Cradle of Much Unitarian History

The first Unitarian Church to be built in Bristol was at Lewins Mead in 1662 although it was originally Presbyterian. It was built on the site of a Franciscan Monastery to hold 400 with stables, coach house and lecture room. The congregation was extremely wealthy and included prominent city figures. It was rebuilt in 1787 being designed by William Blackburn. In the 1690’s Frenchay Chapel was built, again starting life as a Presbyterian Chapel. Then in 1864 Oakfield Road, Clifton was built for the wealthy Unitarians of Clifton. Both Lewins Mead and Oakfield Road are now closed and to replace Lewins Mead Brunswick Square Chapel was built on the rear of the old lodge which was (and still is) the entrance to the Unitarian grave yard.

Lant Carpenter was the minister at Lewins Mead from 1817 until his death in 1840 and took a great interest in school work founding his own school in 1826 and having amongst his pupils Harriet and James Martineau, Samuel Greg and the Westminster Review’s John Bowring. He did much to broaden the spirit of English Unitarianism, believing in the essential lawfulness of creation. This meant that natural causes were the explanation of the world as we find it. He felt the rite of baptism was superstition and instigated, in its place, a dedication service.

James Martineau was ordained in the Unitarian ministry in 1828. Harriet, his sister, became “the first of the notable women of the nineteenth century “ embarking on a literary career, her first article appearing in the Unitarian periodical – The Monthly Repository – about 1821. She worked tirelessly for the Abolition Movement and was a strong supporter of education for women.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge became a Unitarian through the influence of Joseph Priestly and lived in and around Bristol for a period of his life. He married a local girl and became friends with Lant Carpenter speaking at his lecture rooms in Lewins Mead and talking at Unitarian Chapels. Coleridge was friends with both Robert Southey and William Wordsworth and they both spent time in Bristol.

Mary Carpenter, Lant Carpenter’s daughter was an English educational and social reformer. Lant believed in educating girls and so she was taught Latin, Greek and Mathematics and other subjects not taught at that time to girls. She opened a ragged school at Lewins Mead encouraging local children from poor families to attend and she also added a night school for adults. Mary was concerned about destitute children and she organised in 1835 “a Working and Visiting Society” of which she was secretary for twenty years. In 1833 Raja Rammohun Roy visited from India staying with her parents , he was a Brahmo Samaj reformer and had a great influence on Mary. She moved to the Red House Lodge and entertained a number of Indian visitors. In 1866 she visited India followed by three further visits and helping to set up a model Hindu girls’ school. Back home she was interested in free schooling for all, juvenile delinquents and the setting up of Reform Schools, prison reform. Mary helped set up Bristol Indian Association which later became the National Indian Association which was aimed at promoting social reform and female education and providing a meeting place for Indian visitors to Britain. Mary died in 1877.

Rammohun Roy was a campaigner and social reformer successfully campaigning against sati – the practice of burning widows. Whilst staying with the Carpenter family Roy died of meningitis and is commemorated with a statue on College Green and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery where a service is held annually at his grave and attended by local Unitarians and Indians from the High Commission in London.