«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 ...»
He left in November after nine years at S.Luke's.
He had been Vicar at an exciting time. The average weekly number of communicants had risen from 30 to 90. Where Rowley had been preparing 30 confirmation candidates a year, now it was often over 100. Instead of 50 baptisms, there were 200 and more. The church was often full and the hall was bursting at the seams.
Apart from his own energy and enthusiasm, he had been a good leader with a good team. He had been fortunate in his assistant clergy. Dodds in particular had had a great personal following, and so had Brown. Gobbitt knew his figures, having been a naval paymaster during the war and an accountant before it. The number of active lay people was high. The war had also given Tomkinson three lady workers and a deaconess. The Tomkinson years are understandably still looked back on as a golden age.
BIG QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTUREBut there are signs that all was not quite as well as it seemed. First, it is odd that the rise in numbers came in the early twenties, when the staff was down to three priests, and not between 1916—1918, when the staff had been seven. S.Luke's was part of a national trend of rising church attendance after the war.
Secondly, the rise in numbers had only kept pace with the rise in population. Baptisms, it is true, were four times what they had been in Rowley's day. But weddings, confirmations and Easter communions were only up threefold: and Rowley had a third of the population and less than a third of Tomkinson's resources. So, even taking into account the effect of the war and its aftermath, it is not easy to say that proportionately the parish's active congregation was expanding.
Thirdly, confirmation candidates seem to have fallen away very rapidly, despite all the efforts made to keep them as regular communicants. There were 214 new communicants between 1923 and 1924: but at Easter 1924 numbers had only risen by 40.
Fourthly, neither the Progress Estate nor the huts provided so very many active members. The 1923 electoral roll contained 553 names. Just over half came from Corbett houses. Just under a quarter lived outside. Fifteen percent lived on the Progress Estate; and only seven and a half percent lived in the huts. Yet it was in these two latter areas that most of the parish lived.
The registers do not show any great social differences amongst the three areas of the parish: which makes the phenomenon all the more curious.
None of this should blind us to the vigour of S.Luke's under H.F.Tomkinson. By any standards, through him and his colleagues the lives of many were touched with the Gospel. But he was leaving behind him some major decisions that a successor would not be able to avoid. Even more than W.P. Rowley he would be a difficult man to follow.
THE THIRD VICARWALTER Osborn Langridge MA came to the parish early in 1925 as a priest in his middle thirties. Like his predecessor he was a Cambridge graduate in classics and theology, and had been organ scholar of his college; in fact, he had to act as choirmaster for his first two years here. He was a clear high churchman: he introduced more frequent weekday Eucharists, and for the first time confession every Friday evening was advertised in the parish magazine. For the moment he was unmarried.
He had a good mind, and wrote clearly and well in the magazine; he was once said in the local press to have preached a sermon 'in his characteristically thoughtful way'. He was emotional —he is remembered as having wept during certain hymns. He was shy —he is also remembered as having failed to recognise people in the street. He was obviously not the easy-mannered, self-confident bachelor that Father Tomkinson had been. And halfway through his incumbency he was to marry a young woman from within the parish. It is likely that this had an adverse effect on his popularity in some quarters.
RESOURCES To begin with he had round him the same strong characters as had Tomkinson. Everard Hesketh was foremost amongst them. Apart from all his other contributions, he ran a church bookstall whose fame spread beyond the parish. The Woolwich Town Clerk, Sir Arthur Bryceson, was for a time a sidesman. There were still quite a number of surveyors and estate agents in the congregation: Davey, Ambler, and Cole. The PCC was talented, though difficult to handle. Throughout his time in the parish, Langridge would find this a mixed blessing. And despite all the lay helpers and workers (Langridge could count on 143 in 1926), no one could ever be found to attend to the church garden!
Even so, people were not afraid of launching out. In May 1925 the General Purposes Committee wanted to buy a piece of sports ground in the Footscray Road for £1,400. This would have given S.Luke's Athletics Union its own cricket ground, football pitches and tennis courts. The debt would take fifteen years to clear and the PCC threw the plan out as unrealistic. But it is a sign of the liveliness of some minds.
There was one serious handicap. Soon after Langridge's arrival, the ordained staff was to drop from three to two. S.Luke's had a population of 15,000: but 'the basis of parish work is visiting, and especially the visiting of the clergy,' the Vicar once wrote. 'As we are understaffed and less visiting has been possible, numbers have dropped.' Instead of over 100 confirmation candidates, in 1925 there were only 44; and instead of 230 baptisms, there were 130. There were no less than 770 Easter communicants in 1925, but that was for the first and last time.
BUILDING A NEW HALLNo sooner had Langridge arrived than he had to take the decision that Tomkinson had escaped: should there or should there not be a new hall? What Gobbitt had at first imagined was an 80-foot extension across the bottom of the old YMCA hut on the corner of Crookston Road. Builders told him that this was not feasible. So, arguing his case with vigour, Gobbitt managed to convince his new Vicar and the PCC that a hall for the children was more important than a south aisle for the church. The decision was made in March: by April Gobbitt had gone to a new post.
Plans were drawn up for a building of 48 feet by 29 feet, providing a stage and seating for 250, anteroom, committee room and lavatories. It would be joined to the end of the old hall and have an attractive neo-Georgian frontage to Westmount Road. In deciding to build a new hall, the PCC was taking a big risk. Estimates were for £2,000: the final cost was nearer £3,000, and there was still £980 to find when the hall was opened by the Chislehurst MP Waldron Smithers on 6 March 1926 and blessed by the Bishop of Southwark. The question was whether it was going to prove a wise investment
YOUNG PEOPLEIn his speech at the opening, the Bishop spoke about the 'modern problem' of children of twelve who drifted away from the Church. For Dr Garbett, the solution was obvious: it lay in the whole network of organisations lying between Sunday School and Church, 'through which,' he said, 'congregations would become larger.' That of course was why the hall had been built. Langridge was entirely in agreement: 'whatever happens and whatever else there is to do, the spiritual welfare of our young people should have the first place in all our parochial life.' And for a time things looked very encouraging. Amongst the PCC papers is an account for the Eltham Sunday Schools Excursion to Herne Bay held one July Saturday in 1926. Of the 933 local children who took pan in the trip and the Tenpenny Tea, nearly a third came from S.Luke's.
The Vicar's report to the 1928 Annual Parochial Church Meeting also makes fascinating reading. There were now, he stated, 60 Sunday School teachers and helpers. A primary department of 160 was divided between the two huts. There were 300 children in 21 classes in the middle school.
Twenty Guides met in the committee room and 35 Brownies in the anteroom. The old hall held 150 seniors under the Vicar's watchful eye. At the same time about 100 members of the Young People's Fellowship met in church. 'These figures show that our opportunities, if we will use them aright, are very great. There ought to be no fear that with all this promise our church life will grow stronger as the years go on.'
CHURCH AND WORSHIPSince the very beginning, the constant aim of the all the parish's clergy had been to make the Eucharist the main focus of parish life. Since the middle of the war, they had also thought that this was the only hope of keeping hold of young people. That was why the Children's Church, as we have seen, went in for much more 'advanced' ritual.
It was an uphill struggle, to judge by weekly communicant numbers. In 1905 Rowley could expect 14; by 1912 there were 28. By introducing a 'Parish Communion' once a month, Tomkinson managed to double that. But by 1922, even with three priests on the staff, three masses on a Sunday, and three times the population, numbers had only risen to 74. Langridge did slightly better, if not in absolute terms, at least in terms of a percentage of his congregation. From a peak of 90 in 1925, the average fell to 77 in 1928 and to 67 in 1931. What made it more frustrating was that numbers could fluctuate wildly and inexplicably from week to week.
DEVELOPMENTH.F.Tomkinson, unlike his Anglo-catholic brother Cyril at nearby S.Stephen Lewisham, moved very cautiously in making changes. He seems to have introduced reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, but apart from this he made no attempt to bring together what went on in the Hall at 10.30 and what went on in the Church at establishment Matins at 11. That was another problem left for Langridge. In March 1927 the two churchwardens, two former churchwardens and 34 other petitioners asked Langridge to introduce a weekly, not monthly, Eucharist at 9.00 with music and full ceremonial; it was to be the first step towards a Parish Eucharist. Langridge took the matter to the PCC to sound them out.
The debate was a lengthy one. There were those who apparently found it difficult to believe that this was not going to be the thin end of the wedge.
But as Langridge pointed out there was no wedge. Some people had apparently come to S.Luke's during and after the war because, for whatever reason, they had thought it was a comparatively 'moderate' church: and they would still be fully cared for at Matins and Evensong. For their part, all that was required of them was tolerance of those who represented the deep sacramental tradition of the parish. Langridge's main point was that S.Luke's was big enough to cater for everyone. 'If one likes red and another likes blue, you don't satisfy either by mixing colours and giving them purple.' It was not an easy meeting, but by the end of it Langridge felt justified in going ahead. As a result, the sanctus gong made its first appearance at S.Luke's in 1927-8; mass vestments, made by the ladies of the parish, were worn for the first time at Christmas 1928; and Miss Cole and the servers presented a thurible, first used for the special office of the Guild of the Servants of the Sanctuary. The Vicar felt able publicly to thank the officers and PCC at the APCM for their "loyalty and happy co-operation in the life of the church family
USING THE NEW HALLA glance at the hall timetable below is enough to show how vigorous a family S.Luke's was in the mid-twenties, not just where youngsters were concerned but the community at large. The congregation itself was able to use it to the full at a vastly successful Family Evening held one Thursday as part of the 1927 patronal festival. 'Really something great in the art of keeping the late hours,' said the District Times; and the normally austere Vicar was to be seen on the platform thumping the piano and leading the community singing until 11.30.
Not all the users met with universal approval. The hall had not been open four months before Miss McDennott told her fellow church councillors that 'she was of opinion that the New Hall was being used by people who did not appreciate that it was a Church Hall, as she had seen men and girls smoking and parading up and down in front of the church and the steps of the hall after 10.30 at night. She considered that such use of the hall was contrary to the purpose for which it was built, and desired that some steps be taken to prevent the use of the Hall being granted to such people.' To avoid complaints from neighbours it had already been decided that 'orchestras' would have to be confined to four players who would use only piano and strings, not 'drums or comets'. This did not stop the arrival of the first complaint about a wedding reception in September 1926. Yet without outside users, the church would have been in very serious difficulties indeed. Even before the new hall had been built, revenue from the old hall and the huts was less than the running cost. There are clear signs that resources and even tempers were becoming more stretched.
DIFFICULTIESEXPANSION SLOWS DOWN...
By any reasonable standards, 750 children in the Sunday School was an astonishing achievement. So was the fact that at Easter 1925 there had been 743 communicants. But the hall had been built because Gobbitt hoped that the 700 children of 1924 would become 900. By February 1929 there were only 50 teachers and 600 children. And over 100 children were being confirmed every year. But adolescents were simply not staying: if they had, the Easter communion figure would have been over 900.
A PCC committee was set up to look at the problem in April 1929. Its report has a very familiar ring to it.
The youngsters wanted more freedom; they had far more outside attractions now; they lacked leaders with the right touch; and there was not 'a suitable service' for them, whatever that might mean. The obvious things to do were therefore to find the right leaders and train them; divide the youngsters into groups; have discussions; and encourage Nature Study (sic).