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News & Views

Guardians of the Chapel

This month, we celebrated the 170th Anniversary of the current Chapel building and the 330th Anniversary of the founding of our congregation in Hampstead. This homily, by Chapel Elder Margaret Perry, was given in March this year. You can watch the full service on our YouTube channel here.

The Reverend Thomas Sadler’s memorial plaque is in the chancel, and he must be regarded as one of our many, many Guardians.

This was the first and only job of that minister. In 1846 he was 24, and with energy, conviction, and quiet perseverance, he took up the challenge of breathing life into a severely depleted, dying community. He found 18 members who were on the brink of closing down the chapel and were preparing themselves to travel every Sunday, by a horse-drawn bus, I presume, down to Essex Unitarian Church by the Strand.

In her scholarly work, Religious Devills of Hampstead, the historian Ruth Rowntree fully explains the situation and indicates that his maturity beyond his years and careful assessment of the situation persuaded him to take up the challenge of becoming the chapel’s part-time Minister in 1846 along with part-time work elsewhere.

In our other sourcebook, Rosslyn Hill Chapel: A Short History, we read:

“In 1847 Dr Sadler set to work in earnest to cater for the needs of his flock. In the old chapel, (now known as the Hall), the vestry was rebuilt to accommodate classes in religious instruction, the heating and ventilation were improved, the pulpit lowered and a communion table was placed in the Chapel.”

The situation prospered and the Hampstead congregation steadily grew.

We are reminded:

“There is no doubt that much of the success was due to Dr Sadler’s personality and to his ability as a preacher, but it must not be forgotten that Hampstead itself was growing rapidly and it would have been surprising if its only Unitarian congregation had not kept pace with the increasing population.”

Halfway through Rev Sadler’s tenure, in 1858, the story turns to a crucial episode involving Edmund Kell Blythe. He was a member of the rapidly expanding congregation then known as ‘Red Lion Chapel’. Conversations in that earlier chapel must have repeatedly included the urgent need for more space.

The element of chance seems to feature.

By chance, Edmund Blyth heard that a plot of land was to be sold by auction within three days. Ruth Rowntree explains in Religious Devills of Hampstead that very little land in Hampstead in 1858 was available for purchase by Dissenters; this plot was an exception.

By chance, the first bank account for the Red Lion Chapel had been opened two years previously, in the nick of time, it would seem.

Time was the critical factor. Protocol was ignored: a Special General Meeting of the congregation was not called; rather Edmund Blyth flew around Hampstead, knocking on the doors of congregation members (no emails then) explaining the urgent need to raise the money immediately. He was successful and gained promises from members to cover the likely sum of £1,000 to ‘buy out the copyhold’ on the plot to be auctioned. It was done, and a Mr Johnson was eventually appointed as the architect of a larger chapel, this beautiful building, opened in 1863, when the name ‘Rosslyn Hill Chapel’ was then adopted. Edmund Kell Blythe would surely qualify as another ‘Guardian.’

Dr Sadler retired in 1891, and the huge congregation soon after deeply mourned his death

* * * *

An earlier Guardian was Edwin Field, who laid the foundations for the secure existence not only of this chapel but of the whole Unitarian denomination. Edwin Field knew about the precarious existence of all Dissenting chapels. Quite legally then, in the early 19th century, they could be acquired (grabbed) as places of worship, by non-dissenting churches. With focussed determination, Edwin Field and others helped to push ‘The Dissenters’ Chapels Act’ through Parliament. This was passed in 1844 and Unitarians became protected by law; the property they owned was no longer in danger of being acquired. Plans for expansion could be made in confidence: hence the story involving Edmund Kell Blyth in 1858.

* * * *

Fast forward to a little less than 100 years after the opening of this chapel in 1863. From records, two names stand out in the mid-20th century, who, I think, are Guardians during barbaric times. William Roscoe and Lady Seton feature in the Chapel’s history book, and Ruth includes the minutes of the Annual AGM of 1941 when William Roscoe was Chairman. We read that:

“The chapel was barely surviving with a handful of chapel members.”

The story continues… William Roscoe remained in London and was the chapel’s Chair in 1941. The Minutes of the AGM that year show the words ‘No’ and ‘Nothing‘ creating a despairing litany. There was no treasurer, no choir, no meetings of any sort, no evening services. Very little income came from the few remaining members who had not escaped to the countryside; expenses exceeded income. The chapel was too expensive to heat, so some services were held in what is now called the Hall. 1941 was a year of day-time attacks, 1944 was a year of night-time air raids. There was no let-up from anxiet

Ruth Rowntree asks, “How could all the problems be solved and who was left to tackle them?” Yet William Roscoe’s words from that AGM indicate a sense of tentative optimism.

He wrote: “I enclose a cheque for a guinea for the Xmas collection. I have to go slow now owing to an accident when returning from duty as a Warden. My helmet hit the curb and broke a vein in my skull and I sank into a coma; I was operated on, on October 4th. After several weeks….I returned to the City last week. I am perhaps a little old to be a Warden at 70”.

There is a sort of defiance, a determination never to give up, which is also seen in his other words: “That our chapel has, up until now, remained intact is a cause for thankfulness, that services have been held Sunday by Sunday throughout the year is a cause for pride. Whatever the forthcoming year has in store for us, we have the knowledge that through the blackest days of last year, witness has been borne there to the supremacy of the spirit of Man over ALL mechanical instruments of terror and destruction, that may well prove that 1940 has been the greatest year in the history of the Congregation” (Rowntree 224).

Lady Seton likewise chose to remain in Hampstead through most of World War II, showing similar resilience. She chose to give moral support to her neighbours, her congregation here at Rosslyn Hill, and through her uplifting writings as editor of a monthly magazine entitled ‘Guild Gardener’. Some of Lady seton’s words follow, lifted from the Guild Gardener. Using the style of the time, she also expresses determination not to be overcome in spirit. She wrote these sermon-like words with the aim of inspiring courage in those whom she ‘reached through her pen'.

“It does not hurt the soul to hate evil in the abstract; indeed, it is right that we should do so. It is the concrete spirit of hatred to fellow men, however odiously wicked they may be which will react on your own soul and will in time, kill in you the power of love and the sound mind which alone gives you a right judgement in all things”

It took a decade after WW2 ended in 1945 for the rebirth of Rosslyn Hill chapel to happen. It is recorded in 1958 that the community then was flourishing with many enjoyable activities on offer to a growing congregation.

* * * *


The congregation attending William Roscoe’s 1941 AGM, bravely attended the chapel in person with some concern and trepidation, I imagine. (I wonder whether the meeting was even quorate?)

An earlier minister, Dr Judith Walker Riggs, with tongue in cheek, said "Unitarians have ONE Day Of Obligation, and that is (to attend the day) when the AGM is held!"

I hope that we can continue to be Guardians of this Chapel, as it is our duty to keep it intact for future generations.


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