Wednesday, 20 October 2021

80 years on from an Inferno

Eighty years ago, over the weekend of 10th and 11th May 1941 the last major bombing raid of the blitz on London took place. The bombing of London had begun in September 1940 and was drawing to an end in May 1941. In this bombing raid the Fetter Lane Moravian Chapel and associated buildings were destroyed.

Fetter Lane runs north from Fleet Street to the A40. Now it is full of office blocks but in the 1740s it was west of Temple Bar and full of small streets, alleys and courtyards. It was in this area that James Hutton set up his business, the Bible and Sun. This bookshop became the meeting place for so many of the evangelicals of the day including the Wesley Brothers, George Whitfield and John Cennick. The Fetter Lane Society, which at first included these giants of the Evangelical Revival began in a hired room in one of the courts off Fetter Lane. By 1740 the society had grown too big for this room and James Hutton leased the 'Great Meeting House' which was also just off Fetter Lane and was reached via Neville Court. So, the chapel and associated buildings of the Great Meeting House became the centre of Moravian work in London for the next two hundred years. It was registered as a Moravian Chapel under the Toleration Act in September 1742. Other buildings around were leased for the Choir Houses. At its height in 1752 the congregation was looking after 570 people in London.

The Chapel was rebuilt in 1748 and in 1777 the congregation obtained a 400-year lease of the Chapel, Chapel House and 32 Fetter Lane which was to be the Minister's house. This made it possible to have a direct entrance onto Fetter Lane. In 1780 the congregation also purchased 29 and 30 Fetter Lane but they could not renew the lease on the Congregation Hall which expired in 1801.

The Provincial Office and Library moved from Ockbrook to London in 1875 and this and the Mission agency were established in 32 Fetter Lane and a warehouse and library were built in the garden behind the house. The Provincial officials added to the number in the congregation which had declined in numbers since the earlier heady days.

By 1892 more work was needed on these buildings, this time on the Chapel room and in 1902 a mission flat was built into the upper floors of 31 Fetter Lane to make a flat where Moravian missionaries who were passing through London could stay.

In March 1907, the Fetter Lane congregation had 180 communicant members but as most of them lived in north London it was decided to establish a new congregation there and so the Hornsey congregation was born. As the century marched on the Fetter Lane area became increasingly a business area and so the main centre of Moravian worship was the Hornsey Church and the only regular service at Fetter Lane became a monthly Lovefeast and Holy Communion. According to the Congregation Diary, the last Communion Service was held on 6 October 1940, but the attendance was small and due to the intense bombing they decided to abandon the regular services for the duration of the war. For the previous two years, Br Vancura had also held services at Fetter Lane every fortnight for the Czech refugees.

When the war had begun, the Provincial Headquarters and all but one of the Provincial elders moved to East Tytherton in Wiltshire. They took with them most, but sadly not all, of the Provincial archives for safe keeping.

An end came to the Fetter Lane Church premises when firebombs were dropped from the German Luftwaffe on the early hours of Sunday 11th May 1941. They fell on properties either side of the Church buildings and the resulting fire engulfed the Moravian premises. Thankfully, no lives were lost in the surrounding buildings but only a burnt-out shell of this historic centre was left.

William Pennington who had been the organist in the Fetter Lane congregation for nearly 37 years was the first to see the destruction of Fetter Lane after the bombing on the morning of 12th May 1941. He sent a telegram to the Board telling them of the catastrophe. In a prophetic act he took a still-warm brick from the north wall of the chapel and took it home for safe keeping.

It was the end of the building but not of the congregation. On 26th April 1942, the Fetter Lane congregation met in Kingsgate Baptist Chapel in Eagle Street and by 1947 they were meeting there five times a year for services. The Chairman of the Provincial Board also served as minister of the very small but very faithful Fetter Lane Congregation. By 1959 the congregation found a new permanent home at the Moravian Close, just off the Kings Road in Chelsea.

Money obtained from the war damage compensation fund from the destruction of the Fetter Lane premises and money from the sale of the site to the Goldsmiths Company went to a number of property projects. Some was used to renovate the new Provincial Headquarters at 5 and 7 Muswell Hill and add a chapel and library. This building is very close to the Hornsey Moravian Church. Some was used to refurbish rooms and the manse at Moravian Close in Chelsea. The rest was used to build a Moravian Church in Bath Weston.

In a little ceremony at Bath Weston sixteen years after the destruction of the Fetter Lane premises, William Pennington took the brick he had rescued from the bombed-out ruins of Fetter Lane to the newly built church at Bath Weston. It was placed in a cavity in an inner wall and covered by a plaque, the brick showing through a glass panel. The inscription reads: 'This brick from Fetter Lane chapel, placed here on 10th February 1957, commemorates the generosity of the Fetter Lane congregation which made possible the building of this church'.

Fifty-one years after the fire bombing, on 9th May 1992 a plaque was dedicated and installed on the building nearest to the Churches properties on Fetter Lane. It can still be seen near the junction between Fetter Lane and New Fetter Lane just south of Neville Lane.

What appeared to be the decline of a much-loved symbolic centre instead became the birth of the Hornsey congregation. Some years after its violent destruction the congregation found a new, more suitable premises, and a new congregation could be birthed in Bath Weston. New life from the inferno.

Sarah Groves
Editorial Team and Gracehill Congregation

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Church House is the Headquarters of the Moravian Church in the British Province and is located in London at:
Moravian Church House, 

5 Muswell Hill, 
N10 3TJ


020 8883 3409

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