A genealogical chart that illustrates the progress of Manchester Nonconformity can be viewed here.
This shows how the two main streams of Congregationalism and Unitarianism both issued from the Cross Street Chapel, which was itself in direct line with the Cathedral.
August 24th 1662 is the date popularly associated with the birth of English Nonconformity. On that day upwards of 2000 “worthy, learned, pious and orthodox divines” voluntarily resigned their livings rather than do violence to their consciences by subscribing to the Act of Uniformity which then came into force. Amongst the 2000 who unhesitatingly gave up their offices and came out into the wilderness of poverty and banishment was the Rev. Henry Newcome MA who since 1657 had been held in high regard for his piety and learning and for his services as minister in the Collegiate Church, Manchester (afterward the Cathedral). He remained in Manchester, supported by his admirers, until the passing of the Five Mile Act in 1665 drove him to Worsley.
In 1670 Newcome returned to Manchester, and after some persecution obtained a licence to preach in his own house and afterwards in a barn in Cold House, near Shudehill. His followers became so numerous that in 1694 Cross Street Chapel was erected for him. He died in the year following his settlement there.
Time passed and fashions changed. And in the 1740’s, the congregation of Cross St Chapel split over the movement of its then minister John Seddon into Unitarianism. The breakaway group who still held to the Trinity left Cross St and returned to ColdHouse – we don’t know if this was the same barn Henry Newcome had used or a different building. And in 1756 they called their first Minister, the Reverend Caleb Warhurst. They declared themselves an Independent Church (which became known as Congregational), the first in Manchester, and it is to this church that we trace the direct origins of Roby church as you see us today. The congregation, made up of seceders from Cross St, Scots people and some stirred by itinerant Methodist and Calvinist preachers grew and in 1762 they again outgrew the building in ColdHouse and Cannon Street Chapel (known as Hunter’s Croft) was opened with Caleb Warhurst as minister.
Cannon Street saw further division, when in 1788 a large proportion of the congregation broke away to form Mosley Street Independent Chapel. Those remaining in Cannon St struggled on until in 1795 they called the Rev William Roby (pictured) to be their minister.
In 1807, Roby left Cannon St with the majority of the congregation to settle in Grosvenor St where his church and Sunday school attendees number thousands. Roby died in 1830 after 35 years of remarkable service and Grosvenor St Chapel became known as Roby Chapel.
By the end of the century, the population of manchester was on the move, out of the city centre to leafy suburbs like Longsight. The church decided it needed to folow them – in 1910, Grovenor St Chapel was sold to the infirmary (to eventually become the blood bank) and a new church was opened here on Dickenson Road.
In 1960 the population was again moving further afield. And so it was decided to rebuild again but this time on a smaller scale – the old schoolrooms on Clarence Road were sold and the DSS building sprang up on the site. The Birch Court flats were built on the site of the houses on Birch Lane that belonged to the church. The church was demolished and we held our services in the old Church Parlour until the new building arose from the ashes, opened in 1972, by which time Roby Congregational Church was now Roby United Reformed Church. And we proudly bear the name of William Roby.
The influence of William Roby (1766-1830) on the establishment of Independency and the ‘Dissenting’ tradition cannot be under estimated. His initiatives helped to found many Congregational Churches across the North West of England and assisted in training many men for ministry.
We rejoice in Roby’s contribution to our heritage as we celebrate in 2013 our 257th Anniversary at Roby United Reformed Church.