulpit and the clerk at his reading desk. A charming old clock faces them in the middle of the gallery opposite. This gallery runs around three sides of the building and the old straight-backed pews are all agonisingly intact. How often was the preacher shamed (or reassured) by his glances at the clock when his sermons plodded on for well over an hour?
Rev Frank Walker from The Bury St Edmunds Unitarian Meeting House: Guide and Brief History