Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The United Reformed Church in Love Walk, Camberwell, completed in 2016, is simple and understated yet also very uplifting. It is the latest in a series of four churches that have served their community in Camberwell for nearly 250 years.
The story starts with the Bowyer Family, Lords of the Manor of Camberwell Buckingham since the sixteenth century. The family owned a large mansion on Camberwell Road on the site where Castlemead, the 18 storey block of flats, now stands near Wyndham Road. Known as Bowyer House and later as Mansion House, the mansion was vacated by the Bowyer family and let to William Gerard who established a school, The Mansion House Academy. When Mr Gerard retired in 1772, the lease was taken over by the Rev. William Smith, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister. Protestants living nearby entreated Rev. Smith to license the Great Hall of the Mansion so it may be used for public worship. It was necessary at that time for meetings held by dissenting churches from the Church of England to be registered with the bishop of the diocese. Rev. Smith therefore made an application to the Bishop of Winchester that a large hall and two parlours adjoining the property of John Wyndham Bowyer were intended to be set apart for a Meeting Place for a congregation of Protestant Dissenters.
The congregation grew and it was decided to build a Chapel in the grounds of the Mansion House which became known as the Mansion House Chapel. It was a simple, two storey building with a colonnaded entrance and measured 47 x 54 ft. It had a gallery and overall the Chapel could seat a total of 570 people. It included a lobby, a vestry, a cloakroom and an adjoining cottage and yard and was described as "an unostentatious, and compact place of worship." In 1799 Rev. Smith resigned due to a disagreement with the congregation, the details of which are unrecorded. He was succeeded by Rev. John Berry and the name ‘The Mansion House Chapel’ was officially adopted for the Meeting.
Bowyer Lane (now Wyndham Road) was described as being “proverbial for its depravity as for its ignorance” and in an attempt to counter this, the Chapel opened a Sunday School staffed by members of the Chapel. In 1813 the Chapel established a day school which taught the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. Though the school accepted pupils from other denominations, it was a condition that they attended a church service somewhere on a Sunday and enquiries were made to check up on attendance.
The lease for the Mansion House and the grounds was due to expire in 1858 and a few years before that time, it was decided to acquire a freehold site close by and build a new chapel. There was some doubt as to whether the Chapel would be granted a new lease and it was felt that as the Chapel was now getting old, a large sum would be required for repairs. A Building Committee was set up and they were advised that a property comprising a large house and three acres of land was coming up for sale. Known as ‘The Old House on the Green’ it was owned by the Misses Maria, Caroline and Ann Puckle who were from another old Camberwell family. However, the asking price was higher than the Chapel’s budget so the property was declined. Eventually, the house and grounds were sold to another party who divided the property into separate plots. The Chapel bought one of these at a cost of £1,000. The house was demolished and Wren Road was formed, named after Sir Christopher Wren who it was said stayed in the Old House on the Green while St Paul’s Cathedral was built.
A specification for the new church was drawn up that stipulated it was to be in the Gothic style but without a spire and that it would accommodate between 900 and 1000 adults and 150 Sunday School children “of each sex”. Despite the initial requirement, the church was completed with two small spires. £4,500 had been set aside for the building of the new church but the final costs were just under £5,000. The opening of the new church in Wren Road took place on 9 December 1853 and the church was packed. It was announced at the beginning of the meeting that £1,500 was still needed to pay for the church and by the end of the meeting it was announced that £900 of this sum had been raised during the course of the meeting.
The old Mansion House Chapel was taken over by a Baptist church and later by the Free Salvationists. Despite the concerns that a large amount of money would be needed for repairs, the Chapel survived until 1940 when it was destroyed by German bombs.
In 1875, the Minister and Deacons of the Chapel, which had previously been independent, passed a resolution to join the Congregational Union of England and Wales, and the church became known as the Camberwell Green Congregational Church. It survived some bomb damage during World War II and celebrated its centenary in 1953.
In the early 1960s, the church learned that the area around the church was under consideration for redevelopment by a property company. The church were shown the plans which would mean, should the development go ahead, the church would be hemmed in by the new buildings. It was suggested to the property company that the church might be amenable to selling the freehold of their land if an alternative site could be found where a new church could be built. A site was found on the corner of Grove Lane and Love Walk consisting of six houses, two of which had already been razed to the ground as a result of German bombs during WW2. Plans for the new church were drawn up which was to be smaller than the one in Wren Road.
The foundation stone for the new church was laid in April 1965 and the same silver trowel was used to lay this foundation stone as had been used to lay the foundation stone for the church in Wren Road in 1852. It had been hoped to move the organ into the new church but, on the advice of the company that had built the instrument, it was decided to install a new organ but utilising the pipe work from the old organ. The design for the new church included a wooden cross to be installed on the organ screen and it was decided to make the cross from wood from the old church, using pine from the organ casing and timbers from the pews. The large coloured glass window, reputed but not documented to have been designed by John Ruskin, which was installed at the north window in Wren Road was dismantled and, as it was not suitable for direct glazing, mounted into metal frames and hung in front of the south window. The official opening of the new church was held on 2 April 1966 and the first Sunday Services held the day after.
The design was very much in keeping with the architecture of the times – plain, unbroken and undecorated - and it’s interesting to consider whether the design for this third church would receive planning permission for construction on this site in Grove Lane today. When it was built, Grove Lane and the surrounding area were in decline, but in the Conservation Area Appraisal carried out in 2003, the United Reform Church was described as an “unsympathetic modern building” and a negative in an otherwise architecturally pleasing area.
In 1972, the church once again changed its name when the Congregational Church in England and Wales joined with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church.
By the beginning of the 21st century, the church was suffering severe water ingress and did not comply with current health and safety legislation. The decision was made to demolish the church and build a smaller church facing onto Love Walk. To finance this, residential property would be built on the surplus land fronting onto Grove Lane. The project is now completed and is in use by the community, and photos of the interior can be seen on the architect’s website. The Pastor divides his ministry between Love Walk, the Dulwich Grove URC and the Coplestone Centre.
Source: R A Ford, A History of Camberwell Green Congregational Church 1774 – 1966