At the bottom of Park Road, Dingle, in south Liverpool, the main road makes a sudden, unexpected S-bend which can only represent a very ancient land-boundary.
It’s no accident that the inside of the bend is occupied by an ancient burial ground.
And the chapel within has been known as the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth for almost two hundred years.
At the start of the seventeenth century, Dingle was an isolated settlement two miles away from the town of Liverpool, then still huddled around its neglected medieval castle.
The early history of British Nonconformity goes back to a time barely a generation after the turmoil of the Tudor Reformation, when people acted in ways that are now difficult to recognise, and one of the oddities of the religious conflicts of the time was that Sir Richard Molyneux, 1st Baronet (1560-1662), as a member of a Catholic family sympathetic to victims of religious persecution, allowed Puritan families to occupy land that he had purchased within the medieval Toxteth Park.
In 1611 a group of farmers built a school and Anglican chapel for Puritan worship there and enlisted a fifteen-year-old youth from Winwick, near Warrington, Richard Mather (1596-1669), as master. He came to Toxteth soon after his sixteenth birthday, spent a few months studying at Brasenose College, Oxford, before starting work as preacher and teacher in November 1612 and taking holy orders a few months later.
The Archbishop of York’s inspectors suspended him early in 1634 because he had never worn a surplice in the past fifteen years. Their report declared that “it had been better for him that he had begotten seven bastards”.
He emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1635, became a noted preacher in New England, where four of his five sons graduated at Harvard University and took orders. His son and grandson were respectively presidents of Harvard and Yale Universities. Among his later descendants, eighty became clergymen.
The early congregation included the astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641), who is credited with demonstrating that the Moon moved in an elliptical orbit round the Earth, and was one of the first to observe the Transit of Venus in 1639, which enabled him to estimate the size of the planet Venus and the distance between the Earth and the Sun. He has a memorial in the Chapel, though it’s uncertain whether he was buried there.
By 1662, after the Restoration of King Charles II, Toxteth Chapel was served by two Presbyterian ministers, Thomas Crompton and Michael Briscoe, who were formally licensed under the Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, making the Chapel a Presbyterian place of worship.
Through the following century the Chapel was alternately enlarged and neglected, until it was partly rebuilt in 1774 by those of its congregation who chose to become Unitarian.
The colonnaded “Colybarium” contains monuments dating from 1795 onwards to the Holt, Rathbone, Melly and Holland families, and the porch was added in 1841.
The interior, with its pulpit and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century galleries, was archaic by that time, and was spared Victorian embellishment.
It is listed Grade I because, according to the list description, “As a chapel which was Nonconformist before 1660, and preserves an excellent set of furnishings which were complete by a century later, this chapel is of the highest importance”.
The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth is included in the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) tour. For further details please click here.