The Williamson Memorial Unitarian Church, Dundee by Douglas Webster
First published in SUA 150th Anniversary booklet, 1963.
Founded by the Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer, M.A., in 1785, Dundee was the third Unitarian congregation formed in the English-speaking world. Many Unitarian churches have an earlier origin than 1785 but they were not all founded as Unitarian churches. The Rev. Theophilus Lindsey is recognised as the first minister of a Unitarian congregation in Essex Street, London. The first service in London was on 17th April, 1774. The second English speaking congregation was formed in Montrose, Scotland, by William Christie, son of Thomas Christie, town provost, in 1781.
The Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer, a graduate of Queen’s College, Cambridge, was influenced by the writings of Dr Joseph Priestley. He left office as a Church of England curate of Leatherhead, Surrey, and offered his services as a preacher at Montrose (14th July, 1783). In November, 1783, Palmer reached Montrose and remained as Christie’s colleague until in May 1785, he went to gather a congregation in Dundee which (besides missionary adventures in other towns) he served for eight years.
In 1793 Palmer was deported to Botany Bay for his part in assisting George Mealmaker prepare an address attacking the government’s “extravagant war taxation.” Palmer died in 1802 on his way home – his body was eventually moved to Boston, Mass., by an American captain, in 1804.
The cause in Dundee struggled on aided by two laymen – Mr Robert Miller and Mr George Speed. But the congregation passed through a difficult period through lack of funds and other drawbacks until 1865, when it gained the membership of prominent citizens including the late Henry Currer Briggs and the late David Jobson, who lost his life serving the cause in the Tay Bridge disaster. In 1865 the congregation was sufficiently virile to secure the support of The Scottish Unitarian Association, and its efforts were made to appoint a minister. On 6th October 1865, the Rev. Henry Williamson preached for the first time in Dundee and thus began a remarkable ministry of 60 years. It was mainly through the resulting labours of Henry Williamson that the present building now stands.
A man of considerable experience, having worked as a carpenter and at the age of 18 emigrated to America, Henry Williamson returned to England at the outbreak of the civil war. His contact with Dr John Relly Beard, then principal of the Unitarian Home Mission College, led to his being called to the ministry. Early in 1866 he was inducted to the charge of the Unitarian Church in Dundee which at that time met in the Old Exchange Hall at the foot of Castle Street (now the site of a printer’s). Later meetings for worship were in the Thistle Hall in Union Street until determined efforts were made to obtain a proper place for worship.
In 1870 the present church was erected at a cost of £1,700. A few years later a further £950 was raised to purchase the feu or freehold. The structure includes two good schoolrooms under the church which are also used for other week-day activities. It is recorded that between 500 and 600 people attended the stone laying on 12th March, 1870, by H Currer Briggs, although only a few days previously some religious bigots had pelted Mr Williamson with mud and stones on account of his Unitarianism. Today Dundee considers Henry Williamson as one of its own sons because of the outstanding service that he gave to its citizens. On 21st August, 1924, he was publicly presented with his portrait in oils at a meeting held in the Victoria Art Galleries, Dundee. The portrait was the work of Mr Tom Ross who studied locally and in Paris; he died in 1961.
Tribute was paid to Henry Williamson at the presentation for his many forms of service to the community. These included helping the unemployed and founding an emigration scheme which had assisted 600 working girls to find work in America. For education he instituted free evening schools and had served on the Schools Board showing an active interest for many years. In industry he was founder and president of the Dundee Mill and Factory Operatives Union, which had secured better conditions for the workers in the Jute Mills. One year after his public recognition Henry Williamson died suddenly on 15th October, 1925. He died still in charge of his flock, having preached on the previous Sunday.
Succeeding ministers to the great ministry of Henry Williamson have continued to serve their charge in the same spirit of devotion to their ideals. They include The Rev. Albert Whitford (1929-1954), who is still remembered with affection by those who knew him. The Rev. A.E. Potts served from 1955-1958. The Rev. George Foote, who came to Scotland to retire at Carnoustie, found himself pressed into service in Dundee from 1959-1960 until the present Minister was settled and continues to be a valuable supported of the Dundee Church.
The situation of the Church in Dundee in 1963 is quite a healthy one. Although many members have found themselves removed to the suburbs they continue to give loyal support. Dundee itself is undergoing considerable changes which will eventually cause an upheaval to the Williamson Memorial Church. A new inner ring road is scheduled to be constructed on the site of the present church and at some time in the near future plans will have to be made for moving to another site and another building. This is a situation that provides opportunity for improving the amenities of the congregation, but the Church has always been a central church and to meet the needs of the present congregation it must continue to be centrally situated.
Dundee will look to its neighbours in the Scottish Unitarian Association and to the General Assembly for guidance when the time for a new place of worship comes. It will be sorry to lose a building that has served such devoted members for so long – but the Church recognises the need for progress and would echo the sentiments of Henry Williamson in furthering the needs of the community.
That the community needs a liberal witness is clearly evident in the support of the Williamson Memorial Church not only from its own members, but also from the friends who attend special social and religious functions. There is an active association with the Friends of India and an annual service of All Faiths established in 1960 is instrumental in making friendships that otherwise might not be. The Men’s Club and Women’s League have social interests that are appreciated by a wide circle of friends and provide many opportunities for meeting people of other churches.
The General Assembly meetings which are to be held in Edinburgh in 1963 are usually a stimulus to Unitarians in the area where the meetings are held. Perhaps the Edinburgh meetings will have the additional effect of stimulating the visitors after they have experienced the vitality of Scottish Unitarianism.
Addendum post 1963
The old church was demolished as part of construction of the new Inner Ring road. The new building was opened on 13th December, 1969.
List of Ministers
Before 1785 Ninian Alexandert
to 1793 Thomas Fyshe Palmer
to 1830 Robert Miller, David Logan, William Smith and Henry Clarke
to 1836 David Coghill
to 1862 George Speed
to 1866 Vacancy
to 1925 Henry Williamson
to 1928 Harry Andrews
to 1954 Albert Whitford
to 1958 Albert Potts
to 1960 George Foote
to 1966 Douglas Webster
to 1972 William Millar
to 1975 John Clifford
1976 – 1994 Colin Wicker
1994 – 2011 Robert Wightman
2011 – 2017 Vacant
From 2017 Robert Whiteman