This year is the 270th anniversary of the death of Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts was a celebrated clergyman, theologian, poet and hymn writer who lived at Abney House, which stood where Abney Park Cemetery is now, for almost 30 years. Though he is buried at Bunhill Fields, the connection with Abney was important to the founders of the Cemetery and a statue was erected by public subscription in 1845, five years after the Cemetery opened. The sculptor was Edward Hodges Baily, who was also responsible for Nelson’s statue at Trafalgar Square.
Time has taken its toll and one of the statue’s hands was lost to vandalism. Abney Park Trust launched an appeal for its restoration. The target has been reached in a large part due to the generosity of Talbot Underwriting Ltd, a City of London insurance firm, who had come to know Abney by becoming involved in the volunteer programme. Work of restoration will be carried out in this anniversary year.
Isaac Watts was born in Southampton to non-conformist parents ( his father was imprisoned for religious dissent). As a non conformist he was not able to go to Oxford or Cambridge and was educated at the Dissenting Academy, Newington Green, commencing a lifelong connection with this part of North London. He became the minister of the Mark Lane Congregational Chapel in the City of London. His constitution was however never strong and he was supported by prominent Stoke Newington non-conformist families, most notably the Abneys, whom he lived with for 36 years, the majority at Abney House, Stoke Newington.
He always had a talent for versification, being beaten as a child for observing in church A little mouse for want of stairs/Ran up a rope to say its prayers. As Clergyman he wrote some 750 hymns, many of which are sung today; O God, Our Help in Ages Past, Joy to the World, Jesus shall Reign Where’er the Sun. In many ways controversial in contrast to the metrical chanting of Psalms, his Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1706) was enormously popular, both in the UK and America (where it is even claimed that it gave the name to the Spiritual ) and gave a wider degree of accessibility to religious services.
Abney Park contains Dr Watts’ Mound which marks the spot where he did much composition. It was close to a heronry on the, now culverted, Hackney Brook, in the grounds of Abney House, which he helped to lay out. His poetry influenced others including William Blake and Lewis Carroll. He also wrote tracts, theology and logical treatise. His Logick (1724) was a standard university text book in this subject for over 100 years.
His will provided for his funeral to be conducted by six clergymen of differing denominations. This ecumenicalism resulted in the first memorial to him being put up in Westminster Abbey. When the Congregationalists were looking to provide a non denominational cemetery open to all, Watts’ connection with the Abney site was an important factor. Soon after opening they raised funds by public subscription to provide a statue by a leading sculptor.
Talbot Underwriting Ltd came to know Abney through their staff becoming involved in the volunteering programme run by the London Borough of Hackney, the owners of Abney, facilitated by East London Business Alliance (ELBA) who assist companies in the area of corporate social responsibility. Talbot staff laid some of the aggregate paths, which have made access through the cemetery much easier, particularly during the winter months.
They also contributed to the Trust’s 2017 appeal which restored two monuments which were on the Heritage England At-Risk Register, those of John Swan, an early marine engineer whose sad story is told at length on his memorial, and Joanna Vassa, the daughter of Olaudah Equiano the prominent anti-slavery campaigner and author of the first book in England by a person of African origin. These monuments have been restored and removed from the At -Risk register.
Shelagh Taylor, Chair of Abney Park Trust, said ‘The Trust is delighted that this further generous donation from Talbot Underwriting will enable us to start works of refurbishment to the listed Isaac Watts statue in this significant year. This is an important example of the involvement of many stakeholders at Abney; Talbot, the London Borough of Hackney, ELBA, Historic England and the Trust’s own staff, volunteers and trustees.’
The Trust intends to hold a number of Events regarding Watts and the Ishirini Choir has already performed his hymns and other music in this tradition in the chapel, which has been made stable by LB Hackney and Historic England.
For further information about Abney Park Trust’s activities and events please visit our website www.abneypark.org
tel: 020 7275 7557