The Origins of Walworth Methodist Church
The first chapel on this site was opened in 1813, just within the Walworth side of the old parish boundary between Walworth and Camberwell. At that time new houses were being built along Camberwell Road, but most of the land behind was still fields and market gardens – Camberwell was even known for its peach trees! The opening of the Surrey Canal (which ran through what is now Burgess Park) in 1810 brought industry into the area and as the 19th century progressed, the area around the church became completely built over. As the population of the area grew, so too did the congregation and the chapel had to be enlarged in 1842 and 1881.
The Victorian Era
By the end of the 19th Century many of the nonconformist chapels that had served Walworth had closed. This was the era of large inner city missions and older chapels were unable to compete with the missions’ modern and attractive premises and efficient networks of supporters that brought in funds and workers. Walworth Wesleyan Chapel, however, survived, possibly because of its situation between poorer Walworth and wealthier Camberwell. By 1900 most of the congregation lived south of the church in Camberwell and beyond. An interview with the minister of Walworth Wesleyan Church, Revd Fred Harvey, in February 1900 provides an interesting snapshot of the church and its activities.
Attendance across morning and evening services was about 500 and the Sunday School (meeting in the afternoon) had 400 children and young people on the roll. Weekday class meetings were still very much a feature of church life, with 250 members attending class meetings. There was a highly popular Literary Society, and a smaller Young Men’s reading circle. A Slate Club (saving club) had over 2,000 subscribers, although relatively few of its members actually attended the church, and Revd Harvey was far from enthusiastic in his support. (“They adopted the club as a choice of evils, believing it better for the men to come to the church for the club rather than the pub” states the interviewer.) The Girls Helpful Society was a sewing class which helped poor young women to make their own clothes.
Like most nonconformist churches of the time, Walworth Wesleyan strongly supported the temperance movement and established Bands of Hope to spread the message of temperance to young people in the area. For several years there was a Boys Brigade Company but by 1900 this had closed. Separate gymnasia were provided for boys and girls, a precursor of the youth work of the Clubland era.
A mission hall was established in Southampton Street (now Southampton Way) which survived until 1941 when the building was destroyed in war time bombing. In 1900 the interviewer noted: “The little missions are falling now and the big subsidized missions are rising in their place. It is very difficult to get the adults into the small missions. At Southampton Street they touch the working people: the poorer class and the young people.”
Jimmy Butterworth and Clubland
The Reverend James (Jimmy) Butterworth (1897-1977) was a significant presence in inter-war Methodism. Best known for his work in Walworth – and the establishment of Clubland – his (1932) advocacy of ‘a house for friendship for boys and girls outside any church’ made a major impact on debates concerning Christian youthwork (youth work) on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Jimmy Butterworth came to the Walworth church in 1922 there were just 25 people in the congregation. A Wesleyan Methodist Church had been on site since 1813 and amongst its famous former attendees (during the 1850s) was William Booth (the founder of The Salvation Army). However, most of the congregation some seventy years later came to the Sunday services from the suburbs to which they had migrated. While loyal, they were something of an anachronism – their church had become an ‘alien institution’:
“Around it had been compacted a muddle of mean streets, bestridden by railway arches and coal-sidings, in which a miscellany of small factories, crammed into the former garden space of houses, built for single families but ‘made down’ without structural alterations for several, smoked, smelt and were noisy. Children, adolescents and adults alike ignored the grimy chapel, which ignored them. (Eagar 1953: 376)
It was a situation that appalled Jimmy Butterworth. The only direct knowledge he had of the area before he arrived was his contact with ‘Patrick’ – a reformatory school boy he had met in Manchester. Butterworth sought him out – and found that he had both returned to Walworth and to criminal activity (in part to escape the sordid conditions he had come back to). ‘Patrick’ ended up in prison – and his situation confirmed and quickened James Butterworth’s desire to focus his ministry on work with local young people. He basically told the congregation that there were Methodist churches in the places where they lived – and that they should worship there.
Jimmy Butterworth then set out to reach young people who would not normally be attracted to the church.
The architect of Clubland: Sir Edward Maufe
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother opened the new Clubland and Hostel on May 18th 1964. Other Royal Visitors were HRH the Duke of Gloucester in May 1934, HRH the Prince of Wales who visited in December 1936. Many famous people from show business and sport were involved in the renovation and development, including Lord and Lady Attenborough, Lord Oliver, Vivien Leigh, Dame Sybil Thorndike, John Mills Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sir Stanley Rous. Bob Hope was a very generous benefactor and visited four times.
Clubland had its own theatre for reviews and amateur dramatic productions put on by the clubs. Michael Caine, who was born in the adjoining street, was a member of Clubland and his first acting role was on the stage in the Clubland theatre. After the chapel was destroyed in wartime bombing the theatre was used for worship services.
The Theatre fell into disuse for about twenty years until 1996 when modifications were made to bring it back into use for community groups, meetings and events. The first major use of the theatre for a theatrical production since the 1960s took place on 23rd June 1999, as the venue for a ‘Kids’ Company’ production, performed in the presence of HRH Prince of Wales.
Rev Victor Watson
Victor Watson was born in Manchester and attended St Clement’s primary school and Chorlton high school, in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, before working for James Greaves and Co, a shipping agent. On his 18th birthday, he joined the Royal Navy, which took him to Hong Kong, where he began his ministry as a lay preacher under the supervision of the Rev George Harker. He attended the Methodist College in Headingley, Leeds, where he graduated with an external BD from London University. He became a probationer minister between 1954 and 1956, before being sent as a missionary to Panama with his new wife, Gwenda. The Methodist church was established in Panama in 1884, but in 1957 Vic was still the first minister to be ordained there.
On his return to England in 1965, Vic was horrified by the racial divisions he found. “I never expected to see this kind of racism in our society,” he said, “but it was there and frighteningly in the life of the church as well.” He became a minister in the Manchester south-east circuit and was a founder member of the Manchester community relations council. In 1967, he stood as a Labour candidate in the elections for Manchester city council to challenge the National Front candidate. Two years later, he invited a group of Gypsies who were complaining of police harassment to occupy church-owned land in Longsight. They stayed for a few weeks before moving on.
In 1971, Vic became minister for Fernhead Road and Sutherland Avenue Methodist churches in north Paddington, working closely with the future Labour cabinet minister Paul Boateng, then a young lawyer at the Paddington law centre, on the Westminster community relations council. “Vic Watson awakened our faith,” says Boateng.
Between 1977 and 2004, Vic was minister at Walworth Methodist church, south London. He threw open the doors of his church and worked hard to establish community relations, particularly after the 1981 Brixton riots. He involved himself and other church members in help on arrest and victim support schemes, as well as encouraging lay visitors in police stations. He was often to be found talking to detainees awaiting deportation, and campaigned for better asylum and immigration laws. Under the ministry of the Rev Vic Watson (1977-1994) who re-opened Clubland in 1970, the church became one of the fastest growing Methodist Churches in the UK.
He was also at the forefront of setting up the Methodist Leadership Racism Awareness Workshop (Melraw) and was a stalwart supporter, committee member and trustee of NCH Action for Children. He was chair of the Fund for Human Need and served the Methodist Church Overseas Division (now the British Methodist World Church Office) as chair of the Caribbean and Latin America advisory group. A committed ecumenist, he was a member of the Joint Christian Group for Churches Together.
Ref: The Guardian Website.
MELRAW (Methodist Leadership Race Awareness Workshops) was started shortly after the Brixton ‘riots’ of 1981, originating as race awareness training for police recruits. Sybill Phoenix MBE was one of the first workers.
Rev Norman Grigg
The Rev. Norman Grigg took over in 1994 and continued the work for the next ten years until his retirement to the Gambia. In May 2009 he was elected President of the Gambian Methodist Church.
New book about the history of Clubland
The Temple of Youth: Jimmy Butterworth & Clubland
This book is the first complete biography of the Reverend Jimmy Butterworth (1897-1977) and an authoritative history of Clubland – the most celebrated and controversial venture in church youth work of the 20th Century.
About the book Title: The Temple of Youth: Jimmy Butterworth & Clubland Authors: John Butterworth, Jenny Waine. Published by JB Club Press Format: Hardback, 416 pages, 120 black and white photographs. ISBN: 978-1-5272-5017-8 Publication date, December, 2019
Order your copy from The JB Clubland website
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Walworth Methodist Church
Walworth Methodist Church
54 Camberwell Road