William Turner can properly claim to be the Minister who had a greater influence on his adopted town of Newcastle upon Tyne than any other minister in the history of our church. Over almost sixty years of ministry he involved himself in all aspects of the town’s development, attracting to the Hanover Square chapel some of the most notable and eminent citizens of the day.
He was born in Wakefield in 1761, the son of a Unitarian Minister also called William, and trained at Warrington Academy and Glasgow University. He is probably the W Turner ordained at Pudsey in 17821, but at all events he accepted the ministry at Newcastle in that year and remained at Newcastle until his retirement in 1841.
At Hanover Square he established a vestry library and also, in 1784, a Sunday School, the first in Newcastle and one of the first in England. He also established a day school in Percy Street which eventually became a part of the Percy Street Academy run by John Collingwood Bruce and which is commemorated by a plaque in Percy Street on the building at the corner of St Thomas Street.
If it be the case that newspaper proprietors and editors are the opinion formers, then consider the congregation at Hanover Square. It included James and Thomas Hodgson, proprietors of the Newcastle Chronicle, James Clephan, editor of the Gateshead Observer, and W A Mitchell, proprietor and editor of the Tyne Mercury. Alongside them were notable manufacturers including Thomas Bell, Thomas Wilson and W S Losh of Losh, Wilson & Bell, Alkali manufacturers and Ironworkers. The firm eventually became a part of Dorman Long. George Burnett, a lead manufacturer, and John Buddle, the famous mining engineer, were also members of the congregation. It is said that when Buddle died the funeral procession was over a mile long and took over three hours to get from his home in Wallsend to Benwell Cemetery, where he is buried.
In the field of law, Turner attracted to Hanover Square Thomas Swinburne, Solicitor and Clerk to the Magistrates in Gateshead, and James Losh, barrister and his son, also James, who became a County Court Judge. James Losh Senior was debarred from public office until the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 removed such disqualification from Unitarians and the Council appointed him Honorary Recorder of Newcastle2. He was a friend of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey and brother of the Losh of Losh, Wilson & Bell.
Among the medical profession, Thomas M Greenhow FRCS was the most prominent member of the congregation. A co-founder of the Newcastle Eye Hospital, he was also Senior Surgeon at Newcastle Infirmary, both institutions now subsumed into the Royal Victoria Infirmary. He was also responsible for founding what is now the medical school at Newcastle University. He married Elizabeth Martineau, sister of James Martineau, the great Unitarian thinker, and of Harriet who lived for five years in Front Street Tynemouth3.
While this is not intended to be a catalogue of prominent members of the Hanover Square congregation, it would be remiss of me not to include Edward Rotheram of a distinguished Unitarian family and Captain of HMS Royal Sovereign at the Battle of Trafalgar, where it was Admiral Lord Collingwood’s flagship, and an occasional visitor, Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell, author of Cranford and a relative of Turner’s4, and whose husband William was minister of Cross Street Unitarian chapel Manchester.
Were that all to be said for William Turner it would be easy to recognise that only a minister of great calibre could have attracted such a congregation to Hanover Square. But Turner also was a founder of the Royal Jubilee School in 1810 and of the Mechanics Institute in 18245. He played an active part in the running of both institutions.
Of course the institution for which he is most remembered in Newcastle is the founding of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society (the Lit & Phil) in 1793. It is in fact the only body with which
Turner was connected which continues in full activity, largely unchanged in its objects, and still in its original building6. As always, he remained actively involved with its running. He was its Secretary for many years and lectured on subjects as diverse as Mechanics, Hydrostatics and Pneumatics, and The Philosophy of Natural Appearances. In all, over 30 years he delivered about twenty lectures a year, a total of 600 lectures!
Other movements which he inaugurated were the Natural History Society, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle, a Tract Society, and a Fund for the Benefit of the Poor; he presided over the fortunes of the Schoolmasters’ Association, and acted as clerk and treasurer to the Society for the Benefit of Widows and Orphans of Protestant Dissenting Ministers. He turned down the offer of becoming theological and resident tutor at Manchester College but became visitor to the college in 1808, delivering an address at the close of session every year until it moved from York back to Manchester in 18407. Never one for self-aggrandisement, nonetheless in all great movements having for their object civil and religious liberty, the circulation of the Scriptures, municipal and parliamentary reform, and the abolition of slavery, he bore a more or less conspicuous part.
Turner was married twice; first to Mary, with whom he had two daughters and five sons of whom two survived. After Mary’s death, in 1799 he married Jane, daughter of Rev. William Willetts of Newcastle under Lyme (who had succeeded Samuel Lawrence when he came to Newcastle upon Tyne). They had no children and she died on Christmas Day 1826. She is buried, along with Mary and the three sons who died young, in St Andrew’s churchyard in Newgate Street.
He retired in 1841 and moved to live with relatives in Manchester. On his retirement he was presented with an illuminated address by the congregation which currently hangs in the passage behind the church. He died on Easter Sunday 1859 at the grand age of 97. His funeral was conducted by Rev George Harris, who had followed him to Newcastle in1845, and who himself did not survive the year, dying on 24th December 1859.
1 The Surman Index says “probably”, but the DNB asserts it as fact.
2 The Honorary Recorder was the most senior Civil and Criminal Judge. Nowadays the honour is given by the City Council to the Senior Circuit Judge appointed by the Lord Chief Justice with the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor. The current Recorder is HHJ Paul Sloan QC.
3 Thomas Greenhow is also the four times great grandfather of Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William – family tree available on request!
4 Turner’s mother Mary was Elizabeth Gaskell’s great aunt.
5 It is probably complete coincidence that when the Mechanics Institute needed larger premises in the 1860s, the site chosen was next door to the Church of the Divine Unity in New Bridge Street. In 1880 the Institute was incorporated into the Central Library which was demolished in the 1960s.
6 Harbottle, Stephen (19997) The Reverend William Turner – Dissent and Reform in Georgian England 1st ed The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne.
7Manchester College eventually settled in Oxford where it trained nonconformist clergy, especially Unitarians. In 1996 under the name Harris Manchester College, it became a full constituent member college of Oxford University.