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date: 30 June 2022

Hackney Phalanxfree

(act. 1800–1830)

Hackney Phalanxfree

(act. 1800–1830)
  • Mark Smith

Hackney Phalanx (act. 1800–1830), was an influential group of Anglican high churchmen whose inner core, Joshua Watson and his brother-in-law Henry Handley Norris, were both residents of Hackney—a parish of which Watson's brother John James was the rector. The earliest deployment of the term Hackney Phalanx (generally associated with the group by historians though probably not by contemporaries) appears to be that by William Hales, rector of Killashandra, who used it to describe the churchmen who entertained him on his visits to London. Although it is possible that Hales may have coined the phrase, its subsequent currency is due primarily to its use in Edward Churton's Memoir of Joshua Watson (1861), which is also the source for the anecdote about Hales. One of the earliest and best attempts to characterize the phalanx described it as

a body of friends (and to some extent of relations) sharing a common theological and political outlook, forming a compact group with an agreed attitude to most of the religious and political measures of the day. We might have described it as a ‘pressure group’ if this did not exaggerate the self-consciousness of the Phalanx. They remained to the end a body of friends, rather than an ecclesiastical or a religious party.

Webster, 18

The common theological and political outlook of the Hackney Phalanx might best be described as high church and tory. They stood for the mainstream divinity of the post-Restoration Church of England, especially the soteriology associated primarily with Bishop George Bull. This rejected the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone in favour of a doctrine in which saving grace was first transmitted through baptism but final justification was conditional on holiness of life nourished by the sacrament and on good works. They consequently placed a high value on the integrity of the visible church which was the primary channel of these means of grace. The Church of England was understood to be the most perfect branch of the holy Catholic church, preserving as it did Catholic order in its liturgy and its ordinations while at the same time purging itself of the corruptions of medieval catholicism at the Reformation. It is perhaps in the firmness of their alignment of the Church of England with the churches of the Reformation that this generation of high churchmen are most clearly to be distinguished from their Tractarian and Anglo-Catholic successors. In politics they were tory, concerned in particular to defend the position of the church against erosion by concessions to dissenters or Roman Catholics and the constitution against the threat of democracy.

Members of the phalanx were unusual in the articulacy of their presentation of these positions and in their enterprise in acquiring a periodical—the British Critic, bought by Joshua Watson in 1812—in order to publicize their views. The positions themselves, however, were not at all remarkable, being the theological and political commonplaces of the vast majority of the English clergy. It is difficult therefore to draw boundaries round the group or to be precise about its membership. Some historical writing has tended to confuse membership of the phalanx with the high church tradition as a whole and to enlist such figures as Archdeacon Daubeny who, while being related to both Thomas Sikes and Watson and sharing similar views, was not really part of the same social circle. The 'body of friends' who made up the phalanx proper seem to have included, in addition to Norris and the Watsons: William Stevens, the founder of the club of Nobody's Friends, which overlapped substantially with the membership of the phalanx; Ralph Churton, archdeacon of St David's; Thomas Sikes (1766–1834), rector of Guilsborough; and William Van Mildert, who began by sharing Joshua Watson's house in Hackney and ended in Auckland Castle as bishop of Durham.

These men, mostly the sons of mercantile families with interests in banking and commerce, were, however, connected to a much wider network of supporters, especially through the medium of patronage. Norris, who was credited with great influence over Lord Liverpool's episcopal appointments, was one focal point of this network. So too were successive archbishops of Canterbury, Charles Manners Sutton and William Howley, whose enormous stock of preferment made it possible to entrench allies of the phalanx in the upper echelons of the clergy.

The interests of the phalanx were not limited simply to measures designed to shore up the theological and political defences of the church. They also engaged in a series of initiatives designed to render it more capable of meeting the challenges of the nineteenth century and in doing so they sought to realize their ideal of the church acting as a whole in its corporate capacity. They were particularly concerned to reinvigorate the great authorized voluntary societies inherited from the late seventeenth century—the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. This concern sometimes drew them into conflict with the promoters of new societies that might seem to encroach on the spheres of operation of these bodies—especially the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society. However, the men of the phalanx were not opposed to innovation in itself so long as new initiatives could be contained within the existing hierarchical and territorial structures of the church.

They were willing, with the support of the bishops, the king, and his ministers, to found new voluntary bodies—most notably the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (1811), which encouraged the development of church-controlled primary education, and the Incorporated Church Building Society (1818), which fostered the building of new churches in the expanding towns and cities. Neither of these ventures was exclusive to the phalanx, however, and they involved the mobilization of support not only from other high churchmen but also from groups that included the influential evangelicals of the Clapham Sect. Despite their theological differences, Hackney and Clapham both demonstrate the increasing weight of the commercial classes in the highest councils of the church and the success of the church in attracting the wealth, energy, and initiative of a stratum of society often associated primarily with religious nonconformity.

The old high church tradition in the Church of England has received considerable attention in recent historiography. Studies of its political aspects have demonstrated the importance of its defence of the protestant state before 1829, and have highlighted its contribution to church building and its significant impact on the early nineteenth-century attempts to reform the workings of the diocesan system. The role of the Hackney Phalanx as a patronage network has also received attention, as has its theology and its relationship with other groups within the church.


  • British Critic (1812–30)
  • A. Burns, The diocesan revival in the Church of England, c.1800–1870 (1999)
  • E. Churton, ed., Memoir of Joshua Watson, 2 vols. (1861)
  • J. C. D. Clark, English society, 1660–1832: religion, ideology, and politics during the ancien regime, 2nd edn (2000)
  • R. Hole, Pulpits, politics and public order in England, 1760–1832 (1989)
  • P. B. Nockles, The Oxford Movement in context: Anglican high churchmanship, 1760–1857 (1994)
  • J. J. Sack, From Jacobite to Conservative: reaction and orthodoxy in Britain, c.1760–1832 (1993)
  • E. A. Varley, The last of the prince bishops: William Van Mildert and the high church movement of the early nineteenth century (1992)
  • A. B. Webster, Joshua Watson: the story of a layman, 1771–1855 (1954)
  • N. Yates, Buildings, faith, and worship: the liturgical arrangement of Anglican churches, 1600–1900 (1991)
  • H. H. Norris papers, Bodl. Oxf.
  • Watson papers, LPL
  • Churton papers, Pusey Oxf.
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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Pusey House, Oxford
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Lambeth Palace London