The History of Essex Hall
by Mortimer Rowe B.A., D.D.
Lindsey Press © 1959
Chapter 5 - Three Score Years and Ten
1. The Hall in Active Service
So the crowds dispersed, and the days of excitement and exultation were over, and Essex Hall stood ready for the two Associations for whom in particular it had been provided, to settle down to work in their new and spacious quarters. The records of their activities are outside the scope of this booklet: they are preserved in hundreds of pages of Annual Reports and thousands of pages of minutes; [ For the history of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, 1825-1925, see the centenary volume 'Liberty and Religion', by Dr. S. H. Mellon; for the S.S.A., 1833-1933, the centenary booklet 'The First 100 Years of the S.S.A.', by Arnold Broadbent.] and the records of the Essex Hall Trustees are so purely formal that they would not keenly interest the reader if we were to compress them into an outline. We must leave all these for the most part undisturbed in their quiet resting-places, while skipping lightly from one relevant incident to another, with gaps of years between.
The building was not, of course, provided for the exclusive use of the two Associations: the Upper and Lower Halls, and one or two smaller rooms, were available for outside meetings, for the sake of revenue to meet the overhead costs and pay the heavy rates. An attractive folder-from which the plans in the preceding chapter are taken-was widely distributed; its description of the rooms available is grandiloquent in the extreme, and must have been written for the honest Unitarian trustees by a professional advertising agent:
ESSEX HALL and its well-lighted Offices provide excellent accommodation for Public Meetings, Annual Meetings of
Religious and Philanthropic Societies, Educational Lectures, Concerts, Conferences, Conversaziones, Committees,
Consultations, Debating Societies, Art, Scientific and Musical Exhibitions, and other purposes. Legal and Professional Gentlemen will find the Rooms very convenient for consultations, arbitrations,
shareholders' meetings, and creditors' meetings. Clubs and Societies not wanting to incur the expenses of permanent offices will find their requirements
suited in these premises.
Legal and Professional Gentlemen will find the Rooms very convenient for consultations, arbitrations,
shareholders' meetings, and creditors' meetings.
Clubs and Societies not wanting to incur the expenses of permanent offices will find their requirements suited in these premises.
But perhaps the most startling statement on the folder was that while "the nearest station is the Temple", Charing Cross, Farringdon Street, Ludgate Hill and St. Paul's are "within a few minutes' walk".-Some walk!
However, Essex Hall became popular as a meeting-place, especially of progressive or left-wing movements. The Fabian Society, for example, used it for their public and other meetings for many years, and Bernard Shaw was a familiar figure on the platform. The most regrettable incident that occurred in all the period happened during the 'twenties, when American Prohibition was a matter of heated controversy, and British sympathizers organized a public meeting to be addressed by Mr. Johnson (derisively nick-named 'Pussyfoot' Johnson). Undisciplined and irresponsible opponents came in force; rowdyism broke loose and missiles were thrown, and Mr. Johnson was blinded in one eye. This was the one really bad blot upon the record of the public use of the Hall.
To go back a little and deal with denominational affairs, the first matter that properly belongs to our story is the unexpected opportunity that arose in the First World War to make excellent use of Mr. Nettlefold's gift of No. 1 Essex Street-a house with a shop-front on the street. Hitherto, as there was no immediate need for its use, it had been let to tenants. When war broke out in 1914, and by 1915 was clearly destined to be a struggle of years, a proposal gathered force, under the energetic advocacy of Mr. R. M. Montgomery, K.C., and others, to convert No. 1 into a modest hostel for soldiers and sailors, without distinction of sect or creed, passing through or making short stays in London. An appeal for funds was sponsored by Dr. J. Estlin Carpenter, President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association; British and American Unitarians generously responded, and early in 1916 'Lawrence House' was opened, the name being given because of the Lawrence family's dominant share in the fund for the adaptation, equipment and endowment of the hostel. Half a dozen bedrooms, with meal-room, rest-room, bathrooms, etc., were provided and furnished; a matron was put in charge, and from then to the end of the War the hostel was in heavy demand by our own boys in khaki and blue, and by nobody's boys as well. It is shown in the picture of Essex Hall frontage opposite this page, with its broad shop-window in use for Bookshop display purposes. After the War and the demobilization period, and until war broke out again, Lawrence House continued to serve as an inexpensive hostel for male visitors from at home or abroad, both Unitarians and others.
It is not altogether inappropriate to mention here that this post-war type of usefulness inspired the Women's League, under the active and generous leadership of their Secretary, the Rev. E. Rosalind Lee, to search for a parallel opportunity; they found it by securing the lease of a similar house 'just round the comer' (literally two or three comers) in Devereux Court, and opened it in 1931 as 'League House'. Later it was enlarged by the addition of a house next door. Until the bombing of London began it enjoyed continuous success. Neither Lawrence House nor League House was of the slightest use to visitors after that, so utterly different were the conditions in London during the Second World War. Both had to close down. But this is to anticipate.
Two changes in the interior of Essex Hall, one minor and one major, belong to the end of the First World War and the succeeding years. The minor change was due to our American Unitarian friends, who, in recognition of the welcome given to many of their troops at Lawrence House, conceived the happy notion of spending a little money upon Essex Hall in some acceptable way. The result was the clearing of the room marked Reading Room and its complete and handsome refurnishing at their expense as a comfortable lounge, thenceforth to be known as the 'American Room'.
Considerably greater internal alterations were involved in consequence of the unification in 1925 of the independent publishing activities and book departments of the two Associations, followed by the appointment of a full-time Manager of The Lindsey Press, the title adopted already for our denominational publishing house. This called for structural improvements without and within. The bookshop entrance was set back to afford a considerably larger and more attractive display of publications; the bookshop, itself was remodelled, and at the same time a tiny office was constructed for the Secretary of the Sunday School Association, now a full-time official. These changes, however, involved for the most part mere alterations in the non-permanent partitions on this floor. Both here and in the basement below there had been many such changes, even more substantial ones, since 1886, which it would be tedious to recount, but which rendered the plans reproduced in the preceding chapter obsolete in the region of the right-hand top corner.
A few years later-in 1928-followed an outstanding event which has nothing to do with the history of the Hall, except that Hall during two critical days the Upper was the scene of crucial meetings that marked the most vital turning-point in a century of denominational history; brief notice must therefore be taken of them. By way of explanation we must note that the British and Foreign Unitarian Association had always been essentially a society of individual subscribers only; but in 1881, yielding to the pressure for a separate organization on a more representative basis, the Association initiated and encouraged the establishment of a 'National Conference', with powers not only to consult, but to raise funds and take action, on matters affecting the well being of the churches. The prime movers were unhappy in their choice of a title-'The National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-subscribing and Kindred Congregations'; they hoped that liberal congregations beyond our Unitarian borders would be attracted, but in that hope they were utterly disappointed. All the more easy was it for the Conference to perform invaluable concrete tasks -e.g., the establishment of a Sustentation Fund for ministerial stipends and, later, the admirable Ministers' Pension and Insurance Fund, which offered better provision for old age than that of any other uncentrahzed denomination at the beginning of this century. The Conference had no headquarters, and only Honorary Secretaries, but its triennial gatherings were noteworthy; its Council held meetings during the intervals, and its standing committees met regularly.
After the First World War, however, it was inevitably felt that the time had come to unite the forces and conserve the resources of our denomination. Negotiations during 1926-28 resulted in the summoning of Special General Meetings of both bodies at Hall Essex on May 29 and 3 0 , 1928, when, amid considerable uncertainty and excitement, by overwhelming majorities but not without vociferous discussion and minority opposition, Conference and Association each surrendered their independent existence and became THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF UNITARIAN AND FREE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES. it would need many pages to record this more fully. Henceforth Essex Hall became the Headquarters of this single representative denominational organization, [ The British and Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated, registered in 1915, was unaffected by this step, and still exists for all appropriate legal, trustee and financial matters. ] with the Sunday School Association in close relationship as before.
During the 'thirties the Trustees gave serious consideration to the possibility of partially or completely demolishing the aged Essex Hall and rebuilding it on modern lines. Mr. Denis Martineau, A.R.I.B.A., was consulted, and he drafted provisional plans for such an enterprise. They were carefully studied, but the Trustees were driven to the conclusion that nothing short of complete demolition was feasible, and that even so, the then existing site would present insuperable obstacles in the way of planning a satisfactory modern building. However, these discussions led to a valuable extension of the property owned by the Trustees. Just as No. I Essex Street had been added as a gift by Mr. Nettlefold in 1885, so now the Trustees themselves in 1938 purchased No. 6 - the Chelsea Restaurant. This gave them the ownership of the whole of I to 6, considerably improving the shape of the available site, and was a very wise step on their part, although they lacked the money to do it and were consequently involved in an overdraft of about £8,000.
Earlier in the 'thirties they were drawn into negotiations with a firm that had visions of developing our site and adjacent ones, if these could be acquired. This would have led to the necessity of our finding or building headquarters elsewhere in London, or becoming mere tenants in their new building. Fortunately the firm procrastinated, their time-limit expired, and the deal was off. Moreover, the war cloud was now gathering, and before it broke in 1939 all such schemes were perforce abandoned.
War came, and with it the extremest of black-out restrictions, reducing the use of Essex Hall to daylight hours only, for it was impracticable to consider the provision of movable fitments to all our great and small windows. The authorities furthermore appealed to all organizations that could possibly move out of London to do so. The General Assembly naturally looked to the working staff for their opinion about evacuating to some Unitarian or other premises miles away; and the working staff let it be known that they preferred to 'stay put'. And then, in the summer of 1940, the storm suddenly burst upon us.
The old building stood up to it manfully. The blast from nearby explosions deprived it progressively of its windows, and then blew in the weather-boarding that replaced the glass. Internal partitions between rooms shuddered and fell out of their places and were propped up again. So it went on. League House in Devereux Court (empty) and its companion back-to-back premises in Essex Street, right opposite Essex Hall, received a direct hit in January 1941 and were wrecked, and the blast expended itself upon the Hall the usual effects. There was something sympathetically apt about our sharing in the blow!
Then came the long interval between this type of air raid and the advent, in the early summer of 1944, of the horrible V1 flying bombs, cheerfully nicknamed 'doodle-bugs'. Still escaped the worst, although dreadful destruction was done within a circle of a few hundred yards in every direction. Finally, our own turn came, and that was the end of the "spacious and elegant Hall" of 1886.
In writing the biography of an individual it would be indelicate to go into the details of his last hours, but the same rule of good taste does not cramp one's style in writing of a building, and we cannot do better than quote the report which we ourselves gave to the General Assembly while the disaster was still fresh in our mind:
"Late at night on Friday, July 28th, 1944, Essex Hall was hit by a flying-bomb on the north-west area of the roofs. For the most part the building collapsed at a blow, along with adjoining premises in Milford Lane and the Strand. Fortunately there was no one in the Hall at the time. From the Strand and Essex Street next morning it could be seen that the Upper Hall was a gaping ruin, that the rooms more directly beneath the explosion had entirely disappeared, that the Bookshop, American Room and main Office were wrecked, the first and third of these containing quantities of debris from the Upper Hall; the strong-room had apparently stood fast. The basement was choked with a chaos of shattered masonry. Thus 166 years after its erection as Essex Street Chapel and 58 years after its transformation into denominational Headquarters, the historic building fell.
"A few days later, when the ruins could be penetrated to some extent, it was possible to arrive at an estimate of salvage prospects. The Stock-room, basement Committee-room and Lower Hall proved to have suffered only from the violent effects of blast; the Lindsey Room was buried in wreckage from above. It was clear that much could be rescued when demolition proceeded far enough to render the basement premises accessible. A long spell of dry weather saved a great deal of perishable stock and other possessions from irretrievable damage.
"Immediately after the disaster the Dr. Williams Trustees were approached concerning certain vacant rooms at University Hall, Gordon Square, and their permission to occupy these rooms was readily given. Hence without a break the members of the Staff were able to carry on the work of the General Assembly and take the necessary steps for its re-establishment. The Council's cordial thanks to the Trustees were subsequently expressed and put on record.
"It was not until August 14th that the first loads of salvage - chiefly stock-room books-could be got away, and from that date onwards at intervals the Staff, willingly assisted at times by London ministers and laymen, laboured to transfer the main contents of the stock-room, along with such furniture as could be rescued undamaged or repairable, to the rooms in Gordon Square, freeing every item from the explosion-dust and debris that thickly covered it. Much of the stock was badly damaged and was accordingly discarded; far more-including in the end a considerable number of books from the Bookshop also-was recovered. As regards the remainder of our possessions at Essex Hall, the loss in office furniture, equipment, correspondence, a complete set of The Inquirer and other journals and books, was very heavy; but all essential records, minutes, etc., were safe in the strong-room. The last load left Essex Street on November 4th, after which demolition proceeded to its end, and the site was cleared. The Council in October expressed cordial thanks to the Secretary and members of the Staff for their unremitting labours.
"Lawrence House and the Chelsea Restaurant, right and left of the Essex Street entrance, both of which were the property of the Trustees, were so badly damaged that they also were condemned and demolished."
After that sombre record, a little light relief-When war was declared, 'outside' lettings of the Hashrank down to a few moderately attended daylight meetings, and to none at all when the bombing began. But sometime during the long 1941-44 lull, when London had respite, though not from stringent blackout rules and penalties, there was one delightful episode. The Christadelphians, who had sometimes held a large annual gathering in bygone years on a Saturday afternoon and evening in the Upper Hall, came and applied for it again. This is how the conversation proceeded:
"But you can't possibly; the four great windows are not blacked out, and nightfall comes before eight o'clock."
"We come and black them out on Friday afternoon. "How can you?"
"We will fix great sheets of thick brown paper over them."
"That would not be sufficient to allow the electric lights to be switched on, nor can you black out the tinted glass high up in the dome; besides, you know that the authorities deprecate large gatherings."
"We shall not be as large as usual, and we will be content with one heavily shaded light on the platform table."
"Yes, but what is to happen if the sirens sound and the bombs begin to fall?"
"There will be no bombs while we are holding our meeting."
Confronted with such confident child-like religious faith we surrendered, agreed to let them get to work, arranged to inspect the result on Friday evening from high up in neighbouring premises after dark, with the threat of cancellation without further notice if there was any trace of light visible. There was no trace, except the faintest hint of a sort of a something up in the dome, invisible from any street. So we risked it, and the meeting was held - and no bombs fell!
2. Two Ambitious Appeals
Several months before Essex Hall was destroyed, the Council of the General Assembly decided to launch an Appeal for no less than £100,000. This was announced at the Annual Meetings in June 1944, just before the flying-bombs began to arrive. Many of our churches in London and elsewhere had already been damaged or destroyed, and War Damage compensation would need to be supplemented. Money was needed for ministers' stipends and children's allowances, for post-war extension work, for publications, for the Sunday School and Youth Department, and much else; and the promise was that the £100,000 was to be expended over a period of ten years.
The moving spirit and keenest advocate of this Appeal was the Rev. John Kielty of Stockport, already a very active member of the General Assembly Council. All the necessary machinery was successfully set up-Appeal Committee, Chairman (Mr. R. Bartram), Hon. Secretary (Mr. Kielty), Hon. Treasurer (Mr. Harold Moore), district organizers and committees, and so forth, with surprising goodwill throughout the denomination. Probably no one but Mr. Kielty believed that the startling goal would be reached; the rest fell into line, thinking that if we didn't hit the moon we might well soar over the tree-tops.
Just when the terms of this cogent appeal were formulated and ready for the printing of thousands of attractive leaflets for distribution, Essex Hall. Government regulations forbade the publication of the news of any such disaster within one month, but a hasty note was immediately posted to the Secretary of the Appeal Fund, which read: "You may now include Essex Hall among the objects of the Appeal.- Matthew XIII. 28." [ "An enemy hash done this." ] A few days later The Inquirer appeared with a very bold but unexplained advertisement announcing that correspondence for all departments at Essex Hall must in future be addressed to Gordon Square. Needless to say, the printing of the Appeal leaflet was postponed, the formulation promptly revised and Essex Hall placed in the forefront of the objects for which the money was required. Still, Essex Hall but one of the many objects, and only a modest proportion of the new fund could rightly be earmarked for the purpose of rebuilding Essex Hall.
With the progress of that appeal we are not here concerned; it is sufficient to say that by means of subscriptions, donations and seven-year covenants it had almost reached its goal, to the joy of the believers and the confounding of the sceptics, when it was closed in April 1948, having then realized £94,905. Interest on what had been received soon lifted it up to the ,£100,000.
Meanwhile the war ended in 1945,and the Government made it clear that housing and industrial reconstruction must have priority for many years to come, and that permission for such luxuries as the rebuilding of denominational headquarters must wait indefinitely. So while the General Assembly pursued its work in Gordon Square, the Essex Hall Trustees met at intervals and brooded upon their situation. In the absence of any pressing need for an early decision about whether to rebuild on the old site, vague schemes for other alternatives found opportunity for free expression, both within and beyond the circle of trustees. Nor was it certain that we should be allowed to return unhindered by the requisition of our site or by town-planning encroachments upon its area. Cleared completely, the hallowed ground was indeed requisitioned for years and degraded to secular uses as a public car park, although we were allowed to put up a large board which throughout this period announced to hundreds of thousands of passers-by in the busy Strand:
DESTROYED BY ENEMY ACTION 1944
FIRST ENGLISH UNITARIAN CHURCH FOUNDED
HERE IN 1774, AFTERWARDS HEADQUARTERS OF
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF UNITARIAN AND FREE
CHRISTIAN CHURCHES NOW AT 14 GORDON SQUARE, W.C.I.
"IN THE SPIRIT OF JESUS WE UNITE FOR THE
WORSHIP OF GOD AND THE SERVICE OF MAN"
A FREE RELIGIOUS FAITH WITHOUT CREED OR DOGMA
Then in due course the uncertainties about our future use of the site vanished, and we knew that, subject to official approval of plans, we should eventually be allowed to build; and likewise the Council of the General Assembly and the denomination at large made it clear that the overwhelming preference was for headquarters where they were before; nor were the Trustees divided upon that issue. So an architect was appointed-Mr. Kenneth S. Tayler, A.R.I.B.A., a grandson of the Hon. Treasurer of the 1885 Essex Hall Appeal Fund, and the son of a Unitarian minister, and the chairman of our Roslyn Hill congregation: and he was requested to get busy and see what he thought he could do with the available site. He will tell the fascinating story himself in the next chapter of this booklet.
But the money-? The Trustees had practically nothing but a poor £11,600 'value payment' awarded by the War Damage Commission, plus the- Westminster City Council's payments for the year-by-year requisitioning of the car park, and so forth-a total of about £22,000. £15,000 had been allotted from the £100,000 Fund, but this was largely absorbed in wiping out the overdraft due to the purchase of the Chelsea Restaurant and the heavy loss of revenue from lettings of Essex Hall during six years of war. Obviously there must be another big Appeal. This time the Trustees would launch it, with the full co-operation of the General Assembly and the setting-up again of the machinery of the £100,000 Fund. The churches having had a respite of seven years since the former appeal was closed, this second one was launched in March 1955. Its President was Mrs. Sydney Martineau, who for more years than anyone else, long before the War, had dreamed of, and hoped some day to see, a dignified and worthy denominational Headquarters; her son Mr. F. Alan Martineau, the Hon. Secretary of the Trustees, was Chairman of the Appeal Committee; Mr. Leslie Procter of Rossendale undertook the Hon. Treasurership, with the Revs. H. Stewart Carter and John Kielty (Secretary of the General Assembly since 1949) as Hon. Secretaries. In effect, it was an appeal for £53,000 of fresh money, the denominated Target being £75,000. The first list of subscribers accounted for a good start of over £12,000, and subscriptions and promises increased this to approximately, £26,000 by the end of the year. Then, early in 1956, the Appeal was given a tremendous lift towards achievement, by a gift of no less than £20,000 from Mrs. N. Bishop Harman: a most happy incident with which to bring to a close this chapter, covering the three score years and ten from 1886 to 1956.