Tour uncovers the radical past of Newington Green
PUBLISHED: 13:32 23 March 2016 | UPDATED: 13:32 23 March 2016
Tour guide Rob Smith tells the Gazette about the community of dissenters that took up residence in Newington Green 250 years ago – and inspired three US Founding Fathers and women’s rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft
Today, Newington Green is best known as a junction that connects Islington to the north-east and beyond. But it hasn’t always been a busy traffic hub.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, it was a remote village and a haven for radical thinkers and social reformers.
“People started to come here in the early 1600s to escape religious persecution,” explains Islington tour guide Rob Smith.
“Then, from the late 1600s, religious dissenters weren’t allowed to go to Oxford and Cambridge – so if they wanted a good education, they would go to ‘dissenting academies’ – a number of which were based in Newington Green. There, they were taught in English rather than the usual Latin, and studied modern subjects such as maths, science and politics.”
This community, of course, is long gone, and the area has mostly been re-built. But some traces of the dissenters remain.
The green itself is still there, as is the Unitarian church – one of the few original buildings left. It was there that rebellious minister and mathematician Dr Richard Price came to preach his libertarian and republican views when he joined the community in 1758.
“Price was opposed to the monarchy and believed in the new idea of an independent America,” says Mr Smith. “At the time, the idea of getting rid of a king and having a democratically-elected republic based around the idea of the equality of all people was really exciting. But it was also really seditious – so he was always getting death threats.”
The minister’s controversial sermons inspired the likes of political writer and chemist Joseph Priestley, credited with the discovery of oxygen; philosopher David Hume; Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe; several founding fathers of the United States including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine; and John Adams, who later became the second president of the USA.
Arguably, however, the most influential member of Price’s congregation was the author and women’s rights activist, Mary Wollstonecraft. Today, you can still see the church bench where she sat, and – more recently – a stencil of the early feminist has been painted on the side of the church.
Mary was a 25-year-old schoolmistress when she arrived in Newington Green in 1784, with an ambition to set up a school for women.
“She felt that education for women was really poor and hampering the opportunities for women in society,” says Mr Smith.
“So the new school she set up would be totally revolutionary, teaching new subjects like politics, science and law which weren’t available to women at the time.”
Despite being so young, Mary was no stranger to controversy. Having left home with her sister at the age of 16 to escape their abusive and alcoholic father, she was already unusual as an unmarried woman who was making her own way in the world.
She is said to have been a frequent visitor to Dr Pryce’s house at number 54 Newington Green, which is in the middle of London’s oldest brick terrace.
“It was built in 1658 before the Great Fire of London in the middle of the English Civil War, and it’s an amazing survivor,” says Mr Smith.
“The fact that the terrace still stands here today is a real testament to the strength of the community in Newington Green during the Civil War. There weren’t many building-bricks available – but people still thought it worth building a row of houses.”
Mary is said to have been particularly inspired by Dr Pryce’s views on the French Revolution, which began in 1789.
“He produced a really dangerous pamphlet in which he said that if the French can get rid of their king, then maybe we can get rid of ours.
“This was seen as particularly seditious. But the idea appealed to Mary, who decided to go to France and take a look at what was happening for herself.”
She left for Paris in 1792, about a month before Louis XVI was executed. But she became rapidly disillusioned.
“There’s a story that, one day, she was walking in a square in Paris and slipped on a pool of blood,” says Mr Smith.
“She looked down and saw that it was from the guillotine, and realised that the revolution wasn’t supporting freedom and equality as she’d hoped.”
Today, there is a campaign to have a statue erected in Mary’s memory on the green itself - as a legacy to her important role in supporting women’s education.
Mr Smith of the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association leads a ‘Dissenters of Newington Green’ walk. To find out more and to book, click here.