The study of history cannot guarantee a better future but it can, if we seek it, offer valuable insight to help us understand the complex of factors that influence our morality, interrelationships with others, and the ethical principles which guide our governance and economic life. It has the potential to tell us a lot about the struggles fought and the decisions that were taken to create our increasingly conflict-ridden world.
This is an attempt at one such history. In a sense, this is a history of Whitby in the North Riding of Yorkshire from 1888 to 1910: but it is not concerned with the sensibilities and self-confidence of the Victorian grandees of the North Riding port, far less the much applauded elegance of the Edwardian period.
It is a history of religion, class, politics, power and social injustice in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Whitby.
Moreover, it is a particular history, a history informed by the study of the life of one member of the community who lived, experienced and witnessed the Whitby of this period in its history.
The Reverend Francis Haydn Williams (FHW) was the Unitarian Minister at the Flowergate Chapel in Whitby from 1888 to 1910.
The manner in which he expressed and practised his Whitby ministry caused both contemporary and more recent commentaries to describe him variously as
troubled, troublesome, passionate, crusading, belligerent, fiery, difficult, driven, litigious, highly vexed, a one man Whitby Civic Society, villain, hero, obscure eccentric, dreamer, saint, or just simply mad!
This reputation was not primarily established through his sermons, although these became increasingly radical. More pertinently, his reputation was based on his constant and irrepressible involvement in direct action against (what he perceived to be) social injustice.
In Whitby his target was the encroachment (in Francis Haydn Williams’ view - theft) of common public land through enclosure by Whitby landowners, aided and abetted by almost everybody: local government, national government, the local and national judiciary, local media, the professional classes, the police and the Trinitarian church!
Additionally, Francis Haydn Williams held many of these individuals and institutions criminally responsible for the fraudulent management and use of the 1861 Whitby Lifeboat Disaster Fund.
This direct action, a commitment to ‘deeds, not words’ led Francis Haydn Williams directly to numerous appearances at York Assizes, the High Court in London, and various other courts in the north, to answer both criminal and civil charges. He also appeared on many occasions as the victim of criminal action and plaintiff in the civil courts.
On all occasions he represented himself.
This direct action attracted charges of trespass, criminal damage, common assault, contempt of court, libel and bankruptcy. On one occasion he accused the Government of personal espionage against him and a female associate.
This judicial experience, whilst not exclusively negative from Francis Haydn Williams’ perspective, did result in a number of prison sentences in York Castle and other prisons, and frequent fines - and a reputation for being ‘troubled, troublesome......mad!’ His ministry continued through these struggles and they provided an increasing focus for his sermons.
The objective of this history will be an attempt to unravel the motivations underlying and determining both the reason and manner of Francis Haydn Williams’ fight against injustice and its possible relevance one hundred years since his death.
Some observers suggest that aspects of Francis Haydn Williams’ public behaviour, persona and perceptions of the struggle to be fought, could have resulted from and be symptomatic of a number of psychiatric/psychological disorders currently popular at the time. Was he experiencing some form of psychological malady? Was he bonkers?
Was his direct struggle against injustice in some way predetermined by his vexatious character, stubbornness, exaggerated self-belief, mental illness or personality disorder?
A contrary view might be that his ministry, the battles he fought and the manner in which he fought them, were not the result or expression of mental illness or other such malady, but the product of:
- a strong personal commitment to join and lead the fight against perceived social injustice, itself determined by a firm and consciously held set of moral principles informed by interpretations of biblical text and his conception of God as ‘God the Moral Idea’.
- FHW's personality traits, strengths and extrovert character enabled him to organise, rouse, instigate and lead the fight against injustice – again and again, deeds rather than words.
- FHW's intellectual curiosity - his move from the relative Calvinist orthodoxy of congregationalism to Unitarianism and beyond was determined by his evolving personal philosophy, perception, experience and knowledge of the material and social world around him, and his commitment to seek truth without ideological or theological constraint.
His personal philosophy and beliefs gave him the confidence to believe that he could teach and lead people to see through the clothes of darkness and misrepresentation that hide the reality of the injustice and poverty in which they live, that makes them to accept their lot in life, whilst being denied any view, or idea, of alternative ways of living our lives together.
He believed that such injustice could be exposed, by deeds rather than words!
It is a tactic promoted and practised by increasing numbers of anti-capitalist groups around the world. Were Francis Haydn Williams’ activities in Whitby representative of direct action strategies against perceived injustice adopted in recent history by the Dissenters, the Levellers, Unitarians, Christian socialists, Humanists, the Suffragettes, trade unions, and more recently, the Occupy movement and anti-capitalist groups and initiatives for cooperative, sustainable and equitable living?
Representative not only in terms of strategy and tactics, but more particularly, a shared morality and values informing a radical alternative conviction to change the way of things, the way we are, the way we do things and allow to be done in our name.
What influenced and directed Francis Haydn Williams’ journey from Congregationalism to Unitarianism and political action? What can his journey tell us about the times in which he lived, and, the times in which we live?
Francis Haydn Williams in his pulpit in Flowergate Unitarian Chapel
Flowergate Unitarian Chapel as it is today, behind the pulpit from which FHM spoke is the memorial erected in his memory.
The memorial in Flowergate Unitarian Chapel erected to the memory of Francis Haydn Williams.
This website is very much a work in progressand will, over time, enlarge itself to encompass a range of areas that shed light on the remarkable man that was Francis Haydn Williams who was the minister of Flowergate Unitarian Chapel in Whitby in the late nineteenth century.
The Francis Haydn Williams Collection
May be viewed at The Whitby Museum
Haydn Williams as a younger man, age unknown, photographer unknown