The History of Essex Hall
by Mortimer Rowe B.A., D.D.
Lindsey Press © 1959
Chapter 7 - The End of the Exile
The half-year from January to June 1957 was an exciting period. The builders whose tender had been accepted were Messrs. Foster and Dicksee, Ltd. By a happy choice the Trustees appointed Mr. W. G. Blyth, the chairman of our Kilburn congregation, as Clerk of Works. The site having been cleared and the foundations firmly established, there arose thereon a gaunt, towering, cubical skeleton of steel girders, beneath which a little platform of boards was constructed at the beginning of June, in readiness for the laying of the foundation stone, appropriately inscribed, to the right of the future Bookshop entrance.
On Saturday, June 8, this ceremonial stone-laying was performed by the one person whom all wished to see enjoying the honour of doing so - Mrs. Sydney Martineau. By good fortune for such an outdoor function it was, as The Inquirer reported, "a tranquil summer afternoon, with the sun shining, and silence in one of the busiest parts of London, when a splendid gathering of Unitarians, young and old, assembled in Essex Street". On the platform, to preside over the ceremony, was the President of the General Assembly (the Rev. Percival Chalk), with the Rt. Hon. J. Chuter Ede, who was to speak, and as many other representative people as could be seated on the few square yards of boarding. In the crowd were District Association and other representatives who had travelled from afar in response to the official invitation. Present also were all members of the Headquarters staff, including Miss M. Boxall and Mr. S. Hellen, who thirteen years earlier had shared with the author (then Secretary of the General Assembly) and a few volunteers the dusty, dirty and sometimes risky task of rescuing, stage by stage, everything that could be salvaged from the ruins.
The President spoke of the significance of the occasion, calling upon any who might think-or even wish-that our religious movement was doomed, to mark this day: a prelude to the days when very soon would rise upon this spot enduring evidence of the strength, tenacity and conviction that characterize our Unitarian Christian faith and its unfettered religious witness.
Before responding to the President's invitation to lay the stone, Mrs. Martineau, as full of exultant faith as ever in spite of her eighty-eight years, recalled the heroic past of this site of ours, and proclaimed our faith in the future. But ideals, she affirmed, are not enough to live on, and there was still £13,000 to be raised to meet the cost of our new building. Then, while all eyes watched her handling the trowel and spreading the mortar, the stone was lowered into position, gently tapped with the mallet and declared to be "well and truly laid". A short dedicatory prayer was offered by the author, and Mr. Ede then gave his address. Emphasizing the contrast between "a faith once for all delivered and a faith progressive and widening as the thoughts of men widen", he spoke of our site having been dedicated to the latter faith since Lindsey first proclaimed it there. Recalling personal experiences, he told of the joy and satisfaction which came to him as a working lad when, seeing R. A. Armstrong's God and the Soul in our Bookshop window for sixpence, he bought it and devoured its contents. With words about the great public and civic service rendered by Unitarians in the past, he uttered in conclusion a call to us to see that we likewise made it our aim to serve the needs of our day and generation.
Before the benediction was pronounced, the President rounded the ceremony by linking the day with the morrow-Whit Sunday, the festival of the Holy Spirit. As the disheartened disciples had rallied and reconsecrated themselves to the Master's work, so must we, our disaster now far behind us, derive from this day new hope and faith and courage.
We returned to our work in Gordon Square for another long year, towards the end of which, when the scaffolding was removed and the windows glazed and the building roughly completed, one could walk up stairs and along corridors and in and out of rooms and really begin to envisage what a splendid Headquarters the denomination was shortly to possess. At the end of September 1958 the great removal (and equally great upheaval) took place, with an affectionate farewell to Dr. Williams's Library and profound gratitude to its Trustees, who had afforded us a home for no less than fourteen years. A month later, on Saturday, October 25, all was ready for the Opening Ceremony. Owing to the limited accommodation in the Martineau Hall, invitations in the first instance had to be confined to the Trustees, the members of the General Assembly Council, the Presidents of District Associations and similarly representative persons; but a much larger total audience assembled, for the vacant rooms on the second floor were filled with chairs, and under the supervisions of the Rev. T. Dalton and Mr. P. Long, an ingenious relay installation was fitted up which worked to perfection, so much so that the invisible audience spontaneously shared in the devotional service Hall as though they were in the Haitself, and cheered the speeches as though they could see those who uttered them. Mr. R. E. Brett, of the Kilburn church, officiated at the piano, and young people of both sexes from London churches acted as stewards.
By common consent Mr. Ronald P. Jones, a trustee of Essex Hall since 1909, Hon. Treasurer of the General Assembly since 1939 and a former President of the Assembly, had months before been appointed to open the Hall; but early in August he had the misfortune, while in Cambridge, to be knocked down by a motor car and most seriously injured. He was now making a marvellous recovery, but because of a fractured thigh he was still bedfast in hospital there. Nevertheless, by heroic effort he composed his opening address and had it typed for him in time for the meeting, to be read on his behalf by Professor F. J. M. Stratton of Cambridge.
The President of the General Assembly, the Rt. Hon J. Chuter Ede, was in the Chair, supported by a distinguished company on the platform, to whom reference will presently be made. The proceedings began with a brief devotional service conducted by the author, and here recorded by request. The hymn "City of God, how broad and far outspread thy walls sublime!" was followed by a Scripture Reading from Psalms T26 and 122, beginning "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like unto them that dream"; after which, prayer was offered.
The Prayer of Dedication
0 Lord our God: we lift up thankful hearts to thee that thou hast brought us to this day of gladness and rejoicing. Trusting in thee we have hoped and planned and prepared as the years of our waiting went by; now, gathered in thy presence, we come to dedicate to thee and to the furtherance of thy purposes on earth this building, the work of our hands, and especially this Hall of Assembly in the heart of it, which from this time forth we set aside for the worship of thee and for counsel together in devout endeavour to be of service, under thee, to the world in which we live.
Consecrate now, 0 God, we beseech thee, this home and centre of our faith, and let thy blessing rest upon it and abide, so long as this house shall stand. Built in strength and adorned with quiet beauty, to thy honour and glory we humbly dedicate it. Here may thy whole truth be reverently sought, thy redeeming love be proclaimed, thy holy will be done. From this place, through thy divine guidance, may all the churches committed to our care derive fresh impulses to labour for the coming of thy Kingdom, fresh visions of a world set free from fear and wrong, fresh joy and inspiration in the practice of brotherhood and love.
Thanks be to thee 0 God, this day, for all who down the bygone generations on this hallowed site have striven to lead and direct our churches in the way of Christ. And in our hearts we name one, their first forerunner, who long ago, for conscience' sake, renouncing all that made life easy and secure, came hither a stranger to this great city, confident only that thou hadst appointed a work for him to do, and that thy guidance and protection were sure. And we to-day, across the gulfofyears, are linked with those forerunners of ours who gathered round him here to worship thee, the Father of mankind, in spirit and in truth and freedom. May his courage now be ours, his gentle piety be our heritage, and his mission be carried forward in the days that now begin.
0 God our Father, though we pray for thy blessing upon this house that we have budded and the churches of our fellowship, we would look far beyond them and pray for closer unity and deeper harmony between all differing forms of faith. 0 Spirit of the living God, break down the barriers that divide from one another good men and women who alike profess and call themselves Christians; break down the barriers that divide races and nations of thy children who worship thee in diverse ways or know thee not; speed thou the day when the Prince of Peace shall be revered throughout the world, and when the knowledge of thee shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. In his name and in his spirit we offer these our prayers, and join with one voice in the words that he has taught us:
The Lord's Prayer followed, in which all throughout the building reverently joined: the last hymn "Father, let thy kingdom come" was sung, and the benediction pronounced. The President then took charge of the meeting, and in his opening remarks referred feelingly to the enforced absence of the Opener of the Hall, and to the good news of hips progress towards recovery, in successful defiance of his handicap of eighty-two years. Professor Stratton then delivered the speech which Mr. Jones had prepared.
The Opening Address
My first unwelcome task to-day is to offer you apologies for my absence. I consider that the invitation to be the Opener of Essex Hall is the greatest compliment that a layman cane be paid by his colleagues, and equally great is my disappointment at not being able to carry it out in full. You know what happened. In this case I was the pedestrian and not the motorist. I, like Strephon in Iolanthe, am a fairy down to the waist, but my right leg is mortal, and my surgeon thinks it undesirable to bring me up to London on a stretcher, so to speak, and risk the chances of complete recovery. We are today celebrating the second opening of Essex Hall as a centre of religious liberty. But it is a fact, I think, that this is the third opening which has taken place here, and it is fitting that we should give a thought to the Pioneer on the site, who is responsible for our presence here.
The Rev. Theophilus Lindsey, writer and preacher, Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, held the living of Catterick, near Ripon, in Yorkshire, where he had many friends of advanced views. He had become a Unitarian in theology, and on the failure of a petition to Parliament for some easing of the regulations, he felt obliged by his conscience to resign the living and come to London in order to found a definitely Unitarian congregation. In this action he was much helped by Dr. Priestley and Dr. Price and a group of supporters in the City and Parliament, through whose help the Auction Room in Essex Street was obtained and, after some alteration, opened in 1 774 as Essex Street Chapel.
A few years later the premises were purchased and largely rebuilt, to providea normal Meeting House of the period, with galleries on three sides and a high pulpit against the fourth wall. Lighting was through a dome in the flat ceiling. Living-rooms were provided to serve as a parsonage, and in the basement a series of wine vaults which were prudently retained as part of the endowment. Later on, thirteen of Lindsey's supporters were appointed Trustees of the property, who let it to him as tenant for life, with the duty of paying rates and taxes and all the costs of maintaining the building and the services. For this task he received the pew rents and other contributions from the congregation and the rents from the wine vaults, which no doubt formed a considerable part of his stipend, and gave rise to the well known epigram by a wit of the period:
Are the Spirits of Love.
But the spirits below
Are the spirits of woe.
If the National Unitarian Temperance Association had then existed, which I doubt, its members must have been perturbed at this item in the Essex Street Chapel finances.
In order to secure more leisure for writing, Lindsey took as co-pastor Dr. Disney, who had in the same way resigned from his living in the Anglican Church. Lindsey retired in 1793 and the Chapel was carried on under the ministries of Disney, Belsham and Thomas Madge, and finally, from 1859 to 1883, by J. Panton Ham; but by this time the attendance and support had declined seriously owing to the growing custom of living away from the city in the suburbs, so that Essex Street Chapel became more difficult to reach on Sunday except by what were called "carriage folk".
It became necessary to consider transferring the Chapel to one of the suburbs, and eventually Kensington was chosen, where services were being held in a temporary building in the Mall.
A large sum was raised in order to buy the property as a Headquarters for the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and the Sunday School Association, societies which had no premises of their owns, and the proceeds were used in the building of Essex Church and manse. It is perhaps appropriate that Mrs. Martineau, who laid the foundation stone here, and I who am to open the building, are both senior members of Essex Church, which I joined in 1904.
The chapel was altered to serve as the Hall which we knew, the side galleries were removed and windows provided, with staircase and doorways at the side. The wine vaults were abolished to form committee rooms and a book store, while the space between the Hall and Essex Street was used fora bookshop, with a separate entrance. The building was opened just before Whit Week in 1886 by Mr. Enfield, President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and a member of a well-known northern family, at a meeting in the Hall, which, The Inquirer reports, was attended by 700 people, of which a large number must have been standing. A year later this might have been impossible, for stringent rules against overcrowding came in with the creation of the London County Council in 1887. I was not present at this meeting, but I might have been, as I was ten years old at the time, and if my father had been living in London, instead of Liverpool, he might well have taken me to it, since the reports make clear that it was not an invitation meeting-in fact could not have been-since the two Associations concerned were not representative but consisted of voluntary subscribers who did not represent their congregations in any way.
My first regular contact with the Hall begins in 1908, when I was invited to join the Executive Committee of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association which was appointed at the Whit Week meetings and, through its sub-committees, carried out the work of the Association. This is therefore my jubilee year and makes me "the oldest inhabitant" by seven years, since it was not until 1915 that Mrs. Martineau joined the Committee, having been up to that time engaged in bringing up a large family.
The British and Foreign Unitarian Association was already dominated by the powerful personality of the Secretary, the Rev. W. Copeland Bowie, who had been well known in public life as a fighting member of the old School Board, which managed London education until it was taken over by the London County Council. He had all the arts of the wise Secretary - which problems should be brought to a sub-committee and which had better be dealt with in the office; but to the churches in general he is perhaps best known as combining the functions of the present Ministry Committee and its earlier local Advisory Boards in relation to pulpit vacancies. He was widely consulted in such matters and his criticisms of congregations and ministers were very shrewd and candid, perhaps reminiscent of his earlier training as a schoolmaster in Aberdeen.
It is interesting to recall that on three occasions Essex Hall was nearly lost to us. First about 1906, when the Piccadilly and Northern Railway was to be completed by the branch line from Holborn to the Strand, and our premises were regarded as a suitable site for a 'Law Courts' station; but in the end it seemed easier to develop the resultant Aldwych station along the Strand.
Again, in 1925, when the controversy about Waterloo Bridge was at its height, one of the preservation schemes was to restore the Bridge as a historic monument and build a new one a little further down the river, each bridge to have one-way traffic and the new Temple Bridge to serve the eastern arm of the Kingsway-Aldwych scheme, to be approached down the widened Essex Street. This scheme was dropped when the Labour Party in 1934 decided on a new Waterloo Bridge.
The third occasion was an offer to the Trustees to buy the freehold and Hall for private commercial development; but after exploring every avenue, particularly in the Bloomsbury district, it did not seem that the amount offered would be enough to provide for a good site and a suitable building.
We now arrive at recent history which most people here can remember-the flying bomb of the 28th July, 1944, which wrecked the building. I may have heard this explosion, as I was regularly serving with St. Paul's Watch, and may well have been patrolling the roof of the cathedral when it occurred. The Dean certainly may have heard it, as he was on duty practically every night. There were some very fortunate circumstances connected with this event. First, that it took place during the night, because, as some of us who lived through the period will remember, the bombs might fall at any period, day or night. Secondly, a flying bomb produced one violent explosion and was not designed to deliver incendiaries, so that the contents of the rooms and bookstore were saved from destruction by fire and water, and those in the book store were, like Ezekiel's bones, "very dry". Thirdly, it happened that Dr. Williams's Trustees had, before the war, taken over two more floors of the Library at Gordon Square to enlarge the accommodation. They had cleared the space before the war began, and then it was left empty. In 1934 the General Assembly found the rooms a most welcome refuge for the next fourteen years.
The more recent history you all know, the discussions and final decision to rebuild on the old site and the raising of almost the whole of the very large sum required, since the War Damage Commission would award only a 'value payment'.
But you must allow me as a fellow architect to pay my tribute to what Mr. Kenneth Tayler has done for us, in transforming a badly planned and in many ways dangerous building into the present fine and well arranged premises, architecturally modern in the best sense, for which he has spent much of his time wrestling with the demands of local authorities with their endless protestations and requirements for alternative exits and other means of safety, now the real background to architecture in any large city.
It now only remains for me to open this building officially, which I am well able to do at a distance because the Trustees had already decided to dispense with the formal and conventional unlocking of the front door with a particular key, when the building had already been in use for a month, and all we need is a symbolical opening like that of a flower show or a sale of work.
I now have great pleasure in declaring Essex Hall officially open for the second time. May there never be the reason fora third, and may it prosper and happily fulfil all its functions as the headquarters of our denominational activities.
Supporting the President upon the crowded platform were representatives from other churches and denominations, duly appointed in response to the official invitation, to which there had not been a single refusal; in addition, the Very Rev. Dr. Matthews, Dean of St. Paul's, our Essex Hall Lecturer in i1950, came both as a personal friend of the Opener, who had been one of his fire - watchers at the Cathedral throughout the War, and also in good will towards us.
The President, who gave, as one reporter said, "a brief affec tionate introduction of each guest, who thus came to life as a personality before he even uttered his first word", called first upon the Dean, who delighted the audience with a speculation about what some of the early Christian Fathers would have thought of his presence in "a regular nest of heretics" assembled in their new building not very far from the Cathedral; and he referred to the absent Opener as having been one of the most faithful and efficient members of St. Paul's Watch.
Next came the Rev. F. P. Copland Simmons, Moderator-elect of the Presbyterian Church of England, charged to express the greetings and good wishes of all the churches included in the Free Church Federal Council. This he did with grace and humour, after first recalling that our Headquarters and those of the Presbyterian Church had alone suffered destruction, in the latter case by day, with a tragic death-roll. He paid a tribute to our movement for its earnest quest for truth, and ended with a heartfelt "May God richly bless you in all your work".
Commissioner Ebbs of the Salvation Army claimed that without any surrender of personal conviction and loyalty, every religious communion belonged to "the armies of God", even though his own might regard themselves as "the storm troops of Christendom"; and the audience, judging by the applause, was quite ready to concede his claim.
Mr. Harold Reed of Birmingham, Clerk to the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends-the only layman among denominational speakers-rejoiced that mutual relationships between his Society and our churches were altogether friendly; and while he regretted that we were not all pacifists, he commented with satisfaction on one important bond between us-our refusal of creeds as a basis of membership.
Finally, came our own kindred. The Moderator of the Non - subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Rt. Rev. J. W. Dyer, brought the greetings, congratulations and good wishes of his Church, the General Assembly on the other side of the Irish Sea. Then two of the party of four American friends, who had flown the Atlantic to be with us, uttered their appropriate messages: first, the Rev. Dr. E. W. Kuchler, President of the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom, charged to convey also the greetings of the Universalist Churches of America. He very happily combined the international with the domestic in a speech full of good hope and encouragement. Second, the recently elected President of the American Unitarian Association, the Rev. Dr. Dana M. Greeley, who not only spoke with fine eloquence and fervour, but produced and read aloud the words of an official greeting from his Association, beautifully inscribed in colour on a scroll which will be found framed and hung in the new building.
So, with a vote of thanks from Mr. R. Bartram, Chairman of the Essex Hall Trustees, and a salutary reminder from the President that £7,000 was still required to pay for the building, the memorable meeting ended, two hours after it began; enough, but not too much, for the complete enjoyment of all three audiences. Silent but proud and happy on the limited space of the platform, or seated near by, were others who had been closely concerned in all that had reached its culmination on this day: Mr. Kenneth Tayler, the architect; the Rev. H. Stewart Carter, the Chairman of the Building Committee; Mr. Alan Martineau and Mr. L. Procter, Chairman and Hon. Treasurer respectively of the Appeal Fund; Mr. H. J. Bush, Hon. Treasurer of the Essex Hall Trustees, and the Rev. John Kielty, Secretary of the General Assembly. A witty reporter in The Inquirer singled out Mr. Kielty as "pregnant with unaccustomed silence ... bursting no doubt with ideas for new ways along those old paths in Essex Street".
Among other most welcome visitors in addition to those already mentioned were Dr. H. Faber, of Holland, and Judge Brooks (Chairman of the Board of Directors) and the Rev. W. D. Krieg (Secretary) of the American Unitarian Association.
Before wending their ways homeward a large number of the people present were shown round the building, and their delight in its internal character, no less than its dignified exterior, was abundantly expressed. There was no repetition of the lukewarm report by the Editor of the 1886 Inquirer, that "Essex Hall was the subject of very general, if not universal, admiration"; this time his successor most truly and simply wrote-"It was an occasion which, if it could have been felt and seen throughout the Unitarian community, would have strengthened and moved every congregation.... Something new in meeting-places has suddenly appeared out of the ashes of the old Hall, and it will set a standard for the future." And since that notable day many other visitors have come, and seen, and departed, always with the liveliest expressions of admiration for our new denominational Headquarters.
Let us recall, in conclusion, the vision of a great-hearted Unitarian layman of the i9th century, Mr. James Hopgood, one of the prime movers of the fund that failed and the contributor of the first £1,000 towards it:
"The proposed building ought to be one worthy of the Unitarians of the United Kingdom, having regard to the position they are entitled to take as the sole advocates of a simple and pure theology; it ought therefore, I submit, to be situated in one of the best parts of London, and in its architectural character should be dignified and striking. Unless I am very much mistaken, there is no lack of members of the Unitarian persuasion who, as a pure and simple gift, would cheerfully subscribe sums sufficient to erect or procure a noble and appropriate building as the headquarters of this body."
Mr. Hopgood wrote this in 1873. In 1958 his dream came true.