Stewart Headlam

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Stewart Headlam
Born Stewart Duckworth Headlam
12 January 1847
Wavertree, Liverpool
Died 18 November 1924
Nationality English
Occupation Priest
Known for Christian Socialism

Stewart Duckworth Headlam (12 January 1847 – 18 November 1924) was a priest of the Church of England who was involved in frequent controversy in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Headlam was a pioneer and publicist of Christian Socialism, on which he wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society, and a supporter of Georgism.[1] He is noted for his role as the founder and warden of the Guild of St Matthew and for helping to bail Oscar Wilde from prison at the time of his trials.

Early years[edit]

Headlam was born in Wavertree, Liverpool, and educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge.[2]

First parish[edit]

After ordination Headlam was curate of St John's Church in Drury Lane in central London. The vicar, Richard Graham Maul, admired Headlam's work and shared his Christian Socialist principles. But when Headlam insisted on preaching the possibility of universal salvation, Maul became alarmed and dismissed him. John Jackson, the evangelical Bishop of London, was even more troubled by Headlam's views than Maul and there followed a series of clashes between the bishop and the wayward curate that became personalised and would eventually leave Headlam without a parish and unable to officiate at services.


In 1873, after leaving St John's, Headlam received a curacy from Septimus Hansard, the rector of St Matthew's Church in Bethnal Green in London's East End, where poverty was the intrusive fact of social life. His response, in the form of a synthesis of ideas going back a generation to the Oxford Movement with socialist thinking, was startling although not entirely original. He attributed it in part to Charles Kingsley, but especially to F. D. Maurice, whose incarnational theology he embraced while a student at Cambridge University. He added to the ideas of these early Christian Socialists a profound commitment to the creeds and to sacramental worship which he drew from the Anglo-Catholic ritualists whose work in the London slums he deeply admired. He was also a harsh critic of evangelicalism, condemning it as individualistic and otherworldly. He befriended working-class secularists and their leader, Charles Bradlaugh, even as he fought secularism itself. He also championed the arts in a broad sense, including the theatre, at a time when many clergy regarded it as morally suspect, and more scandalous still, the music hall, where alcoholic beverages were sold and ballerinas danced in flesh-coloured tights. Politically, from the time he left Cambridge, Headlam regarded himself as a socialist of sorts. While he was in Bethnal Green his politics took a more radical turn, and in the years that followed he joined his socialism to an enthusiastic support for Henry George's 'single tax' a policy that was gaining support in the Liberal Party. Yet because of his belief in individual liberty and his hostility to political sectarianism, he remained a member of the Liberal Party. He was elected to the London County Council as a Liberal Party backed Progressive candidate for Bethnal Green South West latterly in opposition to Labour candidates. These ideas formed a heady mixture and his preaching of it, in a form often directed frankly against 'the rich', kept open the quarrel with Bishop Jackson and would inspire yet another with Jackson's successor, Frederick Temple.

Guild of St Matthew[edit]

In 1877 Headlam founded the Guild of St Matthew in Bethnal Green as a parish communicants' society. After he left St Matthew's, the guild did not disband, becoming instead a fellowship of clergy and laity who shared Headlam's sacramental radicalism. It has been called[who?] the first modern socialist society in England. Headlam « [took] his stand on Henry George's damnation of the land monopole and his concomitant proposals for a Single Tax ».[3] At its height in 1895 it had 364 members of whom 99 were Anglican clergy. Its principal voice was a monthly newspaper, The Church Reformer, which Headlam published from 1884 to 1895, typically combining social and political comment with reflections on the theatre and the dance. The guild attracted a significant number of followers who went on to be important church figures, among them James Adderley, Percy Dearmer, Charles Marson, Conrad Noel and Frank Weston.

Headlam was dismissed from St Matthew's Bethnal Green by his rector in 1878 after getting into an angry dispute with Bishop Jackson over the propriety of the music hall. Unrepentant, almost as soon as he obtained another curacy, this one at St Thomas' Charterhouse, Headlam founded the Church and Stage Guild to defend the right of churchgoers to enjoy the theatre as either performers or spectators. When the vicar, John Rodgers, died at the end of 1880, Headlam was dismissed, as was customary. He was soon hired by a friend, Henry David Nihill, the ritualist vicar of St Michael's Shoreditch. But Headlam's radical politics and his defence of the right of atheists, such as Bradlaugh, to serve in the House of Commons, so distressed conservative parishioners that Nihill was forced to let him go in December 1882. A trial curacy in 1884 at St George's Botolph ended when Headlam spoke at a rally where he called for the abolition of the House of Lords. It was then, when he asked Bishop Jackson for a general license to officiate in the diocese, that Jackson refused.

Jackson died on 6 January 1885, but this did not end Headlam's woes. Jackson's successor was Frederick Temple, the broad church Bishop of Exeter. As a young man Temple had contributed to Essays and Reviews, the book which introduced biblical criticism to the British general public, and Headlam hoped that the new liberal-minded prelate would reverse Jackson's decision. But Temple was as opposed to the music hall as Jackson had been, if not more so. After a tense meeting with the Church and Stage Guild council, Temple, like Jackson, refused to license Headlam. "The Bishop of London", he wrote, "regrets that Mr. Stewart D. Headlam appears to be doing serious mischief, and holding this opinion, the Bishop is not able to give Mr. Headlam facilities for doing more mischief."[4]

Fabian Society[edit]

In December 1886, Headlam joined the Fabian Society and for several years served on the society's executive committee. In 1888, he and Annie Besant were elected to the London School Board as members of Progressive Party, a broad coalition of London liberals, radicals and socialists. In 1902 the Conservative government abolished school boards across England and transferred their responsibilities to the county councils. Although this was a reform designed in large part by his fellow Fabian, Sidney Webb, and endorsed by the Fabian Society, Headlam, like many others on the Left, denounced it as undemocratic. The new Education Act spared the London School Board, but only temporarily. It was also abolished in 1904. Despite his expectation that he would be able run as a Progressive candidate for the London County Council that year and be given a seat on the education committee, the Progressives did not nominate him, perhaps because of pressure from Webb and his allies. It was not until 1907 that he was elected to the council where he continued to be a tireless advocate for working-class children and their teachers. In the same year he published The Socialist's Church. He continued as a political figure for the rest of his life.

Oscar Wilde's bailer[edit]

Although Headlam did not know Wilde personally he did give half of his bail money

During the 1890s, Headlam became well-known to some of the Rhymers' Club group of poets. In 1906, he launched the Anti-Puritan League, an ephemeral group that numbered among its members Cecil Chesterton and G. K. Chesterton. Although he did not defend Oscar Wilde's sexual conduct, he put up half of the £5,000 bail money set for him when he was remanded for criminal trial. At this time Wilde was not known to him personally. Later in 1897, Wilde came to Headlam's house in Upper Bedford Place, Bloomsbury, on his way from Pentonville Prison, from where he was released, to the boat train he caught before leaving the country never to return.


  1. ^ Haggard, Robert (2001). The persistence of Victorian liberalism : the politics of social reform in Britain, 1870-1900. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313313059. 
  2. ^ "Headlam, Stewart Duckworth (HDLN864SD)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ Thompson, Noel. Political economy and the Labour Party: The economics of démocratic socialism (1884-2005). Routlegde Ed., 2006, pp. 54-55.
  4. ^ Church Reformer, September 1887, 194.


  • Frederick G. Bettany Stewart Headlam: A Biography (1926)
  • M. B. Reckitt (ed) For Christ and the People. Studies of four socialist priests and prophets of the Church of England between 1870 and 1930. Thomas Hancock, Stewart Headlam, Charles Marson, Conrad Noel (1968)
  • John Richard Orens Stewart Headlam's Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall (2003)
  • Edward R. Norman, The Victorian Christian Socialists (2002), Ch 6 “Stewart Headlam”
  • History of St Matthew’s Bethnal Green

External links[edit]