Stewart Headlam

Stewart Duckworth Headlam (1847 – November 18, 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 considered a pioneer and publicist of Christian socialism, on which he wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society. He is noted for his role in the Guild of St. Matthew and as a supporter of Oscar Wilde at the time of his trials.

He was born at Wavertree, Liverpool and educated at Eton College and the University of Cambridge.

After ordination he was curate of St John's Church in Drury Lane in central London. Almost immediately he became involved in a series of clashes with John Jackson, the Bishop of London until 1885. These became personalised and left Headlam without a parish and unable to officiate at services.

In 1873 he was moved to 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 more influential than original. He attributed it partly to F. D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, who were teaching in his time at Cambridge University. He added to their social ideas both a strong Anglo-Catholic line, intended to dish the Evangelicals as well as to combat secularism and to champion the arts in a broad sense (theatre, ballet, music hall). Politically he supported tax ideas like those of Henry George. It was a heady mixture and his preaching of it, in a form often directed frankly against 'the rich', kept open the quarrel with his bishop.

In 1877 he founded the "Guild of St Matthew" in Bethnal Green. The guild has been called the first socialist society in England. Its membership rose to about 200, with perhaps 30% being clergy, Roman Catholic as well as Anglican. It produced a publication, "The Church Reformer", from 1884 to 1895; typically combining social and political comment with reflections on religious dance. He attracted a significant number of followers who went on to be important church figures.

Headlam was dismissed from his curacy in Bethnal Green in 1878. In the 1880s he became involved with the Fabian Society and, at the end of that decade, ran with Annie Besant for the London School Board. He stood for the Progressive Party, a London group active in the 1890s, and was later, in 1907, elected to the London County Council. In the same year he published "The Socialist's Church". He continued as a political figure for the rest of his life.

During the 1890s Headlam became well-known to some of the Rhymers' Club group of poets. He founded the "Church and Stage Guild", and campaigned for closer links of Anglicans with the theatre and against 'puritanism'. He supported Oscar Wilde, firstly by finding half of the £5000 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 as his only stop between Pentonville Prison and the train on which he left the country.


*"Stewart Headlam: A Biography" (1926) Frederick G. Bettany
*"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) edited by M. B. Reckitt
*"Stewart Headlam's Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall" (2003) John Richard Orens

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