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«GROWTH IN A PARISH SAINT LUKE ELTHAM PARK 1904—1940 J.C. Thewlis BA PHD Walter Rowley Herbert Tomkinson MA Walter Langridge MA Frederick Bacheldor ...»

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J.C. Thewlis


Walter Rowley

Herbert Tomkinson MA

Walter Langridge MA

Frederick Bacheldor AKC

Frederick Witcomb BD

Hugh Anderson AKC

Guy Brockington LTh

Frederick Belcher

Peter Rowe BA

Michael Hart AKC

in fellowship and gratitude


© The PCC of St Luke Eltham Park


This history came out of our wish to clear more space in the choir vestry

safe. Records that had not been touched for well over half a century revealed a fascinating picture of parish life. But writing it up has not been easy. One of the special problems of local history is that it easily becomes a series of unconnected stories or a list of unrelated facts. So perhaps I should explain how I have approached the subject.

First, I have kept the story to the first 40 years because that is the period that provides the most interesting documents and the best grounds for coming to any conclusions. As it is, there are some significant events that have left no written traces. I know, for instance, that there was a big upset between the Vicar and some of the choir in 1916 or 1917. But in the absence of clear evidence I have not wanted to say anything about it. That sort of problem becomes more acute as the documents become duller. I suspect that if I were to come much closer to the present I should run the risk of passing off our guesses and impressions about people and events as the final word; and that is a burden I do not want to carry.

Secondly, I have tried to give the sort of detail that will help us see our place of worship with new eyes. Even empty screw holes can tell a story.

The Church is rooted in the past, as well as the present. To forget that is to be guilty of ingratitude and —even worse— to limit our experience of the communion of saints in earth and heaven.

Thirdly, I have tried to explain some of the things that may lie behind the ebb and flow of the life of our church. Problems that are put into context often seem less overwhelming. It is also true that some of our easy assumptions suddenly become less easy. This may help us understand not only our present but also our future.

My special thanks go to Mr Henry Martin, whose long memory and vigilant eye have rescued me from more than one error. Miss Margaret Evans generously allowed me to make full use of her scholarly researches into the history of Eltham. Mr Kenneth Richardson of the South London Ecclesiological Society helped me considerably with some sources. I am also glad to acknowledge the work and publications of the Eltham Society.

John Thewlis, Vicar Feast of the Venerable Bede 1992



–  –  –

T he story of the parish starts when the Bexleyheath line was built in 1895. Well Hall station was opened and the village connected to the capital by a good train service. By 1900 Cameron Corbett MP had acquired the Eltham Park estate for housing development.

Eltham had been a sleepy village, but now it was to become a commuter suburb.

To begin with, the area remained part of the ancient parish of Eltham.

Pastoral care of the new arrivals was the task of the curate, who opened a Sunday School in the temporary buildings that later, became the Gordon School. But it was an age of small parishes and church expansion. Wesleyans and Baptists were already on the scene. Loyal Anglicans felt that the Free Churches should not be allowed to have things all their own way on the estate. With more houses on the way and a new station planned (Eltham Park, originally Shooters Hill), in 1903 the Woolwich Church Extension Association decided to support forming a new parish.

The boundaries were very wide: up to Shooter's Hill Road on the north and to the old manor boundary on the east. The inhabited part was at first very self-contained. The tramway to Woolwich was not to be built until 1911. Westmount Road beyond the church to the Welcome Inn was not to be metalled for another quarter of a century. Deansfield Road (now Rochester Way) had to wait for the construction of the Progress Estate before it would lead anywhere. The way out to the village was past Well Hall Parade; or, if you preferred, past empty lots to the bigger houses at the bottom of Westmount Road.

In forming the parish, as often was the case in those days, there was a proviso that seems strangely unjust to modern eyes. Any parochial fees (basically, funerals, weddings and churchings) would go, not to the new incumbent, but to the Reverend Elphinstone Rivers as long as he remained Vicar of Eltham. The priest of the dusty new area would therefore be paid a minimum stipend without endowments or emoluments. Between £100 and £200 of the stipend would have to be raised locally. At least to start with, it was going to be payment by results. S.Luke's was not a plum living.

There was nothing outwardly distinguished about the first priest, appointed as Parish Missioner in April 1904. Walter Pountney Rowley had not been to university, almost certainly because his family could not afford to send him there. Instead, he had attended the High-Church theological college at Lincoln for three years from 1881. He was now in his forties and clearly had no powerful friends or backers. But the Bishop of Rochester spoke warmly of his work as curate in two difficult parishes (Holy Trinity South Wimbledon and All Saints West Dulwich).

He was faithful and hard working, and not likely to waste his first big opportunity.


From the very first, the parish had powerful friends. Chief amongst them was the chairman of the Woolwich Church Extension Association, Captain Sir George Vyvyan KCMG RN JP of Forest Lodge, Shooters Hill and the driving force behind all the planning. Without his help, as it turned out, certain vital grants would never have been obtained and the church would not have been built.

But over the years an even greater contribution was to be made by Everard Hesketh, the man who re-founded the Dartford engineering firm of J & E Hall and turned it into the world's leading marine refrigeration manufacturers. His capacity for hard work was legendary. His commercial vision and acumen were considerable. Above all, Hesketh was by any standards a remarkable Christian man. He never failed to turn up for the funeral of an employee; he started a non-contributory benefit scheme; and in 1897 he quietly got the Vicar of Dartford to make sure that some of his striking workmen got a proper Christmas dinner.

Though he worked in Dartford he lived at Beachcroft in Court Road. By no means everyone in Eltham welcomed the newcomers of the Corbett Estate. Hesketh's view was different. He decided to make S.Luke's his spiritual home. The practical benefit of his support was to be enormous.

There were other well wishers too. A 'Well Hall Building Fund's subscription list of September 1904 shows that out of a current total of about £450, there was one donation of £50, two of £20, seven of £10 and nine of £5 each. Going on for half came from wealthy outsiders.

Again, the 1908 annual dinner of the by then flourishing S.Luke's Cricket Club shows that the honorary vice-chairman was Sir John Puleston, a deputy Lieutenant of the county of Kent.

It was upon outsiders that the new priest would be counting for day-to-day help in the parish. There were soon to be six volunteer District Visitors, responsible for keeping an eye on the homes in the streets assigned to them.

Two of them lived in the parish: four did not. There was never any lack of support from inside the parish. But leadership and money always tended to come much more from outside. The whole venture had been undertaken by a few eager and generous people. This was a pattern that was going to repeat itself for the next thirty years.


The people moving into the parish were modest. The big £700 houses were being built south of the railway: S.Luke's was the area for property that was half the price. Corbett seems to have built only one double- fronted house in the parish, 145 Westmount Road; a coach house survives in the garden on the southwestern corner of Westmount Road and Dumbreck Road. The pattern was to change only a little in the years shortly before the Great War.

Somewhat larger houses were to be built in Eltham Park Gardens and parts of Greenvale Road. This is where the registers show the solicitor's and stockbroker’s clerks lived, and in 1916 the advertising manager of The News of the World.

For the rest, it was a parish of clerks, salesmen and travellers; of manual workers and domestic servants; of teachers and the occasional schoolmaster; and of tradesmen like tailors, compositors and jewellers. There are some faint oddities: a tea taster, a stained-glass artist, a botanical collector, a music hall artist, and the captain of a tug. In the very early days there were even a couple of farm-labourers. The infant mortality was the lowest in the borough and by 1913 so was the birth rate.

They were decent folk who had to work for their living. Many of them were what we would today call commuters. As time went on, many more of them worked in and around Woolwich Arsenal and the garrison. When Colonel Barrington-Foote, formerly of the Royal Artillery, opened a Grand Bazaar in January 1908 he made a rather unhappy reference to this fact. He was, he said, 'particularly glad to come to where the church was placed in what he would term a somewhat poor neighbourhood. He did not think there were any great houses in Well Hall.' Indeed there were not: though we need not suppose that people liked to be called poor.

But perhaps it was significant that the Vicar was not going to live in the parish: it was felt there was not a suitable house. He rented a double- fronted dwelling at 25 Balcaskie Road. Quite a lot of those who worshipped at S.Luke's came from this more spacious part of the Corbett estate. Some of them had started off in the northern part and 'bettered' themselves. But there were also others who, for reasons no longer clear; obviously preferred S.Luke's to S.John's or Holy Trinity. This is one of the most important facts about the first thirty years of the parish, and it is worth repeating. For one reason or another, the leading laypeople so often came from outside.


The formal start of the parish was very modest. In March 1904 the Vicar of Eltham sent out a leaflet appealing for funds to construct a mission room.

The illustration shows a five-windowed building about 50 feet by 20 feet with a porch at either end and two separate WCs. (It now forms the basis of the Parish Lounge.) The cost was estimated at £700: in fact, it was a little more. About £224 was in hand and £150 had been promised in grants. Another £125 was needed before work could start.

On Tuesday 26 April 1904 a public meeting of all those 'interested in the Well Hall Mission' was addressed at Roper Street schools by the Bishop of Rochester. It comes as something of a shock for those who know something of S.Luke's more recent history to see that amongst those present was the young Maude Absolom, who was accompanying her parents and who in later years was to be S.Luke's foremost honorary lay worker.

The Bishop had introduced the new Parish Missioner in glowing terms. His first services in the new parish were held in an upstairs room at 16 Deansfield Road (now 552 Rochester Way) on Sunday 8 May 1904. Work on the mission hall began quickly, and it was opened on 22 September 1904 with a congregation of over 300. During his address, the Bishop of Southwark told the congregation that 'he was walking from his house at Blackheath a short time ago to perform a duty at the Eltham Parish Church when he wandered from his way and stood in the midst of picturesque trees and waving grass.

That spot was now the parish of S.Luke's.' It is an interesting sidelight on how quickly the area had changed. It is an even more interesting sidelight on the pressure that suffragan bishops worked under in 1904.



SAINT Luke's was not to become a parish in the strict legal sense for another five years. But for most practical purposes that did not matter. The first parish meeting took place on Thursday 13 October 1904. It is important to remember that in 1904 there was no such thing as a Parochial Church Council. Occasional gatherings like this one were the only means of talking over parish affairs. Of course, the Easter Vestry was held each year for the election of churchwardens. Even so, despite the very large congregations, this one opportunity for church democracy could usually only attract attendances of between thirty and fifty.

In 1904 people were still avid readers. One of the first decisions was to start a parish magazine in January 1905. It had a bright and elaborate cover (with cherubs) and a monthly High-Church inset The Sign. Each month the Vicar wrote a wonderfully Victorian but always curiously touching letter, full of exhortations to come to share in the joy of Holy Communion at the Eucharist.

FUND-RAISING High on the agenda was raising enough money to pay off the debt on the hall and to finance the building of a permanent church. The first great effort was a grand three-day bazaar that started on Wednesday 7 December 1904.

Messrs Wilkins Brothers of Liverpool provided the decor, the stallholders all wore a distinctive flower badge and the stalls were arranged to look like a street in Delhi. We are told that 'a very animated and attractive sight was presented to visitors as they entered'.

Many of the stalls have featured in one form or another at bazaars ever since. But rather more intriguing to our eyes are the three-course supper that was offered for Is 6d (7'/4p), a shooting jungle, a fairy well and magic pump; and the fact that, as the Eltham Times put it, 'in a picturesque retreat Miss Rathbone's mandolin band discoursed sweet music.' All this in a dualpurpose church hall measuring fifty feet by twenty feet that had to be cleared and re-ordered in time for divine service on Sunday morning.

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