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Welwyn Garden City
(fiftieth anniversary booklet)
Author: (not stated but see below*)
Format: Paperback 8½" by 5½" with 15 pages
*The author of the booklet is not stated within it, but tucked inside my copy was a news sheet dated May 1971 in which the following paragraph appears:
This booklet marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Free Church at Welwyn Garden City on 1st May 1921. The booklet says that founders of this church ". . . set themselves to provide a simple form of worship based on the broadest Christian principles, which would unite all Nonconformist people coming into the Town . . . . . The Free Church actually owes its beginning to three men, Captain W. E. James, a Congregationalist, Mr R. J. Blacklock, a Wesleyan Methodist, and Mr B. Legg, a Baptist."
The early history of the Church is recounted, from its first services at home of Mr Blacklock at 28 Brockswood Lane in 1921, to constitution in 1921 and the building of the Lawrence Hall in 1922, and the acquiring of the present site in Church Road. In 1927 the Church was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of England, Rev. E. T. Vernon becoming Interim Moderator.
The booklet then goes on to give a short résumé of the ministries of the six men who led the Church up to the present time. They were: Captain W. E. James, Mr A. J. H. Williams, Rev. James Burns, Rev. R. E. Fenn, Rev. F. D. McConnell, and Rev. P. S. Chesney.
There follows a history of the Church building in Church Road. The original plan was from Louis de Soissons, and the Hall was dedicated in 1929. Extensions and alterations were made in 1956-58. The Manse was built on Church grounds in 1969. The booklet also mentions the three "Daughter Churches" at Woodhall Lane, Mardley Hill, and Panshanger.
The last four pages of the booklet are occupied by an article headed "Congregational Life" which recounts the activities of the Church throughout its period — from Mr Fenn's garden parties, to Eistedfodd, to wartime housing of London schoolgirls, ecumenical events, missionary activities, and so on until the present .
Also in the booklet is a list of names of the 45 people in the first Roll of Membership in January 1922. There are also historical lists of Lay Preachers, Ministers, Session Clerks, Secretaries, and Treasurers of the Church. There are also photographs of six individuals from the history of the Church. These pictures are reproduced below together with the full text of the booklet. I have also reproduced lower down the news sheet tucked into my copy and already mentioned above.
On the 1st May 1971 the Free Church celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation and it is interesting on this occasion to recall the story of the Church whose founders set themselves to provide a simple form of public worship based on the broadest Christian principles, which would unite all Nonconformist people coming into the Town. It was their earnest desire to avoid in Welwyn Garden City several struggling denominational groups believing in basically the same things but competing with one another.
The Free Church actually owes its beginning to three men, Captain W. E. James, a Congregationalist, Mr. R. J. Blacklock, a Wesleyan Methodist, and Mr. B. Legg, a Baptist. A great debt of gratitude is due to these and other early pioneers of the religious life of the Town. That handful of residents in the spring of 1921 showed that a live Church is created not by an outside organisation, but by the devotion of the truly Christian people of the community.
Mr. R. J. Blacklock
The earliest fellowship meetings were held in Mr. Blacklock's home at 28 Brockswood Lane, but soon a hut in the woods near where the Council Offices now stand was made available by the Garden City Company. The first service was held there on the evening of May Day 1921 and was conducted by the President of the Herts Free Church Council, Rev. S. J. Whitmee. Services were held here on Sunday evenings alternately with the Church of England until 1922.
The pioneer nature of the community at that time, when there were fewer than 100 houses built, all in Brockswood Lane and Handside Lane, is shown by an incident which occurred one summer evening when Captain James (the Chief Engineer of the Company) was conducting service. His foreman cautiously entered the hut and whispered "Please, Sir, there's a fire". Handing over his sermon notes to Mr. Blacklock at the piano and saying "Carry on Dick" Captain James departed to put out the fire — on the railway embankment !
Capt. W. E. James
October saw the beginning of the Sunday School and the Rev. George Whelpton, a retired Wesleyan Minister took charge of this. He also gave valuable help in the work of visiting and welcoming new residents.
At a special service on Sunday 8th January 1922 the Welwyn Garden City Free Church was constituted on a broad theological basis. A statement had been prepared outlining the faith to which the Church subscribed and this is set out on page 7. Among the signatures will be noticed that of Ebenezer Howard the founder of the Town. The collection taken at the service amounting to £13 formed the beginning of the Building Fund.
In 1922 the Lawrence Hall was built and the Free Church moved in, the first service being held there on Whit Sunday 4th June. Services at first were still held in the evening, the Sunday School being in the afternoon. Soon after the Society of Friends commenced regular meetings there in the mornings and they invited us to join them. This was our home for the next six years.
Week night meetings were held in the Backhouse Room from its opening in 1923. As this was where decisions were taken regarding the life of the Church and its future it saw some lively times.
Although it was still early days members realised that the selection of a suitable site near the Town Centre for the future Church was urgent, and in January 1922 an option on the present Church Road site was obtained. In May an offer to sell the freehold was received from the Garden City Company and in July the Building Committee recommended the purchase of half the site, the remainder of which was purchased some years later. The membership increased greatly during these years and it became apparent that permanent church buildings and the services of a full time minister were urgently required if the work of the Church was to keep pace with the growth of the Town. The Church was not however financially strong enough to meet these requirements without some assistance.
During 1926 conversations with the large denominations took place to see if they would support us jointly as an Interdenominational Free Church, but without success. The Federal Council of the Free Churches when consulted advised affiliation with one of the nationally organised denominations to avoid merely setting up another sect. With a membership which included Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians a solution was not easily to be found but after serious consultations and discussions extending over several months, two main views emerged. A minority favoured the formation of a Baptist-Congregationalist Union Church; this it was said would entail the least departure from the then existing position. The majority on the other hand, considered that such a step would ignore the standpoint of the Methodists who were the strongest section in the Church. They claimed that the English Presbyterian system provided a middle path among the denominations and "was moreover one towards which both wings of English speaking Nonconformity were converging". Eventually a postal vote was taken and disclosed a three to one majority for affiliation with the Presbyterian Church of England, though curiously enough Presbyterians were by far the smallest denominational group on the Roll.
In May 1927, therefore, it was decided to apply for affiliation to the Presbyterian Church at the same time retaining the ideal of a congregation of all denominations. This application was granted and it was agreed that the name "Welwyn Garden City Free Church" should continue to be used and that provision should be made for baptism by immersion, for members of Baptist origin and others who might desire it. With few exceptions the existing members transferred their membership to the Roll of the reconstituted Church. Some Baptists among us, however, decided to form a Baptist Association. Christ Church was opened in 1937 and a close friendship has always existed between the two Churches.
Our first steps in Presbyterianism were guided by a friend already known to some of us, Rev. E. T. Vernon who became our Interim Moderator, and gave us much good advice and help.
WELWYN GARDEN CITY FREE CHURCH
FIRST ROLL OF MEMBERSHIP
OUR MINISTERS AND LEADERS
Captain W. E. James
In addition to his responsibilities as Chairman, Captain W. E. James, for several years from October 1921, carried out the duties of honorary Minister and was looked upon as the 'Father' of our Church. In 1924, however, a breakdown in health compelled him to relinquish this position and for over a year the Church was without a leader.
Mr. A. J. Herbert Williams Mus.Bac.
Fortunately, we had a number of members well able to take our services. Towards the end of 1925 we gladly accepted the offer of Mr. Williams, a teacher of music, to be our first paid Minister (part time). He commenced his pastorate on New Year's Day 1926, and during the two years of his ministry preached with all the warmth and fervour of his Cornish temperament. His wife was in charge of a large Primary Department and started the Women's Club.*
Rev. James Burns M.A.
Towards the end of 1927 a retired Presbyterian Minister, Rev. James Burns, was appointed Minister in temporary charge. He was a gifted preacher, a vigorous leader and worked hard to raise funds for the new building. He stayed to see his ministry brought to a happy conclusion in the opening of the Church, and then in February 1929 left for New Zealand where he had been invited to fill the pastorate of Knox Church, Dunedin, for nine months.
Rev. James Burns
Rev. R. E. Fenn B.A.
In 1929 Rev. R. E. Fenn began his long, happy and successful ministry. With the new building in which to spread ourselves, in a new town which was still growing and with a young and enthusiastic Minister, conditions were favourable for the steady development of our church life. Indeed the years up to the war passed pleasantly and busily with the Church tackling energetically the various problems that arose, especially financial ones, and showing enterprise in its activities.
Rev. R. E. Fenn
Then after 17 years of devoted service during which he had won the deep affection of us all, Mr. Fenn announced in May 1946 that he had received a Call to Bromley. His farewell sermon was preached on Sunday 28th July and it was with sadness that we said goodbye. Every organisation of the Church gave a party for him and Mrs. Fenn, with a final supper and farewell from the Congregation and neighbouring Churches.
Rev. F. D. McConnell M.A.
Steps were then taken to find a successor and eventually the Rev. F. D. McConnell of John Knox Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was invited to be our Minister. He accepted the Call and was inducted on Saturday 21st June 1947. Mr. and Mrs. McConnell and their family came to live in the newly acquired Manse at 40 Barleycroft Road and soon won their way to our hearts. Once again we were privileged to enjoy a long and rewarding ministry.
Rev. F. D. McConnell
In 1964 Mr. McConnell was elected Moderator of the General Assembly, an honour also conferred on our two previous Ministers - Mr. Burns in 1937 and Mr. Fenn in 1955.
In 1967 we had again to face a separation. Early in the year Mr. McConnell announced that he felt that after twenty years the time had come to make a change and a Call was in course of being sent to him from Burton-on-Trent. So on the 17th June, at a great gathering which included representatives from all the main denominations in the Town, we said affectionate farewells and made presentations to him and his wife who for so long, so happily and so devotedly, had worked among us.
Rev. Peter S. Chesney M.A.
The vacancy lasted ten months, Mr. Chesney being inducted on the 26th April 1968. He came to us after a period of duty as Church Extension Agent and the members of the Congregation soon came to appreciate the qualities of their new Minister. In these days when Christian standards are being assailed on all sides they count themselves fortunate in being led by one whose convictions of the Eternal verities are manifest. They pray that by Divine grace, he and they together may go forward in faith and hope and strength to meet the challenging years ahead.
Rev. P. S. Chesney
*Note at end of booklet: It is regretted that a photograph of Mr. Williams was not obtainable.
From the earliest days the Church had been saving up for its own building. By means of sales of work, regular monthly collections and other special efforts, the Building Fund had reached £2,500 by 1928. On affiliation to the Presbyterian Church came the offer of additional financial help in the form of grants and loans at nominal rates of interest, so we were able to go ahead at once with our plans for the erection of a permanent building on the site already acquired. On the afternoon of the 16th June 1928 the ceremony of dedicating the ground for the future building took place. It had been decided to dispense with the formality of laying a foundation stone and the act of commencement was performed by Captain James cutting the first sod in the presence of a distinguished gathering. The Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr. Carnegie Simpson, gave the address and also conducted services next day in the Handside School Hall.
Mr. Louis de Soissons had been appointed architect in 1922 and had prepared sketch plans for a Church facing Parkway to seat 1,000 together with a Sunday School Hall (now the present Church) and other rooms. In 1928 it was evident that building could start only on the Hall and some other rooms, and in fact this basic unit has formed the nucleus ever since. Within eight months of the commencement of operations the new building was ready. The cost including the land was £9,156 and by 1948 the debt had been cleared.
On Saturday 2nd February 1929 at a dignified but simple service the Minister, Rev. James Burns, and the Congregation together spoke the words of Dedication by which our Church was set apart for its functions of worship and fellowship. A large and representative company was present at the service and the address was given by the Rev. W. Lewis Robertson, the then General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church.
Originally a grand piano was used for our services but there was a wish in some quarters for a pipe organ. In 1936 after a long search a suitable one was found in a North London church, and thanks to a generous gift from one of our members this was purchased and installed. It remained in use for twenty years.
The building served us well for many years but the Hall, being a multi-purpose one, saw heavy use and much thought was given to the question of whether to erect a new building, to be used solely for worship, and retain the existing hall for youth work, or to increase the seating capacity of the Hall and build additional accommodation for youth activities. Finally, in April 1956, a plan on the lines of the latter proposal was produced and received unanimous approval. A year later work commenced, the first turf for the extension being cut by Mr. James Gray with the help of Ann James, granddaughter of the Founder. The formal opening took place on Saturday 9th November 1957. The service was conducted by the Rev. J. I. Evans, Moderator of Presbytery, who was presented with a key by the Architect, Mr. J. Kirkland Robertson, a partner of Mr. Louis de Soissons.
Early in 1958 came the alterations to the Main Hall. The replacement of the pipe organ by the Compton electronic organ allowed the platform to be cleared and refurnished with a new Pulpit, a Lectern and a new Communion Table. Curtains were introduced to screen off the Sanctuary during the week. The old organ was given to our daughter church at Woodhall Lane.
The cost of the extensions and alterations, including the new furnishings and organ, was £9,886.
The Cross, the Font, and later the Font Stand, the Lectern, the Choir Rail, the Hymn Boards and several other items of church furnishings, were presented as gifts or memorials by members and friends of the Congregation. The Memorial Chair to Captain James had already been installed in 1950.
Since this major extension we have added a new store room and modernised the Lower Hall. The blend of original design and later modifications have resulted in our having one of the most flexible church buildings, for its size, in existence. Plans are in preparation for further improvements.
For most of the time Mr. Fenn lived at 19 High Oaks Road but this house was not the property of the Church and so was not known as the Manse. About the time of Mr. McConnell's arrival, however, a handsome bequest enabled us to buy 40 Barleycroft Road in which he and his family settled happily. When they left it was felt that considerable modernisation was desirable, but on expert advice it was decided to build a new house in the church grounds. Work commenced in 1967 but unfortunately was not completed by the time Mr. Chesney arrived. The New Town Commission, however, placed 74 Rosedale at our disposal till the new Manse was finished in February 1969.
OUR DAUGHTER CHURCHES
Early in 1922, the Church having established itself on an inter-denominational basis, became concerned about the needs of the village of Hatfield Hyde. Accordingly the Congregation asked one of its own workers, Mr. (later Rev.) J. W. King, to commence services in the village clubroom. Known as our "Daughter Church" the little congregation grew and erected its own church building in 1925; Mr. Ebenezer Howard performing the opening ceremony. In 1929 it joined the Congregational Union. By 1938, owing to the growth of the Town, it was necessary to increase its accommodation and the present Church was built. Mr. King remained its Minister until his retirement in 1945.
In 1940 Mr. Fenn started a Sunday School at Mardley Hill for children evacuated from Eastbourne, and plans were made for regular Sunday services. This was the beginning of Mardley Hill Church, another "Daughter Church". The earlier services were taken by our own members but later the Revs. H. B. Barrow, George Hood, and Boris Anderson were the successive ministers in charge. This enterprise was eventually incorporated in the Stevenage Circuit of the Methodist Church.
History is beginning to repeat itself with our current interest in the new ecumenical project for the 8,000 future population of Panshanger. At the time of writing experimental services are being started in the Panshanger Junior School.
An account of the life of any congregation is bound to be a mixture of changing interests and activities together with some continuing concerns out of which a wider pattern can be seen emerging. So in this review we find ourselves choosing out of a wide range of individual memories from some of which continuing lines can be traced, while others have been replaced or superseded. Records show, for instance, that the first of many Garden Parties was held in Mr. Fenn's garden in June 1932. The Christmas Market dates back even earlier — to 1929. Over the years the Sewing Guild, which started as the Ladies' Working Party in 1923, was a major contributor to these events, but owing to decreasing numbers ceased to function in 1969.
Again we can find in the records notice of quite unusual events, such as the Eistedfodd held in 1929, which included Sir Richard Terry and Mr. Tyrone Guthrie among its adjudicators. Another unique event was the visit of Pastor Martin Niemoller in 1964, which required closed-circuit television for the overflow congregation in the Lower Hall.
The war, of course, affected our Church life. Naturally some of our members served in the Forces, and others were directed to work elsewhere. The Garden City was a reception area and two London schools were transferred here. The use of our premises was requisitioned for a girls' school. The local churches joined together in providing a canteen for the Forces in the Lawrence Hall. A social evening group called "The Good Companions" was formed at the Church and proved a great boon to newcomers. It continued until 1955.
In July 1943, and again in November 1945, we were delighted to hear Mr. Fenn giving a five minute Broadcast Talk during the week at 7.55 a.m. The Congregation was also on the air, first for an evening service at 8 p.m. on 20th December 1942, and again in June 1946 for a series of half-hour services broadcast every Sunday of that month in the Light Programme. Both Mr. McConnell and Mr. Chesney have also done some broadcasting and television work.
There have been the ecumenical events in which the Congregation naturally joined; the participation in the Council of Christian Congregations; the joint house-to-house visitation of the Town in 1950, the "People Next Door" study-action project in 1967 and its resulting discussion groups over the next few years; our current involvement in the Parkway "LEG" (Local Ecumenical Group) with its services, meetings and "Mini-Lunches"; and our interest in the new ecumenical Church for Panshanger, referred to elsewhere. We also share in the responsibility for the annual collection for Christian Aid.
Similar separate events from which a continuing concern can be seen are those which have been connected with missionary interest, from the example of the Exhibition "Conquest by Healing" in 1938, to the whole series of events promoted and organised by our Missionary Committee over the years, down to and including our present two annual Sundays with guest preachers from various Missionary Societies, and the supper organised by our Women's Missionary Association.
The latter leads naturally to the consideration of the Women's organisations of our Church, without which no account of congregational life could be complete. We have already referred to the valuable work done by the Sewing Guild, and briefly also to one aspect of the work of the Women's Missionary Association which continues to raise interest and funds for missionary work of the Presbyterian Church of England. We must also refer to the strong support given by the sister organisation, The Women's Home Church Association, to the work of Deaconesses at home. The Home Church aspect has provided opportunities also for aid to the social work of the Presbyterian Church in the East End of London. For several summers the women of Poplar Settlement spent a happy day with us.
From the early days of the Congregation there has also been the Women's Club, started by the wife of our first lay Minister, which has fulfilled the need for a social afternoon with interesting talks and demonstrations on a variety of topics. The Church and other good causes have benefited by their fund-raising activities. Mention must also be made of our flourishing Young Wives Group and of the Cradle Roll of children baptised.
Here we find a direct connection with our Sunday School or "junior Church" as it is now known. Throughout its fifty years it has provided religious education for children of the neighbourhood as well as for the families of the Church. Originally held in the afternoons, classes were later changed to the time of morning service, both for the sake of convenience, and for greater integration with the worship of the whole family of the Church. Under a succession of leaders, it has always been graded, and we have been fortunate in the quality of teachers in all departments. The staff meet several times a year for discussion of the concerns that naturally arise in running so important a part of the Congregation's life. Members of the Senior Class now devise and conduct the evening service on several occasions in the year.
Arising out of the social needs of our young people we have had various Youth organisations. The first one formed in the early days of the Church was known as the Young People's Association and flourished until the outbreak of war.
In 1931 our Company of the Boys' Brigade was formed by Mr. C. F. Bedwell who was its Captain until 1946. He was succeeded by Mr. R. C. Wagstaff, who is still its leader. Over the years the Brigade has provided a sound disciplinary training and wholesome recreation, with a spiritual basis, for what must now be hundreds of boys. The Company at present is growing both in Company and Junior sections.
Since the early days our Congregation has experienced the value of congregational conferences. At one time three days were set apart for these functions, but later they became a Saturday affair and more recently we have confined ourselves to a long Sunday evening. The earliest recorded conference was in 1932, the subject being "What is the Church for ?" From it a Statement of Faith was issued which is interesting in the light of the fact that our most recent conference was "This I can believe !" Other conferences have been on themes of Church Unity and the recurrent problems of the relationship of young people to the Church. Such conferences are a means by which we examine our present position and seek to find ways of adapting our congregational life to the needs of the present day.
The main record of all these activities has, of course, been the Congregation's own "Magazine", first published under that title in 1929 as "a quarterly miscellany of printed announcements". A glance at the first four quarto pages shows a congregation very much alive with its various departments, including missionary work, in full swing and the inevitable Bazaar and Jumble Sale in the offing. In January 1932 it became known as the "Newsheet" in the format now familiar to us. Under the devoted editorship of Mr. Barraclough it continues to place its emphasis more on what is to come than on what is past; surely the right attitude for any Congregation to take, whether at a 50th Anniversary or at any other point in its history.
This brief history has been written at a time when the Ecumenical Movement is gaining ground and when the prayers of Christian people are "that all may be one". The Assemblies of the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches are to decide this year on whether or not to accept the Plan for Union. Is it too much to hope that this one step forward which has been discussed for years might now come to pass ? A Church like ours which has shown the way for the past 50 years must hope to lead the way not only in unity but also in such other changes in Church life and form as may be necessary for the effective proclamation of the Gospel in the years to come.
Church news sheet — May 1971