Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Situated on the edge of Southwark Park, the Dilston Grove Chapel is an unusual building that was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the Italianate style. Its main claim to fame architecturally is that it is one of the earliest churches in England to be built of concrete, and in a later time when a concrete finish is not so popular it has been brightened up with a broad red border that runs around the building. Once the church of the Clare College Mission in Rotherhithe called the Epiphany Church, it has since 1999 been home to the second CGP (Café Garden Project) London gallery, the first gallery having opened in the disused café at Southwark Park Lido in 1984 after renovation.
The parish of St Mary Rotherhithe had a long association with Clare College Cambridge that went back to the early 18th Century when Clare College purchased the advowson of the church which gave them the right to appoint the rector of the church who was usually a fellow of Clare College. One of these was Rev. Edward Beck who preached at his old college and gained support from the Master and Fellows in founding a mission in an area said to be a “spiritually destitute district”. Writing in his history of Rotherhithe, Rev. Beck noted that as the College was patron of the parish, “the needs of Rotherhithe have thereby a special claim upon their interest and help.”
A piece of land held by St Mary’s Rotherhithe was found and leased to Clare College at a nominal rent. The district where the new church would be built was described as having a population of 4,000 to 5,000 persons, housed in two storied buildings, each house containing from four to eight rooms and shared by at least two families of wage earning casual workers. The district could not at this time be classed as poverty stricken though it was far from prosperous. A few weeks of illness or unemployment could well reduce a family to poverty.
The first Missioner, Rev. A King, arrived in Rotherhithe in 1885 before the Mission Church had been built and initially held services in the open air in Southwark Park and then later in a house at 163 Abbeyfield Road where Sunday Schools and Mother’s Meetings were also held. The first church opened in January 1886 and, until a separate parish room was built, community activities also took place there with the altar screened off when there wasn’t a service being held.
The congregation quickly grew and it was clear the church that had a capacity of 200 was not large enough so the church was extended in 1897. Still the accommodation was not large enough to accommodate all the activities and a large railway arch in nearby Raymouth Road was rented which continued to be used by the Mission until it was requisitioned by the Civil Defence in the second world war. Clubs organised by the mission included a Men’s Brotherhood, a Children’s Guild, a Band of Hope, the Clare Provident Club and the Missionary Association and athletic clubs for men and boys were organised to help overcome apathy to the church within the district. All the activities were run by volunteers from Clare College Cambridge.
But in 1909, the condition of the church gave rise to serious concerns. There were signs of subsidence and an architect consulted reported there were serious settlement issues in the foundations. He declared the building unsafe and a few months later the London County Council ordered the immediate demolition of the building. Fundraising to build a new church commenced and in the meantime services and all church activities were held in the railway arch. The new church, the existing building today, was dedicated in March 1912 and designed to prevent all future risk of collapse, constructed from reinforced concrete on a concrete raft. The social activities that took place after the new church opened included: two lads’ clubs, the Scouts, Girl Guides, Guild of play for small children, a meeting for men once a week, Mother’s Meetings, a Thrift Club and there were frequent social and tea parties.
World War II was to be the cause of many changes within the district and the life of the mission Epiphany Church. “Many families were evacuated and the young men and women were in the forces or working away from home. Rotherhithe was being sorely tried and tested by the blitz, and the ever present threat day and night of heavy air attack and later by flying bombs. As was to be expected, such things had their effect on the life of the Mission. It was considered a risk to use the church and all services were held in the vestries. In the public air raid shelters, prayers [were held] every night and in the Arch every Sunday.”
On 10 May 1941, the nearby All Saints Church was bombed (now the site of King George’s Field ) and the two congregations united. In 1959 the Epiphany Church became a daughter church of St Mary’s Rotherhithe.
The last Missioner to be appointed was Rev. George Neely in 1962. It seems he saw what was to come and in 1964 wrote a short history about the Mission and described the changing times and their effects on the Mission. The population had decreased by about a half and many of the old houses in the district had disappeared to a combination of bombing during the war and later demolition and were being replaced by large blocks of flats built by the LCC and the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey. A new church, St Katherine’s opened nearby in 1962 to replace the previous church destroyed in the war and Rev. Neely feared “this might well result in some rationalisation of parish boundaries to absorb the district previously served by the Church of the Epiphany.” The Clare College Mission Church closed in 1964.
George Neely (1964) The Church of the Epiphany (Clare College Mission):
A Short History
The building fell into disrepair but in the 1990s the Bermondsey Artists Group used the building as an exhibition space whilst the Café Gallery venue was undergoing refurbishment and retained the use of the space after the refurbishment was completed. The building was listed in 1996 but by 2008 the building had deteriorated still further. CGP London was successful in raising just under £1 million from various sources for refurbishment and the building re-opened in May 2010.