Charles Birrell photographed in the studio of J. Lee, at 57 Church Street, Liverpool.

Photo from the Josephine Butler archive, LSE Library collections. Ref 3AMS/G/04/026

The Rev. Charles Mitchell Birrell

Born 12 April 1811 in Kirkcaldy in Fife, baptized at the Church in Abbotshall.

Baptist Minister at the Pembroke Chapel in Liverpool.

Married Harriet Jane Grey in Edinburgh on 8th March 1837.

Died 16 December 1880 at 12 Elliot Place, Blackheath.

Buried West Norwood Cemetery, grave number 382 on square 40



The Grey Family Harriet was the daughter of the Rev. Henry Grey of Stenton Edinburgh, whose wife was his cousin the intelligent and courageous Margaretta Grey. Henry campaigned against slavery and for political reform. Margaretta was the Aunt of the well-known social campaigner Josephine Butler.

Josephine described her Aunt in the book she wrote about her father John Grey. “Her sentiments at that time were revolutionary! Her desire to hear debates in Parliament was so unbounded, that, there being at that time no ladies' gallery, she had the hardihood to make her way into the House dressed as a boy.”

Margaretta’s sister Mary Grey had married the Rev. Lundie and was well known for her memoirs and a book on education. The Lundie's son, Robert Henry was a protestant minister in Liverpool and gave the memorial services for both Charles Birrell, his wife and their son Charles at the Pembroke Chapel after their deaths. Charles Birrell went on to support Josephine Butler in her campaigns

Childhood and Education Charles Birrell and his younger brother Ebenezer were born in Kirkcaldy in Fife and baptized at the Church in Abbotshall. His father Ebenezer was a merhant. Educated at Edinburgh University, Charles had begun his life with a business career but decided to join the church. He was educated at the Baptist’s College in Stepney, which later became Regents Park College, Oxford in 1856. Students at the college studied for 4 years and were expected to read Virgil in Latin and the New Testament in Greek.

“The subjects taught included Greek, Hebrew and Latin, mathematics, English composition, rhetoric, logic, history, Jewish antiquities, mental and moral philosophy, evidence theology, ministerial duties, Christian doctrine, and ecclesiastical history. The students were tested in all these areas by an annual examination assessed by external examiners.”

He left the college in 1835, when he was 24 and became a Baptist Minister in 1836 at the Byrom Street chapel in Liverpool. The Baptist Magazine, described it as in “ a very low and thickly populated part of the town”

Charles married Harriet Jane Grey in Edinburgh on 8th March 1837. She was the daughter of Margaretta Grey and Henry Grey.

Below: An edited family tree showing some the Reverend gentlemen who married into or descended from the Grey family.
Left: Mary Burn who educated her daughters Mary and Margaretta as well as her son John, whose daughter Josephine was supported in her campaigns in Liverpool by Charles Birrell.
Henry Grey DD, Charles' father in law.
Mary Grey who married the Rev Robert Lundie, whose son Robert Henry Lundie buried Charles Birrell's wife and son and gave a memorial service about him at the Pembroke Chapel in 1880.

The Pembroke Chapel

In 1838 Charles led a group who succeeded from the Byrom Street Chapel after a new strict Baptist minister practiced closed communion. The Pembroke Chapel was built and opened in 1839. Described as “ built of white freestone, with a portico of four columns. The interior is substantial, elegant, and chaste and enlivened with an excellent organ.” It adopted open membership in 1840 so that anyone, including the unbaptised ,could join.

The Birrell family lived in Pembrooke Place in 1841 with their 3 children Henry, 3, born in Edinburgh, Charles, 1, and Mary, 4 months, both born in Liverpool.

“The ministrations of the rev. gentlemen were marked by great success, and he entered with great spirit into the work of establishing sister churches in Birkenhead, Bootle and Everton, in addition to the immediate duties of his pastorate, which were invariably attended to most zealously. He continued as the minister of Pembroke Chapel until nearly the end of the year 1872”

In 1864 Charles laid the foundation stone of Richmond Baptist church in Toxteth. By October 1866 the Baptist magazine noted: “ The Pembroke Chapel, Rev. C. M. Birrell, minister, who is also too well known and esteemed to need any remark here. Members 393, Sunday scholars 514 teachers 49.”

The watercolour on the left is dated 1870 and the photograph 1942. It stood on the corner of Pembroke Place, West Derby Street and Crown Street. The map below is from 1890. The building was bombed in WW2 and no longer exists.


Charles contributed throughout his life to leading Baptist Educational and Missionary Institutions. He was a member of the bible translation society and his sermons were reproduced. On the Sunday after a severe storm he spoke on board the floating chapel of the Port.” The Winds and Waves Subject to Christ” was printed on page 297 of the weekly Christian Teacher in 1838. To the modern reader it is not comforting. He paints a dreadful picture of the tragedy and uses the disaster as a warning to his listeners to repent their sins.

“ How dreadful was that event. Last Sabbath evening many congregations were assembled together in peace, fearing no danger, and anticipating no calamity. Yet at that very time the great Mediator, whose claims had been represented in all his sanctuaries throughout our native land, was preparing to visit us with awful exhibitions of his power… Then suddenly came forth the power of his anger. In the course of about three fearful hours, events of most terrible nature, and of still more direful consequences, transpired. Ships going forth, bearing some hundreds of immortal souls, many of them bound to one another by the tenderest ties of nature, were driven to atoms in the boiling and heaving ocean... The husband saw the waters close over the pallid face of his wife; while the trembling wife, in another instance, saw her husband launched into the abyss; and again, a weeping infant, we are told, was dragged from the lifeless grasp of its parents, who had both perished by each other's side. … Sailors, too, each immortal, each destined to the judgment-seat, were sinking on every hand; and as they sunk, it may be, in some instances, profane language and awful curses faded away upon their expiring lips! O who can contemplate such a scene! Who can meditate on its dread hereafter! A book of memorial sermons from the Myrtle Street & Pembroke Chapels by Birrell was published in 1864.

Family Life By 1851 Charles lived at Olive Lane in Wavertree, with Harriet, and their children Henry, 13, Charles 11, Harriet, 6, Mary Olive 3 and Augustine 1.

His oldest son Charles attended the Edinburgh Academy between 1853 and 1856, but died very young in 1858 at the age of 18. He was living at the time of his death at 18 Holland Terrace, Edge Hill. Although in 1856 Charles and the Rev. F A. West had opened the dissenters portion of Toxteth Park Cemetery, Charles the younger was buried in the Liverpool Necropolis.

Charles Snr. is not with the family on the night of the 1861 census but his wife Harriet is with their children at 18 Duke Street, North Liverpool, with Henry 23, Emily, 15, Mary Olive 13, and Augustine 11.

Harriet died in 1863 at 8, Chatham Place, and was also buried in the Necropolis. Burial records show that other family members were buried in the same plot. The Necropolis had been opened in 1825, on a site covering five acres. It was used largely by nonconformists. It was filled in the following 70 years with 80,000 burials. It was closed for interments on 31 August 1898, and transferred to Liverpool Corporation. In 1913 the lodges, gates & walls were demolished, monuments and large gravestones removed and the area landscaped with ornamental gardens. On the 22 April 1914 the Corporation renamed and re-opened it as Grant Gardens . It isn't known if a record of the monuments was kept.

Above: The Birrell's family plot at the Liverpool Necropolis. Eleanor Birrell died in March 1853 and Catherine in November of the same year. Charles Jnr. in 1858, and their mother Harriet in 1863. Mary Birrell , Charles Birrell Snrs mother, died at 8 Chatham Place in August 1869. Left: Grant gardens today from Google' s streetview. It looks a neglected space. As it was never used for rebuilding the bodies are probably still there. Below: Map from 1890. Thanks to Liverpool Record Office for permission to reproduce the burial record.
Two of Charles Birrell's daughters, Emily and Harriet, married in 1869, while Olive moved away. Daughter Harriet died after the birth of her first child when she only 27. By the time of the 1871 census Charles was living alone at 8, Chatham Place with two servants. His daughter Olive aged 23 was living with her married sister Emily Grey Medley and her husband Edward, (also a Baptist minister) in Goswell Street, Clerkenwell. Mary Birrell, Charles mother died at the Chatham Place address in 1869, and probate was granted to Augustine. 8, Chatham Place is the address of Henry Grey Birrell (a merchant's Clerk) in 1891 when he was granted probate on his uncle the Rev. Edward John Grey’s estate.
Thanks to Liverpool Record Office for permission to reproduce the two pictures of Pembroke Chapel.
Writing In October 1859 Charles published a book on the life of the Missionary Richard Knill. It is largely edited from Knill’s journals, letters and reminiscences. His father in law the Rev. Henry Grey died in 1859 and Charles published a book about him called “Thoughts in the Evening of Life. A sketch of the Life of Henry Grey D.D. and passages from the diary of Mrs. Grey. In 1865 when John Bunyan’s: “Ernest Inquirer or the Jerusalem Sinner Saved” was reissued Birrell wrote a memoir of its author and in June 1874 when a statue of John Bunyan was unveiled in Bedford he gave a lecture on Bunyan’s life and work at the Bunyan Meeting House. In 1868 his address delivered at Bristol introducing a discussion on the Rev. William. Landels’ paper on “Ministerial Failures” was printed. Landels had urged ministers against indolence saying that only by working hard on sermons could men be moved towards God and heaven. In 1871 Charles’ address to the Annual Session of Baptist Union was published as a pamphlet of 12 pages. Charles also contributed his reminiscences in the introduction to a Memorial of late Rev W. Best B.A. A book made up of selections of Best’s letters and poems. (1877)
Josephine Butler In 1865 his cousin by marriage Josephine Butler moved to Liverpool when her husband George was given the job of Principal of Liverpool College. She later wrote” “ Among our first and best helpers in our own town was my cousin, Charles Birrell, a Baptist Minister- there existed a strong friendship between him and my husband.” The photograph of Birrell reproduced here is from Josephine’s album. Josephine was mourning the death of her daughter Eva, who had died aged 5 after falling 40 feet from a staircase the previous year. Needing to find a greater pain than her own, after discussions with Birrell, who visited it regularly; she volunteered to work at the Brownlow Hill Workhouse. On her first visit she sat on the floor and unpicked old rope with the women there. It was a punishment used for prostitutes and unmarried mothers. She then set up a refuge for them in 1867. Birrell would give her the addresses of destitute women living in the city. Josephine believed in women’s education, suffrage, property rights, & equal wages and by 1869 was campaigning to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts. She compared it to the campaign against slavery. These acts passed in secret allowed the government to forcibly exam women for signs of sexual diseases and imprison them if they were infected. Josephine felt strongly this was immoral. If women were the sinners then men were more so. In effect the government were legislating for prostitution to continue. However she was criticized for talking about the matter at all. On the 18 March 1870 Birrell supported a speech by Josephine at a working man’s meeting in Richmond Hall, Liverpool by speaking from the platform. He said that as a woman she was best able to speak for women and that it was God who impelled her to leave her family to speak for them.

Charles had poor health throughout his life. He had suffered the death of his wife and several children and his own last illness was “prolonged and severe” Despite this and the fiery nature of his sermons his cousin the Rev. Lundie remembered him as a “comforter of the sick and sad, having subdued intensity of emotion,” Lundie described watching one of his sermons: “ The tender music of his voice, the marvellous light that kindled his dark eye as he stood for a moment erect, with one arm outstretched as if at once in supplication to his God and appeal to his hearers, seemed to touch every heart in that hushed assembly”

His ill health forced him to retire in 1872 after 36 years in Liverpool. His congregation presented him with a gift of £2,600 pounds and he gave £500 of it to start a fund to help poor ministers. He stayed in Liverpool for a time and then moved to live near his sister Euphemia Dunn in Blackheath. He returned to Liverpool once a year and stayed with his cousin the Rev. Henry Lundie. Charles died on 16 December 1880 having suffered from bowel cancer for 6 months. He died at 12 Elliot Place, Blackheath, the previous home of his sister Euphemia and her husband who had both died in 1879 within a month of each other. His probate record valued his personal estate at £20,000. The Liverpool Mercury of Tuesday 29 November 1892, said: “ There are few among us who do not think of the Rev Charles Birrell with feelings of affection and veneration. A saintlier man never trod the streets of this town”

Charles was buried with his younger brother Ebenezer. In 1841 Ebenezer, who was also studying for the ministry at Stepney College, died of consumption at Champion Grove in Camberwell, aged only 21. Champion Grove was the home of their sister Euphemia and her husband Henry Dunn, who are also buried in Norwood. Charles wrote a memoir of him called “A memoir of Ebenezer Birrel, late of Stepney College, London –By his brother. It included a letter from his brother dated 5 March 1839 that describes his “conversion”. Ebenezer struggled with his faith and the idea that he would loose all his leisure time on Sundays. “On the one hand, I loved my sins, and the ways of the world; and, when I reflected upon them, it appeared impossible that I could give them up. On the other hand, I felt, deeply felt, I was unhappy…. All the way along Black friars'-road a conflict between opposite principles went on in my mind, and as I stepped upon the bridge, I was led, by the grace of God, to determine to cease from sin” Published for 1s 6d in 1843 it was critically acclaimed “In this brief and unpretending memoir, there are no striking incidents. Mr. Birrell had pious parents, who trained him up in the nuture and admonition of the lord. Their instructions amid the waywardness of youth he never forgot. A mother’s love exercised a mighty influence over him…he soon determined to study for the ministry but his health gave way. During a protracted illness he maintained unwavering constancy, and his dying moments were triumphant indeed.”
Charles and his younger brother Ebenezer's grave at West Norwood cemetery photographed in November 2016 by Claire Grey. (Who is Harriet's first cousin 4 times removed.)
Friday 17 December 1880 , Liverpool Echo DEATH OF THE REV. OF C.M. BIRRELL We regret to announce the death of the Rev. Charles Mitchell Birrell, which took place at his residence, Elliott Place, Blackheath last evening. This information will be received with deep regret in Nonconformist circles in this city, where the deceased laboured as a minister of the Baptist denomination for a period of thirty-four years, during which time he gained the goodwill and esteem of all with whom he came in contact. Mr. Birrell began his ministry in a quaint old chapel in Byrom Street, now known as Byrom Hall, in the year of 1836; but the accommodation there proved insufficient and by the liberality and enterprise of the congregation Pembroke Chapel was built and opened in 1839. The ministrations of the rev. gentlemen were marked by great success, and he entered with great spirit into the work of establishing sister churches in Birkenhead, Bootle and Everton, in addition to the immediate duties of his pastorate, which were invariably attended to most zealously. He continued as the minister of Pembroke Chapel until nearly the end of the year 1872, when, in consequence of failing health he tended his resignation to the congregation of the church. The feeling of the congregation was shown by their earnest entreaties that he would continue to be the pastor in conjunction with another, but to this request he declined to accede from convictions of duty. The members of the church then set about making some recognition of their appreciation of the services of the pastor, a scheme in which they were readily assisted by outside friends; and the result was that £2, 620 were subscribed, which sum was presented to Mr. Birrell, together with an illuminated address, in December, 1872, when he took a partial farewell of his congregation. He continued to reside in the town for some time after the appointment of his successor, the Rev. P.G. Scorey (who has since resigned), but subsequently took up his residence in London, where he remained until his death.

Sources: Obituary Notice. London Daily News 20 December 1880 From

Obituary Notice. Liverpool Echo, Friday 17 December 1880

The Late Rev. C.M.Birrell, Sermon by the Rev. R H Lundie, M.A.The Liverpool Mercury, Monday January 3, 1881 page 3

“Among our first and best helpers” Josephine Butler Centenary. Western Daily Press, Bristol, Tuesday, March 27,1928, page 5

“ There are few among us who do not think” Liverpool Mercury Tuesday 29 Nov 1892 page 6

History of Baptist College Stepney

Margaretta Grey in Memoir of John Grey of Dilston by his daughter Josephine Butler. Henry S. King & Co, 65 Cornhill, and 12, Paternoster Row, London, 1874, page 13

Consecration of Toxteth Cemetery From the Liverpool Courier Wednesday 11th June 1856

Unveiling of Bunyan’s statue

Extracts from “A memoir of Ebenezer Birrell, late of Stepney College, London –By his brother.” The Presbyterian Review and Religious journal, for April 1843-Jan 1844 Volume 16 Edinburgh, William Whyte & co. George Street MDCCCXLIII

Review of Ebenezer’s memorial The Baptist Record and Biblical repository Volume 1 London, G & J Dyer, 24, Paternoster Row 1844 pages 27, & 137

Review of Ebenezer’s memorial Scottish Congregational Magazine New series Vol III Glasgow, James Maclehouse, 83 Buchanan Street. MDCCCXLIII page 218

Closed and Open communion “The Dissenters: The crisis and conscience of nonconformity Vol III by Michael R. Watts. 2015 page 144

Birrell’s letters National Archives catalogue online

List of chapels in Liverpool The Baptists in Liverpool The Baptist Magazine October 1866

The Winds and Waves Subject to Christ The Weekly Christian Teacher Vol II Dec 1,1838-November 23, 1839, pages 297-300

On The Practices of Public Worship by Rev C. M. Birrell published in Baptist Magazine for 1839 Vol XXXI series IV Vol II London, Published by George Wightman, 24, Paternoster Row. 1839 pages 470-473

We know little of Charles parents. His father Ebenezer was a merchant. It is possible that his sister Euphemia was a half sister, as there are marriage records for an Ebenezer Birrell and Euphemia Moyes in 1787 and for an Ebenezer Birrell and a Mary Mitchell in Fife in 1806.

His children His son Henry lived to be 70 and was a banker. His daughter Olive Birrell became a novelist writing books with strong female characters, who had jobs, smoked cigarettes and ran away to marry against their parents wishes. She became friends with a group of other independent women, socialists and activists like Annie Besant who used to meet in the British Museum Reading Room. Whether her father would have approved of novels in unknown but she published them between 1883 and 1902 after his death. It was Charles and Harriet's youngest son Augustine (1850-1933) who became the most famous. He was a politician, barrister, academic and author. He was Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1907 to 1916, resigning in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising. He was noted for his sense of humour which was called Birrelling. In dictionaries of quotations some of his witty epigrams achieved fame as ‘Birrellisms’—such as ‘That great dust-heap called history’

12 Eliot Place, Blackheath. Photo by Claire Grey November 2016.