The Turbulent Priest from St Peters Road
“Although he spent his final years in the comfortable, respectable suburb of St Margarets, Twickenham, his spiritual and political home was always Bethnal Green, in London’s East End, where he had worked as a young curate and which he later represented on the London County Council.”
Stewart Duckworth Headlam was the son of a Christian evangelist. He was born in Wavertree near Liverpool on 12th January 1847. After Eton, Headlam went to Cambridge University where he was taught Moral Philosophy by the radical preacher Frederick Maurice who believed that God would replace a “competitive, unjust society with a co-operative and egalitarian social order.”
Inspired by Maurice’s Christian socialism Headlam was determined to do all he could to reduce working class suffering. He was ordained as a deacon in 1870 and in 1873 became curate at St Matthews Church, Bethnal Green, a working class area of East London. Disturbed by the appalling living conditions of his parishioners Headlam used his sermons to attack the wide gap between rich and poor. He presented Jesus Christ as a revolutionary and when John Jackson, the Bishop of London, heard about this, he threatened him with dismissal. Headlam refused to change his views and in 1878 he was sacked.
Undaunted — and without a parish of his own — Headlam continued to rail against wealth — which he described as robbery and inconsistent with Christianity — and ‘joyless Puritanism’. He campaigned for better education for children, maintaining - “a school’s first responsibility is to teach how to live, not how to make money”. He took special delight in shocking conservative churchgoers by using the doctrines they held most dear to justify the things they most loathed and feared: dance, drink, doubt, and social revolution. He championed the performing arts and in 1879 founded the ‘Church and Stage Guild’, to promote closer links between the church and the theatre. In 1885 when Oscar Wilde was tried for ‘gross indecency’ Headlam supported the writer even though he didn’t know him personally and put up half of his £5,000 bail…
“I was a surety, not for his character, but for his appearance in Court to stand his trial… My confidence in his honour and manliness has been fully justified by the fact… he stayed in England and faced his trial.”
Headlam was always willing to assist anyone who had offended the guardians of respectability. His willingness to help Oscar Wilde may have been connected with the fact that “others close to him had been caught in similar sexual tangles”. Headlam’s own short-lived marriage in 1878 had been to a lesbian, Beatrice Pennington.
In January 1898, Headlam was granted a general license to preach by the new Bishop of London, Dr Mandell Creighton. By then he had become a member of the Fabian Society and an elected member of the London School Board advocating secular education and free school meals! In the following year, 1899, Headlam moved to St Margarets and a house called ‘Wavertree’ on St Peters Road, which he shared with his niece Martha Wooldridge, a former ballet dancer. For the next 25 years he never failed to conduct Mass at All Souls Church in Haliburton Road ‘taking the 8.00 o’clock, 9.00 o’clock or 11.15 service according to the vicars wishes.’ In 1907 he was elected to the London County Council as member for Bethnal Green.
In October 1924 - after a period of declining health and a number of heart attacks - Headlam received a letter from Dr Randall Davidson the Archbishop of Canterbury.
My dear Headlam,
I hear a report… that you are unwell. I hope that it is not serious and work can go on, for I fear that your absence in some circles, educational and other, would be bad for ‘affairs’ in the country.
You, at least, whatever be said about the rest of us, have been consistent in your devotion to the cause or causes for which you care. God keep and bless you.
Most truly yours,
This letter prompted Headlam to jump out of his sickbed and write an immediate and heartfelt letter of thanks. He later commented, “Now I feel I can say that I have won.”
Stewart Headlam died on 18th November 1824. His funeral was held in All Souls in St Margarets and he was buried at East Sheen Cemetery of 24th November. Today he is remembered by a vestry, a memorial stone and a brass plate at All Souls and a thriving primary school named after him in Tower Hamlets, East London. We can guess which one Stewart Headlam would have most pleased with!
“The Christian Church is intended to be a society not merely for teaching a number of elaborate doctrines, not even for maintaining a beautiful ritual and worship but mainly and chiefly for doing on a large scale throughout the world those secular, socialistic works which Christ did on a small scale in Palestine.”
— from Martyn Day
14 April 2009 | around town