Solly, Henry

Henry Solly
Henry Solly

Henry Solly (November 13, 1813-February 27, 1903), British Unitarian minister and social reformer, was one of the most remarkable social innovators of his time. He was the instigator and founder of three important social organisations in Britain—Working Men’s Clubs, the Charity Organisation Society and the Garden City movement—that had a significant influence on the provision made for the working classes in late Victorian Britain. He was born and brought up within the Unitarian fold. It was this influence as well as that of the Domestic Mission movement which was the starting point for his wider social activity.

Henry was born in London to Isaac Solly, a company director and his wife, Mary. The family attended the Presbyterian Meeting House at Walthamstow, where Isaac was the leading figure before his bankruptcy in 1837. They were radical Protestant Dissenters and were unitarian in belief and affirmation, although they did not think it proper to call themselves Unitarian.

Educated at schools run by the Unitarian ministers, Eliezer Cogan and Dr John Morell, Henry went on to become one of the first students at the nondenominational University College, London, 1829-1831. After a short career in commerce, which proved uncongenial, he felt the call to the ministry. In 1840, on the advice of Rev Robert Aspland, Unitarian minister at Hackney, Middlesex, Solly briefly attended the General Baptist academy. That same year Solly became minister at the Unitarian Chapel at Yeovil, Somerset.

In 1841 Solly married Rebecca Shaen (1812-1893) at the Presbyterian (Unitarian) Chapel, High Street, Stourbridge, Worcestershire. They had one son and four daughters. One of Henry’s daughters married Philip Wicksteed, a Unitarian minister and well known author and lecturer; it was at their home that Henry Solly died. His only son, Henry Shaen Solly became a Unitarian minister as did one of the Wicksteed children. The Sollys were in contact with all the chief British Unitarian figures of the 19th century and were one of the leading Unitarian families in the area round London.

Solly’s concern for the rights and prosperity of working men led him to support the Chartist movement. He became an activist in numerous radical causes: universal suffrage and education, teetotalism, the co-operative movement, early closing for shops and Sunday opening of museums, antislavery, and much else. These stands did not endear him to the richer Unitarians of the time. After he served as a representative at the Birmingham chartist conference of 1842, he was forced out of his ministry at Yeovil. Then followed a period of short ministries at Unitarian churches: Tavistock, 1842-44; Shepton Mallet, 1844-47; Cheltenham, 1847-51; Carter Lane, London, 1852-57. Each of these was terminated for similar reasons as at Yeovil.

Because he was in regular dispute with the leaders of the Unitarian denomination, Solly could not obtain a reasonably paid pulpit. His life was a constant search for income to support his growing family and to keep up with the standards of an English gentlemen, to which he had been brought up but which was denied him by his father’s bankruptcy and the expression of his strong social conscience. At the end of his London ministry Solly concluded: ‘I could not help feeling that my London pastorate, and work there generally, had been rather a failure, and the back of my life at five and forty seemed broken.’ By 1862 he could not find a Unitarian church to employ him. He never served as a minister again.

From the 1840s to the 1890s his name constantly occurs in the Unitarian press, in particular the Inquirer and the Christian Life, for which he wrote letters and articles on a whole range of subjects. He continued to attend and speak at Unitarian and General Baptist gatherings. From the 1860s until 1893 he was a regular attender of worship, whenever he could, at Rosslyn Hill (Unitarian) Chapel, Hampstead, London.

Although a radical in social affairs, Solly was a traditional Unitarian. He saw himself as an English Presbyterian (he published Our English Presbyterian Forefathers in 1859). He later felt himself more akin to the General Baptists (who were closely associated with the Unitarians) of which he became a leader after the 1870s. To the distress of his family, Solly eventually rejected the Unitarian name. He thought it a ‘controversial and inadequate’ name ‘to which Jews and Mohametans have as much right as ourselves.’ He admitted, however, that others ‘only saw him as a Unitarian minister’.

While serving as Unitarian minister at Lancaster, 1858-62, Solly became convinced that working men needed recreational clubs. Accordingly, in 1862 he founded the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union in London. He became its first paid secretary in 1863. A fine organiser, he founded clubs all over the country and soon made the Club Union into a national organisation. However, as secretary he wanted everything run his way. In 1867, when he opposed the clubs’ practice of selling alcohol, he was forced to resign. He returned in the 1870s but left again after disputes about his salary. The movement which he started nevertheless proved to be a permanent feature in British life. At his death there were 992 clubs with over 380,000 members.

Solly next turned his attention to the indigent element in society. A concern arose in the 1860s that there was a danger that self-help and charity could conflict. It was believed that the poor could best be helped, by intelligent use of charity funding, to help themselves. In 1868 Solly gave a public lecture aimed at action on these lines. The next year he was instrumental in founding the Charity Organisation Society, with the aim of better administering charity relief, emphasising the need for self help, and accompanying it with personal care. The Society later became a key body in administering charity and relief in London and, in the 20th century, was closely associated with the introduction and development of social casework in Britain. Solly became its first secretary and presiding genius, but was again forced out because of his demands for more power and money.

Solly’s last major initiative was based on the belief that working people should be well housed. In 1884 he set up the Society for the Promotion of Industrial Villages. Although this venture failed, later generations saw it as important forerunner of the Garden City Movement set up early in the next century by Sir Ebenezer Howard. With this failure Solly gave up his social initiatives. He wrote, ‘This Society was the last of my forlorn attempts to promote social reforms by means of an organised association, and I mean it to be the last; for which those friends who have helped me, and those who I have also worried but who have not helped me, will be devoutly thankful’.

Unitarians were in the main in the category of people who Solly worried and who did not help him. There was general relief amongst Unitarians that at last he had given up and that his forceful dynamism would take a back seat.

Solly was not a socialist or disturber of the class system, but was a main driving force in almost every radical initiative to benefit the working class. His main concern was the condition of the respectable working classes and the fostering of a sense of fellowship between the classes. This was in line with his Unitarian background and the ethos of the Domestic Mission movement. He was an avid supporter of teetotalism and antislavery activity, and could not see why the Unitarian movement did not believe and act as strongly as he did.

Solly made a remarkable contribution to British life although it was not fully recognised at the time. His impossible qualities—everything had to done at once exactly as he wanted—disqualified him to lead the bodies he founded for any length of time. Thus, at the time of his death in 1903, he was a forgotten figure. But decades later his remarkable vision and drive has been widely recognised. He left a legacy of social innovations, not least in presence of Working Men’s Clubs still found in every town and city in Britain.


The papers of Henry Solly are in the British Library of Political and Economic Science. His publications include What Says Christianity to the Present Distress (1842); The Development of Religious Life in the Modern Christian Church (1849); The Doctrine of Atonement by the Son of God (1861); a five-act play, Gonzaga, a Tale of Florence (1877); an address to the General Baptist Association, Entering into the Kingdom of God (1881); a novel, James Woodford, Carpenter and Chartist (1881); a pamphlet, Technical Education (1884); Working Men’s Social Clubs and Educational Institutes (2nd ed., 1904); and Unitarianism and Orthodoxy, A Few Last Words (1897).

Solly wrote a two-volume autobiography, These Eighty Years (1893). Biographical articles include Alan Ruston, “Henry Solly, the Omnibus Radical”, Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1988); Alan Ruston, “Henry Solly”, Dictionary of National Biography: Missing Persons Volume (1993); T. Williams, “Solly, the Practical Dreamer”, Inquirer (1987); K. Woodroofe, “The Irascible Rev Henry Solly”, Social Science Review (1975); and J.H. Wicksteed, introducing the second edition of Solly’s Working Men’s Social Clubs. Ruston’s article in Transactions has an extensive bibliography. Obituaries can be found in the Inquirer (7 March 1903), Christian Life (7 March 1903), and the Times (5 March 1903). Among works which treat Solly’s radical career in context are W. Beveridge, Voluntary Action (1948); H. Bosanquet, Social Work in London 1869-1912 (1914); H. Malchow, Agitators and Promoters in the Age of Gladstone (1983); G. Cole, Short History of the British Working Class Movement, vol. 2 (1927); and D. Stange, British Unitarians against American Slavery (1984).

Article by Alan Ruston
Posted July 7, 2001