The Story of Essex Hall
by Mortimer Rowe B.A., D.D.
Lindsey Press © 1959
Chapter 4 - Transformation and Extension
1. Blue Prints and Builders
Writing in the opening weeks of 1959, with the recollections vivid and fresh in our minds of the erection of the present imposing Essex Hall and its ceremonial opening three months ago, it is difficult to record the celebrations of the corresponding event in 1886 without subconsciously emphasizing comparisons and will contrasts; but we try and leave the reader to do this for himself when he recollects this chapter while reading the later ones.
First of all, however, let us hear just precisely what was done with the old chapel building to convert it into Essex Hall. Many have been the friendly but futile arguments in our time between ourselves and other equally aged survivors from the 19th century who never saw the Essex Street Chapel, as to this and that uncertain point about the transformation; points which-if only we had known it-are mostly disposed of once and for all by a brief and crystal-clear account written in 1886 and unearthed from an obscure column in the pages of The Inquirer. Here it is, with a few minor omissions:
The building, formerly Essex Street Chapel, has undergone complete and entire remodelling, based on the lines of the old structure, though preserving the main walls, roof and floors.
The works throughout have been of a very difficult and peculiar character-viz., to cut light into all portions of the building, to
remove walls, arches, vaults and partitions, and to carry the whole of the lower floors by girders and columns so as to open up even the lowest portions of the building, and to readapt the same on all floors to its altered uses.
The entrance to the old chapel was approached across an open courtyard, which has now been built over, a shop for the sale of books etc. coming out to the frontage of the property. The new stone entrance is divided into two handsome flights of steps leading to the upper and lower ground floors respectively. The lower floor has been partly excavated, and is now of a good height, and very well lighted. In this floor are rooms for the Sunday School Association, the Christian Life and Inquirer newspapers, a good library or reading room, stores for books, and a large kitchen. Approached from this level is the new council chamber, a spacious room lighted from a large skylight and with a handsome horizontal light to the same.
The upper floor has been turned into fine suites of offices, and is entered by a large tiled hall, out of which the grand staircase ascends. To the left of the entrance is the book sale-room of the British & Foreign Unitarian Association, and close to this room are the Committee and Secretary's rooms. The rest of the floor is occupied by offices.
The large hall has been constructed on the first floor, where the old chapel formerly stood; but here a great change has taken place, the old blank walls being now pierced by the formation of handsome windows all round the hall. The old galleries have been swept away, and a large new gallery running along the eastern end only has been built, capable of accommodating nearly zoo persons. The old ceiling has been taken down, and the dome treated with new sashes, pilasters and caps of fibrous plaster. The glass in the dome is tinted, and gives warmth and brightness to the hall. The platform is against the west wall, and is approached from a small retiring room close by it.
The front of the building towards Essex Street has been finished in Portland cement in the classical style, with Ionic pilasters and caps, and the whole is finished with a central pediment. The works have been carried out at a cost of about £6,000.
From this, coupled with a study of the large-scale Ordnance Survey street map of the period, these several points are made clear at last:
(i) The floor level of the 'cellars' was lowered by excavation and the cellars transformed into decent rooms.
(ii) The mystery of Lindsey's 'gardens', mentioned in the Trust Deed, is solved: they are represented by the blank square at the top left-hand corner of the chapel plan opposite, and they were at the bottom of the deep square well lying on the south side of the chapel, hemmed in by buildings all round, and were likewise excavated to the same level, walled and floored and roofed over to create "the new Council Chamber", better known to us as the Lower Hall.
(iii) The Upper Hall corresponded with Lindsey's chapel only in regard to its bare four-square walls, then without windows, and its ceiling and circular lantern. The chapel was approached across a small courtyard from Essex Street, leading to a short flight of broad steps and a doorway which doubtless gave entrance both to the parsonage flat and, by an internal staircase, to the chapel above. This courtyard approach was abolished and the space used to construct display-windows for the Bookshop and its separate entrance on the street; the Upper Hall was entered quite otherwise, from the new vestibule and up "the grand staircase" to twin doorways, with a further stairway to the large gallery.
(iv) Clearly, since Mr. Nettlefold's gift of No. 1 Essex Street figures as his initial contribution of £2,300 in the first list of subscribers, it must have been his expectation that the architect would find the site of it advantageous in planning the reconstruction of the building. However, no such use was made of it; the architect ingeniously planned his entrances, vestibule, "grand staircase" and new rooms above and below, on the area represented by the mysterious irregular portion on the right of the plan of Lindsey's Chapel. No. 1 Essex Street remained as it was, and was rented to tenants for the next thirty years; then it be came useful as Lawrence House, and finally quite invaluable to will the architect of the 1958 building, as he himself wirelate in Chapter 4.
These improvements, transformations and extensions were a very great credit to the skill inventiveness of the architect. We have endeavoured to explain them in detail, with the aid of plans; for the old Essex Hall is gone for ever, and will soon be as completely forgotten as the Essex Street Chapel premises as a whole are forgotten. Keen to know more about them, we remembered that one dear lady of great age, rich in memories of the past, was perhaps the only person living who was ever in the chapel. We asked her, was this so?-Yes, just once only, as a schoolgirl, about 1884 perhaps, taken by her father to hear some noted preacher. (Our hopes rose rapidly. This was only a trifle of seventy-five years ago.) The square pews, the galleries and the pulpit-she remembered them all; doubtless a lengthy sermon gave her ample opportunity to imprint them on her mind. Eager to learn more, we volunteered a little needed assistance about the approach from the street ... by way of a narrow courtyard ... a few steps leading to a doorway . . . "but tell now, me: how did you get upstairs to the chapel above - where was the staircase, and what was it like?"
"Did we have to go upstairs to the chapel?" she replied with her own inimitable charm; and the viva voce examination ended in laughter.
2. The Day of Rejoicing
All this work that we have sketched in outline was carried out in 1885-86, and at last, on Thursday June 3 in the latter year, came the joyfully anticipated Opening. Essex Hall was, of course, packed to capacity. The Upper Hall was crowded to the doors. The title-page of the order of proceedings is included in our illustrations. The Hall was decorated not only with flowers, ferns, etc., but with the proud flags of Britain and the U.S.A., and behind the Chairman on the well-filled platform hung a gorgeous banner inscribed 'FAITH, FREEDOM, FELLOWSHIP-ESSEX HALL, 1886'. The veteran Dr. Thomas Sadler conducted a short service of Dedication, beginning with Oliver Wendell Holmes's hymn "Lord of all being", after which followed a reading from the New Testament, an address in which he recalled the heroism of Lindsey and the fortunes of the congregation down to their departure to Kensington, and he hailed with joy the present hour. A dedicatory prayer, Emerson's hymn "We love the venerable house", and the benediction, concluded the service.
Then the President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, Mr. Richard Enfield, took the Chair, and with him on the platform were nearly all the distnguished persons named in the illustration; but Dr. Oliver WendeHolmes, the distinguished American author, on a visit to England at that time, was prevented from attending, and the Members of Parliament were all detained in the House of Commons by important business. On the platform also, but strangely omitted from the printed list, were the Architect, Mr. T. Chatfeild Clarke; the Secretary of the Essex Hall Trustees, Mr. W. A. Sharpe, who had been of immense service legally in the transactions with the Charity Commission; and the vigorous Secretary of the Sunday School Association, Mr. Israel Mark Wade, who, compelled to speak later on, re marked that "he would rather work for a week than speak for five minutes". Needless to say, he was alone in that respect on this occasion!
First on the printed list is Mr. Frederick Nettlefold, whose daughter, Mrs. Sydney Martineau, seventy-one years later, laid the foundation stone of the present Essex Hall; and last but not least on the list is Mr. S. S. Tayler, Treasurer of the 1885-86 Building Fund, whose grandson, Mr. Kenneth S. Tayler, A.R.I.B.A., is an Essex Hall Trustee and the architect of our new building.
To return to the Opening Proceedings: the Chairman naturally sketched the tale of events leading to the purchase of the chapel premises, and informed the audience that by a second strange coincidence * the American Unitarian Association was now celebrating, during its Annual Meetings, the acquisition at last of handsome permanent Headquarters in Boston. He concluded with lasting praise for "those who had secured Essex Hall in perpetuity".
Mr. Sharpe enriched a short speech with a letter received from the aged and honoured leader, Dr. James Martineau, written at his distant home near Aviemore in Scotland; in the course of it he wrote, "I shall heartily share your joy in the accomplishment of a responsible and important work, wisely dedicated for the future to purposes most congenial with the traditions and associations of the spot during the last century". The speaker then reported the terms of the Essex Hall Trust, which (put very briefly) stipulates that the Trustees are to provide adequate accommodation for at least fifty years for the two societies and promote their objects, but leaves the Trustees free also to include "such other objects, religious, philanthropic or educational as they in their unfettered discretion shall deem advisable". Thus the former controversy about an 'open trust' was finally laid to rest.
Mr. Nettlefold, who was greeted, as he rose, with well - deserved and prolonged cheers for his leadership in the enterprise, moved the chief resolution:
That this Meeting regards it as a matter of sincere congratulation that a building consecrated by more than a century of noble memories is secured for the use of the two kindred Societies, the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and the Sunday School Association, and feels confident that these Societies will be enabled to meet with increased efficiency the larger responsibilities which must now devolve upon them.
He reminded the audience of Lindsey's deep concern for the objects that afterwards brought both societies into existence, and their worthiness to be fittingly housed. "These are the hopes," he said, "with which we enter our new building, believing that a grand work of usefulness can be carried on here, and that the record of the future will be in every way worthy of its past. With earnest devotion to the principles we profess, there will be no fear whatever of the future prosperity of Essex Hall." And he received a second ovation as he concluded.
Many other eloquent speeches there were from distinguished ministers and laity, some very much to the point and some not, which the curious may read, more or less verbatim, in the bulky pages of the contemporary Inquirer. We will mention only one -that of Dr. Lindsey Aspland, Q.C., grandson of the first Hon. Secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and son of the sixth. He praised the many substantial subscribers to the fund that had failed thirteen years earlier, who, although "disappointed in the former effort", had nevertheless generously come forward again and restored their donations; and he expressed his astonishment at the work of the architect-"one of the most successful transformation scenes I have ever seen, considering the difficulty of building on the old foundations".
Then the meeting ended with 700 voices, more or less, uniting in the hymn "Thou Lord of Hosts, whose guiding hand hash brought us here before thy face"; and the largest audience of Unitarians ever to be seen in Essex Hall drifted slowly (there was no hurrying down that "grand staircase") out into the street. And whether they acted upon it or not, they carried with them the recollection that the Treasurer, Mr. S. S. Tayler, in his contribution to the evening's oratory, had rubbed it in that there was a £7, 0 00 mortgage on the building, which he wanted to see cleared
offwith all speed. (Over £7,000 had been contributed towards the £25,000 Appeal.)
Within a fortnight the Whit-week Annual Meetings of both the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and the Sunday School Association were being held in the new Hall, and naturally there was an abundance of further rejoicing, although, as the Editor of the Inquirer cautiously put it, "Essex Hall was the subject of very general, if not universal, admiration". (Unitarianism and Unanimity are never to be expected in conjunction!) But for his part he expressed the opinion that the old building had been "completely transformed into a thing of light and beauty".
Mr. Frederick Nettlefold was elected President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, and of course there was renewed exultation in the achievement. But the most startling and effective thing that happened was that the saintly Dr. James Drummond, Principal of Manchester College, a most effective advocate of total abstinence and an opponent of betting and gambling, broke with dignified and customary Unitarian methods of money-raising, by coming forward with a sporting offer to subscribe £50 before the end of the year if ninety-nine others would do the same, and so take £5,000 off the mortgage. The challenge offer was taken up; a year later it was announced that the goal of £23,000 (amended from £25,000, which proved to be an over-estimate) had been almost reached, and that "to the honour of the Rev. Dr. Drummond, the stimulus of his generous offer has powerfully contributed to this happy result".