Early Days At Teignmouth
The assembly at Teignmouth must surely date back to the early days of Brethren, for it was here in the same hall in which the believers still gather to remember the Lord that George Müller preached previous to taking up the work in Bristol, to which he had been so signally called of God. To-day, after the passing of more than a century, there are over a hundred Christians who meet in happy fellowship around the Lord’s table.
The long span of a hundred years has passed by leaving behind a record which is marked by its loyalty to the Word, amid the trials and vicissitudes of its eventful history. The mention of Teignmouth recalls the labours of those whose names are inseparably associated with the early days: Dr. Cronin, J. L. Harris, J. G. Deck, George Müller, Henry Craik, Sir A. Campbell, Captain Rhind, Captain Percy Hall, William Yapp and others.
It was in the year 1838 that John Parnell (afterwards Lord Congleton), made his home in this peaceful South Devon town. He had the year previously returned from India, whence he had gone to join his friend Anthony Groves in the perilous undertaking of pioneer missionary work, an enterprise which laid the foundation of a great missionary structure. Begun in the fever-stricken Godaveri district, the work of those faithful brethren ultimately extended, not only across the parched plains of heathen India, but to many distant parts of the world.
The sojourn at Teignmouth of Mr. Parnell very soon gave evidence of the experience he had gained during the period of trial and privation through which he had so recently passed, and he not only greatly assisted the assembly by his ministry, but the missionary spirit led him out to the neighbouring districts, where he was constant in stimulating and encouraging similar gatherings of the Lord’s people, and establishing meetings where they had not previously existed.
For a considerable time it was his custom to take the circuit of Teignmouth, Torquay and Newon Abbot on each Lord’s Day. In the morning he would meet with the believers in Teignmouth, with those at Torquay in the afternoon, and arrive at Newon Abbot in time for the evening meeting, afterwards returning home to Teignmouth often late at night, tired in body but unwearied in soul. The quaint little town of Dawlish, three miles awav, did not escape the attention of this man of inexhaustible energy, and one residing in that town in later years recalled the coming in to tea of two brethren who had walked over from Teignmouth, dusty and weary. They were John Parnell and J. N. Darby. The two had been much together in the early days in Dublin, and the Irish leader was at that time on a visit to his friend. Witing of those far-off days in the history of the Teignmouth Assembly, Henry Groves, in his
Memoir of Lord Congleton, says: “Those few years in Devonshire were years of peace and blessing and, except to a very few, the elements of future troubles were as yet unknown and unfelt. They were to many as days of heaven upon earth.”
Though possessed of ample means, the future Lord Congleton was simple in his habits and scrupulously careful withal. The house in which he lived was of the most ordinary type, for which he paid an annual rental of £12
. The floor was carpetless and the furnishings were primitive in the extreme: ordinary wooden chairs, a plain deal table (which by concession to the housemaid was afterwards stained, because of the trouble it gave in constant scouring to keep clean), steel forks and pewer teaspoons, and all else to match. “Around that table,” wites a friend who was a frequent visitor to the humble abode, “I often sat with others, thick as bees, while he drew us out in the study of the Scriptures which he happily and usefully unfolded—an office for which he was eminently qualified. He had a happy faculty of setting everyone at ease, fostering any little remark, encouraging and rectifying it—a rare qualification in a teacher, which in after years I often urged him to exercise.” When in 1842 Mr. Parnell’s father died he succeeded to the title, and not long afterwards removed to London where for a time he met with believers at the Orchard Street-Meeting.
Amongst others who assembled to remember the Lord in the meeting-room at Teignmouth in its early days was Count Guicciardini, an Italian nobleman, who for the cause of Christ had been compelled to leave his own country and seek the sanctuary of Protestant England.
It was while walking along the shore one day during his residence here that he met a fellow exile, Teodoro Rossetti, whom he led to Christ. In later years both these brethren were prominently associated with the Lord’s work, not only in-the land of their exile but in their own country, where they did much in the proclamation of the Gospel and in establishing assemblies of Christians faithful to apostolic teaching.
About the year 1875 there came to Teignmouth Frederick Bannister, a man whose testimony is still a fragrant memory. Of him it is said: “He was a burning and a shining light,” a man of great grace, unwearied in serving the saints, diligent in spreading the Gospel, faithful in the truth, and uncompromising in all that concerns the honour of the Lord.
Mr. Bannister’s father was Headmaster of Bedford College. Thus the early years of his son were spent amongst scenes which, two hundred years previously, had inspired John Bunyan to wite his immortal
Pilgrim’s Progress as he lay confined in Bedford Jail. Brought to the knowledge of salvation in his early years, the young convert was not ashamed to confess Jesus as his Lord to his fellow students at Cambridge, whither he had proceeded with a view to entering the ministry of the Established Church. Having taken his degree he was shortly afterwards appointed to a curacy in Bedfordshire, and some years later became Vicar of a Hereford parish. It was while there that he, through a close study of the Bible, became deeply exercised in soul as to his position in the Church of England with the light he had received from the Word. Mr. Bannister found it impossible thus to continue, and it was not without counting the cost that the young clergyman, while yet in the vigour of life, with all that men regard as good prospects before him, relinquished his “living” as Vicar, and severing his connection with the state Church, went forth from all denominationalism to serve the Lord, as He might guide, in simple dependence upon Him for the supply of all his need.
Thus did Mr. Bannister continue steadfastly from that time until the Spring of 1919, when he was called Home, at the advanced age of eighty-two. Previous to his coming to Teignmouth he went through the Midlands with John Hambleton, the converted actor, preaching Christ. At a later period he was joined by Charles Morton who, for a number of years, laboured with him among the villages of Bedfordshire in tents and with Bible carriages, until he went south to Devon, Frederick Bannister’s faithful work among the smaller assemblies of Devonshire, and his constant spread of the Gospel by word and printed page, was wonderfully blessed. He was, indeed, a true helper of the saints, a man full of grace and specially gifted as a shepherd to tend and care for the flock of God. With such stalwarts of the faith, the assembly at Teignmouth, ever faithful to the Truth and seeking only to magnify the grace of God, has been guided into channels of usefulness and blessing.
The First Gathering At Torquay
The light of Truth which in the early ‘thirties of the nineteenth century at first projected a doubtful gleam, casting its uncertain rays here and there, had before the passage of many years become a bright illuminant, shedding its beams farther and yet farther afield, captivating and embracing many of His scattered and oppressed people, who, at this particular period of the Church’s history, were groping in spiritual darkness. While in most instances the birth of an assembly of Christians was unaccompanied by what might be likened to the loud sounding of trumpets, it was rather the contrary in the case of the ancient seaport of Torquay (or Tor as it was then called), on the coast of Devon. According to “The Records of the Christian Church of Tor,” a faithful few in face of much opposition came out from the Established Church led by a stalwart, John Vivian by name. Belonging to an influential family in the neighbourhood, he was a man of high spiritual character and unbounded courage, holding fast by the witten Word, His passionate appeals, ever forceful and convincing, are reminiscent of the rousing words of that valiant for the Truth, Alexander Peden of Scottish Covenanting days. “The Lord grant to His dear people,” wote Vivian, “that they may unite as one man in this work of the Lord; and though many who are fainthearted, and many who are not chosen, turn back and walk not with us, may there yet
be found many who, when ‘I and all that are with me blow a trumpet,’ shall also ‘blow the trumpets on every side of the camp, saying: Thou hast given a banner to them that fear Thee, that it may be displayed because of the Truth.’ Brethren, there be many enemies of God’s people now, by whom Israel is much impoverished in the treasures of Faith, Hope and Love. Break, I beseech you, the empty pitchers of prejudice and ignorance and let your light be seen shining on all sides, in obedience to the command of the blessed Captain of our salvation, the Gideon of a backsliding people. And may He of His infinite mercy lead us on to that victory which overcometh the world, and shall make us more than conquerors through Him Who loved us and gave Himself for us.”
Such was the prelude which culminated in a meeting being held in the Christian Assembly Room at Torquay on Thursday, 9th October 1834, when, after waiting upon God for guidance, it was resolved that by His help, those now assembled before the Lord in humble submission to the teaching of His word, and being sincere believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, thus regard themselves as members of His body, acknowledging Him as their Head and as being present in the midst of them, according to the Scriptures, constituting them a Christian Church, ruled only by the Word of God, and rejecting every name but the name of their God and Saviour.
Their meeting-place was where the Secondary School now is, in the parish of Tor (Torre). Later the assembly met in what is now known as Laburnum Street. As numbers increased it was found needful to remove to larger premises, in order to facilitate the increasing activities of the growing assembly, and in the year 1887 the company removed to the present building known as Torre Gospel Hall. The hall was enlarged in 1890, and again nineteen years later. In 1932 the building was demolished and a larger one containing a gallery was erected in its place, without any appeal outside the assembly for funds.
The work among young people is a notable activity, and until recently the Torre Gospel Hall possessed the largest Sunday School in the town, but a township having sprung up in a suburb, many of the children went there to live. To meet this contingency the Torquay brethren built a hall in the new district, and an assembly was established. There are now seven assemblies in Torquay.
That God has abundantly blessed the testimony begun in “the little fishing village of Tor a hundred years ago is
manifestly evinced by the fact that as the old-time seaport developed into the present town of Torquay with its fifty thousand inhabitants, so the work of the Lord increased in a very remarkable way. And there may perhaps be few other towns (if any) in England, of similar size, where there are six active assemblies of believers all in happy fellowship with each other. A contributing factor to the unity of believers is a quarterly united meeting for prayer, after which the elders in all the meetings remain for further waiting upon God in prayer, and for consultation on matters pertaining to the well-being of the various assemblies over which they have the oversight.
About the year 1850 Leonard Strong of Demerara came to reside at Torquay. The parent assembly had then been in existence sixteen years, and the Lord was richly adding to the Church. As the town was growing and its popularity as a health resort becoming known, the need of other accommodation for the furtherance of the Gospel was realised. Mr. Strong with true missionary spirit at once set to work, and the erection of the Warren Road Gospel Hall, where an assembly was formed, was the result. For some time the meetings were held in a room off Union Street, on the site of the present Electric Theatre. Some years later, as the meeting prospered, Mr. Strong with others from Warren Road Gospel Hall became interested in the needs of a neighbouring district, and a meeting for the Breaking of Bread and the edification of believers was commenced in what was then known as the Parish Room. This was the beginning of the St. Marychurch Assembly. Soon afterwards the little company was strengthened by there being added to their number Philip Gosse, a man who was greatly used of God in ministering to the spiritual needs of His people and in the proclamation of the Gospel.
The mention of Leonard Strong in connection with the Brethren Movement recalls the interesting circumstance that he was “breaking bread” in far-away Georgetown in British Guiana some time before the first public meeting of early brethren at Dublin in 1830. Previous to this time he was holding the position of Rector of a parish in British Guiana, with a salary of £800 a year. A diligent study of the Scriptures entirely changed his outlook, and acting independently, with no other guide save the Word, he left the Church of England, giving up a stipend which was his sole income, together with a comfortable Manse, that he might meet simply for worship with those who, through his faithful ministry, had embraced the Gospel of Christ. Considerable numbers followed him, and it is said that at the first meeting, which was held in a large shed used in connection with the process of coffee-drying, nearly two thousand believers were present. From that meeting other assemblies were formed which continue to the present time.
Born in 1792, Leonard Strong entered the Royal Navy before reaching the age of thirteen. He served as a midshipman, and during the French and American wars saw much active service, being present at several engagements. It was the upsetting of a shore-going boat in the West Indies, when he narrowly escaped being drowned, that brought before the youth his lost condition as a sinner before God, and ultimately led to his conversion. He relinquished his position in the Navy soon afterwards and returned to England. With the desire to become a missionary Mr. Strong entered the Church of England and, after studying at Oxford, was ordained as curate of Ross-on-Wye, but he was unable to settle down in this quiet parish. What Leonard Strong had seen of the West Indies’ urgent need of the Bible filled him with an unquenchable longing to carry the Gospel across the seas. He therefore made application, and on receiving an appointment the young clergyman set sail for British Guiana, where he was installed as Rector of a parish there. That was in the year 1826. An ardent Bible student and a fearless preacher, his ministry was used of God in pointing large numbers to the Saviour, and in drawing many of the native Christians to his side. His work among the slaves, whom he sought to liberate from sin’s bondage as well as lighten the oppression of the cruel taskmasters, brought him in conflict with the planters, who threatened to shoot him if he persisted in his preaching. This he continued without abatement, and the authorities stepping in, the offending clergyman was removed to Georgetown, where, as we have seen, he began a work, the fruits of which remain even to this day. Leonard Strong returned to England in 1849.
The Babbacombe Gospel Hall is an offshoot from the St. Marychurch Assembly. Begun in the year 1887, the first meeting was held in a small room over an hotel, when seven brethren and about the same number of sisters gathered around the Lord’s Table to remember His dying love. The place becoming unsuitable for the purpose of these gatherings, one of the brethren had two rooms of his own house converted into what proved to be a comfortable and convenient place where the company of believers could come together to remember the Lord. In this meeting-room, with about thirty believers in fellowship, a testimony has since been maintained in a parish which is intensely Anglo-Catholic.
For some time prior to the commencement of the work in the Ellacombe district of Torquay, the Lord had laid the need upon the hearts of a few brethren. Among those who seemed more especially exercised were John Elliott and S. C. Eales. Meetings for prayer and guidance were arranged, and in the Spring of 1908 a small cottage having become vacant, brethren from the local assemblies visited it. It was then decided to convert the cottage into a meeting-room for the purpose of Gospel work. This was done, and quite a number of people came together each Lord’s Day evening to listen to the Word. Thus encouraged, the workers soon afterwards commenced services for children, which were continued in conjunction with the Gospel Meetings until 1912. In that year several Christians in the district expressed a desire for the Lord’s Table to be spread, and although there were at that time four assemblies in Torquay, it was prayerfully considered among them, and eventually the little company met to remember the Lord Jesus.
The labours of those who thus set themselves to know the mind of the Lord and then act upon it, were owned of God, in that many who heard the Gospel believed and were added to the Church, In the year 1926 the meeting-room in the cottage having, through extreme old age, become unsafe for public worship, the little assembly was cast upon the Lord for guidance. The way was wonderfully opened up whereby means were provided for the demolition of the old cottage and the erection of a hall over the existing site, to accommodate three hundred people.
The assembly worshipping at Avenue Gospel Hall is of comparatively recent origin, having commenced in 1922. In no small measure this assembly owes its inception and early development to the ministry and labours of F. C. Mogridge, a resident in Torquay, who from time to time gave helpful addresses to Christians on fundamental truths, which resulted in several of those who attended these meetings expressing a desire to obey the Lord’s command, and these were baptized at Torre. Thus many became further exercised as to what had been revealed to them through the Scriptures regarding the will of God as to New Testament teaching, and with the full fellowship of the five other assemblies in the town, a number of believers sat around the Lord’s Table for the first time on 26th February 1922.
Bridford Mills Assembly
The origin of the testimony at Bridford Mills in Devon may be traced to the conversion of William Surridge somewhere about the year 1864. Saved while listening to an untutored chapel preacher, he soon afterwards found an outlet for his zeal for the Master in commencing services in a schoolroom close to the mills. Unable to preach himself, he bought a volume of printed sermons, and these he read with evident success, for the people continued to come to the schoolroom in larger numbers. This gave him courage to take the Bible and preach the Gospel as the Lord gave him liberty. Thus he continued, and in course of time the work bore fruit as one and another were brought to know the Lord.
With no one to point the way, William sought guidance from the Scriptures, for the young converts required to be fed and tended. Thus he was awakened to his responsibility of not only preaching the Gospel but also to care for the flock. So he sent for the creeds of the different religious denominations, that he might decide for himself which was the proper course to take. But the more he compared each with the Word of God, the greater appeared his difficulty in arriving at a solution to the problem which exercised his soul.
Eventually he was brought in touch with a few Christians at a village not far distant. Here a little company had been gathered through the instrumentality of Robert Gribble, and on the first day of the week they came together, as did the apostles, to remember the Lord’s death.
Mr. Surridge also discovered that there was a similar company of Christian believers in Exeter, and to his great joy he found that both of these were doing just what he had longed to do. The result was that brethren from Exeter were invited to preach at Bridford occasionally, and thus the light came to that district in Devonshire.
But it is not to be supposed that the enemy would allow this new departure to pass unchallenged, for very soon opposition to the truth for a time sought to hinder the work. Such men as Henry Dyer, Samuel Blow and others equally well known at that period, lent a helping hand in ministering to the spiritual needs of those who were faithful to the Word; so that from that time onward the work grew apace, for many hearing believed and were baptized.
On the Sunday morning when the first baptism was to take place, at which William Surridge, the schoolmistress and others were publicly to confess the Lord, Mr. Surridge was ill in bed. So eager was he to witness the ordinance that he managed to leave his bed, and arranged for an armchair to be placed by the side door leading to the orchard where the baptism was to take place. When the last person was entering the water, he said to the brother standing by him, “Give me your arm”; and with his help he walked over to where the company had assembled and was baptized, without suffering any hurt. A crowd of people had gathered along the sides of the Mill stream to see this novel sight. Among them was the owner of a tool factory, who afterwards said: “I came to laugh, but went home to cry, and the next time was baptized myself.”
The schoolroom soon became too small, and in the year 1875 it was pulled down and rebuilt, the expense of the work being borne by William Surridge. Six years later a further addition was made in which the little assembly, consisting of poor working-class people, expressed a desire to have fellowship in meeting the expense. Of the gathering together of the money to pay the builder’s bill, a brother relates an interesting story. In the assembly was a working man and his wife with a family of three or four young children. He was earning no more than ten shillings a week, and had saved just that amount to pay the shoemaker, who was to call the following week. They both had it laid on their heart to give ten shillings towards the building; but what about the shoemaker? The matter was taken to the Lord in definite prayer, and as the couple rose from their knees they felt constrained to give the money to the Lord, which they did, “Next morning,” wites my friend, “while following his employment, John knocked a half-sovereign out of a lump of earth with his spade. Thus, the same Lord who could guide Peter to the fish containing the required piece of money, could guide John to the lump of earth in which was hidden the shining half-sovereign. And so God was honoured, the shoemaker provided for and the family blessed.”
The Lord continued to prosper the work, and in 1904 the existing building was demolished and a much larger hall erected on the same site (the position of the original schoolroom), where a faithful testimony is still maintained.
The work at Bridford Mills has really been unique, as there are not more than a dozen houses anywhere in the vicinity of this large hall, the nearest village being about a mile distant. “When I first visited the assembly, nearly forty years ago,” wites Mr. H. E. Marsom, “it was indeed an interesting sight to see the country people on Lord’s Day, with their carts and hampers, carrying provisions for their families who had come to worship.”
A feature of the present hall, reminiscent of those days, is a kitchen range provided in the back room, for the warming up of the dinners the brethren and their wives brought with them. With the advent of the motor-car this is now a thing of the past.
During the last fifty years the welfare of the young has been the constant care of F. W. Surridge, a son of the founder of the assembly, his first Sunday School class being gathered from the surrounding district. This initial experiment resulted in a work which quickly grew up, and in a comparatively short time there was a properly arranged Sunday School with the names of one hundred and thirty children on the roll.
Mr. Surridge also instituted a Sunday School Teachers’ Conference, which has been held annually with growing interest. In September, 1938, some four hundred teachers and Sunday School workers gathered at Bridford Mills to celebrate the jubilee.
In Dorset: Early Ministry Of Henry Dyer
The wave of spiritual awakening which had directed thoughtful Christians to a closer study of the Scriptures regarding the true interpretation of certain New Testament passages—which up to that time, doubtless because of unquestioned usage and acceptance, had given no real concern as to their true meaning—had spread from shire to shire; so that ere a decade had passed by since the historic meeting at Dublin and the subsequent gathering at Plymouth, not a few assemblies of believers, for the most part drawn from various denominations, had become firmly established.
It was on Lord’s Day, the 29th of May 1842, that nine believers met together in what was then known as the British Schoolroom, in the town of Shaftesbury, Dorset, “for the purpose of breaking bread without any reference to sectarian practices, and wishing to assume no other name than that of brethren and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ, in Whose name it was their desire to meet to commemorate His dying love.” Remarkable though it may seem, this little company came together solely under the guidance and will of the Holy Spirit and having no outward contact with any similar gatherings.
Previous to this, and in face of much opposition, cottage meetings for the study of the Scriptures were held, Amongst those who had left the state Church were two men, John Rutter and Charles Binns by name, and they accepted the care of the little flock. Under their sympathetic guidance and ministry the meeting grew both in numbers and influence, so that in a comparatively short time a larger room had to be secured. Gospel meetings were commenced, and the first convert was Thomas Lear, a well-known business man in the town, who in course of time became a pillar in the assembly.
Finding that others in different parts of the country were separating in like manner from human systems, fellowship was strengthened and increased by contact with them, and many of the Lord’s servants visited Shaftesbury and ministered to the spiritual needs of the assembly. Among the first were John T. Vine, Charles Inglis, Robert Chapman, Henry Dyer, Dr. Maclean, and later W. H. Bennet, John Bragg and Ephraim Venn. Thus in the days of its infancy the little assembly, early manifesting a faithful adherence to the Living Word, was nurtured and encouraged by the wise council of such men as these at a time when the religious world, struggling amid doubts and fears, was passing through times of difficulty and unrest, accentuated in no small measure by the fascinating influence exerted by what became known as the Tractarian or Oxford Movement, with John Henry Newman—who later embraced the Roman Catholic faith—as one of its chief leaders.
From such beginnings the Shaftesbury Assembly increased in numbers and usefulness. In 1887 the Ebenezer Hall was built, to which the assembly was transferred; and through the long years has borne a faithful testimony which continues up to the present time.
We will now turn to another quarter of the county of Dorset, little more than ten miles distant from Shaftesbury, where, in a singular yet very similar way, the hand of God was moving amongst a few of His own people. About the middle of last century, in the town of Blandford, several friends who were in what are now known as the Free Churches, were associated in Ragged School Work. They were accustomed to meet week by week, for prayer on behalf of the activities associated with this particular enterprise, and used frequently to converse over the Scriptures. On one occasion the conversation took the turn of an enquiry as to the mode and significance of the breaking of bread, as set forth in the New Testament. A search into the Word of God revealed the fact that the partaking of what is known as the Sacrament, in the various denominations with which they were identified, was, in several essential points, different from what was instituted by the Lord and carried out under apostolic teaching.
They decided that there was nothing to hinder them from meeting together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a Scriptural way, at a time in the week when no service in connection with their churches was being held. This being deemed by the ministers of their denominations an irregular and unauthorised procedure, those who persisted in following the Scriptures were excluded from membership of their congregation.
Those zealous people knew nothing of similar gatherings of Christians who, as we have seen, had already come together in the neighbouring counties in South-West England, and they were acting on simple obedience to the Word, solely as the Holy Spirit had directed. The ecclesiastical pressure which had been brought to bear upon those faithful few only drew them closer to the Lord and to His Word, as well as to one another. This led to the formation of a gathering tree from human tradition, and directed according to the teaching of the New Testament.
For a time the little company continued to meet for the study of the Scriptures and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, isolated in a measure from many who, up to the time of their leaving the denominations, had been close friends; but who, following the dictates of their spiritual leaders in their passionate disapproval of the step taken by those wanderers from the fold of the churches with which they had been connected, had openly avoided further fellowship with the seceders.
Through a visit by Henry Dyer to Blandford, the company of believers were brought in touch with those who had been similarly guided by the Spirit of God in other places, to carry out His Word in like manner as they had been led. Thus an assembly was established. As their numbers increased an aggressive Gospel testimony was carried on, and there were several who used regularly to preach the Gospel in the town and the villages around. They now met together in the Assembly Rooms, where J. T. Vine conducted special meetings, the outcome of which was that many professed faith in Christ and were added to the Church. Alterations to these premises necessitated the removal of the assembly to the Town Hall, and as numbers continued to increase the East Street Hall was secured, where a good testimony for the Lord is continued at the present time.
It was during those days of pioneer work amongst the scattered remnant of God’s people that many stalwarts of the faith, though comparatively young in years, came into prominence. By now the names of many are familiar to the reader. Henry Dyer, who was largely responsible in God’s hands in laying the foundation of the Blandford meeting and in directing the feet of the young assembly along straight paths, was still in his thirties. Brought to the Lord in his youth, Mr. Dyer early associated himself with Christians assembling in the name of the Lord in London. He afterwards spent some years ministering to the spiritual needs of the various assemblies in the South of England, and for a time resided at Sherborne in Dorset.
The name of Henry Dyer will always be associated with the founding of a conference for ministry and the edification of believers—one of the first of its kind in the country— which was to be the forerunner of what has now become a distinctive feature amongst the activities of those known as Brethren. It was held at Yeovil. Commenced with comparatively small gatherings for the most part from neighbouring assemblies, it met for a time periodically, but as its spiritual value made itself evident, Yeovil conferences became a fixed annual event and exercised a powerful influence, drawing considerable numbers from many parts of the country.
Recalling those memorable gatherings, times that were graced with many hallowed associations in which the impelling influence of Mr. Dyer was so markedly felt—W. H. Bennet wites: “Henry Dyer’s faithful and loving service of those days is gratefully remembered both in Yeovil itself and in the neighbouring towns and villages, and he loved at times to speak of one and another who were brought to God through his reading the Scriptures and speaking at street corners—a work in which he was very diligent as long as he was able to continue it. When he remained in any locality he was pre-eminently a pastor. His tenderness in visiting the suffering and sorrowful was very marked, and his earnestness in seeking the wandering showed how truly he watched for souls, while his readiness—at any cost to himself—to contribute to the breaking down of barriers between the Lord’s people, gave evidence of his possession of the mind of Christ in no ordinary measure.”
Mr. Dyer’s counsel and considered judgment in matters which affected the well-being of assembly life was much sought after, and while gatherings of the Lord’s people profited much by his pastoral visits yet his special ministry was more directly connected with conferences, not only
at Yeovil and Leominster, but in different parts of the kingdom, where his ministry, ever rich in expository wealth, was much valued. Watched over and cared for by such ministering servants of God, many of the little assemblies which had come into being in Dorset and the South-west corner of England round about the middle of last century and the years immediately following were, marked by their loyal devotion to the teaching of God’s Word; and thus they prospered in the path of faith and obedience.
Early Days In London
Before many years had passed by, after the raising of the standard at Plymouth, assemblies of Christians faithful to apostolic teaching were gathering in widely separated places many miles distant from the ancient seaport on the coast of Devon. Thus we find in the year 1838 a record of the first public meeting of Brethren in London being established. G. V. Wigram, Darby’s faithful lieutenant, was entrusted with the commission, and the little company of believers who gathered in an unpretentious meeting-room in the locality then known as Rawstorne Street, Camden Town, ultimately became, to some extent, what Neatby in his history regards as “the nucleus of Darby’s metropolitan system of organisation.” That meeting became an historic centre. The good seed had been sown in virgin soil, and to that meeting other gatherings in different parts of the city own their inception and subsequent growh.
There appears to be scant documentary evidence accessible giving a reliable record of the development over the early years regarding the foundation of a movement which in time to come was to take such an important religious position not only in the Metropolis but throughout the world. Without attempting to trace through the uncertainties of time and circumstance the onward course of the steady current of spiritual activity whose source, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was to be found at Camden Town meeting-room, I will endeavour to gather together what has been left on record concerning the rise and spread of this spiritual movement in and around the city of London.
In a remarkably short time the Rawstorne Street meeting became the spiritual home not only of Wigram and Darby but of many other brethren whose names are now prominent in the pages of our history. Among those who took an active interest, the following, now mentioned for the first time, are remembered: Dr. S. P. Tregelles, W. EL Dorman, Alexander Stewart and —— Foley.
About this time Lord Congleton, who had recently succeeded to the title, came to reside in Islington, and into this meeting he threw all the energies of his large, loving heart in its sympathy and lowliness. Every Lord’s Day commenced with a prayer meeting at 7 a.m., to which numbers came from distant parts of London. So that those who attended might not have to travel back again before the meeting at 10.30 for the breaking of bread, Wigram invited them to his breakfast-table. But as numbers increased a large room at the rear of the house, formerly used as a school, was fitted up with table and chairs, in which place tea and fellowship meetings were later established, thus making the fellowship of the family of God as much a reality as possible. Lord Congleton was largely responsible for the fitting out and furnishing of the room; and to those happy gatherings any of the Lord’s people were at all times welcome, for there was no distinction between rich and poor; all were alike honoured for the Master’s sake.
About the end of 1852 Anthony N. Groves paid a visit to Tottenham, where he endeavoured to interest the assembly in foreign missions. An entry in his diary at this date cannot fail to engage our attention, for it recalls the labours of those pioneer missionaries whose names are given, and clearly indicates the practical sympathy with which his appeal was received. “I went to Tottenham,” he wites, “and stayed with dear Miss S—— who, with the Howards, showed much kindness. I spoke of Bowden, Beer and Aroolappen; and in the evening brought the subject before the Church, and they hope, in the union with believers in Hackney, Orchard Street and other places, to form an effectual committee to care for these things. Yesterday I was at Orchard Street in the morning. Count Guicciardini was there.”
The casual mention of Tottenham and the Howards recalls the early labours of John Eliot Howard, Fellow of the Royal Society, who in his early years was used in commencing a testimony for God in that particular district of the Metropolis. Formerly a member of the Society of Friends, Mr. Howard very soon in his Christian experience gave evidence of his keen interest in the Lord’s work, utilising his spare time in preaching the Gospel in the surrounding districts.
An earnest study of the Bible revealed to him his true position as a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, and with a desire to follow more faithfully the divine order laid down in the Scriptures he resigned his connection with the Society of Friends.
In 1838, when about thirty years of age, Mr. Howard began a regular Gospel meeting in Tottenham, and in November of the same year the first meeting for worship and the breaking of bread was held in a small room in Warner Terrace. In the following year he built the meeting-room in Brook Street, where the assembly continued to meet until 1883. In that year Mr. Howard purchased the lease of the lecture hall in High Road, Tottenham, and the assembly was transferred there from the old meeting-room in Brook Street.
Faithful and fearless in his expression of what he believed to be the truth, John Eliot Howard became an outstanding figure, and for over forty years his ministry was greatly owned of God, not only in leading many to the Saviour but in the edification of believers.
He rendered eminent service both to religion and science, particularly in a volume of lectures published in 1865, entitled
Scripture and Science. In this and other notable papers from his pen he sought to show in a learned and interesting way that there can be no conflict between science, as exemplified in the works of nature, and the Word of God. “Gifted with a powerful mind, of quick perception and rapid thought,” wites one who knew him, “he eagerly made himself master of the religious and scientific literature of the day. He devoted a great deal of time and thought to the study of some of the scientific questions that in these days perplex so many minds, and his clear insight enabled him to unmask much of the scientific and religious philosophies that are now prevalent.”
Mr. Howard was a tower of strength, not only in the assembly by whom he was greatly beloved but was known as an able minister of the Word both at home and abroad.
Towards the end of the same year that the assembly came into possession of the hall in High Road, Tottenham, Mr. Howard was called home after a brief illness.
The assembly at Hackney, mentioned in Groves’ diary, is mainly associated with its location in Providence Chapel, Paragon Road, from the early fifties up to recent years, when the building was compulsorily taken over by the Post Office Department for the building of a telephone exchange. Before the occupation of Providence Chapel the assembly met in St. Thomas’s Rooms, St. Thomas’s Road, Hackney. Then the remainder of the lease of about fifty years of Providence Chapel, hitherto occupied as a Wesleyan place of worship, was purchased by William T. Berger, a member of the assembly and head of a well-known starch manufacturing firm bearing that name.
In the early days when the assembly met at St. Thomas’s Rooms, Henry Heath, then in his thirty-third year, came to reside at Hackney. Formerly a co-worker with Robert Chapman in Barnstaple, he was largely instrumental in building up the assembly, being a gifted teacher and having a true pastoral spirit, which he devoted entirely to the Lord’s work. He remained with the assembly until the death, in the early seventies, of Captain Towers, who had done so much to evangelise in Suffolk, and had built up a large gathering of the Lord’s people at Woolpit in that county. Mr. Heath was invited to conduct the funeral service of the pioneer evangelist, and was led of the Lord to remain in that remote village that he might carry on that important Work, as they much needed the help and advice he was specially fitted to give.
Before the assembly removed to Providence Chapel, thereafter known as “Paragon Road Meeting-Room,” the Christians gathering there were greatly helped by the removal to London, in 1854, of James Wight, commended by the Bethesda Assembly at Bristol. He was then about twenty-eight years of age and had already been invited by
George Müller to assist him in the work of the Orphanage, which five years later he took up, and returned to Bristol, later becoming Mr. Müller’s son-in-law by his second marriage in 1871. He afterwards succeeded Mr. Müller as head of the Orphanage.
Keenly interested in young people, Mr. Wight proved to be a great help to the assembly at Hackney, and when it was removed to Providence Chapel he established the Sunday School there, becoming its first superintendent. In the
Life of James Wight, by Dr. Pierson, reference is made to his splendid foundation service amongst the children, esteeming the work in the infant class the most important of all. The box of movable letters which he used for teaching texts to the little ones was in existence in the meeting-room for many years, and probably is still. Some interesting memories of this servant of God are recalled by Mr. T. K. Freeman, who, in a letter to Dr. Pierson, soon after the Home-call of Mr. Wight, says: “I have a vivid recollection of the first public pronouncement of James Wight, at an assembly of Christians worshipping at St. Thomas’s Rooms, Hackney. Known as the Brethren, they were not unworthy of the name, for there was an intensity of love to Christ and to His people which bound them together in holy fellowship when on the first day of the week they ‘came together to break bread’ in sweet remembrance of the risen Redeemer. Liberty of ministry was an interesting feature of the simple worship, and a few Sundays after Mr. Wight, his wife and two sisters had been recommended to us from Bristol, he read with much precision and pathos a few verses bearing upon the subject matter of the meeting, and for about ten minutes commented upon the Scriptures he had read. Though it is fifty years or more since then, I can in memory see his striking face, indicating great feeling and much firmness, while his eye sparkled with joy that he had such a message from the Throne to deliver.”
From that date Mr. Wight became to the assembly a teacher of Divine truths that all rejoiced in, and though at St. Thomas’s Meeting-Room there were veterans in the Gospel, henceforth as a follower of our Lord he manifested His glory, and was fully recognised as a teacher sent from God.
“My association with the meeting in Paragon Road,” wites Mr. G. H. Marks, who has furnished the present witer with copious notes of those bygone days, “dates from my father’s removal to Hackney in 1861, until our leaving for Whetstone in 1880. During that period the number in fellowship had grown considerably, being one hundred and one in 1864, two hundred and twenty-eight in 1873 and the same number in 1878. The largest number of members was probably about 1875, when the Meeting Hall was crowded on Lord’s Day morning and the gallery was used for strangers and children.”
About the time alluded to in the preceding chapter, the tendency appears to have been to remove farther out of London, and many were transferred to the Iron Room, Clapton. At a later elate, as numbers increased, the need of greater accommodation pressed itself upon the Iron Room Assembly, but this exigency was generously met by John Morley, who erected the substantial building known as Clapton Hall. It was opened for public worship in the Spring of 188O, many well-known brethren being present on that occasion.
Mr. Morley, to whom reference has been made, was a prominent city business man, whose untiring activities in the service of the Master, during a long and useful life, are still remembered, particularly in connection with the building up of local assemblies with which he was more directly associated. Though not specially gifted as a speaker himself, he was constant in encouraging those brethren whom God had marked out as ministers of the Word, On retiring from business Mr. Morley visited many parts of Britain and the Continent, devoting his time in the furtherance of the Lord’s work, During the ‘59 revival he crossed to Ireland, where, having joined his friend, J. Denham Smith, he exerted his whole energies in the work of soul-winning.
Of a gracious and benevolent disposition, “his genial smile, friendly handshake, kindly enquiry after soul and body,” invariably supplemented by words of counsel and cheer, left a lasting Impression upon those with whom he came in contact. Though his interests were many, he ever showed an intense devotion to the work in the Iron Room, and later at Clapton Hall, where for many years he kept the assembly roll-book, which in the early days showed the names of three hundred members, rising at one period to nearly eight hundred.
Relative to the opening of Clapton Hall, I came across an interesting entry in the diary of John G. McVicker, who, during the second half of last century, laboured much amongst assemblies of the Lord’s people throughout the country. He was a frequent visitor to Clapton Hall, and for some time was constant in ministration there. Under date 25th March 1880 he wites: “I baptized twenty in Clapton Hall last night. Mr. Denham Smith was to preach the first Sunday in that hall. He was taken ill and it was I who preached. Now I have conducted the first baptism and I was also used in the first conversion that took place in it. My heart is being more knit to the work and the people here, and I think I am being fitted for the work and helped in it. I believe I am where God would have me be.”
A perusal of the diary he kept leaves with the reader a sweet fragrance, touching the prayerful thought and care he lovingly bestowed upon this assembly in the closing days of his life. On the last day of December, 1899, being Lord’s Day, Mr. McVicker gave a brief word of ministry at the morning meeting on “A Faithful God,” and in the evening preached the Gospel to a large congregation. This proved to be his last public ministry on earth. On the day following—a few days before his home-call—we find this entry: “Breakfasted in bed because of chest cold and foggy, chilly weather. Judged it safe to stay in the house all day. Spent some time in prayer to God in Christ’s name—a wonderful thing to be able to do. Being detained by weather (and ill-health) from attending the prayer meeting in the evening I went over the names of all in fellowship at Clapton Hall, interceding for them as I was helped.”
It was about this time, too, in the history of the Paragon Road Assembly that the outward drift increased, and the character of the neighbourhood greatly changed from being a favourite residential section for city merchants and business men by a large influx of Jewish families from the East End; so that to-day nearly all the well-known Nonconformist chapels have been turned into Jewish synagogues. This, naturally, had its effect on the assembly at Paragon Road, the membership of which declined in number to about one hundred, when the Government took over the site in 1926.
At that date the way was opened up to acquire a very suitable meeting-place in a Mission Hall which was being given up by one of the Nonconformist bodies in Morning Lane, henceforward known as Paragon Gospel Hall, and conveniently near to the old location in Paragon Road.
In those days the assembly was much helped by occasional ministry from Robert Chapman and Henry Dyer. Amongst other names mentioned in the address book (1864) is that of George Pearse, a stockbroker, who was also secretary of the Chinese Association, and later a missionary. Hudson Taylor, as a young man of eighteen, wote to him from his home in Yorkshire expressing a desire to go out to China, and it was through this correspondence that young Taylor came to London to study medicine. Thus, through the Hackney meeting, he came in touch with Mr. Berger, who was to be such a great help in later years in connection with the work of the China Inland Mission.
“I have vivid memories of seeing Hudson Taylor at the Lord’s Day morning meeting at Hackney,” wites Mr. Marks. “He was frequently accompanied by a Chinese brother. Dr. H. Grattan Guinness, in the early days of his training missionaries at Harley House, was often to be found remembering” the Lord with us; and I have still a clear recollection of seeing young Dr. Barnardo, who, in 1866, hoped to have gone to China but later found his life’s work amongst the waifs and strays. One of the incidents that made an impression on my young mind was the second marriage, in 1867, of Lord Congleton at the meeting-room, and the stir it caused at Hackney, that such an honour should have come to the locality as the marriage of a peer of the realm.”
Paragon Road meeting was the centre of considerable work amongst the poor. There was a little mission connected with the assembly, and the young men were much encouraged in open-air Gospel effort, as well as being helped forward by Bible readings, preparing papers on Scriptural subjects for discussion, and meetings for extempore speaking, so that several were better fitted to take part in Gospel work and in ministry.
There has always been a keen missionary spirit in the assembly, and at the present time it is represented in the foreign field by Mrs. H. F. Marks, who went out to the Malay States in 1899, and by A. Ginnings, who went out to Spain in 1910. Looking back over the years since the first gathering took place, in St. Thomas’s Rooms, three-quarters of a century ago, the assembly, as we have seen, has passed through times of spiritual prosperity and blessing; and yet has not been without its seasons of trial and days of testing, but through it all the Lord has graciously owned the testimony of His beloved people.
J. Denham Smith, to whom reference has been made, was a familiar figure in the various London assemblies, from that memorable time of spiritual awakening in the early sixties up to his Home-call in the Spring of 1889. He wasan eloquent and convincing speaker, and whether in the proclamation of the Gospel or in the exposition of Scripture truths, it was rarely he had difficulty in securing and holding an audience. His name will long be remembered in Ireland with affection, for it was during the great Revival that Denham Smith, impelled by a desire for souls, left the pastorate of a Congregational Church in Kingstown so that he might be freed from denominational bonds, and with the help of friends of like mind to himself he engaged one of the largest halls in Dublin, where he might preach the Gospel. This remarkable work resulted in large numbers being brought to the Saviour, the outcome of which was the erection of the well-known Merrion Hall in the city.
Of high literary attainments, and possessed with the pen of a ready witer, Denham Smith, besides being the author of several expository works, wote and published a consider- able number of Gospel tracts and pamphlets, which obtained an extensive circulation during those stirring times. He also compiled a hymn book, for use at his services, called
Times of Refreshing, which contained several of his own compositions, Denham Smith is the author of the well-known hymns, “My God I have found” and “Rise, my soul! behold ‘tis Jesus.”
On the invitation of John Morley he came to London, and here was begun a work which was mightily used of God, not only in the ingathering of souls for His Kingdom, but in the building up and strengthening of His beloved people. It was from this centre—notably the Iron Room, Upper Clapton—that Denham Smith launched out to the provinces, reaching many of the large towns, where he left a deep spiritual impression.
After a prolonged preaching tour on the Continent, where largely attended meetings were held in Paris and Geneva, Denham Smith returned to England and finally took up residence in London, ministering regularly in Clapton Hall and St. George’s Hall
Beresford Chapel And William Lincoln
It would be impossible to give any account of the commencement of the work of God at Beresford Chapel, in south-east London, without mentioning the name of William Lincoln, who surely was God’s chosen vessel in this connection. It was Mr. Lincoln’s own expression when failing strength warned him that his course was nearly finished, “I hope you will not talk about William Lincoln, for I am only a saved sinner.” But some details must be given to render this account intelligible, and for these particulars I am indebted to Mr. W. J. Hubble, who has furnished me with the history of this assembly which, in this particular connection, takes a notable place amongst gatherings of the Lord’s people in London.
Mr. Lincoln was born in London in 1825, his parents dying when he was very young. His conscience was awakened at seventeen years of age, by reading Dr. Doddridge’s
Rise and Progress of Religion, a book he studied so carefully that he could almost repeat it word for word; but it was a book he never recommended to young people, as it left him in sore bondage. He sought help from many to get relief from his bondage of sin, but it was some time ere he found true peace. A desire, soon after conversion, of going to India as a missionary was not to be accorded him, as the Council of the Missionary College at Islington, where he had studied for a year, declined to send him out owing to hereditary consumption in the family. The Lord had work for him to do at home. Shortly after this he entered King’s College, London, ultimately becoming an associate. In 1849 Mr. Lincoln was ordained at Preston. After ministering in the Established Church at Preston for some years, he came as curate to St. George’s Church, Southwark, London. Whilst connected with this church he preached mostly at a “Chapel of Ease” in the London Road, Southwark, drawing large numbers to hear him, and some ultimately followed him in the course he later took.
In 1859 Beresford Chapel in Beresford Street, Walworth, became vacant. Mr. Lincoln applied for the “living,” and in a truly wonderful way God intervened to obtain for him the appointment. At first attendances were small, but in a few months numbers were attracted by his powerful preaching. Indeed, so much so that there was soon scarcely a sitting to be obtained in a building holding about one thousand three hundred people, and weekly the chapel was crowded to excess.
In an address given to a crowded congregation at Beresford Chapel on Lord’s Day evening, 23rd November 1862, Mr. Lincoln made it known that for some considerable time he had been greatly exercised in heart about his position, from a Scriptural point of view, as a minister of the Establishment so closely allied to the world. The occasion of his secession was a very memorable one, and his action at first thinned out the congregation—many refusing to follow him in this step, much as they respected his teaching as an ordained clergyman. Immediately after his secession, Mr. Lincoln was baptized by immersion at a near-by Baptist chapel. Having a few years previously preached and witten in favour of infant baptism, a course which he himself afterward deeply regretted, he was urged by friends to be baptized out of London, but Mr. Lincoln expressed determination to be baptized in the neighbourhood.
Scriptural light as to conduct of an assembly of Christians seems to have been acquired gradually, and the bulk of those who remained with Mr. Lincoln continued to follow in the path of increased light as to Scriptural worship, and as to gathering only to the name of the Lord Jesus in the way the Word of God teaches. Many endeavours were made to get Mr. Lincoln to join one of the many sects, but his expression was to the very last, “May I be kept by God’s grace from joining anything,” cleaving to the Lord alone. Mr. Lincoln’s own idea was not for a sudden change but gradually to be led on more perfectly, just taking that step for which light had been given by God, and then to look to Him for further light and guidance as to the next step. It is owing to this course, surely, through the blessing of God, that the work went on steadfastly upon maintained Scriptural lines for many years, although the general expressed opinion at the time was that it would not last a year. At first some portion of the Established Church service was used. After about a month the Lord’s Supper was celebrated every Lord’s Day, but in the evening; this continued for a year or two before it took its present place in the morning. One by one the old practices were abandoned, the final stage, perhaps, in the effacement of the old arrangement of things being when the use of the large organ on Sundays was given up, and the stained-glass windows covered. But Mr. Lincoln always maintained to the very last, that it was according to the mind of God in Scripture that there should be time devoted to teaching the saints after the breaking of bread on the Lord’s Day mornings. For this purpose the service was arranged to commence half an hour earlier than similar meetings, to allow for ministry of the Word for the edification of the Lord’s people after the worship meeting. This practice has been maintained to the present day, and many have given testimony as to the incalculable benefit derived. It was in this ministry that William Lincoln was so used of God, but he ever earnestly disclaimed the idea of being called
the Pastor, or
the Minister, and was pained if anyone spoke of him as such. He only regarded himself as a teacher chosen of God to minister to His saints, and a pastor among many others. He ever showed much joy and earnestness in proclaiming and pressing the truth of gathering to the Lord’s Name alone, making Him the one and only Centre and rallying point for the children of God. “Let us go forth, therefore, unto Him without the camp,” we might say was continually his cry, and thoroughly did he practise what he preached. Soon after leaving the Establishment he compiled
The Beresford Hymn Book, a later edition of which is still in weekly use at Beresford Chapel.
For twenty-six years the ministry of this beloved servant of the Lord was greatly blessed to a very large circle, but after a period of failing health in 1888 he went to be “with Christ.”
The assembly at Beresford Chapel continued to enjoy the good hand of our God for many years. One special feature was the Beresford Conferences, which will be remembered by many as times of blessing and refreshing from the Lord. As time went on, and the Metropolis reaching out to suburban districts, many members removed to outlying parts, there forming new assemblies of the Lord’s people. Thus “Beresford” became, as it were, the parent of other now thriving assemblies around London, which, of course, tended to reduce the numbers of those remaining. During the years of its existence the assembly had many links with the foreign field, some of its members going out at the call of God whilst prayerful interest was maintained at home.
When the lease of the building, which Mr. Lincoln held, expired, it was acquired by a Christian who was very sympathetic and generous, and more than once reduced the rent when from time to time the membership fell. On the death of this owner the lease was sold into other hands not so sympathetic, and in 1920 notice to quit was received. This caused much anxiety to the assembly, especially as occupation of the chapel had to be given up before another suitable building could be obtained. After about two years without a building to meet in, except for the use of a schoolroom close by, the Lord wonderfully opened up the way for His people. A well-built chapel, which previous to the war had been occupied by a German Lutheran congregation, became available in 1922. This building, situated in Windsor Walk, Denmark Hill, Camberwell, having a lease of thirty years to run, was procured. The assembly has, in the goodness of God, continued to meet in this building to this day. A few of those accompanying Mr. Lincoln in his step in 1862 remained to commence the work at this new place of gathering, but during the years that have intervened almost all have been called home to be with the Lord.
One feature of the history of the work at Beresford has been the powerful effect of the preaching of God’s Word by Mr. Lincoln on the lives of many believers who remained there for years, this having noticeably moulded their character, and has been a living testimony to the correctness of the step taken in 1862.
Leyton And East London
Well over fifty years ago two newly married men decided to make their homes in what was then the pretty little village of Leytonstone. Their names were William T. Bilson and Ransome Wallis. Both were earnest Christian workers, and very soon they became deeply exercised concerning the lack of testimony on simple Scriptural lines. This led them to look around for some building in which they with other Christians might gather to the name of the Lord. After much searching they found a small hall in Leyton which had formerly been a dancing saloon, and had also been utilised for Salvation Army meetings. Though not considered an ideal place, yet it was felt that a door had been opened in answer to prayer, and here a number of believers gathered around the Lord’s Table for the first time. Gospel services and Sunday School work were started, and soon afterwards a weekly meeting for women under the spiritual care of Mrs. Skelton was commenced. In those early days such stalwarts as Lord Radstock, William Groves (known as “Happy Bill”), Gipsy Smith, John Jones and Sergeant Bailey were numbered among the many fellow-helpers in the Gospel.
With the opening of this meeting several of the Lord’s people residing at Walthamstow, who were in fellowship with the Clapton Assembly, strengthened the little company by joining the Leyton gathering. The work prospered exceedingly, and the assembly became so large that about half the number, by mutual agreement, occupied the Y.M.C.A.
premises then existing near the present “Bakers’ Arms” Almshouses, where a testimony was begun. The work continued to prosper, many missions were held and souls were saved. About the year 1895 the Sunday School, which from the beginning had been under the superin- tendency of W. T. Bilson, became so overcrowded that it was necessary to provide a schoolroom for the infant class; this was built by the teachers and friends.
When the Livingstone College was opened, just over thirty years ago, a number of medical students during their course of study were received into fellowship at Ley ton. Their presence gave an added stimulus to interest in service for the Lord in other lands, and several in fellowship felt their call from God to serve Him in the foreign field. Mr. James Teskey went to Singapore, Mr. and Mrs. Charters to N. Africa, and more recently Mr. Albert Want to Central Africa. The latter was accompanied by Mr. Conrad Lohr, who was a convert in Leyton Hall Sunday School, although he went out as commended by Southend Assembly.
In the year 1912 the assembly and the work among children had again grown to such proportions that it was decided to look for fresh premises. An old house stood on a site opposite the hall. The ground was secured, the house demolished, and the present hall and classrooms built, the opening services being conducted by James W. C. Fegan.
About this time several of the friends living at Leytonstone decided with others to form an assembly in that neighbourhood, which resulted in about thirty going to form the nucleus of the testimony of Grove Green Hall. Notwithstanding this depletion of numbers together with the possession of larger premises, the efforts continued to be blessed and the assembly found themselves in urgent need of a separate classroom for the young men. However, the young men themselves rose to the occasion, and under the supervision of George Offord (a builder in fellowship) they built a brick structure large enough to accommodate sixty people. And thus the testimony at Leyton continues.
The neighbouring assembly of Folkestone Road Hall, which is one of the largest assemblies in London, commenced in the early eighties in a very unpretentious manner at a time when Walthamstow was rapidly developing from what had been a small outlying town to a large and important London suburb. The moment was ripe, the growing population came under the sound of the Gospel when and where it was needed, and God blessed the effort. How the work of grace began is recalled by Mr. G. J. Hyde, who has furnished the witer with the story of its rapid and remarkable expansion.
The late Mrs. Ransome Wallis—
neé Miss McCall—started a Bible Class for young men, which was held in a small iron hall that her father had erected in a field belonging to him close to Hoe Street. Several of these young men were converted, and to provide an outlet for their zeal and energy Mr. McCall and his daughter sought the aid of Thomas FL Morris, who later laid down his life for the Lord in Central Africa, A tent was procured and was pitched at Whipps Cross Corner, adjoining Epping Forest. Mr. Morris was a good evangelist and a capable organiser. Many were, through his instrumentality, brought to the Lord, and the problem immediately arose as to where the meetings could be continued. Mr. McCall offered his little building, and throughout the winter, meetings were carried on there with further signs of blessing. As at that time there was no assembly at Walthamstow, those desiring baptism and fellowship went either to Clapton Hall or Leyton Hall.
In 1884 another tent was pitched at the corner of Boundary Road and Floe Street, with the result that many were brought to the Lord. As the tent was on the borders of Leyton, a meeting was held between the brethren then gathering in the old Leyton Hall and those who had been going to Clapton Hall, to discuss the question of securing a central place where the believers of Walthamstow could break bread instead of having to make the journey to Clapton. A site was obtained in the garden of a house in the vicinity, and the small building was removed thereto from Mr. McCall’s premises. There the united Leyton and Walthamstow brethren first met to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread. A Sunday School was started here whilst other meetings were carried on at Leyton Hall. Numbers increased, outgrowing the accommodation, so a dismantled Iron Hall, which had formerly stood in the Mile End Road, was purchased and rebuilt in the Queen’s Road. The Walthamstow Assembly was then duly constituted.
From the beginning the Lord greatly blessed the testimony of the Gospel; souls were saved each week, many Christians from various places of worship in the town were attracted, and, being helped, sought fellowship. After a time, so great was the interest manifested, the question arose as to providing further accommodation. Minerva House in High Street was taken and a work amongst children begun. The little Iron Hall was removed from Leyton to the Higham Hill district of Walthamstow and a mission commenced, of which Mr. B. R. Mudditt was the first superintendent.
Alluding to those early days of which we wite, when open-air meetings and personal dealing with the unsaved were pleasing features, I cannot refrain from recounting here what another witer, who himself passed through those times of refreshing, has set down, for it gives us a happy glimpse into those not very remote days. After describing the speakers, whom he assures us were not giants in oratory and argument, he says: “The one who drew and held the biggest crowds was ‘Daddy’ Kenyon, and many a person who never entered a place of worship would go down High Street on Sunday night to hear the old man speak. He was indeed a bit of old Walthamstow, and I visualise him even now: a tall man with white hair and beard, dressed in the long frock coat of the later Victorian age, standing on a portable rostrum telling the people the number of years he had proved the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Friend that sticketh closer than a brother.
“At the close of the meeting, the Doxology having been sung, quite a number of people would move to where ‘Daddy’ was standing, as, with tears in his eyes, he would say, ‘Now, lads, why don’t you come to Christ?’ And there, with open Bible in hand, he would seek to point them to the Saviour.
“At the Sunday evening Gospel meeting Mr. Kenyon was the doorkeeper, and right well did he perform the task. As the choir sang on the platform he sang at the door, and as the people came in he not only gave them a hymn book but found them a seat, and with his infectious smile made the newcomer feel at home. He then returned along the aisle still singing. On Lord’s Day morning when he wished to lead the praise or prayers of the assembly, he would invariably come forward and kneel at the Lord’s Table. During the week, after finishing his rounds in the performance of his duties as postman, his spare time was spent in giving away tracts to the passers-by, and in this way he became widely known; hence it was that people liked to hear him speak in the open-air, for every word he spoke was backed up by the ripe experience of a man who walked with God.”
To cope with the needs of the Queen’s Road work, some structural alterations to the building were carried out, which provided additional accommodation for a hundred persons. The attendance continued to increase, when unhappily the adjoining owner brought an action to restrain the premises being utilised for religious meetings. Owing to a flaw in the title deeds on a technical point, the plaintiff won his case, and the assembly was compelled to pull down the hall. The result was the erection of the larger premises where the assembly still meets, and in the present building the work has been carried on for nearly half a century. Many memorable gatherings have been held in this place, and it is associated with times of gracious revivings, for many have been saved under its roof. At the present time the number on the Church register of Folkestone Road Assembly is about three hundred and eighty. The Sunday School enrols three hundred and fifty scholars; there are in addition ninety members of the young women’s Bible Class, and about forty in the young men’s Bible Class.
The history of Folkestone Road Assembly is an illustration of the proverb, “There is that scattereth but yet increaseth,” for there have been two new assemblies formed in the district from it. About thirty-six years ago the brethren who laboured at Higham Hill, before referred to, felt the time had come to start a meeting. A new hall, known as Higham Hill Gospel Flail, was built, and a number transferred from Folkestone Road Hall. The work has continued happily, and there are at present nearly a hundred in fellowship.
Following a period of spiritual prosperity, the Mission in the High Street, to which we have already alluded, underwent some considerable change about ten years ago. The Minerva House work had been transferred to a Workman’s Hall in 1889, and a thriving work maintained among the children and young people. The tenure of the premises was becoming somewhat precarious, when a large mission room in Markhouse Road, belonging to a Congregational Church, was secured and the work re-established there. The new premises, known as South Grove Hall, being more commodious, and no restrictions being placed upon their use, naturally gave an impetus to the work, several tent missions being held on the land in front of the hall, adding to its interest and increasing its blessing. The result was that in 1928 the workers considered that it would be honouring to the Lord if a fresh assembly were formed there. After prayerful waiting upon God, in full fellowship with the parent meeting, an assembly was established in the autumn of that year, sixty-one being commended from Folkestone Road Hall to South Grove, consisting of those who were engaged in the work there or living in the neighbourhood.
The Old Clock Factory At Wimbledon
Of the three assemblies at Wimbledon, Haydon Hall, in the North Road, is some few years the senior in point of time, although Central Hall, or its predecessor, the Old Alexander Rooms Meeting, would represent the original assembly, it having been first housed in the drawing-room of that beloved Christian brother, John Churchill. It was afterwards transferred to the Old Alexander Rooms and finally to the present Central Hall, which was erected by Mr. Churchill.
In his early Christian course, Mr. Churchill manifested a desire not only towards the furtherance of the Gospel, but in teaching and the pastoral care of the flock of Christ. He was greatly helped and encouraged in this through his close friendship with Sir Arthur Blackwood, a prominent Christian, in whose house Bible readings were regularly held to which all who had a love for the Scriptures were welcome. A number of years were happily spent with believers at Maiden Hall, Kentish Town, where Mr. Churchill found ample opportunity for service. On his removal to Wimbledon he found no company of Christians assembled together with the desire to be guided by the Word of God, and it was thus that Mr. Churchill, with a few others of like mind, commenced to break bread in his own house.
In this way began the testimony at Wimbledon which, in the goodness of God, very soon developed in a remarkable manner.
“In looking back on his life,” one who knew him well wote some time ago, “I am greatly impressed with the amount of time which he, a man of considerable responsibility in business, gladly gave to God and His people. He generally had nearly two hours before breakfast for reading and prayer and would often read his Bible in the morning train, and, in addition, would read, in the evening his Hebrew Bible or Greek Testament. At one time on Sunday he would gather his children around the Word after breakfast, then go to the morning meeting, conduct a Bible reading in the afternoon, visit some lonely neighbour, and preach the Gospel in the evening. This surely was a full day for a man hard at work all week, and who would usually go to three week-night meetings. In looking back on this life of active service one must heartily praise God, too, for Mrs. Churchill, who, though very delicate, was always willing to spare him for these manifold calls upon his time.”
From its inception in 1879, the work carried on at Haydon Hall is inseparably associated with the names of two brothers, Edmund and William lies. In early life both were wild and dissolute men, but God by His grace touched their hearts and ultimately called them to serve Him in the Gospel. From living a prodigal life of waste and extravagance, the brothers very soon proved that their new Master not only provided them with brighter homes to live in but paid them better wages, and being good and efficient tradesmen they were able in course of time to commence business on their own account. And while the brothers built up a thriving business they laboured diligently for the Lord, praying that He would open up the way for a Gospel testimony in their midst. Their prayers were answered in a singular way.
There being a need for stabling accommodation in connection with their business the brothers purchased a site in North Road, containing a wooden building of two storeys which had formerly been used as a clock factory. This was regarded as likely to make very suitable stables, but as Edmund was one day ascending the stairs to the upper floor (as he afterwards related), he seemed to lose sight of the floor above him and see the large building as it would be were the stairs and floor removed. At that moment it was as though a voice said, “Would not this make a splendid hall for the preaching of the Gospel?” He at once replied, “Well, Lord, if Thou dost want it for that purpose, Thou shalt have it.” And realising that God had spoken, Edmund lies and his brother William at once set to work upon the conversion of the one-time clock factory into what proved to be quite a suitable place for worship. They named the building Haydon Hall, after Haydon’s Lane, the then old country lane now known as Haydon’s Road. The next concern was to find a preacher who would draw the people together and proclaim the Gospel faithfully. Their choice fell on William Groves, who at that time was stirring up the east end of London. Possibly the novelty of religious services being held in the old clock factory, together with the captivating personality of “Happy Bill” (who was ably assisted by his wife), drew large numbers to those meetings, and from the first souls were saved. God had indeed set His seal to the preaching, strong men being broken down and melted to tears by the preacher’s impassionate appeals. So great was the Spirit of God manifested that in many cases the awakened and anxious ones would not leave the building until they were brought into peace with God, and often in those early days the workers were dealing with the anxious until midnight.
“But those were glorious days,” a brother wites; “times when the Holy Spirit was manifestly felt amongst us, breaking down and ploughing up so that men and women in soul agony were continually crying out, ‘What must I do to be saved?’”
It was not long before those who found the Saviour came together for the study of the Scriptures. Thus there was revealed to those simple believers the truths of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Accordingly, provision was made for the carrying out of the Scriptural command of baptism by immersion, and almost simultaneously the Table was spread that the little company of Christians might come together on the first day of the week in remembrance of their Lord and Saviour in His dying love. It was in this way that, an assembly of believers was established.
But it was not to be expected that the old wooden clock factory should stand the stress of time indefinitely. It was about the year 1884 that the main wooden support showed an advanced state of decay, so that the building became dangerous, and it was determined that another hall be erected, the present brick structure being the result. The removal into the new hall was signalised by a season of much blessing. Since then the work has been continuously progressive, and with such evangelists as Richard Weaver, W. R. Lane, Charles Inglis, E. H. Wells, George Hucklesby, Russell Hurditch, Ephraim Venn and W. H. Dunning, God has been pleased to save and add to the Church.
Sunday School work was carried on from the early days, the first school being held in rooms over a five-stall stable, which had been adapted for the purpose; but this soon became too small and produced the problem of the provision of greater accommodation. In the course of time, additional land at the rear of the premises, with a frontage to Garfield Road, was purchased, and the present substantial Sunday School building erected. In these successive schoolrooms have gathered hundreds of scholars, in many cases reaching down to the third generation from those people who formed the original gathering, and the majority of those now in fellowship are those who have been scholars in the Sunday School.
About the year 1885 two brothers, Henry and Tom Poulton, became exercised regarding the lack of testimony in the Cross Road neighbourhood of Wimbledon, and after a time of prayerful waiting upon God for guidance, they, with others, were ultimately led to build the present Cross Road Hall, where for several years Gospel services were continued. God graciously honoured the labours of His servants, many of those who attended the meetings being led to the Saviour, which resulted in an assembly being formed. Thus from small beginnings In Mr. Churchill’s drawing-room, over half a century ago, there are to-day in Wimbledon three assemblies of believers all in happy fellowship with each other.
The Archway Assembly
Comment has already been made upon the rather odd places which have been brought into commission for the holding of Gospel meetings and assembly gatherings. And yet, as we have seen, from small and not always dignified beginnings, God has been pleased graciously to give His blessing upon those who have sought in simple faith to carry out His will according to the Scriptures. Thus, as has already been observed, to such primitive beginnings not a few assemblies date their origin.
It was in a Dancing Academy which stood upon the site now occupied by the Highgate Tube Station, London, that the Archway Assembly was formed between fifty and sixty years ago. A few friends, keenly interested in the needs of the Gospel in that neighbourhood, hired the premises for use on Sunday evenings. From the start the effort received God’s smile, and before many months had elapsed numbers who attended these meetings were led to trust the Saviour. This resulted in the workers and converts coming together for divine guidance, as many of those who had recently professed faith in Christ expressed a desire to follow the Lord in baptism and in the breaking of bread. Their prayers were signally answered, and in the month of November, 1883, a little company of believers assembled around the Lord’s Table for the first time. For twenty-eight years the activities of the meeting continued in the old Dancing Academy in Junction Road, when, through the assistance of Arthur Garstin, the hall came into the possession of the assembly. Later, when the property was acquired by the Underground Electric Railway Company, the handsome compensation given by the directors was used to purchase a new site and build the present hall.
In its early days the assembly received much spiritual help from such brethren as Henry Varley, R. C. Morgan and Ned Wight, besides others whose names are familiar to the reader.
The Testimony At Woolwich
In our survey of the work of the Holy Spirit it is of more than passing interest to observe that not a few assemblies throughout the country can trace their origin to a tent mission. It was at the conclusion of a Gospel campaign conducted by John Vine at Lewisham in 1874, that Captain Orde-Browne, a retired officer of the Royal Artillery, who had become keenly interested in the work, got the idea of having the tent pitched at Woolwich. Thus in the autumn of the same year the tent was erected on a piece of waste ground on Hanover Road, about five minutes’ walk from the site of the present Gospel Hall, Nightingale Vale.
The Lord mightily used this effort, and between seventy and eighty people were led to the Saviour. To this work Captain and Mrs. Orde-Browne devoted themselves with untiring energy of heart and soul, not only in visiting almost every house in the district but by their consistent Christian influence. The tent mission continued every night for about two months and conversions were followed by many being led to see the truth of believers’ baptism, opportunity being afforded for the carrying out of this Scriptural ordinance at Lewisham.
With the removal of the tent a pressing need to consolidate the work presented itself to the few Christians who had a spiritual care for the young converts, many of whom having already expressed a desire to gather together once a week that they might remember the Lord’s death. Bible readings and prayer meetings were convened, and as the interest continued and numbers increased it was realised that a suitable meeting-place would soon be required. This presented some difficulty, but the Lord wonderfully opened up the way by laying the matter on the heart of Captain Orde-Browne, who, with the help of others, purchased a piece of land in Nightingale Vale, upon which was erected the present Gospel Hall.
At the first special services held in the new hall Lord Radstock was instrumental in the salvation of souls, and fresh numbers were added to the assembly. In later years, among those who were used in the building up of believers and in preaching the Gospel, the names of F. C. Bland, A. J. Holiday and J. W. C. Fegan are still remembered. Towards the close of 1879 God had prospered the work so greatly and the numbers had increased to such an extent that an addition to the hall became necessary. The building was extended to the present dimensions, and the Nightingale Vale Gospel Flail became the largest assembly meeting-place in south-east London.
“The outstanding features of the work in those early days,” wites one who was actively associated with the fruitful times which are now recalled, seem to have been intense love to the Lord and a longing desire for the salvation of souls; and these traits were common to all members of the assembly, which was composed for the greater part of young believers.”
Subsequent years proved how signally the Lord blessed the testimony begun in the Woolwich neighbourhood, a distinctive feature of Gospel evidence being open-air work in Arsenal Square. In connection with aggressive Gospel effort, mention should specially be made of the labours of Lieutenant H.A. Mandeville, who relinquished a commission in the Navy that he might devote himself entirely to spiritual work, particularly amongst the people of this neighbourhood; also of S. Trevor Francis—remembered as the author of many beautiful hymns—who helped the assembly very constantly by preaching and singing.
Captain Orde-Browne, who was mainly instrumental in the founding and development of the testimony at Woolwich, had a distinguished career as a soldier, and in his day was recognised as the greatest living authority on armour and ordnance. Entering the army before reaching the age of seventeen he took part with the siege train in the attack on Sebastopol during the Crimean War, and was mentioned in dispatches for his gallant conduct in the trenches. He was an intimate friend of General Gordon. These two undertook ragged school work in London, for which their names will long be remembered. When Gordon went to the Soudan for the first time he asked Orde-Browne to go with him, but his heart was in the school work and he refused to leave it.
Shortly after his conversion Captain Orde-Browne became keenly interested in the spiritual welfare of the men under his charge. He saw the sin and trouble that drink brought to the men of his troop and he set himself to lead them in cleaner paths. Quite a revival took place among them. Drawn away from the public-houses, the men were ready to come to a room he had fitted up in barracks, where he and other Christians held Bible readings. On one occasion, after a march from Newbridge to Dublin, the major commanding complimented him on his troop. “Not a man under arrest—not a sore back among the horses!” It is said that the men pursued their route along the country roads singing hymns.
On his appointment to the Royal Arsenal, Captain Orde-Browne and his wife began a work in the ragged schools and among the tramps’ lodging-houses. For years he visited and preached in the kitchens. His manner was so genial and kindly that even in Roman Catholic houses the good Christian soldier was heartily welcomed, and some remarkable conversions took place through his influence. Amidst all his Government work he never allowed the work of the Gospel to suffer, but made it the primary object of his life.
Woolwich and Plumstead grew considerably in population as time went on, and it was felt that two new halls were needed in different parts of Plumstead. These, through the blessing of the Lord, were erected in due course, and in perfect harmony with the mother assembly.
There is still imprinted on my mind an early recollection of attending, as a very small boy, a Gospel meeting up a rickety old wooden stair, which led to a long narrow room over a stable, where, during the service, the ceaseless crunching of the bit and the erratic movements of restless horses below could be distinctly heard as the preaching proceeded.
It was indeed a primitive and unpretentious meeting-place. The walls were coloured pink and the ceiling whitewashed, the only attempt at decoration being a few modest-looking card texts displayed here and there as if to break the wearisome monotony of this bare, uninviting meeting-room. Those were the days of what is now regarded as old-fashioned Gospel preaching; but preaching which drew many a lost one to the Saviour, and where, at those hallowed meetings, even, the most lukewarm soul could not fail to perceive a truly spiritual atmosphere.
In my search for data in connection with this work I have been struck as I have noted the number of assemblies of Christians which first came together for the breaking of bread in a room above a stable, or in some such apartment, where believers, faithful to the Word of God, sought in all sincerity to worship the One they adored. And there have they continued until circumstances led them into premises more fitted for the purpose, where they might meet in a manner honouring to Him Whose name they were not ashamed to bear.
It may have been observed, as we have sojourned together in thought from one assembly of believers to another, that I have carefully avoided indulging in any form of criticism, particularly In what may be assumed as that pertaining to the various meeting-places chosen for the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper. Nor would I even now dare to cast a stone. Nevertheless, it has often occurred to me, as it must have been obvious to most, that there are occasions in the early life of an assembly when its transference to a more suitable room or hall would have been more honouring to the testimony. In clinging to the old place, doubtless actuated in a measure by sentiment, there may be just that subtle danger of unconscious pride having a semblance of feigned humility, which surely cannot be in accordance with the will and purpose of God.
A good, number of years ago I had occasion to stay over the week-end in a small town in the Midlands. Not having had the opportunity beforehand of ascertaining the address of an assembly of believers, should there be one, I set out on the Saturday evening to make enquiries, and, after some considerable search, I was eventually directed to the proprietor of a prosperous-looking business establishment in the town. Having placed me under some cross-examination as to my credentials, he rather reluctantly gave me the address and time of the meeting. Next morning I sought out the address given, which was in a poor locality, and, after passing through a lane and up a badly lighted stair, I found myself in a mean apartment over a stable where the table was spread for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There was but a handful of people present, the brother whom I had met the previous evening taking the leading part throughout the meeting. I was young in the faith at that time, and while I did not lose sight of the fact that the real object of that little gathering was to meet our Lord, nevertheless I could not help inwardly contrasting the apparent affluence of our brother who owned the big store in the town, with the cold and uninviting room above the stable—all that was provided in which to meet for the remembrance of our Saviour’s dying love. This may have been an isolated case, but the circumstance is indelibly imprinted on my memory.
Stable Loft At Harlesden
It was in some such place as the one to which I have alluded that a number of Christians met to remember the Lord in Wendover Road, Harlesden, in north-west London. For a time the little company came together in a room immediately over a stable, but eventually the unsuitable character of the place for the gathering of God’s people, and for the testimony of the Gospel, led them to seek other premises. In this the way was wonderfully opened up. Previous to the time of which we wite Edward Stevens came to Harlesden. This was in the year 1880. Having learned Scriptural truth regarding the gathering together of believers for the breaking of bread, he found no one in this quiet little village—as it then was—of like mind to himself. He commenced Gospel meetings in his house, afterwards holding open-air services on the village green. This continued until the following year, when Mr. Stevens with another brother and their wives came together to remember the Lord for the first time. Others were added until, as we shall see, the way was opened up for removal to better adapted premises. Negotiations were entered into with Robert Bilke, the director of what was then known as The Union Hall Mission, for the renting of a hall which, owing to lack of funds, had been closed. This resulted in a hall eminently suitable for the purpose being secured at a moderate rent. In the days that followed, the Lord graciously helped, the assembly receiving much spiritual assistance from the fellowship and ministry of such well-known brethren as Dr. Neatby and John Jewell Penstone. “They and others,” says Mr. G. Radwell, who was closely associated with the founding and building up of the assembly, “frequently came and remained in the afternoon to take a homely cup of tea in the hall with fellow-believers who stayed between the Sunday School and evening meeting. On such occasions we had never-to-be-forgotten conversational ministry, and at the evening meeting which followed there was on many occasions an increase of the Body of Christ through souls being born again by the Holy Spirit.”
After a period of spiritual prosperity the assembly was unexpectedly called upon to pass through a time of testing. The trustees of the hall, finding themselves in a precarious financial position, decided to sell the place. This seemingly dark cloud, however, had its silver lining, and proved to be a blessing in disguise, for not only did the Lord give the assembly the ownership of the hall, through the generosity of John Pike (who with his wife had been much helped spiritually by the ministry in the assembly), but the whole of the premises, which were in a rather dilapidated condition, were thoroughly renovated when the building was handed over. In later years the freehold of the hall was purchased by their son, Charles Pike; thus the present Kenmont Hall was provided without the necessity of appealing to any outside source.
From this assembly there went forth those seeking to lend a helping hand to Christians in neighbouring parts, who had expressed a desire to follow in paths revealed to them by a closer study of the Scriptures. Thus a testimony was commenced at Leighton Buzzard, where the large Victoria Hall was hired for a Gospel mission, in which those engaged in the effort had the co-operation of the veteran brother, Mr. Ashby. The lesser hall was afterwards rented, and regular meetings on Lord’s Day were instituted and continued with the happy fellowship of believers from neighbouring assemblies.
Early History Of Welbeck Assembly
The history of Welbeck Assembly goes back to the early days of the Movement in London, it being one of the first to be established after the start at Rawstorne Street. Originally meeting in a room in Orchard Street—a name which figures largely in early Brethren records and correspondence—the assembly in the year 1860 removed to premises in Welbeck Street, from which it took its name. Lord Congleton was in fellowship here for thirty years, a period marked by seasons of blessing and spiritual calm, following hard upon anxious and disturbing times. A brother, who for many years was associated in the oversight at Welbeck Hall, has left behind remembrances which give us some insight into the life and character manifested in the assembly at that time. In this connection his allusion to Lord Congleton’s care and interest in the welfare of the assembly is recalled.
“My early impression of him,” says the witer, “was that he was a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, his chief pleasure being to meet with those who were introduced to him as Christians walking according to the light they possessed; to such he had always a word of encouragement, and was always meek and gentle in his manner towards them. Usually he would take their names and addresses, in order, if possible, to shepherd them, no matter what their social position in life might be…He had a large heart for Gospel and Sunday School work, in which he was always interested, and set a high value on prayer meetings and on Bible readings. When acting in Church discipline he never flinched, however painful the duty. He was ever willing to receive into fellowship any who were commended by those known as sound in the faith. Where there was a difficulty he was always ready to have it cleared up, and very slow to take up or to repeat any charges brought against an individual or an assembly.”
Other notable names to be found in the register of those who had a powerful influence in the spiritual good of the assembly include Earl of Cavan, Mr. and Mrs. Yapp, Lady Queensberry, Lord and Lady Radstock and family, and Mr. Underwood.
It was at Welbeck Hall that the quarterly missionary meetings were held, and the names of brethren who were present at those early gatherings conjure up memories of some of the pioneers who went out from the assemblies: Arnotj Hunter, Baedeker, Hudson Taylor, Crawford, Blamire, Wigston and others. It is worthy of note that the missionary interest thus fostered has been strikingly maintained in a very practical sense, and there are many still out in “regions beyond” in the Lord’s work who spent the whole of their assembly life at the Welbeck Hall meeting. In the days of which we wite, there were from three hundred to four hundred in fellowship. Since then the number of assemblies in London has, as we have seen, increased in a considerable measure, but with the tendency of late years to remove to the suburbs, the present assembly now numbers less than quarter of its original size.
One pleasing instance of happy Christian unity, which other assemblies of the Lord’s people might well seek to emulate, has marked in a very real way the unhindered leading of the Holy Spirit. A well-known exclusive assembly, formerly meeting at Marble Row, Oxford Street, and formed just after the first division among brethren, has in the last year or so come together with the Welbeck Hall Assembly, and now meets in happy fellowship at No.1 Rossmore Road. The united meeting still bears the old name of Welbeck Hall.
About fifty years ago a few brethren living in the Highgate district of North London were for some time meeting with an assembly in Hampden Road, Holloway. There being no assembly in their own neighbourhood, and the distance to Hampden Road being considerable, it was thought desirable to commence a testimony nearer home. With this in view, the help and guidance of Charles P. Bilson—who was at that time in fellowship with the Archway Assembly—was sought. He at once offered his own drawing-room, which was a large apartment over his shop, and very suitable for the purpose of worship meetings. It was here that the Cholmeley Hall Assembly, which to-day has a membership of two hundred and fifty, was formed. Soon afterwards, Robert Farie became associated with the little gathering of believers, and remained to guide the assembly almost until his Home-call in 1924.
On Sunday afternoons, when the weather was fine, a Gospel meeting was held in Highgate Woods. A public footpath passing that way, numbers of people would gather around the speakers, or remain near by, where the trunk of a fallen tree afforded seating accommodation. As interest in this effort became evident an unoccupied shop was rented, and later the premises were enlarged to meet the growing need.
About this time a women’s meeting was commenced by Mrs. Cooper. It was held on Sunday afternoons, and was followed by a homely cup of tea. Thus many of the women—among them a number of servant girls in whose welfare Mrs. Cooper showed a deep interest—remained to the evening Gospel meeting, resulting in a number of them, as they came to know the Lord, being added to the assembly. In the window of the shop premises where these meetings were held, a large open Bible was placed by Mrs. Cooper for passers-by to read. These meetings have been carried on since that time, and have proved a source of much spiritual blessing. Five years after the start in Mr. Bilson’s drawing-room and the subsequent removal of the little assembly to the shop premises, it became necessary to seek larger and better adapted accommodation, and the present hall was built. It received its name from Cholmeley Park, which is near by. A special window was provided in the new building for Mrs. Cooper’s Bible, with an arrangement for the illumination of the pages when the nights were dark; and the Word has been displayed ever since.
Few assemblies have shown a more practical concern in
the furtherance of the Gospel in foreign lands than the company of Christians meeting at Cholmeley Hall, there being at the present time eight missionaries serving the Lord who went out from this assembly. In this connection it is of interest to mention that among the number is Sidney Adams, of Malaya, one of a family of eight sons and four daughters of Mr. A. Adams, of East Finchley (one of the original brethren who met over fifty years ago), all of whom were brought to the Lord and baptized at Cholmeley Hall.
The Start At Greenwich
The assembly at Greenwich had its inception, in a considerable measure, through the labours of James W. C. Fegan, whose name has already been mentioned in connection with Gospel activities in the London neighbourhood. With a view to establishing a testimony where at that time no Gospel witness existed, he purchased a large public-house in the High Street, Deptford, and turned it into a Gospel Hall, which became the spiritual birthplace of numbers who were attracted by the faithful message. Following this undertaking, a Gospel testimony was also commenced by Mr. Fegan at Greenwich, where largely attended meetings were held both in tent and theatre. The converts from this fruitful effort and from the activities at the West Greenwich Ragged School were, under the guidance of Mr. Fegan and Joseph W. Jordan (whose name is also notably associated with many of the London assemblies), gathered into a room in the town, where the little company first broke bread. This was in the month of August, 1875, and marked the commencement of the Greenwich Assembly. The meeting was later transferred to
the King George Street Hall, these premises having been purchased from the Wesleyan body and converted into a suitable assembly hall and schoolroom.
Though the name of James W. C. Fegan is more directly connected with the founding and maintenance of Fegan’s Homes for destitute boys, yet he ever found time and opportunity to
evangelise and teach amongst the assemblies in and around London, wherever a door was opened. In his early years he was brought in close contact with many prominent brethren, whose names take a notable place in the narrative of events before us. During the frequent visits of J. N. Darby to Southampton, and later to London, the Irish leader on several occasions was a welcome guest at the home of the Fegans. The mother of Mr. Fegan, who died in 1907, was wont to relate how she recalled Mr. Darby as a clergyman coming down from the pulpit of the church where
he ministered and walking along the street in his black ministerial robes, to join the company of Christians who had been in the habit of coming together in apostolic simplicity each Lord’s Day, for the breaking of bread.
Brought up in this spiritual atmosphere it is not to be wondered at that young Fegan, soon after his conversion, seized every available opportunity, both in hall and open-air work, that he might lend a helping hand in the exhilarating work of soul-winning. And as we have already seen, there were few assemblies in the Metropolis where an aggressive work was being carried on, that his presence was not felt in a very practical way.
Among the notable helpers associated with Greenwich Assembly, the name of Huntingdon Stone is affectionately remembered. With a heart for the propagation of the Gospel in the foreign field, he devoted both time and money that the message of salvation might be carried to the uttermost parts of the earth, Mr. Stone provided a training home for young men and another for young women going abroad, and left his fortune of £250,000 to
Echoes of Service for the Lord’s work.
In this record of assemblies of the Lord’s people, formed some generations ago, it may prove an encouragement to include the experience of an assembly of more recent date.
In the year 1926 five brethren with their wives met in conference to consider the possibility for testimony in a rural district on the outskirts of London. Among them was Mr. J. W. Laing, who with remarkable foresight conceived the idea. They had recently come to reside in the neighbourhood, having previously been in fellowship with assemblies of believers in the north. At that time a new railway had been built, connecting the green fields with the great Metropolis. These Christian believers, all engaged in active business or home duties, visualised the day when these green fields would become fields of humanity, spiritually White unto Harvest.”
They planned and prayed, seeking a Heavenly Father’s guidance as to the very best site for a place of worship, Gospel testimony and fellowship in this developing neighbourhood. At that time the most suitable site was occupied by a railway, which would be removed in the course of a year. It was thought advisable, therefore, to wait patiently until the site was available rather than hasten matters and build a hall in a less suitable position.
Then there was the problem as to what size of hall should be built. Those faithful believers visualised great opportunities, as dwelling-houses were being erected in the neighbourhood, and yet the fear was often there—would the undertaking prove a failure? A hail was planned to seat four hundred to five hundred, with a Sunday School of equal size.
At last the site became vacant and the building of Woodcroft Hall began. By the time it was ready the number of believers had increased to twenty. On the day when the hall was opened. Christians from surrounding assemblies gathered to show fellowship in the undertaking, which was a great cheer to the few who had shouldered so great a responsibility. And when, on the day following, they met to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread, how small in number they seemed and how weak they felt, but how precious was the sense of the Lord’s presence.
It being virgin soil with a growing population and no competitive Christian work, the Sunday School began with a membership of five hundred and gradually increased to one thousand. The intention of the Christians at first was to keep the hall undisturbed and not use it as a Sunday School; but the needs of the work made it necessary to consecrate the Hall for Sunday School work as well as for worship and Gospel testimony. Soon afterwards seven additional rooms large enough to accommodate about eighty children in each were added.
On the first Sunday evening the Gospel meeting had an attendance of one hundred and fifty, but this number gradually decreased until the attendance numbered only seventy or eighty. It was decided, therefore, to announce a lantern talk instead of the usual Gospel service, the slides illustrating the life of our Lord. Four of the brethren, in turn, read portions from the Gospels, which had been carefully prepared for the occasion, describing the slides. This rather unorthodox form of Gospel appeal attracted quite a number, and that night seemed to mark the turn in the attendance at the Gospel meetings as numbers steadily increased from that time.
At the close of six years there were two hundred and forty in fellowship. Of this number about one-third were from churches where modernism had robbed the message of all its power, and people sought the assembly where the Lord was revered and His Word honoured; another third had moved into the district from other churches; while the remainder had been saved and received into fellowship since the opening of the hall. It was considered that the assembly was now too large for fellowship and active service. None wished to move, but it was acknowledged by all that it would be better for some of the Christians to reach out to other districts, preaching the Word in these places also. After much waiting upon God in prayer, thirty members of Woodcroft Assembly built a hall three miles to the northwest, while another hall was built by fifty others three miles to the south-west. Thus in happy fellowship they hived-off from the parent assembly and started testimonies in those places. During the following three or four years, the parent assembly had again increased to about two hundred and fifty in fellowship, and each of the infant assemblies more than doubled the number in fellowship.
“Since the commencement of this remarkable work,” wites one of the pioneer workers, “there has been no outstanding revival; and yet conversions have been fairly frequent, each year about twenty believers being baptized. God has principally used the Sunday School, the Gospel meetings and the women’s meetings. To these activities may be added the faithful labours of a brother and his wife who devoted half their time to the service of visiting the sick in body and the anxious in soul.”
The leaders in the Woodcroft Hall Assembly have ever sought to avoid a sectarian spirit or practice, their one desire being not to follow the tradition of men but simply to follow the teaching of the Lord Jesus, as illustrated in Holy Scripture in the records of the early churches. They are persuaded that in this period of the twentieth century, God is not using the great Gospel meetings as fifty years ago, but increasingly the testimony and life of God’s people among their friends and neighbours, and so leading these to the Lord, or to the regular meetings or Sunday School, where they are led to the Lord Jesus.
There are at the present time upwards of one hundred and twenty assemblies of Christians known as Open Brethren in the London area. I have only been able to sketch a brief outline of the spiritual birth and growh of a few of these. To call up each assembly and tell the story of its inception and subsequent life would indeed be a formidable undertaking, even if the exigencies of time and space would permit the pursuit of such indulgence; and yet one hesitates to pass by with little more than passing reference, the many gatherings of the Lord’s people, who, for long years, in times of stress, as well as during seasons of fruitful ingathering, have been faithful to the Word.
As we have seen, from small and unostentatious beginnings in London, little companies of believers, leaving behind the alluring dazzle of ecclesiastical conventionalism that they might carry out the will of God in true apostolic simplicity, have, since the earliest times of this remarkable Movement, increased with an influence which has made its presence felt in the religious world, spreading abroad in a wonderful way from the spiritual birthplace in Camden Town to the farthest suburb of the great Metropolis.