The Story of Essex Hall
by Mortimer Rowe B.A., D.D.
Lindsey Press © 1959
Contributed to the special Essex Hall number of The Inquirer
"The Glory Hole"
"HA! ha! So you're coming to London to work in the Glory Hole!" said a good-hearted but bluntly outspoken Unitarian lady to me in 1928 when I was introduced to her as the future Secretary of the new General Assembly. Full of trepidation about my forthcoming responsibilities, I was frankly shocked to hear her speak like that of Essex Hall. I had thought that all London Unitarians worshipped the old building. As a mere provincial I had always cherished a proper respect for our London Headquarters with its romantic history and sacred traditions. And so long as it stood, during fifteen years of my daily work there, and even after it was gone for ever, I retained that proper feeling about it, and my gentle resentment towards the lady who had surprised and shaken me by her casual and irreverent remark.
But during the past month, since we packed up at Gordon Square and removed, lock, stock and barrel, into Kenneth Tayler's wonderful new Essex Hall, and got rid by degrees of the workmen and the dust and the dirt, I have completely forgiven her. My loyal affection for the long-lost building has swiftly declined towards complete extinction. After all, it was an old "glory hole": antediluvian, haphazard without and within, the ugliest building in Essex Street; the victim of repeated economical adaptations and alterations from 1778 to 1886, and even during the inter-war years. How can one step to-day into the handsome and spacious bookshop, now provided on street level, and not recall the former cramped and crowded shop hidden away from the street; how can one remember the miserable basement kitchen and high-up living quarters provided for the caretaker and his wife, compared with the charming cosy flat in the top story of of the new building, without frankly confessing that the unflattering epithet was deserved? We who worked in Essex Hall until the day of its doom might well have been excused for quoting Omar Khayyam:
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits, and then
Remould it nearer to the heart's desire?
But we never did. Indeed, when the bombing of London began, and our first task in the morning from time to time was to sweep out heaps of shattered glass as window after window went west and had to be boarded up, we began to hug the old place to our breasts, as it were, and congratulate it upon each escape from a worse fate. But at last (10.45 pm. July 28, 1944) a V1 came hurtling down in the darkness and crashed into the caretaker's empty quarters and blew half the building into smithereens and the other half into a chaos of wreckage. There was something sardonically appropriate, as well as fortunate in ultimate results, about its point of entry. But, alas for the ancient Glory Hole! Within ten minutes the news came to me over the telephone in an agitated voice. After half an hour of frantic speculation , I regret to confess that I slept the sleep of the just.
Imagine, then, "the morning after the night before", when a little group of staff, arriving one by one in ignorance, stood aghast in Essex Street at the spectacle of our business home in ruins. Wandering disconsolately into the Strand, where the shops that hid Essex Hall from view were now a heap of rubble, we saw the Upper Hall torn open wide and caught a distant view of the great plaster cast of James Martineau's statue leaning forlornly out of the empty window frame against which it had been rudely shattered, amid a chaos of platform table, piano and chairs. So, it being Saturday, we adjourned to the nearest cafe and had morning coffee together before dispersing. And when on the morrow I was conducting services, it was with hardly suppressed emotion that I announced the destruction of our beloved headquarters. I was still genuinely staggered by the blow.
But as the famous Bairnsfather cartoon depicted Old Bill saying to his grumbling companion crouching in the muddy shell-hole, "If year knows of a better 'ole, go to it!" And what a mercy it was, in that sorrowful hour, that we knew of a few empty rooms in Dr. Williams's Library premises in Gordon Square that could be ours in the event of such an emergency. Hence on Monday morning it was "business as usual" there, with the aid of a borrowed typewriter, a table and a few chairs. Dr. Williams's Trustees expected us to be there for a few years, perhaps; it stretched out to fourteen in the end, and although during the last four we had to yield to necessity and move down (most of us) into something of a half-lit glory hole on the ground floor, our gratitude for a refuge in time of need must never be forgotten. Without that avenue of escape, our plight would have been desperate.
And now, after the years of exile, here we are in the building that was opened with joy and pride on
October 25; back on the old site in the familiar street, but housed in an Essex Hall whose exterior dignity and
interior beauty makes me glad that I have lived to see this day.
And among our possessions is a contorted fragment of the case of the flying-bomb that destroyed the Glory Hole.
I forgive the lady who coined the phrase, and the enemy who struck the blow!
Essex Hall, October 1958 - M.R.