Herbert Barnes: long serving Unitarian church minister

Over fifty years ago a Heaton High School pupil sat on the number 11 bus to school when a teenage boy got talking to her. The pair later started going out together. That teenage boy is now a member of Heaton History Group and he has finally got round to researching an interesting member of his one time girlfriend’s family: Reverend Herbert Barnes, who was a well known non-conformist minister in Newcastle and one time Heaton resident.

Reverend Herbert Barnes

Early Life

Herbert Barnes was born into a farming family on 13 August 1885 at Greyabbey, a small settlement on the banks of Strangford Lough in County Down in Ireland (now Northern Ireland). The family were members of the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, a Christian church which placed emphasis on individual conscience in matters of Christian faith and which became part of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches on that organisation’s foundation in 1928.

In the 1901 census, Herbert was a 15 year old schoolboy, still living near Greyabbey. On leaving school, he entered into business in the art trade but by 1911, 25 year old Herbert was a theological student and boarding with a family in Belfast, some twenty miles from home. From there, he soon moved to Unitarian College Manchester, which has been ‘preparing students for ministry and lay leadership positions in the Unitarian and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches since 1854′. It is still going strong. Herbert was ordained in 1915.

His first ministry was at the Oldham Road Unitarian Church in Manchester. We know from newspaper records that he also preached at other churches in the vicinity.

But just four years later, he transferred to Newcastle to take up a new post at the Unitarian church on New Bridge Street said to be the first non-conformist place of worship in Newcastle with a congregation dating from 1662, which worshipped initially in private homes. The first purpose built meeting house was built c1680 outside the Close Gate, roughly where the Copthorne Hotel is now. In 1726, the church moved to Hanover Square, behind what is now the Central Station before moving to the John Dobson designed New Bridge St church in 1854.

John Dobson’s Church of the Divine Unity, demolished in the 1930s

Heaton Ties

On 25 August 1920, in Cheshire, Herbert married (Lizzie) Beatrice Watterson who hailed from the Isle of Man. She had been a maths teacher firstly at Burnley High School and then in Manchester. 

For at least the first five years of their marriage the couple lived at 12 Cheltenham Terrace in Heaton. They had three children, Henry Greenfield, Herbert Abner and Mary, at least two of whom continued to have connections with Heaton even after the family moved to the west end of the city. Henry Greenfield, who became a general practitioner, used to play rugby for the Medics, whose ground is, of course, on Heaton Road. Herbert Abner became a lawyer and, in 1949, the recipient of the Law Society’s ‘Newcastle upon Tyne Prize’. Mary became a hospital almoner (a pre-NHS forerunner of a hospital social worker). After marriage, she and her family lived for a time at 35 Lesbury Road.

Sadly, Beatrice, Herbert’s wife, died in 1939 aged only 51. Her funeral was attended by many Newcastle dignatories, including Sir Arthur Lambert (Northern Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence) and his wife, councillors and the Reverend E Drukker of the Jesmond Synagogue. The chancel furnishings in the new church were gifted in her memory.

Ministry

The Reverend Barnes seems to have been very popular with his congregation. It is said that the church was so full at the services he led that that extra seats had to be crammed into the aisles.

In 1929, when he announced from the pulpit that he had declined a call to the ministry of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester, there was said to have been a round of applause in the church. Barnes said that to be invited to the ministry of the most historic and outstanding pulpit in the church’s general assembly was an honour that comes only once in a man’s lifetime but that he had decided to remain in Newcastle.

One of Herbert Barnes’s challenges during his ministry was the dangerous state of repair of John Dobson’s church. The cost of repairs eventually became prohibitive and after serious subsidence was discovered, it was decided to build a new church in its place.  A public building appeal fund was set up in 1938. The last service in the old church was on Sunday 26 March 1939 and the first in the new one in nearby Ellison Place, on the site of another demolished John Dobson church, St Peter’s, was on Sunday 21 January 1940.

Drawing of St Peter’s Church as it was being demolished by Byron Dawson, once of Heaton

The new church was also known as the Church of the Divine Unity. All of this was overseen by Reverend Herbert Barnes.

Church of the Divine Unity, Ellison Place

Arthur Andrews takes up the story:

‘In the 1970s, I used to work at Newcastle Polytechnic and every day would see the church and wonder what it was like inside. However, it was only when I noticed that not only was it open for Heritage Open Day and there was the link with Herbert Barnes but also I read that it might soon be sold and closed to the public, that I visited.’

The art deco building was designed by the architects Cacket, Burns Dick and McKellar, who had been responsible for many familiar landmarks including the Tyne Bridge towers and Pilgrim Street Police Station.

Interior of Church of the Divine Unity, Ellison Place

The new church could accommodate 500 people and the church hall, where there was a stage,  could hold 250 people and was used for meetings, as a theatre and for badminton. Rev Herbert Barnes’s Ministry celebrated his silver jubilee in the ministry three years after the new church opened.

Golden Book

Rev Barnes is said to have taken a vigorous stand against anti-Semitism. On 8 January 1934, it was reported that, later that week, ‘in appreciation of his personality and public works and services rendered to the Jewish People’ and in commemoration of the 15th anniversary of his ministry, he was to be honoured  by an inscription in The Jewish National Fund’s ‘Golden Book’ and a certificate marking this was to be presented to him.

The public works referred to included serving on both Newcastle Public Libraries Committee and Education Committee. This inscription in the ‘Golden Book’, given on the recommendation of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, was said to be the highest form of tribute the Jews can pay to those whom they wish to honour. Speeches would be made by Rabbi J Kyanski and Reverend Emmanuel Drukker from the Jesmond Synagogue. Members of Mr Barnes’s church were to be individually invited to the presentation. It was reported in Reverend Barnes’ obituary in ‘The Daily Journal’, that Herbert Barnes was ‘one of the few gentiles to have had their names inscribed in the Golden Book’

Statues

Herbert Barnes wrote a weekly piece for the Evening Chronicle from 1929 until 1941. It was called ‘The Weekly Epilogue’ and published under the pen name of ‘Unitas’. It dealt with aspects of daily life in relation to the bible and philosophy.

In April 1941 he started a new weekly piece called ‘A Saturday Postscript’, for the ‘Evening Chronicle’, which he wrote under his real name until the month before his death.

And he also wrote a column for ‘The Journal’ from 1936 until 1954, called ‘Weekend Thought’ under another pen name ‘Ignotus’.

His final column was entitled ‘They Ought to have Statues’, where he made a case for more statues dedicated to women and their unsung role in society. He cited the recently unveiled statue of Thomas Hardy, observing that the doctor who delivered Hardy was sure that he was stillborn and discarded his young body, only for a woman present at the birth to check the discarded child and found him to be breathing. Herbert Barnes thought that this woman deserved a statue in her honour for saving the life of the future, great author. Although, he could perhaps have mentioned female achievements in addition to saving the life of a famous man, he was certainly ahead of his time, given that this is a more widely understood issue 67 years later.

Tributes

Rev Herbert Barnes retired from the ministry on 19 July 1951. He died at his home in Wylam on 29 October 1954

On 1 October 1961, two commemoration services were held at the Church of Divine Unity to honour the memory of Reverend Hebert Barnes. The morning service was attended by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Dr H Russell and members of the City Council, at the end of which the ‘Herbert Barnes Memorial Stone’ was unveiled.

Someone who knew Herbert Barnes well said that, through his preaching and his newspaper articles, he brought his views before almost every thinking person in the north-east. It was also said that perhaps the greatest tribute to his personality was the fact that more than half of the £35,000 needed to build the Church of Divine Unity, was subscribed by people outside of his own congregation.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group. The drawing by Byron Dawson has been reproduced with the permission of Newcastle City Library. Thank you to Maurice Large, Church of the Divine Unity leader. Herbert Barnes’s grandchildren: Lesley, Jonathan and Paul, with fond memories.

Additional Sources

British Newspaper Archive 

Ancestry

FindmyPast

Wikipedia

Can You Help?

If you know more Herbert Barnes or have memories or photos to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

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