History of the Newcastle Unitarian Church

Here’s our history, dating back three centuries. The history of the congregation as a whole is below; you can find out out about some of our most notable individual ministers here:

William Durant c1662-1681

Richard Gilpin 1672-1700

William Turner 1781-1841


History of Newcastle Unitarians

The Unitarian community in Newcastle upon Tyne can be traced back to the 17th century.

In response to The Act of Uniformity in 1662, some clergy, objecting to the imposition of universal creeds, rejected the authority of the Church of England and dissented.  Despite the risk of persecution, a number of such clergy set up non-conformist meetings in private homes, often in secret. Both Rev William Durant and Dr Richard Gilpin separately led such dissenting congregations.

After the death of the Rev. William Durant in 1681, his congregation joined that of Dr Gilpin at the Meeting House just outside the Close Gate, one of the Gate Towers on the Town Wall.

In 1726, a new meeting house, Hanover Square, was built close to the city centre, where they worshipped for 127 years, and it was here that the great William Turner, its minister for nearly 60 years (1782-1841), served with distinction. Among his many accomplishments, William Turner established the first Sunday School in Newcastle, in 1784. He was of course also a founding member of the The Literary & Philosophical Society (Lit & Phil), the largest independent library outside London. Under Turner, the congregation moved from Independent Dissent towards Unitarianism.

In 1854, a grand church, in Gothic style, designed by the notable architect, John Dobson, was opened in the city centre location of New Bridge Street (where the City Library now stands).

In recognition of its Unitarian stance, it was given the name ‘The Church of the Divine Unity’.

In 1919, Rev Herbert Barnes, a most inspired preacher, began a ministry there, that lasted for over 30 years. At his Sunday evening services, the church was so over-filled that extra seats had to be crammed into the aisles to accommodate the congregation. When the west foundation of the church began subsiding, there was no other option but to demolish it.

The present building in Ellison Place was erected, to hold a congregation of 500. It was opened on Sunday, 21st January, 1940, where the Rev Barnes continued his ministry and where we continue to affirm our free religious faith and the unity of the human family, regardless of race, creed, class or sex.

History of the Church of the Divine Unity

In 1939, the congregation moved nearby to its current home, a stunning 500-seater Art Deco building in Ellison Place.  All the church furniture is original, made of English oak, with a striking wave design. Robert Burns Dick was in partnership with R Norman McKellar, who introduced a Modernist direction and contributed to the design. This was probably the last Art Deco building to be built in Newcastle.

The adjoining Durant Hall, became renowned as a lecture hall and meeting place. In 1997, the building was listed Grade II.