Ref NoUC 1
TitleOld Meeting House, Old Meeting Street (1689 - 1881), subsequently Old Meeting Church, Bristol Street (1885 - 1950)
Date1771 - 1958
FormatCubic metres
AccessStatusPartially closed (Content)
AdminHistoryThe Old Meeting Society was founded in 1687 and its Meeting House was built in 1689, registered in the names of William Fincher, Thomas Baldwin and William Turton. One of Fincher's daughters married John Sillitoe, an early minister of the New Meeting House, established in Birmingham a few years later (see UC 1/14/2 or 3, p. 30). According to an early print the first Meeting House appeared to be a fairly plain looking building, with four gables.

Another place of worship, known as the Lower Meeting House, was later built to accommodate the growing number of worshippers, whose congregation became known as the New Meeting (see UC 2). The Old Meeting House was partially destroyed during the Sachaverell Riots of 1715, the rioters being opposed to the Hanoverian Succession generally favoured by the Nonconformists at that time. From 1700 - 1769 the ministers of the Old Meeting also supplied the Oldbury meeting in Worcestershire. The Old Meeting was also known as the Higher Meeting because it was located on higher ground than the New, or Lower Meeting.

There is some debate as to whether the chapel was Birmingham's oldest Unitarian church, as during its early years it was described as Calvinist and a 'Non-Subscribing' Presbyterian body. It became Arian in 1746, with a section of the congregation who preferred the established Calvinist doctrines leaving to form a society that became known as the Carrs Lane Church in 1747, although there was no fundamental breach (for records of the Carrs Lane Chapel see CC 1). During the ministry of the Reverend John Angell James both congregations worshipped at the Old Meeting House. The Old Meeting House became properly Unitarian around 1817.

By the 1770s many of the established members of the meeting house were governors of Birmingham's Free Grammar School. By 1772 the minute books would suggest that the sittings in the gallery of the church were called seats in the 'loft' and those on the floor 'seats below stairs'. There were 130 subscribers, with over 700 sittings and 400 - 500 attendants. Sittings cost 4 shillings each in the front 'loft', 5s in the side aisle, 6s in the middle aisle, and 7s near the pulpit.

In 1776 the Trustees of the Old Meeting House purchased 'The Bull and Gate House' Charity School and all the premises situated in Old Meeting Street from a Mr. Michael Lakin for £540, charged with an annuity of £8. In 1785 it was resolved to have the seats numbered, and to provide sittings in the gallery for servants of members of the congregation.

On 14 July 1791 the Old Meeting House was destroyed during the Priestley Riots, along with the existing New Meeting and the home of their Minister, Joseph Priestley (see UC 2/15). Just one month later the Trustees of the Old Meeting House met at Freeth's Coffee House on 19 August 'to consider what steps it may be proper to adopt in the present situation of our affairs'.

In the interim the Old and New Meetings agreed to worship together in a new building on Livery Street, which became known as the Union Chapel, with the four ministers of the two societies officiating alternately. The chapel was opened on the 13 November 1791 by the minister of the Old Meeting, the Reverend John Coates, who preached a sermon at the morning and evening meetings, attended by congregations numbering over 1,000.

A new brick chapel was eventually built at a cost of £4,500 which opened on 4 October 1795 on the existing site, and was larger than the old one as other houses had to be taken down before the new one could be built. By the late 1790s Dr Watt's hymns were being used by the meeting, as they were at the New Meeting House, and an organ was installed in the church around the year 1799, although it was disposed of in 1804.

In 1812 an application was made by the Carrs Lane congregation for the use of the Old Meeting House during the time a gallery was being built in their chapel, and in January 1813 a resolution of thanks was conveyed to the Old Meeting House by the Carrs Lane congregation for allowing them to do so.

Gradual modifications and reforms were made to the church throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The Old Meeting House Sunday School buildings were completed in 1820, and its organ was built in 1854, with Vestry and lecture rooms erected a year later. The original chapel also had a churchyard, which served both Old and New Meeting Houses, and was enlarged in 1779, 1869 and 1870.

In 1840 the Old Meeting House joined the Unitarian Association for the Midland Counties, and later joined the Midland Christian Union. The congregation had been politically active during the 1830s and 1840s, and had supported petitions to Parliament against the payment of church rates. In 1854 the Reverend Charles Clarke of the Old Meeting and the Reverend Samuel Bache of the New Meeting delivered two lectures at the Old Meeting House in April and May 1854 in response to a lecture by the Reverend J.C. Miller, rector of St Martin's, on 'The Working Man Rejecting Unitarianism'.

On 2 October 1855 the new school and lecture room was opened, which cost £727 in total. Further alterations were carried out on the graveyard and memorial boards in the vestry during 1856, and in 1857 a new pulpit was donated to the church by a member of the congregation. The congregation was reportedly very active in supporting the church and its various causes, raising £535 for general repairs to be undertaken on the chapel and £203 18s 6d for a collection for the Birmingham General Hospital.

In 1870 a piece of land was purchased from the London and North Western Railway Company to enlarge the burial ground and to put it in order. Additional land situated on Great Queen Street was purchased by the Trustees the following year. In 1871 the Liturgical Services were discontinued, and a collection of ten services, called 'Prayer and Praise', and compiled by the Reverend Charles Clarke, was adopted.

In 1875 an application was made by the London and North Western Railway Company for the purchase of the graveyard and school buildings connected to the Old Meeting House, and the following year the congregation petitioned Parliament against the proposal. In 1877 the chapel had a narrow escape from fire, following negligence on the part of the Birmingham Corporation Gas Department.

In 1880 the Trustees were informed that the railway company wanted to re-enter negotiations regarding the purchase of the chapel and its property. At this point it was decided that the Old Meeting congregation needed a new building, and in 1881 the Old Meeting House, graveyard and all its property was sold for £30,000 to the London and North Western Railway Company. A new church was built on the Bristol Road for £26,000 and opened on 7 October 1885.

The new church was designed by Mr J.A. Cossins, in the fashion of the Gothic architecture of the thirteenth century, built from Hampstead stone and relieved with Hollington stone dressings. There was a raised chancel with stalls fitted for the church's choir, with an organ on the north side built by Hill and Son of London for £1,000. There was sitting accommodation for 600 persons.

The church continued to grow during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A number of charities had been set up to administer bequests made by wealthier members of the congregation, most of which were used to provide additional funding for the church’s Sunday Schools (see UC 1/9). During the late nineteenth century a Benevolent Society was founded to provide practical assistance to poorer families living in the neighbourhood of the church (see UC 1/12/1), whilst a Guild of Kindness was also set up to act as a social club for members of the congregation (see UC 1/12/2).

The Second World War would decide the future of the Old Meeting congregation. In 1940 the church was so badly damaged by enemy bombing that no further services were held there. In 1941 the entire site was taken over by the army, where the ruins were known as 'Rheims Cathedral' by the troops who used the ruins to practice urban combat. From 25 November 1945 services began again, held once a month in the school rooms, the last of which was held on 30 April 1950, although the buildings had formally closed by 1949. After this date the Old Meeting ceased to function as a church, with some of the members transferring to Carrs Lane or the Church of the Messiah, whilst others moved to Anglican or other churches in the area.

The Corporation of Birmingham obtained compulsory powers to acquire the site of the church and school under the Birmingham (Central Redevelopment) Compulsory Purchase Order, 1946, and in accordance with an order of the Charity Commissioners of 15 May 1953 the whole of the property was sold to the Council for the sum of £15,400.

Several proposals for redistributing the funds were considered by the surviving Trustees, in accordance with the original Trust Deed, the main one being supporting the establishment of a Chapel of Unity at Coventry, the first non-denominational church or chapel to be founded on the initiative of the Church of England, as well as the provision of financial assistance to other local Nonconformist churches.
ArrangementUC 1 Old Meeting House, Old Meeting Street (1689 - 1881), subsequently Old Meeting Church, Bristol Street (1885 - 1950)

UC 1/1 Trustees and Trust Corporation records
UC 1/1/1 Minutes
UC 1/1/3 Deeds
UC 1/1/4 Correspondence and papers

UC 1/2 Services of the church
UC 1/2/1 General registers
UC 1/2/2 Registers of baptisms
UC 1/2/3 Registers of marriages
UC 1/2/4 Registers of burials
UC 1/2/13 Indexes to registers

UC 1/3 Church government
UC 1/3/1 Minister
UC 1/3/3 Vestry
UC 1/3/4 Treasurer
UC 1/3/6 Annual meetings of the Congregation
UC 1/3/8 Other church committees
UC 1/3/8/1 Finance Committee
UC 1/3/8/2 Executive and Finance Committee, later Executive Committee
UC 1/3/8/3 Church Committee

UC 1/4 Membership of the church
UC 1/4/1 Congregational rolls

UC 1/5 Printed publications
UC 1/5/1 Church magazines
UC 1/5/2 Printed reports
UC 1/5/3 Church guidebooks and published histories
UC 1/5/7 Miscellaneous printed material

UC 1/6 Church income
UC 1/6/2 Lists of subscriptions
UC 1/6/7 Other income

UC 1/7 Church buildings and grounds
UC 1/7/1 Deeds and legal papers relating to the church site and its grounds
UC 1/7/2 Churchyard
UC 1/7/4 Papers relating to the building and restoration of the church building
UC 1/7/5 Papers relating to minor improvements, alterations and maintenance of the church
UC 1/7/6 Seats (including registers of seats, grants and licenses)
UC 1/7/10 Miscellaneous records re church property and buildings

UC 1/9 Charities
UC 1/9/1 Old Meeting Ladies' Benevolent Society
UC 1/9/2 Spilsbury Butler Fund
UC 1/9/3 Redfern Memorial Prize Fund
UC 1/9/4 Leadbeater Prizes

UC 1/11 Sunday Schools
UC 1/11/2 Minutes and other records of committees relating to the Trustees of the Old Meeting and Church of the Messiah Sunday Schools
UC 1/11/2/1 Subscribers of the Old Meeting Sunday Schools
UC 1/11/2/2 Sunday School Friendly Society
UC 1/11/2/3 Committee of Management
UC 1/11/2/4 Sunday School Adult Class
UC 1/11/3 Minutes and other records relating to the meetings of teachers of the Sunday Schools
UC 1/11/3/1 Sunday School Teachers' Society
UC 1/11/3/2 Registers of teachers and other adults connected to the Old Meeting Sunday Schools
UC 1/11/4 Accounts
UC 1/11/7 Admissions registers
UC 1/11/8 Attendance registers
UC 1/11/10 Miscellaneous Sunday School records

UC 1/12 Other organisations and ministries
UC 1/12/1 Old Meeting Benevolent Society
UC 1/12/2 Old Meeting Guild of Kindness

UC 1/13 Photography

UC 1/14 Miscellaneous items
Related MaterialArchives:
MS 281 Letters, accounts, day book, briefs, evidence and other papers of Thomas Lee of Birmingham, attorney relating to the Birmingham riots and damages caused by rioters 1791 - 1795
MS 315 Birmingham Unitarian Brotherly Benefit Society
MS 1852/1-2 Notes and news cuttings from late nineteenth and early twentieth century relating to the Old Meeting Church
MS 1879/1 Copy affidavit relating to status of Old Meeting as an 'open church' 1956
MS 2027 Copy of address given at the annual meeting of the Unitarian Tract Society 1829
MS 2748 Unitarian Ministers Benevolent Society
UC 2 New Meeting House, Moor Street (1690 - 1861), subsequently the Church of the Messiah, Broad Street (1862 - 1973), subsequently the Unitarian New Meeting, Ryland Street (1973 onwards)
UC 3 Church of the Saviour, Edward Street (1847 - 1895)
UC 4 Waverley Road Church, Small Heath (1898 - 1921), subsequently Waverley Road Church and Hurst Street Mission, Small Heath (1921 - 1996)
UC 5 Kingswood Chapel, Hollywood, Kings Norton (1712 - present)
UC 6 Birmingham Domestic Mission, Thorp Street (1840 - 1844), subsequently Birmingham Domestic Mission, Hurst Street (1844 - 1890), subsequently Hurst Street Domestic Mission (1890 - 1921)
UC 7 Cambridge Street Chapel (1834 - 1840), subsequently Newhall Hill Chapel, Frederick Street (1840 - 1911), subsequently Newhall Hill Unitarian Church, Villa Road (1911 - 1915), subsequently Newhall Hill Unitarian Church, Gibson Road, Handsworth (1915 - 1961?)
UC 8 Moseley Unitarian Church, Yardley Wood Road, Billesley (1928 - onwards)

Local Studies Reference Collections:
A discourse in the Old Meeting House Birmingham by Hugh Hutton, 1832 [L 18.4]
A sermon preached at the Old and New Meeting Houses in aid of a collection to the Protestant Dissenting Charity School, by William Wood, F.L.S., 1805 [L 18.4]
A short history of the Old Meeting Church by the Reverend J. Wood, 1887 [LP 18.4]
Devotional services selected from the Book of Common Prayer for public worship, as used at the Old Meeting House, 1832 [L 18.4]
Old Meeting Church order of worship [LP 18.4]
Old Meeting House and Old Meeting Church Annual Reports 1863 - 1917 (with some gaps) [L 18.4]
Old Meeting House news cuttings 1843 - 1896 [L 18.4]
Old Meeting House Sunday School Teachers' Friendly Society laws, 1875 [L 18.4]
Old Meeting Musical Society concert programme, 5 July 1860 [LP 18.4]
Old Meeting Social Union programme of entertainment, 22 January 1897 [L 18.4]
Psalms, hymns and anthems selected for the use of the congregation at the Old Meeting House, 1856 [L 18.4]
Report on Mr. Frederick Grew with the Old Meeting Sunday Schools, 1880 [LP 18.4]
Report on the managing of the Old Meeting Sunday Schools, 1847 [LP 18.4]
Ritualism: a lecture by Charles Clarke read at the Old Meeting House, 1866 [L 18.4]
Salvation, and on the beliefs and practices of Unitarians. A sermon by Charles Clarke, 1881 [LP 18.4]
Sermon by Charles Clarke at the Old Meeting House, 1864 [LP 18.4]
Sermon preached in the Old Meeting House, 1882 [LP 18.4]
Street preaching: a sermon preached by the Reverend Charles Clarke, 1856 [LP 18.4]
War: a lecture by Charles Clarke read at the Old Meeting House, 1854 [L 18.4]
CreatorNameOld Meeting House, Old Meeting Street (1689 - 1881)
Old Meeting Church, Bristol Street (1885 - 1950)
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