Dr Williams’s Trust and Library, edited by Alan Argent, derives from the will of the nonconformist minister Daniel Williams (c.1643-1716), revealing rare examples of private philanthropy and dissenting enterprise.
Early eighteenth century England was far from sympathetic to Protestant Dissent. In response the London presbyterian minister, Dr Daniel Williams, and his friends, fearful of a Roman Catholic succession in both crown and church, with the possible return of the exiled Stuarts, planned to set up the charitable trust and to amass the library which bear his name and both of which survive. This plan involved founding charities, educational, evangelistic and ‘financial’, on two continents, and attempting to promote a form of mainstream Protestantism, out of step with the episcopalian Church of England. As a result Dr Williams’s Trust sent missionaries to the Irish, to native Americans and to slaves in the West Indies. Another concern led the trust to found and finance elementary schools in north Wales and Chelmsford for both boys and girls. Eventually this latter charity was transformed into support for a girls’ school in Dolgellau, in north Wales. The trust met protracted opposition to founding the library in London and to the schools, principally from the established church and its supporters.
However, three years after Daniel Williams’s death in 1716, came the momentous theological split among nonconformists at Salters’ Hall in London that would lead to trinitarian and anti-trinitarian groupings – divisions that hardened in the years that followed. Here then are the beginnings of unitarianism in English society and of firmer divisions between the churches, played out in this trust. The divisions only intensified after the Lady Hewley Trust case in the 1840s. From an early date the trust provided bursaries for English and Welsh students to study at Glasgow University and in its early years its friends gave notable support to Harvard, another institution mentioned in Williams’s will. The trust’s generosity spilled over also into so-called ‘special ministers’ who were paid to evangelise the unenlightened and dark corners of nineteenth century Wales. Later, among the donors and readers in Dr Williams’s Library, we discover at different times George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and a growing and important body of women readers. The record also shows throughout the history that, for various reasons, some improvident tenants attempted to default on their payments to the trust. In the light of these trying experiences, the trustees developed skills to tackle such abuses.
From the outset in 1716, the trust and library were based in the City of London where the library building was erected, opening in 1730. The story of that building’s construction is given in considerable detail, revealing an application and personal generosity on the trustees’ part which was very unusual then and remains rare. The library building was undoubtedly wanted. Here are also related the specifics of an eighteenth century library’s physical needs and how the tradesmen and workers on the building were treated with care and respect. To date the library has occupied four different locations (three in Bloomsbury), having moved to its present home in Gordon Square in 1890 when women’s issues were to the fore. Throughout it has relied much upon private donations and benefactions and little upon public money. Among the many collections it has come to house are the records of the puritan minister, Richard Baxter, the ‘entring-booke’ of Roger Morrice, the varied papers of Philip and Mercy Doddridge, the papers of the first openly unitarian minister in England, Theophilus Lindsey, and the voluminous papers, journals, diaries and correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, friend of the Wordsworths, the Lambs and of other literary figures both in this country and throughout Europe.
This then has long been the foremost library for researchers into the early and later history of English nonconformity. Yet alongside these records is the bulk of the curious collection of theosophical works made by Christopher Walton, numbering about 1,000 volumes, and here also are 2,500 volumes from the library of George Henry Lewes (the partner of George Eliot). The extensive manuscript collections made by the nonconformist biographer Walter Wilson were bequeathed to the library, thus reinforcing the links with historic English nonconformity. The historian, Geoffrey Nuttall, saved the ancient books from New College, London for Dr Williams’s Library upon New College’s closure in 1977, thus locating under one roof the collections of many of the former celebrated ‘dissenting academies’.
Among the more unusual characters who frequent this book are several of the trustees and those who inspired them, many of whose portraits and those of other nonconformist notables (like the regicide Colonel Barkstead, the preacher Richard Baxter, the hymn writer and polymath Isaac Watts, the scientist and preacher Joseph Priestley, and the philosopher James Martineau) have adorned the walls. The more noteworthy trustees of the twentieth century must include the first woman professor of Greek in Britain Dorothy Tarrant, and the ‘last puritan’ Geoffrey F Nuttall (as he playfully styled himself).
In recent years Dr Williams’s Library has increasingly become a leading resort for those studying the history of the book, of women’s history, and of those needing to immerse themselves in the literature of England of the early modern period. Dr Williams’s books are often in their original, unchanged condition, with their first readers’ marginal notes added. This then is a treasure trove of (especially but not exclusively) early modern goodies for those with a nose for research in England’s history, especially in the world of religious nonconformity.
That this trust and library still survive in 2022 is nothing less than miraculous. A comprehensive study is long overdue and this is the first full history ever told of these allied institutions. The book is based on thorough research among the trust’s original manuscripts and has gained from the co-operation of trustees and officeholders at the library.
This guest post was written by Alan Argent, Research Fellow at Dr Williams’s Library, London and minister of Trinity Congregational Church, Brixton. He has edited The Angels’ Voice for the London Record Society and is the author of The Richard Baxter Treatises (Boydell, 2018).