So why Undenominational? This is an interesting question since the Mary Anne’s family were Congregationalists and attended Zion Church, Attercliffe.
The question has to be seen in the wider context of the struggle for religious freedom. The Read family had been Non-Conformists as far back as the Civil War when Thomas Read of Kilsby fought on the side of the Parliamentarians. The Protestant Reformation pre-dates Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. The Protestants rejected Rome and the Non-Conformists further rejected the Established Church of England, refusing either to pay tithes to the Church or to attend services. They were considered heretics and many were imprisoned, executed or exiled. As the centuries rolled by, a more tolerant climate saw the springing up of many non-conformist denominations following inspirational leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley, each with slightly different creeds. The Wesleyans split into five different versions of Methodism in Sheffield alone. Undenominational New Testament Christianity was a growing movement i 19th century, America, attempting to bring all together into one Church of Christ, rejecting any human figurehead or doctrine and accepting the Bible as the only binding rule of faith or creed. The absolute autonomy and independence of every local congregation was a central tenet.
This is very much the way things work at Upper Wincobank Chapel today, with all its advantages and disadvantages. The Undenominational ethos is protected by the Deed of Trust set out by Mary Anne Rawson in 1850. If it were not for that safeguard, and the absence of any dissolution clause, the chapel would probably have been demolished long ago. For 170 years the Trustees and the congregation have kept faith and continued to maintain an independent church, serving the neighbourhood, with little additional income beyond the rent from the house and the interest from the £400 invested in 1850.
Although the future of the chapel is once more under debate, its guiding principles are clear.
This is the 1880 document that sets out the terms for the conveyance of the school building, house and grounds from Mary Anne Rawson to the Charitable Trust that she established to safeguard her legacy. It is a lengthy, wordy document, but here is the section that sets out the original purpose:
“Upon trust to permit the Schoolroom erected or built upon the said piece or parcel of land or any other building which may be at any time hereafter erected therein in place of the present building to be used as a Day-school or place for the instruction of children in secular and religious knowledge either gratuitously or otherwise by the present Teacher or Teachers thereof or such other or others that may from time to time be appointed by the said Trustees and who may hold and teach the religious views now commonly known as and called decidedly Evangelical. And upon further trust to permit the said building to be used as a Sunday School for the gratuitous religious instruction of children and as a place for the public worship of God and the preaching of Christ’s Holy Gospel on the Sabbath or on any other days.”
With an eye to the future, there is a clause regarding alternative use if the building cannot be advantageously used for a School, provided such use is considered to be of benefit to the neighbourhood. If the building is to be used as a place of worship this must be for “the simple preaching of Christ’s Gospel without any exclusive or sectarian or denominational bias.”
Hence the chapel’s designation as “Undenominational”.
So – it’s back to the Chapel for us to look again at the treasures that have been passed down, donated and collected. Some pieces whisper across the years and bring the past alive. The schoolwork of Amelia Knight and her sister Elizabeth was donated by an anonymous donor who was left with the task of clearing a house of a descendent of the of the girls. The work has recently been on display at Sheffield’s Weston Park Msueum.
As well as a wealth of information in the Sheffield and University Archives, there are some fascinating books that contain clues to the lives of the Read, Rawson and Wilson families and the story of Wincobank Hall.
For starters :
Sheffield Troublemakers – Rebels and Radicals in Sheffield History by David Price – they’re all in here, and just to bring it up to date, you will also find our good friend Rev Dr John Vincent – still fighting for Burngreave and still a guiding light for the Chapel Congregation.
The History of the City of Sheffield 1843 – 1993 , Vol II: Society. Editors – Clyde Binfield, Richard Childs, Roger Harper, David Hey, David Martin, Geoffrey Tweedale. A must for anyone trying to understand what makes Sheffield tick.
Two Hundred Precious Metal Years: The History of the Sheffield Smelting Company Limited 1760 – 1960 by Ronald E Wilson. We all know about Sheffield Steel but what about the left overs? Where does all the dust go? This inspiring story of early recycling leads to the Royal Mint in the Tower of London and back to Royds Mill by the River Don
The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850 – Alison Twells. Victorian Philanthropy – too good to be true? Values, aspirations and the drive to reform the “Heathen” at home and overseas, under scrutiny. A whole chapter on the Read family.
Henry Joseph Wilson: Fighter for Freedom 1833 – 1914 by Mosa Anderson. The next generation. The story of a Liberal MP and his campaigning wife Charlotte Cowan.
Alexander Cowan Wilson 1866 – 1955: His Finances and his Causes by Stephen Wilson. Carrying on the fight into the 20th century, ACW supported nearly 200 causes during his life time from the Anti-Slavery & Aborigines Protection society to the Council for the Preservation of Rural England.
This interpretation board near Royds Mills by the River Don in Attercliffe, aptly describes the Read family and their descendents as both austere and passionate. The Reads, Wilsons and Mary-Anne Rawson left their indelible stamp on Sheffield by their passionate campaigning for many causes.
This family embodied the phrase “Waste Not, Want Not” for they were early recyclers, collecting the sweepings from metalworkers then smelting and refining to reclaim precious metals from dust. The proceeds of this trade have done much good for many although there were inevitably casualties along the way, none more so than Mary-Anne’s father Joseph Read anad his brother John Read, the younger. Although at one point one of the wealthiest families in Sheffield the Read Family allowed their fortune to dwindle away as finance for their projects, hospitality for travelling campaigners, innumerable published pamphlets and books, and in payment of the debts of others.
Largely through the fastidious book-keeping and careful management by the husband and descendents of Mary-Anne’s sister Eliza Wilson, the Sheffield Smelting Company was rescued from the brink of ruin and rebuilt to thrive and continue to this present day as THESSCO LTD. The Wilsons in turn, gave back to the city and to the country.
It would be wonderful to make contact with a descendent of this extraordinary dynasty of non-conformist philanthropists whose ancestry stretch far back into the seventeenth century to the Civil War when they were firmly for Parliament. They live on in the books that each generation wrote about the work of their parents. A wealth of fascinating material is lodged in Universities and archives around the country. A rich and fascinating treasure trail.
Jennifer Vernon-Edwards from BBC Radio Sheffield will be broadcasting her report on Mary Anne Rawson tomorrow morning, Saturday 3rd August on the Breakfast Show, from 7 – 9am. She is pictured here, sitting in the Chain Chair, one of the fascinating Enchanted Chairs opposite the Chapel that sweep the sitter back into Wincobank’s past. Each chair is different and you may see reminders of Wincobank’s ancient woodland, the local brickworks, the steelworks, farmland fencing, a forge or, as in this case, the cruel chains of the Slave Trade.
On our own journey to find out about the Chapel’s history and that of its founder, we have been astounded to discover that whole family who lived at Wincobank Hall in 1840 seem to have been present at the very first meeting of what is now Anti-Slavery International. The Chain Chair links us in more ways than one to the tireless campaigning of Mary Anne Rawson, her Read siblings and her elder sister’s family – the Wilsons, who were to continue to play an important part in Sheffield life into recent times. Sure, Wilberforce visited, but he wasn’t the only one doing the work. Wincobank was once a hub of political struggle for universal freedom and equal rights. Now we take it all for granted – even though the battle is not yet won. Jennnifer’s report will be broadcast on Radio Sheffield Breakfast Show in two parts, starting on Saturday 3rd August. LIsten in between 7 and 9am and learn more.