Reverend Herbert Barnes 1919 – 1951

Herbert Barnes spent nearly the whole of his ministerial life serving our congregation at Newcastle. Born in Grey Abbey, County Down, he was 25 when he determined to train for the Unitarian ministry. Two years at Queen’s University, Belfast were followed by three years at the Home Missionary College (later Unitarian College), Manchester, where he demonstrated his gifts of natural eloquence and preaching power.

After a short but successful ministry at Oldham Road, Manchester he accepted an offer to come to Newcastle, where he ministered from 1919 until he retired in 1951. In his Inquirer obituary he was described as having “laboured with conspicuous devotion and earned the reward of abundant success”. He could not have known that half way through his ministry the church would be faced with having to demolish the building as it became unsafe for public use. The congregation faced the inevitable, and, supported and encouraged by their minister, found a site in Ellison Place and built the present church in a thoroughly modern style recognised by its Grade II listing as a fine example of Art Deco design. Its opening in January 1940 was an occasion of great joy, although tempered with sadness for Herbert, whose wife Beatrice had died only two months before.

Beyond his preaching, of which it was said that extra chairs often had to be placed in the aisles to accommodate those who came to hear him, Barnes ministered to the wider population. He wrote a regular weekly column in the Newcastle Journal, and also a regular Saturday epilogue in the Evening Chronicle under the pen name Unitas. (Some of his writings were published and two copies of his Unitas book can be found on the table at the back of the Turner Hall.) He was forthright in his defence of those whom he believed wronged and is one of the few Gentiles to have his name inscribed in the Jewish Golden Book for his defence of those of that faith facing persecution in Germany in the 1930s. His articles in the Chronicle are direct and powerful. I quote from an article written in April 1932, just as the Nazi persecution of Jews began: “When will we learn to level these barriers to brotherhood, to see men just as men, to judge them by what they are, and not by the racial name they bear?”

Herbert and Beatrice Barnes had three children, Abner, who was a Solicitor, Henry, who was a GP and Mary, the mother of Jonathan Devall, now living in Scotland, but who visits us occasionally when he is down south. Today we remember Herbert Barnes at church in many different ways. There is the very obvious Memorial stone in the outer vestibule which borrows the famous inscription to Sir Christopher Wren in St Paul’s Cathedral, “Si monumentum requiras, circumspice (if you seek a monument, look around you)”, recognising Barnes’s contribution to the building of Ellison Place.

There is a brass plaque affixed to the reading desk in the church recording that all the furnishings in the chancel were “given by friends in loving memory of Beatrice Barnes”. We have our Herbert Barnes Award which every year is available to pay a sum of money to a newly qualified minister leaving Unitarian College Manchester, to buy books to help in their chosen calling. And on the first Sunday in October every year we have Fellowship Sunday, which commemorates the start of Herbert Barnes’s ministry. This year on 6th October we will mark the centenary of his arrival in Newcastle.

Maurice Large