Historic England takes London ‘birthplace of feminism’ off at-risk list

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  • October 14, 2020
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A once damp and leaky meeting house known as the “birthplace of feminism” is one of 181 historic sites facing a brighter future after being taken off England’s 2020 Heritage at Risk Register.

The building in Newington Green, London, has been a remarkable hotbed of dissent for more than 300 years and counted Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), as a member of its congregation.

Various problems with the fabric of the building had led to it being placed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, an annual snapshot of the health of England’s historic places.

On Thursday it was announced that the building had in effect been saved and taken off the register.

Simon Buteux, Historic England’s partnerships team leader for London, said Newington Green Unitarian church, now known as a meeting house, had been on the register for familiar reasons.

“It was a range of classic problems you get with churches – leaking roofs and structural movement and damp. If you even glance at our register you’ll see that it is dominated by churches and other places of worship which are really struggling at the moment.”

Thanks to £1.73m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund the building underwent a large-scale renovation that was completed this summer, hence its removal from the register. Part of that money will allow it to tell its fascinating, radical, story.

“It’s such an important part of our national history,” said Amy Todd, Newington Green’s community and learning manager. “It’s about dissenting, going against the establishment, doing things which maybe don’t achieve anything in your lifetime.”

Wollstonecraft arrived at Newington Green church in 1784, aged 25, and became an enthusiastic congregation member. It was there that she met Joseph Johnson, who published her pamphlets including Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), which argued that young women should be able to learn about a much broader range of subjects.

Today Wollstonecroft is hailed as the mother of modern feminism and she is celebrated at Newington Green with a life-size mural.

The church’s most famous minister, from 1758, was the political radical Richard Price, who wrote A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, which rejected the traditional Christian ideas of original sin and divine punishment. Visitors to Price at Newington Green included America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, as well as the British prime minister William Pitt, philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, and the pioneering scientist Joseph Priestley.

Today Newington Green, London’s oldest non-conformist place of worship, is home to New Unity, a non-religious church.

Also taken off the buildings at-risk register is the Somerset hillfort Cadbury Castle, mythologised as “King Arthur’s lost Camelot”; the Guildford church where Lewis Carroll preached; and an 800-year-old North Yorkshire pathway known as Kirby Bank Trod.

Cadbury Castle, a scheduled monument in Somerset, linked to the legendary Camelot, has this year been removed from the at-risk register. Photograph: Historic England/PA

One of the more unusual sites is Willy Howe, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, which is a round barrow, a type of ancient funerary monument. It dates from the late bronze age and is thought to be the setting of a 12th-century folk tale about a drunken man who discovers fairies partying in the mound. It has been cleared of brambles and weeds and can now be explored.

A listing on the register is usually seen as a positive step because it highlights the urgency of a case.

Among the 216 sites added to the 2020 register are Plume Library, in Maldon, Essex, one of England’s oldest public libraries, and Brighton’s seafront Madeira Terrace with its famous stretch of 19th-century cast iron arches.

Also added to the register is a very early example of a garden cemetery, St James’ Garden, in Liverpool, which was created in an abandoned quarry in the early 19th century.

In total there are 5,097 entries on the 2020 register, 24 more than in 2019. Historic England said 90 places of worship had been added with nearly half there because of heritage crime, for example metal theft.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said the 181 rescued places “show us that good progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go”.

He added: “It is the varied tapestry of our historic places that helps us define who we are. In testing times such as these heritage can give us a sense of continuity and bring us solace. We also know that investing in historic places can help boost our economic recovery.”