Unitarian Van Mission

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 UVM
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      0.51 l.m., 3 boxes
  • Location
      Collection available at John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

This collection consists of the papers of the Unitarian Van Mission, Rochdale Unitarian Church, and other related historical documents. The papers are grouped together as part of a research project conducted by Rev John Roberts on the Unitarian Van Mission, written for the Unitarian Historical Society. Most of the papers are related to the Van Mission, for example newspaper cuttings and journal articles concerned with the Mission, as well as transcripts of speeches given during meetings held during the Mission and pages of information about the Unitarian faith. There are also pamphlets and circulars discussing various issues debated at the meetings, for example the question of women's place within Unitarianism and how formal theology and doctrine are considered within the faith. Roberts placed an advertisement in The Inquirer newspaper asking for information on the Van Mission and the resulting correspondence is also included in the collection, giving an insight from those who took part in the Mission or who witnessed the meetings or knew Spedding. There is also the diary of T.P Spedding, which takes the form of a scrapbook and includes numerous cuttings and images related to the Van Mission, as well as transcripts from speeches given at the meetings and minutes of discussions held. There is the script of the first tour in 1907 included in this diary, as well as correspondence between people involved and reports on the progress of the Mission. The diary records the names of people who were involved, as well as the numbers of meetings undertaken and the places visited.

The collection includes papers on the Rochdale Unitarian Church itself, as well as papers pertaining to the Blackwater Street and Clover Street chapels, from which it was created. These papers are mostly pertaining to the activities and ongoing development of the church and the community, for example there are several annual reports recording recent and future events held at the church, as well as documenting significant events in the lives of the congregation. There is the journal of the Sunday school, and a 'New Annals of Rochdale', which documents local social history in the first three decades of the twentieth century. These documents detail the history of the Rochdale Unitarian Chapel in the years prior to the Van Mission, detailing the development of the churches and their congregations, as well as the early ministry of Spedding and his work before he initiated the Mission. There is also a transcript from the funeral of Spedding in 1918.

There is a large number of photographs included with the collection. Some are print-outs of digital photos, but the majority are on photographic paper or backed onto card. Many of the photos are of the Van Mission: of the vans themselves, of the people involved, of the crowds who gathered to hear them speak, or of locations they visited. Others are photos of the Blackwater and Clover Street chapels, of the Rochdale Church or of various sites in the area which are relevant to Unitarianism or to the Van Mission. There are several glass photographic slides, showing images of a man (possibly Spedding) and churches and locations (possibly locations the Mission visited).

The research notes of Rev John Roberts can also be found within the collection, along with various handwritten pieces detailing his thoughts and opinions on various topics and issues within Unitarianism or on the Mission. There is his correspondence with people who were involved with the Mission and with the editor of the Unitarian Historical Society, as well as interview notes.

Administrative / Biographical History

Rochdale Unitarian Church came into being in 1890, after the amalgamation of Clover Street Chapel and Blackwater Street Chapel. Both chapels had a history of non-conformity, and over time it was realised that the two congregations shared a similar Unitarian faith, leading to their amalgamation, after which Sunday worship was held at Blackwater Street while Clover Street functioned as the Sunday school. From 1886 the Revered Thomas P. Spedding was minister of the church, and it was under his inspiration that the Van Mission was initiated in 1906, initially under the auspices of the Missionary Conference and later under the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. Spedding resigned his ministry in 1907 as the Van Mission took off, in order to work as the permanent 'missioner'. The Van Mission's aim was to spread knowledge and information about Unitarianism as far as possible, as there was a general assumption that the general public had very little knowledge of the faith. The vans toured the UK giving open air meetings and various ministers would tell the crowd what Unitarianism had to offer, usually remaining around three days in each location. The Mission continued until 1918, when it was formally shut down and the vans disposed of.

John Roberts worked as a Unitarian minister in both Rochdale and Southport, having studied at the Manchester Unitarian College. He conducted much research into the Van Mission for an article for the Unitarian Historical Society.


The original order of the collection has been maintained, and it has been sorted into two series, as follows:

  • UVM/1 Rochdale Unitarian Church
  • UVM/2 Van Mission Papers

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Alexandrina Buchanan

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

These papers were collected by the Rev John Roberts for his research project on the Van Mission. They were donated to the archive by Alexandrina Buchanan, who was entrusted with the collection by Roberts in order to find a suitable repository.


None expected

Related Material

Unitarian College Collection

GB 133 UCC


John Roberts, 'The Van Mission', Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, Vol. 16, No. 4, (Sept 1978), pp. 188-194

H. Bodell-Smith, Open-air Theology and Sketches of the Unitarian Van Mission, (London: Unitarian College, 1912)


Corporate Names