I’ve been on the trail of some dissenters today: first down to the nonconformist graveyard at Bunhill Fields, where John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake are all buried. Blake’s headstone (he is actually buried a short distance away, in a grave that was unmarked) is relatively recent, less than a century old, and attracts regular tributes: today, a pocketful of copper coins, a wax nightlight (unlit), and some wilting flowers. A squirrel scampered away as I approached.
From there a twenty-minute ride to Newington Green, home to a well-known crowd of radical dissenters in the late 18th century, and where enough buildings of the period survive to still allow a feel of the times. The Unitarian chapel on the north side (a later rebuilding) is well known as a meeting place for the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, her husband William Godwin, and the resident preacher (besides much else) Richard Price.
Another regular at the chapel was the poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and there’s a rather beautifully-worded memorial to her inside. It’s always assumed, for sound reasons, that Wollstonecraft and Barbauld knew each other well, though no record at all exists. Many also fondly imagine others in Wollstonecraft’s and Godwin’s circle sitting in the pews: Blake, Fuseli perhaps, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Joseph Priestley; again, while some are very likely to have done so, no-one knows for sure. While there’s no actual memorial to Wollstonecraft, the chapel does flaunt a banner bearing her name on the railings outside. (Update: someone, obligingly or otherwise, has stencilled an image of her on the exterior side wall: life size, but a foot off the ground, like a high-contrast ghost.)
In what can only be a sign of the times, the pub at the opposite end of the green has, I noticed, been re-named ‘The Dissenting Academy’. Quite a tall order to live up to, but let’s wish it luck.