Our Chapel

Effra Road Chapel’s history begins with the history of Unitarianism, which is traced in outline up until 1815 in ‘Unitarian History’ below.

After the final defeat of Napoleonic France at Waterloo in 1815, republican-minded Unitarians were seen as less of a threat than hitherto by the establishment, if they were still discriminated against with other Dissenters / Nonconformists.

Eventually Unitarians felt able to build new meeting places to serve the quickly growing population and new districts. Brixton was one such district, and a very pleasant one too, with Beulah Spa, a pretty windmill and the countryside nearby. In 1837 a group of Unitarian worthies met at the Horns Tavern, Kennington and resolved to give her a Unitarian chapel and to raise funds for that purpose, much of the money being donated by the Newington-Butts tallow chandler, whale processor, ship owner and Herne Hill art collector, Elnahan Bicknell.

A plot was found on Effra Road, which had been laid out in 1810. 63 and neighbouring plots had belonged to the old Effra Farm, giving its name to the River Effra running through it. This had been a market garden, famous for its cabbages. This chapel opened its doors for the first time in 1839 to much fanfare.

The chapel’s credentials as a Unitarian place of worship second to none 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 argued that the miracles about and performed by Jesus needed to be de-emphasised if the Christian message was to be fully appreciated and survive. This caused offence to some within and without the congregation, and Mr Wood resigned against the protests of the trustees. The trustees published his sermon and their correspondence asking him to stay on, hoping Mr Wood’s career would flourish elsewhere.

Mr Wood disappears from history after this, sadly. However, his argument was subsequently universally accepted by Unitarians, and many other Christians; if tempered by a growing appreciation of the spiritual value of myth and metaphor 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 the festivals of the Christian year.

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. 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. But our present chapel is increasingly recognised as something of a 20th century classic, we love it very much, and the old spirit is still with us.

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.

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 / religious writers, Mr Lee being especially distinguished in that regard. Dr Cross was a church historian and a former principal of [Harris] Manchester College, Oxford, who was tutor and friend to our current minister.

Our members have included: Elnahan Bicknell, businessman and patron of the arts; the Mappin and Webb silversmithing families; Sir Henry Tate, sugar magnate; an Attorney General of New South Wales; several members of the distinguished Martineau family of Huguenot descent; all our men and women who gave and lost their lives in WW1 and WW2; many a not so ordinary person who played their part in passing on the chapel to us today.

Unitarian History

Unitarianism traces its roots back to the very beginning of Christianity in the Early Church.

Unitarianism as a distinct branch of Christianity emerged out of the radical part of the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.

Unitarianism’s rational take on Christianity and recognition that each of us comes to a faith uniquely ours, led to Unitarianism being labelled a heresy and for Unitarians to be persecuted for many years,

But such a reasonable faith was bound to catch on, and found favour with a remarkably large number of the great and good with much to lose. Perhaps the most famous of these was Sir Isaac Newton.

Later Unitarianism became popular amongst English Presbyterians particularly, which explains why we have so many ancient meeting houses and chapels to this day.

With other Dissenters / Nonconformists they were excluded from many schools and all universities in England (Oxford and Cambridge). They set-up their own academies to prepare their youngsters for the ministry, the learned professions and business. Here a remarkably broad, deep and practical education was often provided, teaching subjects not available at English universities or doing a better job of it. Perhaps the greatest of our teachers at that time was Rev Joseph Priestly, who as well as being an accomplished theologian and minister, was a brilliant scientist, being the first to isolate several gases including Oxygen, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Many of these students took degrees in Scotland, Germany and Holland before Unitarians and other progressives were responsible for the founding of the University of London, where there were no religious restrictions on those sitting its degrees who also studied independently, much as its external students still do. Our Manchester College (now Harris Manchester College, Oxford) removed to Bloomsbury to provide Unitarian ministry students lined-up to take London degrees with tuition and accommodation in the heart of the new university. But this goes well beyond our period …

Our forebears were a bright and enterprising group, and many of our meeting places were crucibles of new learning, progressive ideas, religious and political dissent, innovative business and wealth creation. They often supported the American and French Revolutions. Josiah Wedgwood, the genius potter, issued his famous abolitionist medal, showing a crouching slave uttering the immortal lines: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’

Such views made them deeply unpopular with Tories and the mob who attacked Unitarian meeting-places and homes. Joseph Priestley’s meeting house, laboratory and home were burned to the ground in Birmingham and eventually he moved to the USA where Unitarians were doing rather well, being involved in the drafting of the American Constitution, the founding of Harvard College and amongst the first presidents.

(Continued above in ‘Our Chapel’)