By Carys Brown
William Beamont (1797-1889) was a solicitor, philanthropist and, from 1847, Mayor of Warrington. His diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and family papers provide a fascinating overview of many aspects of Warrington life. Particularly interesting for Faith in the Town are the insights his diaries and scrapbook give into how religious buildings affected an individual’s experience of the physical environment of a town.
Beamont’s diary entries were sporadic, but they included reasonably frequent reflections on how various aspects of urban space made him feel. On 13 June 1824, for example, he wrote how ‘Returning through the streets soon after midnight I was struck with their extraordinary quiet. The night was perfectly calm. Not [sic] sound excepting an footfall was to be heard. Not a being was to be seen. It was like walking through a city which all its inhabitants had deserted’. He added that ‘a city buried in sleep’ was ‘more dreary than a country highway’.
This attentiveness to the meaning of his surroundings was further evident in some of Beamont’s remarks relating to religious buildings in towns. A few days after his late-night walk through the town he wrote another diary entry describing his visit to a nonconformist chapel established in 1662, probably Cairo Street Chapel. Although he was himself a devout member of the Church of England, he was struck by the how the space of the chapel reflected its congregation’s history. ‘It stands in a places of privacy, or at all events not otherwise courting notice’, he wrote, ‘As if its plantees thoughthey would not shrink from persecution wisely did not wish to court it. One feels respect for the place where such a series of conscientious & excellent men here present the piety which themselves practised’. Beamont appeared to revere the space of the chapel because of the humble perseverance of its founders, who had built the chapel in a period when worship outside of the Established Church was illegal. This building was, for him, representative of their piety.
This reverence for a place of piety because of its humility was in contrast to Beamont’s response to seeing the church buildings of Liverpool. While travelling in August 1825 he wrote a letter to an unknown recipient describing his impressions of that city from afar:
the view of great commercial Liverpool extending as it were her broad arms to the waves brought to my mind the beautiful remark of Burke, which I think we have before admired that amidst all the moral contamination of the inhabitants the towers and spires of her churches pointing pointing [sic] towards heaven seem to act as conductors to avert the wrath of the Almighty from their guilty heads.
In this instance, as with his experience at the nonconformist chapel, the sight of religious structures prompted Beamont to reflect on the piety of those associated with the buildings. In contrast to the previous occasion, however, it was the ostentation of these buildings rather than their humility that struck him.
In both these cases the symbolism and meaning that Beamont ascribed to these buildings highlights the significance of churches and chapels to perceptions of the built environment of towns. Whether hidden away or soaring above the town, religious buildings were at the heart of urban space, and were therefore vital to how contemporaries experienced and gave meaning to their environment.
- Warrington: Warrington Archives (WALS): WMS 287 – William Beamont diary, 1820-1825, p. 25, 13 June 1825.
- Ibid, pp. 30-31 17 June 1825
- WALS: WMS 2794 – Scrapbook, n.d., 1821-1859, fol. 6r, 23 August 1825
- Image taken from page 145 of ‘The Book of The Grand Junction Railway, being a history and description of the line from Birmingham to Liverpool and Manchester … By T. Roscoe, assisted by the resident engineers of the line’ (London: 1839), via The British Library on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/hMttZa. The image shows the Grand Junction Railway, which opened in 1837 and passed through Warrington, where William Beaumont lived.