BEGINNINGS – 1660 to 1688.
During the Commonwealth , Non-conformists and Episcopalians in Epsom had worshipped together under the parish priest, sympathetic to the Presbyterian traditions. With the return of Charles II, came the Act of Uniformity, 1662. Priests and congregations not willing to subscribe to the 39 Articles were ejected, and had to meet in secret, i.e., illegally. Evidence from the Surrey Quarter Sessions shows that a school master, Francis Yowell, later to be our first minister, had held an illegal meeting in his house in 1667, not far from our present site. Quite possibly this had been going on since ejection in 1662. Records of fines for meeting illegally showed that several of these worshippers were London Merchants coming to reside in rural Epsom, then in its heyday as a spa town, and coming from some of the famous London chapels.
Anticipating the Act of Indulgence in 1689, and the Glorious Revolution, giving limited licence to Non-conformist gatherings, the Epsom group declared itself publicly in 1688 and it is from this date that the Church marks its foundation.
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Benoni Rowe (1690-1699), the well-known London preacher, followed Francis Yowell. During the Rev. Thomas Valentine’s ministry (1699-1755), with Epsom still enjoying considerable prosperity, the Dissenting community numbered 300 hearers in 1715 and had been meeting in a converted farm building not far from our present site in Church Street. In 1720, a local lady, Elizabeth Faulkner, knowing of their desire to build a Meeting House, left a parcel of copyhold land for this purpose. The first known licence for this building on our present site is dated 1724. The copyhold had been converted to private ownership by 1750. This was not an easy time for Dissenters, still under major restrictions and not popular with the general public, not least because the success and decorum of the merchants were at variance with the general licentious attitudes of the early C18. But with the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, commercial businesses declined. Meanwhile, Epsom’s fame as a spa had yielded to more sophisticated spas at Cheltenham and elsewhere. Epsom dwindled to a village.
In the latter half of the eighteenth Century, at a time of the great Evangelical Revival, the Epsom dissenting chapel, under alternating Presbyterian and Independent ministers, suffered a different experience, not uncommon to Surrey Churches. Calvinism became strong, while odd and strange sects, such as Antimonianism, entered and caused seceding especially to the Little or Bugby Chapel erected in 1780. The Church Street Chapel declined and closed about 1785. The building was sold and used as a barn.
After the building had languished for some years, a group of Independents felt urged to restore it to its former use. It took careful negotiations to obtain a lease and the chapel was re-opened for worship on July 15th 1805. It became possible to buy the property in 1813, when it was made over to a Board of Trustees. The Deeds sound rather strongly Calvinistic.
Progress was steady; the Bugby Chapel closed in 1825. A series of good ministers helped to get things going and the ministry of the Rev. John Harris, 1825-38, really put our Chapel back on the map. In 1838 the first Diaconate was formed and the Sunday School was growing. Epsom also was changing. A number of coaching inns had grown up and soon the railways were coming through. Street lighting made Sunday evening services possible. But it was Epsom’s reputation as the “Metropolis of English Racing” (Dickens in 1851) which came to the fore, although organised racing had been running since 1739. Attitudes were changing and the “Social Gospel” was being preached.
The Chapel, restored in 1846,
by Keith Charles
In 1846 the Chapel was extensively renovated, but a rift developed between the rather eccentric Minister, the Rev. Thomas Lee and his go-ahead businessmen congregation. In 1850 a strong group separated themselves and met, first at the Spread Eagle, later erecting the Parade Church. Fortunately the good offices of the Surrey Congregational Union brought the two chapels together again and they all moved back to Church Street in 1878. In 1883 the new Congregational Hall was opened on a parcel of land in Station Road, now Upper High Street, presented by Mr. Thomas Norman for the use of the Parade Chapel.
The Lecture Hall, Station Road, (now Upper High Street)
The Congregational Hall (The Lecture Hall)
Since this was no longer needed it came to be used as the home of the Sunday School and a number of other Church and secular organisations. This building lasted for nearly 120 years.
EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Late Victorian enthusiasm and comparative prosperity led to the replacement of the old, much-mended Meeting House by a Victorian-Gothic church in 1904. The Bishop Organ was installed in 1905. Then followed a period of growth and great activity. The closure of the old Public Hall led to our New Hall being in much demand by town organisations for their regular meetings as well as our own groups.
The Congregational Church, 1905-1961,
by Keith Charles
The First World War shook Society to its foundations and there was some loss of faith. Loss of man-power was another blow to society, ending many old traditional forms of life. The church actually lacked a minister and it was the Rev. Ebenezer Hitchcock (1917-35) who did much to help the church through the following years.
Rev. E. Hitchcock
In fact, the church entered another period of real activity with the first emergence of the Boys’ Brigade in 1926 and the Women’s Church Council. In 1930 the building of two lock-up shops in front of the Hall, now often known as the Lecture Hall, was an indication that money was needed to be spent on the Hall because of its great use. Also there were alterations in the Church Street building with the construction of the Church Room behind the pulpit and the Minister’s Vestry reflecting changing needs. The Junior Church was begun in 1934. In 1935 there were over 300 children in the Sunday School.
With the Declaration of War in 1939, changes took place immediately. Blackout requirements curtailed Youth activities. In 1940 the Epsom Services Club and YMCA were opened in the Lecture Hall with extensive facilities for the forces and were a source of much comradeship for Church Members. After the War, activities restarted and the church progressed with renewed energy; but the size of the Sunday School was never to be the same again. These activities were ably led by the Rev. Stephen Baker (1949-1962).
SECOND HALF OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.
Epsom was now expanding as a dormitory for London’s professional and executive people. In 1957 there was a chance to purchase land behind the Church for a new hall, but the opportunity slipped by. In the same year a great friend of the church, Charles Harrison Longhurst, died, leaving a generous legacy to be invested and used for the maintenance of the fabric of the church. Then, in 1961, fire destroyed the roof and upper structures of the church, including the Bishop Organ. Rebuilding took time and reopening was in 1963 with a more modern look.
The present Church, built 1963,
by Keith Charles
The Longhurst Room over the new Porch was a valuable addition. During rebuilding, all activities had moved to the ageing Lecture Hall which provided much-needed accommodation.
Meanwhile the Rev. D. Ellis “Del” Lewis, 1962 – 1977, had taken over and helped to get things going again and to establish our church’s welcoming reputation. With the church rebuilt and a new Manse, efforts to revamp the old Lecture Hall were renewed In 1965 a Covenant between Epsom and Ewell Congregational Churches for greater co-operation was signed, but little materialised at that time. Between 1969 and 1973, proposals to sell the Lecture Hall site to developers fell through at the last minute, due to contractors’ business troubles. By 1973 the hall buildings were considered to be unsafe.
1972 brought the joining of the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches in England and Wales. This involved some changes in organisation.
Between 1975 and1977 the organ from St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Forest Hill, was rebuilt and installed in our church. The Rev. D. Ellis (Del) Lewis was followed by the Rev. Allan Butler, a man of great sincerity and kindness, very necessary attributes in a time of great change and its associated uncertainties. In 1982 the land behind the church was at last purchased, some of which was sold to developers for house-building. But plans to build new church rooms behind the church were refused even after approach to the Department of the Environment. Then, in 1984, modified plans were submitted and tenders sought. With the coming of the Rev. Geoffrey Dunstan came the need for a new Manse. Geoffrey brought a contribution from a different world, coming to us after 18 years in South Africa and Namibia. When plans were proposed to build a relief road around Epsom town centre, affecting the Baptist and the Methodist Churches and passing very near our own site, he got us thinking about the possibilities of shared premises and closer co-operation between the local churches. Although the Road Scheme was later shelved, the community was better off for having considered the matter. The local churches were working together.
1988 was our Tercentenary Year and was celebrated throughout. The following year came renewed plans for rebuilding the Lecture Hall. But in the following year it was burnt down. It could not be saved and was pulled down, and the site was turned into a car park for rental. (Later the site was sold and was incorporated with the site of the supermarket next door, the whole now being occupied by the Odeon cinema.) Even greater problems of accommodation ensued. In 1991 and a double unit of RovaCabins was erected behind the church, financed by a legacy from Maggie Hoskin. In 1992 a new vestry and creche were constructed under the Choir Gallery.
Other ominous stirrings also began. Problems with shortage of ministers led to new plans for redeployment. Human sexual discrimination was discussed. But we were talking to each other and trying to co-operate. The “On Fire 1994” Campaign was carried out with great enthusiasm under the wing of the new Churches Together in Epsom. Since then the churches have met regularly and often co-operate in activities.
In 1996, thorough re-decoration of the Longhurst Room, exhaustively used due to lack of other accommodation, was carried out and a new piano purchased, made possible by several legacies, especially that of Mr. Tom Carr. Some re-decoration in the church, new lighting and a new public address system were all parts of a major modernisation plan about this time.
1997, with the departure of Geoffrey Dunstan for Lewes, marked the beginning of a long inter-regnum for Epsom URC, when the church had to make a terrific effort to keep itself going. This came at the same time as the beginnings of discussions on Cluster Groups in the Wimbledon District. Another great venture shared with other Churches was the opening of the Dovecote Christian Coffee Shop and Bookshop, now operating from rooms at the Epsom Methodist Church in Ashley Road. In the next year the outright sale of the Upper High Street site was agreed and plans to build at the rear of the church began. Another co-operative effort that year was the production in the Church of “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
In 1999, came another great milestone, the founding of a Shared Pastorate between Epsom and Ewell United Reformed Churches under the ministry of the Rev. John Crocker. This involved re-arrangement of basic matters to accommodate the sharing of the minister’s time as well as re-orientation towards sharing of activities with the church at Ewell. There were still planning problems for the New Hall.
THE MILLENNIUM AND AFTER
This was celebrated by the Churches Together in Epsom. Work began on the New Hall in August, 2000, after many setbacks. The Wimbledon District Council discussed the Deployment of Ministers, and finally the six churches in the south of the District, Dorking and Gomshall, Leatherhead and Bookham, and Epsom and Ewell formed the Downland Cluster, with three ministers. There have been several meetings of the congregations of our Cluster Group.
The opening of the new hall, now known as Unity Hall, took place in March, 2001. Now, after over one hundred years all our church activities are on the same site. Plans are always on-going for the maximum use of the new facilities, with a Kindergarten, youth groups and so on. Read our NewsLetter pages to find out more.
Win & Phyl Cary
(slightly up-dated March 2006 – Alan Wood)
Further reference may be made to:
“Into the Fourth Century. Tercentenary 1688 – 1988”, and
“History Update 1988 – 2000”,
both by Win and Phyl Cary. Copies may be obtained from Epsom URC.