One of the more interesting and perhaps alarming aspects of local history is just when you think the story is done and tucked away into the archives it suddenly jumps out again and surprises you. This is the case with Stewart Headlam whose anarchic story was recorded in this newsletter two weeks ago.
Readers of the article will remember that local minister Stewart Headlam (1847-1924) was a renegade Christian Socialist who preached that the church’s role was to help the poor and oppressed. The Bishop of London eventually banned Headlam from preaching when he claimed that Jesus Christ was a revolutionary. During his life Headlam was a staunch defender of anyone who had offended the stuffy guardians of respectability. In 1885 when Oscar Wilde was tried for ‘gross indecency’ Headlam supported him and put up half of his £5,000 bail.
Headlam also supported the arts and was particularly fond of the ballet - and ballet dancers. In 1879 he founded the ‘Church and Stage Guild’, to promote closer links between the church and the theatre. In 1885 he lead a deputation of members of the Guild to meet the newly consecrated Bishop of London, Frederick Temple. At the meeting Headlam introduced Temple to Martha Wooldridge, a young and attractive ballet dancer who was performing at the Alhambra. Although Temple was desperately trying to appear sophisticated he was troubled by Headlam’s interest in lady ballet dancers and bothered by the possible effect that their short skirts and flesh coloured tights might be having on the sinful passions of the audience. On meeting the young dancer Temple nervously commented…
“I am sure you are a good woman. I hope you don’t imagine I think any harm of you”.
“I should hope not!”
…was Martha Wooldridge’s indignant reply!
In January 1898, Headlam was granted a general license to preach again. The following year he moved to St Peters Road in St. Margarets and a house called ‘Wavertree’ designed by William Morris. Sharing this fine new house with him was Martha Wooldridge, the indignant ballet dancer. Five years younger than Headlam she was described in some records as his “niece and housekeeper”. During their time together they visited America and counted Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde and leading Fabians like Annie Besant and Sydney Webb amongst their friends. Headlam was also a regular and popular preacher at All Souls Church in Haliburton Road.
After Stewart Headlam’s death in 1924 it was Martha Wooldridge who put up the money to build the vestry attached to the church and it is her initials on the memorial stone…
This vestry was added to the church as a memorial of the life and work of Stewart Duckworth Headlam by his friend M.L.W
Martha Wooldridge died on 31st December 1958 at the age of 95. She was still living in St Peters Road, no longer in “Wavertree” but in a smaller house next door that she had named “Stewart House”. After her death it was found that she had bequested a considerable sum of money to Stewart Headlam’s church, All Souls, “for the repair of the fabric of the building.” Whatever Martha’s relationship with Stewart Headlam might have been - and we can find no records to support the claim that she was either his niece or housekeeper - it is clear that she loved this “bravest of captains and most skilful of the swordsmen of the Holy Ghost” as his memorial in All Souls Church has it.
The last of Martha’s bequest to the church was finally used this year to build a linking passage between the Victorian church and its adjoining community rooms and offices…and just outside the new set of glass double doors, in the oldest part of the church is - a ballet school! Stewart and Martha would have approved.
Written with the generous assistance of Laurence Mann
– from Martyn Day