«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 ...»
Sometimes instead of a sermon there was a question and answer session. By 1924 there were 160 on the books, of whom just under half were confirmed, and an average attendance of 110. The responsibility of seating, reverence and visiting absentees was entrusted to 20 monitors. And if that was not your style, you could join the dozen or so who regularly went up to the reader Mr Ebbs' house in Balcaskie Road at 3 for a boys' Bible Class instead.
SOCIAL ACTIONThe hall became the centre of a good deal of community activity. Here too, much of it centred on the young. Within a very few months of their arrival, Tomkinson and Dodds had started a scout group. The Girls' Friendly Society made its first appearance, and the Band of Hope disappeared without trace. Youngsters liked their two new priests. The girls thought them very handsome, and one old boy remembers pogo-stick demonstrations during confirmation classes in the study at Glenesk Road.
Since the war was at its height, the Vicar allowed the churchyard to be used for allotments. With his goodwill, a YWCA hut was built on the vicarage site at the corner of Crookston and Westmount, and a lady worker was installed in the hut next door. Each Sunday one of the clergy would go up to take a short service after Evensong.
Most important of all, Tomkinson realised that the new parishioners badly needed a nurse. He announced the idea in April 1916 and by May a nurse had arrived. Patients had to pay her for each visit, but S.Luke's guaranteed her salary. In her first two years she paid an incredible 7,462 calls, an average of about 70 each week. A clinic was held in the hall every Thursday afternoon. On Sunday October 13th 1918 a lecture on VD was given in the hall at 3.30 —'for men and lads only': an interesting contrast to the sort of lecture that might have been expected at S.Luke's only ten years earlier.
As the war ended, the social need continued. With so many people employed in the Arsenal the coming of peace brought real problems. In co-operation with the Baptists, the Wesleyans and S.Barnabas £253 was given out in relief between Easter 1920 and Christmas. The possibility of soup kitchens twice a week was raised: Mr Henry Martin remembers collecting pease pudding and faggots from the hut on the corner of Earlhall and Glenesk.
S.Luke's was attempting on a parish scale what Everard Hesketh had done at J. & E. Hall's at Dartford, and was doing it very well.
THE PAROCHIAL CHURCH COUNCILTHE war ended in 1918 with S.Luke's looking a very different sort of parish. More changes were to come. After a lot of campaigning, the Enabling Act was passed in 1919 and the lay members of Anglican congregations were given far greater responsibility for the affairs of their parishes than before. Under Hesketh's guidance the response at S.Luke's was of textbook quality.
The PCC had 30 members, each of whom served on at least one committee —finance, church property, literature, general purposes, and nursing and health. The full Council met five or six times a year to receive and approve the committee reports. Members were elected at the Annual Parochial Church Meeting. It comes as a real surprise to find printed voting slips and a real competition for places. It comes as less of a surprise to see that the people who collected most votes —like Hesketh himself—often did not live in the parish.
There was a vast amount of paperwork and bureaucracy; all made possible by the unwearying efficiency of Miss Dolly Staig, the assistant secretary.
Committee contacted committee by letter. The earliest PCC minutes were printed. This was not to everybody's taste. In the twenties there were to be three attempts to make the PCC more of a live force and less of a rubber stamp for the powerful committees. The attempts failed, and perhaps it was just as well. There was a lot of talent on the PCC—surveyors, land agents, civil servants and businessmen. But naturally enough there was not always immediate agreement and there seems indeed to have been some rivalry.
The committee system was probably more manageable.
SIZE S.Luke's was the only parish in Woolwich deanery to have three clergy. After Dodds left to look after S.Barnabas parish, the Reverend W.R.A. Brown MC AKC (renowned as the priest who always kissed the babies he baptised) and the breezy and dominating Reverend R.H.S. Gobbitt MA joined the staff. By 1918 there were 500 Easter communicants and by 1924 743. A thousand children attended a special Armistice service in 1918. In 1918 and again in 1922,1923 and 1924 there were over 100 confirmation candidates.
On special occasions there were so many worshippers that the sidesmen could not find room for those who came late. By 1923 the parish magazine had a circulation of 1,355 and there were 45 distributors. So numerous had the leaders, helpers, deliverers, collectors, visitors and monitors become that in October 1924 Miss McDermott founded a Church Workers Association 'to promote friendliness, goodwill and co-operation' amongst its 74 members.
With size went a certain formality; it was in any case still a formal age. Hierarchy and authority were built into the system, and obedience to clergy, teachers and leaders was one of the things that could still be assumed. It was also an age of social distinctions. Before the war, the housing had been roughly of the same type, though not the same size. Now at least a third of the parish was living in substantial but temporary huts. There were more obvious contrasts in the standard of living.
Although strangers were always said to be struck by people's friendliness it must also be said, that some people who moved into the area found that the wealthier worshippers could be rather distant. Often these were the very people in responsible positions. This goes far to explain a significant fact.
In theory, anybody and everybody now had the opportunity to become involved in running the church. Nevertheless there was a good deal of apathy.
The electoral roll had anything up to 700 names on it: but rarely more than 100 turned up for the Annual Parochial Church Meeting, and in 1923 there were only 66. The parish obviously felt that the wealthy and able people in the congregation were also the natural leaders. So often, it was they who would be expected to find the money. Once again we should realise that the driving force tended to come from outside the parish.
CARE OF THE BUILDINGThe care of the building was one of the PCC's most important duties, and several important decisions were taken. The elaborate tracery in the screen was dedicated in February 1921 in memory of Mrs Rowley at a cost of £110. A war memorial was set up on the north wall of the sanctuary, with Mr Atkin-Berry's lamp above it. Patriots could see the lamp as the 30 eternal flame of remembrance: others as showing that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved a few feet away.
At Easter 1923 a stained glass window in the north aisle was finished. By now Mr Hesketh was in his middle sixties and getting hard of hearing. In February 1924 he therefore anonymously donated a Churchphone (an early form of audio-loop). There were microphones on the Vicar's stall and the pulpit, and eight points in the north aisle where an earpiece could be plugged in and the preacher heard without difficulty.
On a more mundane level, in February 1921 a cold tap was installed in the upper vestry at a cost of £10: for 71 years it was all the plumbing we had.
The dark and damp downstairs vestry was concreted in 1922 after an outbreak of dry rot, but it has remained cold and dark from that day to this. The PCC discovered in the summer of 1923 that, though the organ had only been in for seven years and the hydraulic blower for less, major repairs were going to cost £600. Eventually much trouble was saved by the introduction of a conventional electric blower.
THE SUNDAY SCHOOL GROWSIronically, the worst problem facing the PCC was caused by a success story —the Sunday School. It is hard today to realise how fundamental the Sunday School was to church life. Despite the war and despite the general shake-up that society was beginning to undergo, this had not yet changed.
One of Tomkinson's first acts as Vicar was to hire a tin hut in the Gordon School each week to cater for the children from the Progress Estate. But at first the Sunday School did not grow very quickly. In his first two years, Tomkinson and his colleagues saw the roll go up from 370 to 540, but the average attendance crept from 280 to only 312. Despite the massive rise in population, this was not many more children than in the very early days of the parish.
Things improved when in the autumn of 1920 the YWCA hut on the vicarage site was bought for £170 by three anonymous benefactors. This, together with the scout hut on the same site, meant that the Sunday School and all the organisations could be catered for on church premises. By 1920 there were 160 infants under the superintendency of the redoubtable Miss Absolom and 500 juniors under Mr Hall. Gobbitt, the curate for the huts, kept up the numbers with his great enthusiasm.
The results continued to be remarkable, and to our eyes even startling. In 1923 the eight to thirteen year-olds seem to have gone down to a little over 400, but there still had to be two sittings, at 2.45 and 3.45, and 30 teachers who did a double shift. By 1924 those 30 teachers had become over 50, and a weekly training class was conducted by an instructor from S.Christopher's College Blackheath. Miss Absolom's infants had gone up to 200. By 1924 the combined Sunday School figure was said to be 750.
ORGANIZATIONSIn the early twenties the hall and two huts were the centre of a good deal of other activity as well. The Mothers Union met on the second Monday of every month. An informal Women's Fellowship met every Thursday afternoon. The Church of England Men's Society enjoyed a rather precarious existence. The GFS continued to flourish. Scouts and Guides used the huts on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, a Boys' Club met on Mondays, and on Wednesdays there was a Mixed Club 'for social intercourse and dancing for young people of both sexes'. Best supported of all was a thriving Sports Association, which had branches for football, cricket. Badminton and tennis, and had the use of a full-size billiard table and a boxing ring. On top of all this there were the usual fund-raising and parish events, bringing even more people on to the premises.
CHURCH OR HALL?
NOT ENOUGH ROOMTHE penalty of success was being cramped. The congregation had clearly outgrown the hall of 1904. As though to prove the point, there were so many stalls for the 1923 Bazaar —sixteen or seventeen— that with great reluctance S.Luke's had to hire the hall in Wellington Road. Naturally, being S.Luke's, the thing was carried off in style. There was a continuous motor service to take customers into Eltham and a printed timetable was issued with the parish magazine.
More serious was what Gobbitt had begun to say about the Sunday School.
It was not just that there was not enough room for those who were coming.
He was certain that children were being turned away.
Even the church was not big enough, it seemed. There had always been plans for a south aisle. Now the matter was becoming urgent. The 1921 census revealed that the population of the parish was just under 14,000. Just as the population had increased, so had the number of those who wanted to worship on special occasions. The trend had begun in 1918 with the special Armistice Service held at 8.15 on Monday 11 November with the military trumpeters the Vicar had got over from Woolwich had to be perched in the gallery above the high altar.
On other occasions too, people were being turned away. Tomkinson felt that the extra 300 seats planned for in 1904 should be provided without delay.
He launched an appeal for £4,000 in September 1918 and the church completion fund began in earnest. In the publicity, he pointed out to the parish that people were better off than they had been before the war; and as the church had supported them, it was only right they should support the church.
RISING COSTSHowever, his optimism was short-lived. With the Armistice had come massive layoffs at the Arsenal. Instead of an establishment of 50,000 men and 25,000 women, there would now be jobs for only 10,000 men. Parishes like S. Luke's were faced with big social problems. It was not tactful to talk of enlarging the church.
Temple Moore had died in 1920. His plans for a tower and south aisle were entrusted to his former pupil J.B.Tolhurst of Beckenham. It was only in the spring of 1923 that Tomkinson could begin the large task of applying for grants. On one of the grant applications, he was asked to describe his parishioners. He did so in the following bald terms: 'small clerks, arsenal and dockyard workers, unemployed'. Two-thirds of his parish he reckoned to be 'poor': not a very promising source of revenue.
The scheme would now cost in the region of £7,000, an eloquent comment on how prices had risen since 1907. Tenders were double what the parish had expected. Tomkinson told the magazine readers of his regrets in January 1924. Only a month before, he had high hopes of starting work on church completion. Now it was all going to have to be postponed until 1925.
A DIFFICULT CHOICEThe PCC had a difficult choice. Either they could try to extend the church or they could build a new hall. Probably crucial was what Gobbitt told the Finance Committee in October 1924. At the moment there were 700 children in the Sunday School. With an adequate hall, he and the teachers reckoned they could add another 200 children to the books. On the one hand, worshippers were being turned away from the church a few times every year. But from what Gobbitt was saying, 200 children were as good as being turned away from the Sunday School every week.
Put like that, there seemed no real choice. The Finance Committee recommended that a new hall should be built and church completion should be shelved. The Vicar and full PCC were a little more hesitant. The final plans for the church included space for vestries where teaching could take place.
They thought that tenders should be invited for both projects before they took the plunge one way or the other.