This article about one of the founders of our church, William Durant, was written by Maurice Large, current Acting Secretary (and long-standing member) of the Newcastle Unitarians.
William Durant is regarded as the father of the Newcastle Unitarian Church, one of the oldest non-conformist churches in the UK. The street near the Church of the Divine Unity is named “Durant Road” in his honour.
However, very little is known about his background. It was claimed at the end of the seventeenth century that he had taken “one or more degrees” at University College, Oxford, yet he cannot be traced with certainty in University records. There is a record of “Durant, William, of Cornwall, pleb.”, who matriculated at Christ Church College on 8th November 1611 aged 18. The details fit, although he would have been 88 when he died. In my view the most likely details are those recorded in the Surman index(1) which has a date of baptism of 28th November 1621 and records William Durant as being at Exeter College, Oxford from 1640 but there being no evidence of his graduation. William married Jane, sister of James (later Sir James) Clavering and in the Clavering family records he is referred to as being “of county Devon”. There was an ejected minister in Devon named Nathaniel Durant. and William certainly had a brother, John, who became a dissenting minister in Maidstone in Kent after 1662.
Wherever he came from, he first appears in Newcastle in 1645, shortly after the town was captured by the Scots and Charles I was held captive (there is a plaque on the wall of Lloyds Bank in Market Street, Newcastle which commemorates this event). In February of that year he was appointed to officiate at All Saints, then in May he became a Lecturer at St Nicholas’, and in July 1646 he was installed at St John’s.
Durant was a Puritan of high repute and well-regarded as a preacher, although at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 he was silenced by John Cosin, Bishop of Durham, on the ground that there was no satisfactory evidence that he had ever been ordained. On 5th July 1647 Durant was appointed Lecturer at All Saints’ where he remained until he was ejected in 1661, the authorities not even waiting for the coming into force of the Act of Uniformity in August 1662.
The board in the church’s vestibule records William Durant as our minister from 1672. This is, however, certainly wrong! He lived in Pilgrim Street and had for many years worked in the churches of Newcastle. It is not credible that he did nothing for over ten years after his ejection. 1672 is the date when he received a licence to preach as a non-conformist (or in other words his activities became lawful). But there is much to his life before then. He did not remain alone in Newcastle for long. Richard Pringle, having been ejected from Eglingham, and Richard Gilpin, having resigned his living in Greystoke, Cumberland, soon moved to Newcastle, and Henry Leaver moved back after three years. These four preachers formed the nucleus of what was to become the Nonconformist witness in Newcastle.
By 1668 these four preachers were becoming of considerable concern to the Bishop of Durham, John Cosin. He complained that the civic authorities were allowing unlawful conventicles (meetings for religious worship) led by them to proceed without sanction. After complaining about a meeting on 1st November 1668 he continued with information of a second meeting on 25th November and specifically names Durant, Gilpin, Pringle and Leaver as “the four chief leaders and abettors”.
Following further warnings from the Bishop, the town authorities acted. In late July 1669 the town sergeant broke up a meeting at Durant’s house in Pilgrim Street at which 150 people were present, and, a couple of weeks later, a meeting at Gilpin’s house (near where Hanover Square Chapel later stood). The information laid before the town magistrates named Richard Gilpin, William Durant, Henry Leaver and Richard Pringle as the preachers and also present were four past sheriffs, four ex-mayors, one future mayor, some of the aldermen, the town’s physician, the town surveyor, and about thirty other well-to-do burgesses, with, in some cases, their wives. No wonder the magistrates had been reluctant to enforce the law!
In 1672, King Charles II issued a Declaration of Indulgences which suspended the penal laws against nonconformists. All four men promptly applied for licences to preach, which were granted, albeit restricted to preaching in their own homes. The Declaration was later declared illegal, but by that time Bishop Cosin had retired and the Newcastle authorities resumed their laissez-faire attitude. (Incidentally, Bishop Cosin’s successor was Nathaniel Crew, later Lord Crew after whom the hotel in Blanchland is named.) From that time Durant continued his ministry in Newcastle without interruption. He died in 1681 and having been ejected from the Church of England was denied burial in consecrated ground. He was therefore buried in the garden of his house in Pilgrim Street – the exact site, as near as I can ascertain, being where the Tyneside Cinema now stands (2).
His congregation joined that of Richard Gilpin in their new chapel just outside the Close Gate by the riverside. Subsequently his gravestone was discovered during alterations to what had become the stable block of Anderson Place and was handed over to the Rev William Turner and installed in Hanover Square Chapel. It was successively transferred to New Bridge Street and Ellison Place churches, where it still has pride of place in our vestibule.
(1) The Surman Index Online, Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, http://surman.english.qmul.ac.uk.
(2) The ‘Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’ by the Newcastle author and publisher Eneas Mackenzie (1827) says: “The house … stands in Pilgrim Street, at the corner of High Friar Lane. The gravestone of the Rev. William Durant … was … found here.”