Chapel of the Month – December 2017 – Churches of Christ

This month we are pleased to share a contribution from Council Member and Labour Historian, Professor Peter Ackers. Photos are by Moira Ackers.

Frontal View of Chapel

Frontal View of Chapel

Christians Meeting House (1910), Humberstone Garden Suburb, Leicester (Churches of Christ)

This meeting house was purpose-built for a little-known Christian group, The Churches of Christ, whose membership peaked in 1930, with 16,597 in 184 congregation. They were particularly strong in working class industrial areas, such as Wigan, Birmingham, Leicester and parts of Scotland. Their buildings are deliberately simple, but this one is part of a larger estate, designed by the Arts and Craft influenced, Garden City architect, Raymond Unwin.

Since the Churches often referred to themselves as just Christians or Christian Brethren, it easy to confuse them and their chapels with other bible Christians, such as the Brethren. Indeed, they were part of a wider Victorian ‘primitive’ reaction against respectable denominational religion, as dramatized by the fancy neo-Gothic chapel. Their mission was to restore simple New Testament Christianity and a distinctive package of beliefs included: adult believers Baptism linked to a weekly ‘closed’ Lord’s Supper, followed by an ‘open’ Gospel service, and mutual lay ministry rather than full-time Ministers.

Foundation Stone

Foundation Stone

Over the twentieth century, these austere positions softened. In 1957, the building was extended and in 1981 Humberstone and the Churches’ majority joined the United Reformed Church (URC) – though two groups, the Old Paths and the Fellowship of Churches of Christ remain separate. Humberstone URC later closed, but another Christian community now worships in the chapel.

However, this is much more than just another isolated nonconformist chapel.

Rather, it’s remarkable as one element of a larger, early twentieth century utopian experiment in Christian and Co-operative community-building. In 1897, a group of boot and shoe workers in the Crafton Street, Leicester Churches of Christ congregation decided to launch a new Anchor workers’ co-operative, dedicated to children’s footwear. Members of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, they already belonged to another co-operative, Equity; a pioneer member of the new Co-operative Co-Partnership movement. Manufacturing began in 1893, and the two key figures, Amos Mann (1855-1939) and J T Taylor (1864-1957), led the group on to build a specialist Anchor factory in New Evington. However, they had larger Co-operative ambitions, some inspired by the Garden City movement.

Estate House

Estate House

Thus, in 1907, Anchor opened a new garden suburb of semi-detached houses with gardens for working class families, run as a Co-Partnership Tenant Housing Co-operative. In 1910, the Christians Meeting House opened at its centre (an earlier plan to move the factory there had been rejected). Originally out in the country, with playing fields, an institute and other amenities, this small community has now been enveloped by Leicester housing sprawl. Yet it remains a poignant reminder of the strongly Christian origins of the British labour movement and its commitment to voluntary forms of collective self-help and associational life.

In Mann’s words: ‘This estate will remain a monument to the work of humble working men’.

References

  • Ackers, P., ”West End Chapel, Back Street Bethel: Labour and Capital in the Wigan Churchies of Christ c 1845-1945”, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 47(2), April 1996.
  • Ackers, P., “Experiments in Industrial Democracy: an historical assessment of the Leicestershire boot and shoe co-operative o-partnership Movement”, Labor History (USA), October 2016.
  • Mann, A., Democracy in Industry: The Story of Twenty-One Years’ Work of the Leicester Anchor Boot and Shoe Productive Society Limited, Leicester: Co-operative Printing, 1914.
  • Thomson, D., Let Sects and Parties Fall: A short history of the Association of Churches of Christ in Great Britain and Ireland, Birmingham: Berean Press, 1980.

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