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The Regent Square United Reformed Church (Lumen) in the Twentieth Century

- a brief introduction   


Before the Twentieth Century began the Regent Square Church had had its full share of ups and downs.  An Elder of the church writing in 1898 observed that, “Since the congregation originated the world has moved rapidly, and the advance of knowledge and thought has been reflected in the Christian Church.” 

It could be considered providential that the Presbyterian Regent Square Church had survived at all.  The original Church, consecrated in 1827, had been inaugurated as a sister Church of the established Church of Scotland to rescue the young sons of Scotland who had come to London to seek their fortune and who “in the end are cast away among the manifold temptations of this busy and alluring city”.  From the outset, however, it had endured its own internal traumas.  The first of these was in 1832, when the charismatic preacher, Edward Irving, had the Church doors closed against him for allowing members of the lay congregation to interrupt the services by “speaking in tongues”, and led 800 from Regent Square to form a new Church nearby.  And later he was excommunicated for qualifying the doctrine of Christ’s divinity.  Then in the Disruption of 1843, Thomas Chalmers led 450 ministers and their congregations, including Regent Square, plus probation ministers, teachers and missionaries to form the Free Church of Scotland.  And because of its Scottish roots, the Regent Square Church was not established, with all the disadvantages that this entailed. 

Nevertheless, in 1900, complete with its various social groups and societies and with a flourishing and loyal congregation, this unique Church entered the new Century that would further test the faith and organisation of the Church through times of global wars and economic depression. 

The Victorians had their own version of “The New Man”.  Exemplified in the book Tom Brown’s School Days, this ideal young man embraced the Christian virtues of faith, morality and compassion.  At the same time he was cultured and patriotic; a loyal friend, kind and gentle, but interested in ‘manly pursuits’ – in short, a ‘muscular Christian’.  Organisations and clubs were founded to provide social outlets and facilities to nurture these characteristics.  The Regent Square Church had such an association, founded in 1877 by an inspirational Elder, Robert Whyte.  The Young Man’s Bible Class not only combined Christian teaching with the cultural pursuits of a Literary Society and an orchestra, but also provided facilities for cycling, football, rambling and swimming.  The club also had its own magazine, The Thistle, and it is thanks to this that we can follow the fate of one of the young men, a Church Deacon called Norman Bell, who fought and died in the First World War.

Ironically, in the May 1914 issue of The Thistle, Norman was cited as “an example of manly Christianity.”  As he said, “there is no reason why a Christian young man should not be a sportsman and pay proper regard to his physical, as well as his moral and spiritual development”.  When the time came, young men like this were ready to answer the call to go into uniform and fight for King and country. 

Much has been written about the horrors of the fighting in the first World War, and Norman’s letters to Robert Whyte printed in The Thistle, do nothing to dispel this.  For their part Regent Square, like Churches of every Christian tradition, offered inspiring support and succour for the men of their own congregations and the soldiers in the field.  What emerges from Norman’s short military career is what his Church meant to him.

He was one of the eight members of the Bible Class who volunteered almost as soon as the war started.  Robert Whyte arranged that each man going to fight was to have a ‘twin’ who would keep him in touch with class news, and supply a copy of the monthly Thistle.  Norman’s first letter is printed in November 1914.  Writing in September, he says:  “It was a great treat for one to get up to town for the weekend, and be back for a few hours in dear old Regent Square”. 

Soon, however, he is landing in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force and he sends Robert Whyte a postcard dated Sunday 8th November 1914 to say that he will write when he can, and he is well, and as it is Sunday “I am thinking of the Class today, and I know I shall not be forgotten.”

Norman survived dangerous moments in the trenches.  He wrote in a letter printed in The Thistle in June 1915: “more than once I have been in such tight corners that I never expected to come out alive”.  He goes on to describe how advancing in a party of eight, they were caught by shell fire on a roadside; only he emerged unhurt.  Norman has no doubt that he was protected “as a direct answer to the many prayers that have been offered up on my behalf, because I am convinced that no earthly power could have saved me on that occasion”.  He repeats this sentiment many times in subsequent letters as he survives other incidents.

Norman’s letters contain graphic and shocking descriptions of his war experiences, but he never forgets his fellow class mates – “and to hear that the dear old Class is still going strong”.  And later: “I never forget the Class on Sunday afternoons”, and again: “How I wish I could come to dear old Regent Square to see you next Sunday!”  And this wistful yearning is repeated in subsequent letters.

Norman’s faith never deserted him.  A sergeant in his company, with a widowed mother, was ordered into battle the day he learnt that his brother had died of wounds.  Norman’s request to take his place was refused.  “Would you believe it, he was the first man to be killed when the battalion reached the trenches.  Isn’t it difficult to reconcile such incidents with the knowledge that there is an all-wise and all-powerful God?”  His belief was tested but remained unshaken.

Alas, Norman’s protection ran out.  His regiment was the Queen Victoria Rifles and he was killed on the day of their last engagement of the Battle of the Somme on 9th October 1916.  He was shot as he was carried wounded from the battlefield.  It was only after his death that Mr Whyte revealed that a year earlier Norman had written that “I had the offer of a ‘soft’ job which would have kept me out of the trenches and which would practically have guaranteed me a safe return after the war”.  He refused it.

The War ended and those who left eventually came home.  Euphoria naturally gripped the country when the armistice and the German surrender brought peace and the end of the slaughter.  However, the grim reality of the price of the war soon became apparent.  Regent Square’s Annual Report for 1918 observed, “As we reach its close, and reflect on the past months of sorrow, suffering, and privations, a subdued threnody of pain mingles with our paeans of triumph, and the bright hopes with which we started are tinged with a shade of disappointment”.  The cause of this ‘disappointment’ was that there was inflation, unemployment, and families without their menfolk or their income.

While the Church was, as always, ready to offer aid, comfort and certain practical help to those in need, now they also had to face their own problems.  When it came to Church finance, even before the War, income never matched outgoings, and special appeals were made; the War simply made the shortfall a great deal worse.  Notably in 1919 the Synod’s £100,000 Thanksgiving Fund was raised as a “practical expression of Thanksgiving for Victory and Peace”.  Its purpose was to supplement the income of ministers which varied from Church to Church;  some had to struggle on a stipend of less than £200 per year, a poor wage even then. 

There was also their spiritual injury, expressed in “doubts of  the love, mercy and might of God, who permits such evils, and a loss of faith in an all-wise Providence”.  Some people in their grief turned to Spiritualism, most famously Conan Doyle who had lost his only son in the late conflict.

At this point it is worth reminding ourselves of the inimitable character of the Regent Square Church.  This was a Presbyterian Church founded to service a scattered, mainly Scots, congregation in an area which had two Anglican Churches, as well as a Catholic one, to serve the local needs.  In 1827 the Church was surrounded by open fields, but the industrial revolution soon brought the railways.  The more prosperous moved away and were replaced by poor and working class families in the now built-up area.  There were other incomers too:  students from University, medical staff from the local hospital and overseas visitors.  As a result, a substantial proportion of the elders and congregation were drawn from districts which were substantially more affluent than the locality of the Church they attended.  They continued loyally to supplement the Church finances through the hard times of the Twenties and Thirties, enabling the Church’s organisation and activities to continue, and to carry out substantial social work for the local needy.

Of the Church groups started because of the War, some now ceased, some changed, but most persisted, and, reflecting the social changes, new ones were formed.

However, it could be seen as symbolic that the Young Man’s Bible Class never regained its membership.  When Mr Whyte retired in December 1920, it carried on without him until October 1923, and The Thistle ceased publication.  When the class closed, a request was made for the Society to be amalgamated with the Young People’s group, and therefore no longer exclusively male.

In 1929 it was agreed to set up the Dramatic Society with a weekly meeting of a Dramatic and Elocution class.  Their inaugural production was “An Evening with A.A. Milne” for the Literary Society.  In their second  year they performed Yeat’s Land of Heart’s Desire and another one-act play.  It can only be conjectured what John Knox might have made of it.  Why a Dramatic Society?

 In the same issue that announced its inception, there was another article drawing attention to “further Sunday licensing of speaking films”.  Perhaps the popularity of the Cinema had given rise to a desire not only to enjoy the dramas but participate in them!

By the Thirties the stern realities of the economic and social situations were manifesting themselves in the Regent Square Magazine.  In the February 1933 issue, two pages were devoted to an article on unemployment.  It quoted statistics from the last 1932 Return which showed that “one in five had no work to do…one in twenty six of them, nearly all men, had had no work at all for a year.  About one person in every twenty of industrialists was receiving public assistance…only an incredibly friendless person could number among friends and acquaintances nobody who is out of work”.  No class was exempt from the blight of unemployment.

The minister urged his congregation that in addition to supporting Regent Square’s own charitable missions, their contributions to their own local schemes with at least money and clothes, and offers of modest domestic work, could be invaluable.  He asked that Christian charity should be bestowed with Christian humility.  Further, as an experiment in practical help from the Church, they opened a Recreational Centre in the Church each day “providing games, newspapers, magazines and writing materials etc”.  A special appeal to fund it was raised.  Not only did this give the local unemployed men somewhere to go and something to do, but a large number of them found work through the facilities provided.

If  the country’s internal stresses of economic and social unrest were causing concern, these were to be overtaken by the advent in 1939 of World War Two.

The experiences of Regent Square Church graphically reflected those of the nation in the War.  The first War had taken its toll of the congregation and its faith.  This War would inflict further damage, both spiritually and structurally.

Unlike the main slaughter and destruction of the Great War which happened in foreign lands, now the War was brought much closer to home.  Although in 1914 the Zeppelin raids caused fear and concern to the population, the casualties sustained in the Zeppelin raids were minuscule in comparison to the blitzes of the1940’s.

In common with the contemporary wisdom of the time, a declaration of War, it was thought, would bring with it an immediate attack on civilian population.  Against this event, Regent Square Church had made provision.  An Emergency Committee had been appointed some months before the War’s outbreak.  The expected immediate air attacks, it was supposed, would result in the possible compulsory closing of all Churches in central London.  If this was so, then the committee recommended that the Session suspended services for the first fortnight to organise precautions for the ensuing onslaught.  One plan was to prepare a public air raid shelter in the crypt.  National preparations included the evacuation of primary school children and their teachers, and mothers with children under five.

The City Schools were all closed until November, and even in the Spring of 1940 over half the school children in London were not receiving  full-time education.  Hospital beds, including maternity ones, were kept empty for the expected casualties.

All civilians were issued with cardboard cased gas masks.  Street lighting had been extinguished on the 1st September 1939, and from the outset a complete blackout was instituted which lasted to the end of the war. These draconian arrangements were reflected in the greatly reduced congregation when the Church opened its doors again on 24th September.  The blackout, evacuation, and conscriptions had taken their toll.  Unlike 1914, the hazards of relying on voluntary recruitment for the armed services were not to be repeated, nor was there Mr Whyte with his Young Man’s Bible Class and The Thistle to chronicle the fortunes of the Church’s men at war.  There would probably have been no paper available to print it on in any case.  To accommodate the new circumstances, some group activities were curtailed.  New additions were the establishment in the basement of the St Pancras branch of the Women’s Voluntary Service and Christian Service for Refugee Classes, and a savings-stamp group was formed by the nightly inhabitants of the air raid shelter.

However, the expected bombardment did not materialise, and the child evacuees and their mothers, to say nothing of the two million people that had privately absented themselves from the City, began to return.  In this ‘phony war’ Regent Square did what everybody else did; carried on, as far as possible, against the background of news which in the Spring of 1940 became increasingly grim.  Hitler occupied Norway and Denmark then in May Holland and Belgium capitulated, and the British army, cut off by the German blitzkrieg through France, was providentially evacuated from France.  This pyrrhic victory stirred British resolve to resist the impending invasion, spurred on by Winston Churchill, their new Prime Minister’s exhortation, ‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say:  “This was their finest hour”.

The Regent Square Institute was hit on 21st September 1940.  Because of the raids, evening meetings had already been discontinued, and the bomb caused the activities of the Institute to be transferred to the Wakefield Street Halls.  Such was the stoicism of the congregation, that although reference was made to the damage in the 1940 Annual Report, it was not even mentioned in the Church Magazine.

In common with the rest of the land, privations and sacrifices had to be made for the War effort.  In 1942 the Church railings were removed and the monthly Church magazine was now reduced to only four pages.

Despite the Church being so near to three of London’s main railway termini, it managed to escape major damage until shortly before the war ended.  In the afternoon of 9th February 1945, without the least warning, a V2 rocket destroyed Presbyterian Church House with much loss of life, including four high officials of the church.  The Church and Halls still stood, but considerable damage had been done, the structure was unsafe, and the Church was therefore unusable.  The Lecture Hall was pressed into service as a ‘temporary’ Church’; a solution which was to last some fifteen years.

  Even then in 1960, the next move was not back into a new Regent Square Church, but to another smaller hall which served as further ‘temporary’ accommodation for another six years.  Financial compensation for war damage had to be agreed.  After the War priority for reconstruction was given to housing; churches were low on the list.

 In December 1952 the new minister, Richard Whitehouse, explained to a concerned congregation: “The first and perhaps principal cause of the long delay was the protracted nature of the negotiations with the War Damage Commission before it was definitely established that the bad condition of the roof, in particular, could be attributed solely to War Damage.”  When this became officially recognised it was found that the ‘licence quota’ allowed to the Presbyterian Church of England in the London area was insufficient to meet the claims of all the repairs and new buildings needed in both North and South London Presbyteries.  In view of the historic interest of our own building strenuous efforts were made to obtain a special licence and these efforts were supported by a letter from our Church offices.  All these attempts failed and when we were served by a “Dangerous Structure” notice the position became serious and called for decisive action.  “After discussions in both Presbytery and Assembly we had to resign ourselves to the dismantling of the old church and to the construction of a smaller one.”

This conclusion was not accepted unanimously.  Among others the convenor of the House Committee resigned in protest, and there was further debate, the chief issue being whether or not the towers could be retained.  In December 1953 the congregation agreed that three options could be

Retaining the old church and towers with the existing walks and redesigning the interior Retaining the towers and building a new church behind them.Demolishing the church altogether and building a new church with frontage in Tavistock Place.

Finally, in 1958, the War Damage Commission’s offer of a grant of £44,300 was accepted.  The new church would cost £84,000, but this would rise to £104,000 if the towers were retained.  So in January 1959, after much agonising, regretfully but realistically the congregation accepted that the towers would have to go.

Now, before  they could go ahead, Presbytery had to sanction the work:  a formality, they thought.  In 1960 the plan for a towerless new church costing £84,000 was submitted to Presbytery for approval; it was rejected.  Presbytery argued that the congregation, by now diminished though willing, would be unable to make good the shortfall, nor meet the full expenses of maintaining this church afterwards.  It was not until April 1964 that the final plans for today’s church were accepted by Presbytery.  Even so, the cost of the building did not include the interior furniture and fittings and a Restoration Fund had been started, which to the credit of the congregation did meet these commitments.

The new Church, first illustrated on the Magazine cover in October 1965, was finally opened on the 11th June 1966 to a ‘full house’ of about three hundred people, including ecclesiastics from the local Churches of other denominations, the Salvation Army among them.

There are those today who still mourn the passing of the handsome Gothic Church built in 1827.  Had it survived, would it now be preserved in the present climate of historical interest?  Even in 1966 at the last moment the Victorian Society protested and observed that “the towers at least should be kept, because of their value as an architectural contrast”.  But its interest was too little and too late.  Today there would be the Lottery Fund and possibly other bodies such as English Heritage, even the BBC’s Restoration programme, and the Church of Edward Irving might still be with us.  At the time, however, there were other building priorities and also the Presbyterian Church’s driving force of local and overseas mission.  This work required money, and the diminished congregations could only supply so much.

It says much for the Regent Square congregation that handicapped as they were for twenty years with what were supposed to be temporary premises, they continued their work and worship through setback and disappointment.  From the beginning in 1817 these foreign ‘incomers’ had pursued their purpose of succouring the native Scots and foreign visitants to the Church.  Notwithstanding, this inimitable community adopted the corner of the land in which they found themselves to offer to it help and support.  Then and now through the religious tradition of Presbyterianism, they seek to add to society another strand of humane sustenance to those adrift and alone, offering them another lifeline.

If the bygone church of Edward Irving no longer exists, the spirit that founded it still survives in the modern building raised despite many vicissitudes.

Barbara Waddington, Archivist, Lumen (Regent Square Church)