In the mid-1780s, Joseph Gurney (1714-1815) moved his family from Stamford Hill to a new house in Keene’s Row, Walworth, where they would begin worshiping in the Baptist church at Maze Pond. According to the Maze Pond Church Book, on April 18, 1785, Martha Gurney (1733-1816) and her niece, Elizabeth Gurney (1770-1840), “were proposed for communion . . . their moral characters being well attested to the satisfaction of the Church.” They were received into communion on June 5, 1785. Rebecca Gurney (1747-1814), Joseph’s wife, joined the congregation at Maze Pond on March 5, 1786, with Joseph joining on August 5, 1787.[i] Their two sons, John (1768-1845) and William Brodie (1777-1855), would also join the church, both becoming prominent dissenters and public figures. For the next three decades the Gurneys would be one of Maze Pond’s leading families. W. B. Gurney would later say of his parents, “The interests of the Church and the happiness of their Pastor were . . . dear to their hearts, and their co-operation was cheerfully given in any plan of usefulness in which the Church and congregation engaged.  He [Joseph Gurney] bore a high character, both for talent and integrity, and was highly esteemed by those who knew him best.”[ii] Joseph Gurney succeeded his father, Thomas Gurney, as shorthand writer for the Old Bailey in 1770 and later for the House of Commons. Joseph also operated a bookshop for many years, first at 39 Bell-yard and later at 54 Holborn, London. Martha Gurney was also a bookseller (first at 14 Bell-yard and later at 128 Holborn), a member at Maze Pond, and, like her brother, an active political reformer (Salter, Some Particulars 97). Between 1789 and 1802, she printed or sold thirty-three political pamphlets, including fourteen anti-slave trade pamphlets.[iii] She collaborated with her brother in transcribing and printing twenty-five editions of state trials and other court proceedings between 1781 and 1813.


The eldest son, John (later Sir John) Gurney, achieved considerable prominence as a defense attorney for several celebrated state trials of the 1790s, including the trials of Daniel Isaac Eaton, Thomas Hardy and John Horne Tooke (1794), as well as the conspiracy trial of the United Irishmen James O’Coigly, Arthur O’Connor, and John Binns  (1798).   He served for many years as a counselor for the King’s Bench until his appointment in 1832 as Baron of the Exchequer. Gurney would also serve as vice-chairman of the Protestant Dissenting Deputies from 1805 to 1816 (Manning 481).[iv]W. B. Gurney followed in his father’s footsteps, eventually becoming one of the leading shorthand writers for Parliament and the Old Bailey (Gurney 6). He also became a well-known Baptist layman, playing a key role in the formation of the Sunday School Union in 1803 as well as serving for many years as a member of the committee of the Religious Tract Society and as treasurer of both Stepney College (1828-44) and the Baptist Missionary Society (1835-55) (Salter, Some Particulars 102-11). 


Rebecca Gurney was active in benevolence work. Besides assisting in the formation of a maternity society at Walworth, in 1785 she was instrumental in forming a girl’s school in conjunction with the Protestant Dissenters’ Charity School at Horsleydown, Southwark, which since 1714 had been exclusively educating boys. In 1790 the school was moved to Walworth, and by the mid-1790s, the Walworth Girls Charity School was educating approximately thirty girls. She may also have assisted in founding a similar school for girls in Southwark at Shakespeare’s Walk, Shadwell, in 1792, as well as the Knitting School for girls mentioned in one of the letters below.[v]


Elizabeth Gurney never married. Besides assisting her mother in various philanthropical activities, Elizabeth was also a writer, contributing numerous articles and letters to various periodicals in her lifetime, although these have not been identified as of yet. Enmeshed in the rich climate of social and political activism that permeated her family, church, and the larger dissenting community in which she lived and worked, Elizabeth Gurney, along with her aunt Martha and mother Rebecca, joined a host of “Christian philanthropists” who supported the benefits of a general public education for the poor youth of England and who vigorously opposed the slave trade and slavery itself. 

Portions of Elizabeth Gurney’s library that have survived reveal the extent of Elizabeth Gurney’s interest in radical politics of the 1790s.  At the University of Michigan is a bound volume of sixteen pamphlets (shelfmark DA520.F79) all written by the radical pamphleteer William Fox and printed or sold by Martha Gurney between 1791 and 1794.  On the first title page is the signature “E Gurney, Walworth.” Another volume from her library, this one consisting of eight political pamphlets, can be found in the Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford (shelfmark 19.d.2).  Among these pamphlets, all written between 1793 and 1806, are works by Anna Letitia Barbauld, William Richards of Lynn, Benjamin Flower, Thomas Erskine, Robert Miln, and Robert Aspland. A portion of John Gurney’s library also resides in the Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, which includes a volume of radical political pamphlets from the 1790s (shelfmark 42.e.15) containing works by Daniel Isaac Eaton, Jeremiah Joyce, and Benjamin Flower.

For her friendship with Eliza Gould Flower and surviving correspondence, click here


1    Maze Pond Church Book, II (1784-1821), Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, ff. 43, 45, 52, and 58. 

2   Salter, William Henry Gurney, ed., Some Particulars of the Lives of William Brodie Gurney and His Immediate Ancestors. Written Chiefly by Himself (London: Unwin, 1902), 45.

3   Of these pamphlets, the most significant was William Fox’s An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Propriety of Refraining from the use of West India Sugar and Rum (1791), which went through 26 editions in less than a year, with a printing run estimated at 250,000 copies, making it one of the most widely distributed pamphlets in England in the eighteenth century. Joseph Gurney was also a devoted abolitionist; in 1795 he became a member of the “Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race.” See Salter, Some Particulars 35, 43, 44.  

4  An entry in the Maze Pond Church Book for 1813 reads:  “Resolved that the special and cordial thanks of this Community be given to Mr John Gurney not only for his services as one of our Deputies but for his prompt, unwearied and disinterested attention to those Cases which come before the Deputation and which affect the civil rights of Protestant Dissenters” (f.185). As William Gurney noted in his family memoir: “My Brother entered into public life shortly after the French Revolution, when the efforts made here to repress what was considered the rise of liberty in France, and perhaps in other countries also, created a strong feeling of opposition to our Government on the part of those who were liberal in their views” (Salter, Some Particulars56).  

5   Salter, Some Particulars, 49; A Brief Account of the Charity School, at Horsley-down, Southwark, instituted in ... 1714(London, 1796); Protestant Dissenter’s Magazine 6 (1799), 164.