Hythe Fields Gospel Hall
A few weeks back, together with my wife, we visited some friends in Egham, Surrey. While there and with some children in tow, we decided to take a short walk to a nearby park. On the way we passed an old chapel, which normally would have just been noted, except the designation “Gospel Hall” particularly aroused my interest.
This was significant as far as I am concerned because, for most of my life, I have been associated with gospel halls, which were often the designation given to buildings used by members of the Open Brethren (OB). The OB mindset was for its buildings to be void of religious paraphernalia, being halls where the gospel is preached. Indication these were places of worship were the Bible texts on the walls. For many years, I was a member of Coleman Street Chapel (Gospel Hall), until it was decided to close eight years ago and hand back to the trustees (Stewardship Services) and help a new group (Potters House) take occupation of the building we had vacated.
My interest in Brethren history is evidenced in three publications (I wrote some twenty years ago and can be found on my website) as well as being part of the Brethren Archivists and Historians Network (BAHN), who continue to research such matters:
Seeing Hythe Fields Gospel Hall re-awakened my interest, especially in consideration of how the Hythe Fields story (the Hall was built in 1897) might have related to what is the bigger picture, particularly concerning the history of the Plymouth Brethren and how the OB section of the PBs (the other was the Exclusives, XBs) operated and impacted society and related (or not) to the wider Christian scene, along with their motives and distinctive traits, with reference to the personalities, now largely forgotten, involved, with both Hythe Fields and Coleman Street (its Hall was built in 1900) being part and good examples of OBism in action. Engraved either side of the Hythe Fields porch was the date it was built and the text “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” 1Timothy 1:15. It seemed obvious looking at the building that it was now not being used, and besides a somewhat dilapidated appearance and overgrown garden, confirmation this was so was a notice pinned to the door explaining that the previous occupants were now meeting at another venue.
All this spurred me on to investigate further, with my Egham host sending me a fascinating document titled “Hythe Fields Gospel Hall Centenary Book 1897 – 1997” (link below) and a recent notice of planning permission sought by the current trustees (FIEC) for a residential development. I was also put in contact with the writer of the Centenary Book, Christine Gale, who had been involved with the Chapel for much of her life, and now moved from the area. Christine sent me links to further primary and secondary sources connected with the Hall, two of which (historical timelines) I include below. The Centenary Book, especially, contained a mine of useful information, which as I include it here, do not intend to repeat.
What it did do was recount a short but fascinating history of what went on at the Hall following its beginnings until 2010, when it was given over to new occupants, Hythe Community Church, after which, in 2019, the FIEC trustees gave notice to the occupants in order to sell it. That part of the story is still not ended as the building still stands and (to my knowledge) planning permission has not yet been granted. But back to the story … The big thing for me was the number of parallels between Hythe Hall and other Gospel Halls I am aware off, notably Coleman Street, and importantly to do what was suggested on its cornerstone, that its main business was to preach the Gospel of Christ Jesus coming into the world to save sinners, and many of the activities taking place and interests were typical of that seen in an OB assembly (church), e.g. my own. While OB assemblies, especially these days, may be viewed as anything from very open to very strict in practices, my impression is Hythe Fields veered more to open, although keen to practice sound doctrine.
What I enjoyed about the book is that it told the story of real people, including some of its leading lights, like long term superintendents (although in typical OB fashion it was overseen by a plurality of elders): Messers Bird and Bustin in the early days and Stephen Stratton (1944 – 1994) and the stories (testimonies) of some of its active members, such as Sunday School Teacher, for 46 years, Frank Johnson, and Jim Smythe who came to work from Ireland. The account included the stories of two who went on to serve as overseas missionaries: Wilma Lacey (nee Farringdon) (India) and Andrew Stratton (Africa). Most of these stories were from war time onward, and the scarcity of information prior to that being due to lack of written record and no-one around to ask. Even so, throughout that entire period, from 1897 until activities centred at the Hall ceasing in 2020, one has the impression that a lot went on that was whole community (and notably children) focused, and with an emphasis on preaching the Gospel, evidenced by a number of evangelist led missions that had been held at or near the Hall, even before 1897.
One of the most fascinating aspects in the Hythe Fields saga is the role of Elizabeth Nicholson (1835 – 1927), wife of the local vicar (St. Johns). According to Wikipedia: “St. John’s Church, Egham or Egham Parish Church, or St. John the Baptist, Egham (or simply St. John’s Church) is an evangelical Anglican church located in the centre of Egham, Surrey, in the Diocese of Guildford. There are approximately 320 members on the Electoral Roll and a usual Sunday attendance in the region of 300. The church’s current vicar is Revd Esther Prior, who was appointed as Vicar in September 2018”. One wonders if today’s seemingly thriving congregation, depicted by its website, is in part the legacy of William Nicholson, Vicar of St. Johns from 1879 until his death in 1917, and Elizabeth.
But as far as Hythe Field Gospel Hall went, it was Elizabeth, who appeared to be a woman of substantial independent financial means, that took the initiative to build the church and thereafter provide financial support (including a legacy from her will). And not just to Hythe Fields, but to four other chapels / mission halls in the surrounding areas. The question is begged: why did the wife of an Anglican vicar endow an Open Brethren Gospel Hall? but no doubt she saw a need as Egham began to transform from a rural economy to an urban one, and with it was the concern that the lower classes may not get to receive the Gospel. What we can glean about this remarkable lady is that she was wholly committed to gospel endeavour and living a simple, dedicated, humble life in the service of her Lord. We see evidence of the great extent of her home and overseas mission interest in her will (link also provided below).
We wrap up here, mindful a lot has been left unsaid, especially about those early years and the lives of the “main players”, notably Elizabeth Nicholson. Of course, there are areas that can be explored further and maybe someone may do so, but only eternity will tell how much good was accomplished as a result of what went on through Hythe Fields Gospel Hall, which is likely substantial.
Hythe Fields Gospel Hall Centenary Handbook
Elizabeth Nicholson and Hythe Fields Gospel Hall
History of Hythe Fields Gospel Hall
Will of Elizabeth Nicholson