We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Stewart Duckworth Headlam (1847–1924), by F. A. Swaine Stewart Duckworth Headlam (1847–1924), by F. A. Swaine
Headlam, Stewart Duckworth (1847–1924), Church of England clergyman and Christian socialist, was born on 12 January 1847 in Wavertree, near Liverpool, the elder son and third of four children of Thomas Duckworth Headlam, an insurance underwriter. He was educated at Eton College and at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking a third-class degree in classics in 1869. His theological formation was strongly influenced by Frederick Denison Maurice, whose lectures he attended at Cambridge. In later life he called Maurice his ‘great teacher’. Following Maurice, he rejected the doctrine of eternal punishment, marking a decisive break with his father's evangelicalism. He possessed considerable private means, which enabled him to ride out years without church employment and to subsidize his varied religious and political activities.

Headlam was deaconed in 1870 and priested in 1872, serving his title as curate at St John's, Drury Lane, London, from 1870 to 1873, but he was forced to leave when his incumbent took exception to his views on eternal life. This was the first of his many clashes with ecclesiastical authority. From 1873 to 1878 he was curate at St Matthew's, Bethnal Green, where he acquired an intimate knowledge of urban social conditions, and developed his political and social views in a radical direction. It was, however, his open and, at that time, unorthodox support for the theatre and for ballet which led to the bishop of London's ban on his preaching in 1877, and to the withdrawal of his licence by the bishop (John Jackson) early the following year. There followed short curacies at St Thomas's, Charterhouse, and St Michael's, Shoreditch. His chances of a permanent position were ended when, in 1883, he publicly supported abolition of the House of Lords, and his request for a licence was refused. Although his licence was eventually reinstated in 1898 he was never again to hold permanent office in the Church of England.

Headlam's wholehearted endorsement of Maurice's incarnational theology served to unify a wide and seemingly erratic range of social and political interests. He believed the incarnation at once rooted human beings in a filial relationship with God and underscored the social character of humanity. He strenuously opposed puritanism, cultivating friendships with artists, actors, and literary figures, and founding in 1879 the Church and Stage Guild. He defied his bishop by sending a message of sympathy to Charles Bradlaugh in prison, despite having debated with him frequently in public. Characteristically, despite open hostility from friends as well as strangers, he stood bail for Oscar Wilde in 1895. He was an avowed ritualist, with a sacramental personal devotion, and a reverence for Our Lady. His fusion of sacramentalism and Christian socialism was expressed most forcefully in his books The Laws of Eternal Life (1884) and The Meaning of the Mass (1905), in his Fabian Society pamphlet The Socialist's Church (1907), and in the Guild of St Matthew, an association for high-church laity and clergy sympathetic to socialist ideals, which he led from its founding in 1877 until its dissolution in 1909. Even at its peak in the early 1890s the guild never had more than about 360 members; its close identification with socialism meant that it received little support from the church at large, but it was valuable in providing a link between the church and the nascent labour movement.

Christian socialism, in Headlam's hands, became a more strident and yet more practical position than it had ever been to Maurice. He supported trade unionists and socialist politicians, and though he served on the executive committee of the Fabian Society for three periods between 1890 and 1911 he was impatient of its gradualism. He bought and then financed a journal, the Church Reformer, for eleven years from 1884, and through its pages supported land reform as advocated by the American Henry George. In later life he became increasingly preoccupied with educational reform. He sat on the London school board from 1882 until its demise in 1903, taking an active role in the promotion of evening classes for adults, especially as chairman of the Evening Continuation Schools Committee from 1897. In 1907 he was elected to the London county council for the Progressive Party, sitting until his death. Despite Headlam's energy, his rebellious character and his unusual combination of socialism with Christian sacramentalism deprived him of much permanent influence either in the church or in the political world. His practical achievements were limited. He was a prophetic figure, whose passion for social justice was to inspire the small group of Anglican clergy exploring the political application of Christian social concern in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Headlam was a warm-hearted, buoyant, sociable, and passionate man, with intense convictions and an utter disregard for the personal cost of expressing them. In 1878 he married Beatrice Rosamond, daughter of Charles Plumer Pennington, but they were separated a few years later and Headlam refused to speak of the marriage in later life; there were no children. A series of heart attacks led to his death at his home, Wavertree, Peter's Road, St Margaret's-on-Thames, Middlesex, on 18 November 1924.

Jeremy Morris


F. G. Bettany, Stewart Headlam (1926) · K. Leech, ‘Stewart Headlam, 1847–1924’, For Christ and the people, ed. M. Reckitt (1968) · D. Rubinstein, ‘Headlam, Stewart Duckworth’, DLB, vol. 2 · P. D'A. Jones, The Christian socialist revival, 1877–1914 (1968) · E. R. Norman, The Victorian Christian socialists (1987)


BLPES, corresp. with the Fabian Society · Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester, corresp. with War Emergency Workers National Committee


F. A. Swaine, photograph, repro. in Bettany, Stewart Headlam [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£5753 4s. 0d.: probate, 1 Jan 1925, CGPLA Eng. & Wales