Chapel History

1. Content Below:
2. 1815 read here
3. Need for New Unitarian Place of Worship in South London read here
4. Site Found in Very Pleasant Semi-rural Brixton read here
5. Chapel Opening in 1839 & 1840 Theological Controversy read here
6. Mr Wood’s Legacy read here
7. Later Years read here
8. Loss of Original Chapel in 1940 read here
9. New Chapel Opened in 1962 read here
10. Our Distinguished Community read here

2. 1815

In 1815 Napoleonic France was defeated at Waterloo and being a Unitarian was decriminalised; if Unitarians were still subjected to the same civil penalties as other Nonconformists, with a few more added on for good measure.

3. Need for New Unitarian Place of Worship in South London

Unitarians’ secure inheritance of church premises previously held by their more traditional Christian forebears was still uncertain. However, they could build new premises that were more secure in their hands. There was such need in South London, which was growing and was home to an increasing number of affluent Unitarian worthies. Most of these lived in South West London, particularly in Dulwich, Norwood, Clapham, etc. In 1837 a meeting of those interested in supplying this need met at The Horns Tavern, Kennington and decided to proceed, with most of the funds coming from Elnahan Bicknell, art collector, shipowner, whale processor, Master of the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers (Candlemakers), and friend of John Ruskin’s parents, who  first introduced John to Turner’s work and Turner at his Dulwich home. John went on to become an Eminent Victorian as art critic (being the successful defender and promoter of Turner and the Pre Raphaelites), first Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, and social commentator. By happy coincidence our minister, Julian, is a Ruskinite and a member of Ruskin’s Guild of St George who stays at Ruskin’s former home at Brantwood, Coniston Water, Lake District, Northumbria most years.

4. Site Found in Very Pleasant Semi-rural Brixton

A plot was found in near South West London in very pleasant semi-rural Brixton, with its Beulah Spa and bucolic working windmill on Brixton Hill, traditionally known for its woods and market gardens, and claimed association with Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, Raleigh being said to have rowed Elizabeth up the River Effra to Brixton to enjoy a picnic. The plot was at what is now 63 Effra Road, Effra Road having been part of the old Manor of Heathrow (no connection with the modern airport many miles away in outer West London) and laid-out in 1810. It and neighbouring plots had belonged to the old Effra Farm, giving its name to the River Effra running through it, which is now sadly one of London’s lost subterranean rivers.

5. Chapel Opening in 1839 & 1840 Theological Controversy

The chapel opened for the first time in 1839 to much fanfare. Its credentials as a Unitarian place of worship second to none, theologically, were established almost immediately. In 1840 the young minister, Rev Thomas Wood, involved the chapel in a theological controversy that caused quite a stir at the time, and is still out there thanks to the internet. He had preached a sermon in which he had expressly and eloquently argued that the miracles about, and performed by, Jesus needed to be de-emphasised if the Christian message (perceived by Mr Wood as an entirely ethical and social gospel) was to be fully appreciated and survive. This was rather strong stuff for some in the congregation that morning and news of it got out, bringing much criticism of Mr Wood from more conservative Christian sources and, by association, of the very young chapel. In such circumstances, Mr Wood felt he had to resign. He did so against the protests of the trustees led by kindly Chairman Elnahan Bicknell. The trustees subsequently published his sermon and the correspondence with Mr Wood as a tribute to him.

6. Mr Wood’s Legacy

Mr Wood disappears from history after this, sadly. However, his argument was subsequently universally accepted by Unitarians; if tempered by a growing appreciation of the spiritual value of myth, metaphor and ritual in religion, which explains Unitarianism’s dalliance with High Church architecture in later Victorian and Edwardian times, and our appreciation today of all the major stories of the world’s religions and festivals of the Christian Year.

7. Later Years

The congregation continued to flourish, building a school and having numerous clubs, including by 1939 a thriving tennis club to the rear of the premises.

8. Loss of Original Chapel in 1940

But in that year we entered WW2 and in 1940, just over a hundred years after the chapel had been built, the chapel was raised to the ground by incendiary bombs along with much of Effra Road; which along with postwar redevelopment explains our mid-century chapel opened in 1962 and immediate neighbourhood. Long gone are the set-back substantial gentlemans’ villas alongside which our little neo-gothic chapel with pre-Raphaelite windows stood at the bottom of a half-circular gravel drive, and our minister’s comfortable home in Dulwich.

9. New Chapel Opened in 1962

However, our present chapel opened in 1962 is increasingly recognised as something of a 20th century classic (not least by the many who attend our monthly after service concert series), we love it very much, and the old spirit is still with us.

10. Our Distinguished Community

A church is not a building, but a community. The names of all those who have been members of the chapel since 1839 are carefully preserved, and our register of births and deaths reads like a who’s who of British Unitarianism.

Our members have included: Elnahan Bicknell, merchant and patron of the arts, as above; the Mappin and Webb silversmithing families, who came together in marriage at the chapel, supplied our Sheffield Plate communion silver (Mappin), and who as Mappin & Webb went on to become major silversmiths with a royal warrant; the Nettlefold family, major manufacturers; Sir Henry Tate, sugar magnate, patron of the arts, philanthropist (he founded the Tate Gallery and Brixton Library, etc); Sir Willian a Becket, barrister of Lincoln’s Inn (like our minister, Julian) and an Attorney General (NSW) and Chief Justice (Victoria) of Australia; several members of the distinguished Martineau family of Huguenot descent, famous above all for sister and brother Harriet (feminist and social commentator) and James (distinguished Unitarian minister and theologian); all our men and women who served and lost their lives in WW1 and WW2; and many a not so ordinary person who played their part in passing on the chapel to us today, not least our former Secretary Albert Pound who oversaw the building of our new chapel.

We have been very fortunate in all our ministers. Three who stand out in the 20th Century are Revs Herbert Crabtree, E G Lee and Anthony J (Tony) Cross. All were published theologians and religious writers, Mr Lee being especially distinguished in that regard, being published by Macmillan. Dr Cross was a church historian and a former principal of [now Harris] Manchester College, Oxford, who was tutor and friend to our current minister, Julian. Julian is our longest serving minister.

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