This short history of Charlton United Reformed Church (formerly Congregational) is based on an essay written in 2002 by E.M.A. Moss, former Elder and Church Secretary, to mark the Church's 100th anniversary.
Miss E.M.A Moss by the church in 2002
Mr Harry Savage
In the context of an increase for non-conformist churches and of a manufacturing boom in Charlton at the beginning of the 20th century, the possibility of forming a Congregational Church at Charlton had been suggested from time to time.
Matters were only taken further because of the determination of two men, Mr Harry Savage (a 27-year-old electrician) and the Rev'd Landell Jones (a 64-year-old retired minister), both members of Woolwich Rectory Place Congregational Church, both living in Charlton. Both men could see the need for a church in the rapidly developing Charlton.
Very soon after the founding of the Church thoughts turned to calling a Minister. Once the Church had made up its mind, the London Congregational Union provided a grant towards the salary of the Minister, as this was a significant financial commitment for such a young Church.
Rev'd Lloyd Davies
Founding the Church
Calling a Minister
The intention of the founding Members of the Church had always been to buy a plot of land and to build new church premises. After a series of unfruitful negotiations, the Church settled for a site on the corner of Bramshot Avenue and Wyndcliff Road. The site was bought in 1907 for £1,300 - the money for the acquisition was raised through the generosity of Blackheath Church, the LCU's grant and from the Church's own building fund.
Architects were invited to draw up plans for church premises, which it was agreed should comprise a church seating 600 and a separate school hall with a capacity for 300 children and 100 infants - see the architect's drawing below.
Building the church
Services commenced on Sunday 7 December 1902, in rented meeting rooms at the Board of Works in Charlton Village. A Sunday School was started in January 1903. The committee soon appointed officers and an organist, and set up a bank account.
After extensive talks between Charlton Congregational Church and Sundorne Hall, the two fellowships became one. The union was celebrated with a tea and public meeting on 14 January and Sunday services commenced on 17 January 1904 in the iron building in Sundorne Road. The rented premises in Charlton village were given up.
The first Minister was Rev'd Lloyd Davies who came to the Church from Swansea aged 32 with his wife Anna, and took up his Ministry at the Church on Sunday 18 October 1903. On 3 December 1903 the Church was inaugurated as a Congregational Church.
A meeting was held on 9 October 1902 in the Assembly Rooms in Charlton Village, which resolved to form a Congregational Church in Charlton and elected a committee to effect that resolution (with Rev'd Landell Jones as Chairman and Mr Harry Savage as Secretary).
The Church expected to pay £1,500 for the construction of the hall, to be built first, and £4,000 for the church.
By October 1908 building work was well underway and in October the foundation stones laying ceremony took place, with the Pastors of Charlton and Blackheath each laying stones. The final cost of building the hall was some £2,255, leaving the Church in debt. Fund raising events (a four-day bazaar, recitals, concerts) were organised to try and remedy the situation.
Nevertheless, the Church was extremely generous in its giving towards other needy causes, with regular collections made by Church Members.
WWI, post-war, WWII
The original plan for the church premises
Very little is known about the impact of the First World War on the life of the Church. Bomb insurance was taken out as a precaution, and times of Church services were altered to take place in daylight hours to avoid contravening any blackout regulations. A roll of honour was started for all those connected with the Church who had 'joined the colours'.
Given the role of women in the war, the question of having 'Lady Deacons' was first raised in the Church in 1916, and in 1919 the first three 'Lady Deacons' were appointed. By the mid 1920s, in a context of national decline in church attendance, it was clear to Charlton Congregational Church that they would not need to build their ambitious 600 seater church. It was therefore decided to make the Hall the permanent church, to sell off some of the land (now numbers 113-119 Bramshot Avenue) and to build a manse. The three-bedroom house (now 111 Bramshot Avenue) was built in 1927, in time for the newly appointed Minister Rev'd Harold Pinchbeck to move in with his new bride.
The first manse at 111 Bramshot Avenue
True to non-conformist tradition singing hymns has played a major part in church services. In its earliest days the Church sang to piano accompaniment or borrowed small organs. In 1931 the Church bought a second hand two manual pipe organ from Beaconsfield Congregational Church at a cost of £150, a considerable investment at that time.
The organ had to be dismantled, transported to Charlton and reassembled. The platform of the church had to be extended to accommodate the organ. The opportunity was taken at this time to add the pulpit (the preaching of the Word is at the heart of Reformed Church services), and shortly afterwards the wooden screen at the front of the platform. An organist was appointed at £12 pa and an organ blower at 2/6 (12½p) per week. In 1947 an electrical organ blower was bought. The last major overhaul was in 1986 when the console was moved from beneath the pipes on the platform to the side of the communion table.
The Second World War had a much greater impact on the Church than had the First, because of enemy bombing. The dockyards and industry along the riverside were targets for German bombers, and many mis-hits fell in Charlton. The church premises suffered extensive bomb damage, no direct hits but much roof and window damage.
The times of services were again altered to daylight hours, and in 1939 it was agreed to carry on services in the church until fuel ran out and then to retreat to the Lower Hall. This same Lower Hall later became an air-raid shelter, for which the Government paid rent to the Church. Because of the scale of war damage throughout the country, and the shortage of building materials, services were not resumed in the church before 1949.
A woman Minister
In seeking to appoint a new Minister the Church received a recommendation from Dr Cave, the Principal of New College, of a promising student, Mrs Florence Frost-Mee, a young widow. She was invited to 'preach with a view' on 4 February 1951. Women Ministers were a rarity even in Free Churches at that time, but such was the impression that Mrs Frost-Mee made on the Church that the discussions in Church and Deacons meetings make no particular mention of her gender. The Diaconate and Church Meeting were unanimous in calling Mrs Frost-Mee to the vacant Pastorate, which she duly accepted. She was ordained and took up her ministry on 1 July 1951.
It was clear from the very outset that Rev'd Frost-Mee had ambitious plans for the Church, and that it needed a good shaking up - her two aims were to develop the spiritual life of the Church and to evangelise. Under her impulsion a Bible Study, Membership Classes and Young Women's Meeting were started, and a Youth Club quickly followed. Brownies, Guides, Cubs and Scouts also met on Church premises. When children became too old for Sunday school they became "Frosty's Young People", who met in the manse on Sunday evening after Church for animated discussions on the Bible and ethical questions.
Those in the Church who remember Rev'd Frost-Mee (or Frosty as we called her) agree that her dynamism breathed new life into the Church. In her care numbers of Church Members rose significantly - against the national trend of a decline in church attendance.
Building the hall
As early as 1935 suggestions had been made for the building of a hall on the land between the church and the manse. This proved impossible in the Second World War, but by 1951 plans for a new hall had been drawn up with estimated building costs of between £7,000 and £13,400, to be funded by the LCU and the Church itself.
However it was through the generosity of Penge Congregational Church that the building of the hall was financed. Their Alexandra Hall had been destroyed by bombing in the war and as they decided not to rebuild they generously donated their war damage compensation money to Charlton. This was approved in 1956, and on 3 November 1956 three foundation stones were laid by Rev'd Frost-Mee, the Church Secretary Mr Felstead, and Rev'd Green Minister of Penge. Construction work sped ahead and on 1 June 1957 the new Alexandra Hall was officially opened.
The Alexandra Hall in 2002
From the very earliest days, Members of the Church enjoyed spending all their spare time on Church activities. Choir, cricket and tennis clubs participating in local leagues, chess and bicycle clubs... The Church hall made for a wider range of activities through the years. Annual outings for adults and children, often to the seaside, have always been a feature of church life at Charlton. The Church continues to enjoy annual outings, notably the trip to Hastings in June 2014.
One society has survived from the earliest years of the Church: the Dramatic Society, known as the Bramshot Players, then as the Bramshot and Sherrington Players and in 1957 as the Alexandra Players. One of the founding Fathers of the Society was Mr Peckham, a Deacon of the Church, who produced and acted in plays. His daughter Joyce Peckham followed in his footsteps until her death in 1996.
The Alexandra Players are still going strong, producing some three or four plays a year. As it was from the beginning part of the Church, the Diaconate and later Elders were always keen to monitor the expense and behaviour of the Society, as well as the suitability of the content of the plays. As it is still officially part of the Church, the Alexandra Players are allowed to use the Hall regularly and other parts of the church premises occasionally, at virtually no cost.
Nowadays the Church Hall is also rented out to external groups, and to individuals for special occasions.
A new manse for a new Minister
By 1967 the Rev'd Frost-Mee decided to leave Charlton, having accepted a call to Ilford Congregational Church. Within a few months the Church had appointed a young Minister, the Rev'd Bob Scribbins from Twyford Congregational Church. One of his stated aims on joining the Church was the development of activities for under 7's (this being the only age range not catered for at the Church).
The playgroup for Mothers and toddlers, which Mrs Scribbins founded, ran with great success for many years, and the Church became more outward looking and involved in local and national voluntary work. As the family of Rev'd and Mrs Scribbins grew, accommodation at the old manse proved insufficient. It was therefore decided to sell 111 Bramshot Avenue and to buy a house across the road at 104. In 1969 the old manse was sold for £4,950 and the new house bought for £4,600. Extensive repairs and decoration were needed to the new house, which were undertaken in the main by Church Members.
The new manse
Fusions and joint ministries
In 1971 the Rev'd Bob Scribbins decided to resign from the pastoral Ministry to take up social work full time with the London Borough of Bexley. On his departure the Church called a husband and wife team of the Rev'ds Brenda and Graham Stephenson to the joint ministry of Blackheath and Charlton Congregational Churches, there being a vacancy at Blackheath at that time. Rev'd Graham Stephenson was a Minister in Bradford while his wife was a final year student at Mansfield College Oxford. Their induction service in September 1972 was also the occasion for the ordination of Revd Brenda Stephenson.
Rev and Rev Stephenson
In 1972 after many decades of discussion the Congregational Union and the Presbyterian Church joined together as the United Reformed Church, with the final decision left to each congregation. The Church at Charlton voted unanimously to become URC, and was inaugurated as such in October 1972. Deacons became Elders and began to chair meetings, lead devotions, think laterally and to learn how to use all the Church equipment - duplicating machine, projector etc.
By 1974 the sad decision was taken to close Blackheath Congregational Church, and eight Members from Blackheath transferred to Charlton. Charlton retained the services of both Rev'ds Brenda and Graham Stephenson, each one part-time making up one post. In 1975 Rev'd Graham Stephenson decided to take up a full-time administrative post, and Rev'd Brenda Stephenson became Charlton's full-time Minister.
Under her ministry, the musical side of church life was much encouraged. She is herself a talented musician and organist, and served on the editorial committee which produced the URC hymn book "Rejoice and Sing". The church also enjoyed concerts and operas produced or performed by the Rev' d Stephenson and Martin Hazell, a church member.
Discussions were held between churches in Blackheath and Charlton, and three local URC Churches, St Andrews Blackheath, St Mary's Woolwich and Charlton considered the possibility of sharing a Minister.
However in 1977 Rev'd Graham Stephenson was appointed Minister at Sunfields Methodist Church, and in 1981 the Church Meeting decided that Charlton URC and Sunfields Methodist Church should form a joint pastorate after Rev Graham Stephenson's departure. Since Sunfields had had a URC Minister, it was decided that the next Minister for the Churches should be a Methodist. This proved to be a mistake for Charlton URC, as the sharing of the new Minister, Rev Brian Webb, with Sunfields proved to be an unhappy time for the Church, which missed the worship and pastoral care they had always enjoyed with their own Ministers.
Since Rev'd Brian Webb lived in the Methodist manse the decision was taken to sell the Charlton URC manse, perhaps recognising that the Church was unlikely ever again to have a Minister of its own (a theory which was later proved wrong). The manse was bought by one of the Elders of the Church who wished to live nearer the Church, and the proceeds of the sale improved the Church's finances significantly.
Rev'd Brian Webb moved on in the Methodist circuit in 1989, and the Church moved in Reformed circles again as the old plans for a joint pastorate with St Andrews Blackheath and St Mary's Woolwich came to fruition. Rev'd Derek Baker, Minister at St Andrews and St Mary's, took up the pastorate of all three churches with Mr Bert Worrall, a lecturer in theology at Avery Hill College as the Pastoral Assistant at Charlton.
In 1993 St Andrews closed, with some Members transferring to Charlton. The Rev'd Derek Baker retired in 1992 leaving Mr Bert Worrall in charge at Charlton under the oversight ministry of the Rev'd Jim Horne Minister of Welling URC. Efforts at evangelism continued under the leadership of Mr Worrall. An Alpha Course was held; cards were distributed in neighbouring streets advertising Church events such as Easter, Harvest and Christmas services. The Church premises were made more inviting to outsiders with a lavatory constructed off the entrance vestibule and new heating in the church.
Rebirth of evangelism
Mr Bert Worrall
Mr Richard Lodge
In 1997 the London City Mission placed Mr Richard Lodge, one of its missionaries, at Charlton URC. He started an outreach campaign, and in response to a questionnaire about the needs of local people started many children's activities - a Mother and toddler group, an after school club, a recorder club and school holiday clubs.
In 2005 Rev'd Harry Lanham became the Minister of Charlton URC jointly with Eltham URC. Rev Harry Lanham was keen to support youth work, and his ministry at Charlton has left an eagerness to modernise the building for work in the 21st century, an eagerness put into action thanks to the stewardship of Mr Richard Frith. In that time extensive works were carried out, such as the replacement of the church windows, putting up of new church boards, installation of a screen at the front of the church (on which the words for hymns are displayed in the services), followed a few years later by the overhaul of the sound system.
Return to Reformed zeal
Under Rev'd Harry Lanham plans had been made once again for Charlton URC to worship with Sunfields Methodist Church, and this took place for several years. But as for previous attempts in its history, Charlton URC found it to be a very unhappy time. In 2011, the congregation returned to its historic building, and Reformed Church government and worship.
At Easter 2012 Rev'd Harry Lanham was called to his new ministry in Dorset. Rev'd B. Pilgrim, who had already been helping out in the interim period, was unanimously called to become the Minister by the Members at the Annual General Meeting that year. His time and energy were put in the Lord's service at Charlton on a non-stipendiary basis. The three pillars of his ministry are biblical preaching, pastoral care and encouragement, and a passionate call to reach out into the community - echoing the endeavours of fellow servants of God like Rev'd Frost-Mee, Mr Bert Worrall or Mr Richard Lodge.
Originally the organist was paid a salary, but now the Church is blessed to have in Susan Boorman, an Elder of the Church, a talented organist and pianist who plays every Sunday without remuneration.
The body of Members at Charlton URC is as varied as it is committed to each other, and united in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus. We pray and trust to God that there will be a powerful role for Charlton URC to play in His service in years to come.
(History to be continued)