From chapel to ...?

Wednesday 23 September 2015

The fate of Forest Gate's longest surviving, purpose-built, religious building hangs in the balance since a recent attempt by an evangelical church to take it over and restore it to its original purpose has been challenged locally, by campaigners objecting to its "change of use".

The building in question, in its most recent use

The building itself has an almost 200 year history - and is one of Forest Gate's oldest. It has certainly had the most varied range of uses during its existence, of any local landmark.

It is, of course, the rather innocuous-looking building which until recently hosted the Angel's restaurant, at 79 Woodgrange Road. The building was then empty for some months, during which period a local catering company, Pyramid Pizza, thought they had a lease on the premises - only to be gazumped by the evangelical church.

The church had its name board up for about a month and began meeting, earlier this summer, before the planning challenge was made. As the photo at the end of this article shows, it is currently without a facia board, pending an outcome of the planners' investigation.

The building was constructed in 1830.

Jabez Legg was a Stratford-based Congregationalist minister in the early years of the nineteenth century (see here for details of his life and the almshouses he supported, locally).  He took to preaching in a hut next to the old Eagle and Child pleasure gardens (later to become a pub), on what we now know as Woodgrange Road - previously Eagle and Child Lane - in the mid 1820's.

Jabez Legg, the congregationalist
 minister (1786 - 1867),
inspiration behind
the original chapel
He chose the location because the tearooms and pleasure gardens were something of a "resort" for day trippers, getting away from the hustle, bustle and filth of the streets of the inner East End - with Wanstead Flats on its doorstep. Thus, he was provided with something approaching a captive audience/congregation.

1851 sketch of the original Forest
 Gate, next to which Legg first
 began to preach in the area
Forest Gate was barely developed at this time and the tea gardens and preaching effectively operated in the middle of the countryside. The congregation, however, soon outgrew the hut, by the old Forest Gate, so Legg and William Strange, whose daughter ran the Sunday school attached to the church, raised funds for a purpose built chapel for the congregation on the corner of Forest Lane and Woodgrange Road.
Sketch of Legg's first local preaching
 spot - by the original Forest Gate.
See footnote for source
The couple were able to solicit a donation from near-by resident and prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, to help towards the £220 construction costs of the 100 seater chapel. The building was known simply as the Forest Gate Chapel.

This new, purpose-built, church expanded to run a day school during the week, in the era before state provided education. It opened in 1832 - at about the time of the passing of the Great Reform Bill, and seven years before the railway - which provided the real spur to Forest Gate's development - arrived in town. The school started with 48 pupils, when the population of Forest Gate was barely 350 people.

Sketch of the building in its original
 state as a Congregationalist chapel.
  See footnote for source
At this time most schools were based around religious institutions, those attached to the Church of England became generally known as "National" schools, and those associated with non-conformist churches - like the Congregationalists - were known as "British" schools. This was a "British" school, as can be seen marked on the 1863 Ordnance Survey map, see below - the first of its kind in the area.

1863 Ordnance survey map, showing
 the building as a "British" school, and 

 new chapel, around the corner, in
 Chapel Street - see below
With the coming of the railways and the growth of Forest Gate, the congregation soon began to outgrow the newly established premises, and the Congregationalists were on the lookout for a new and larger home, yet again.

Samuel Gurney, the banker, relative of Elizabeth Fry, and local landowner, who prospered greatly from the sale of his holdings for the development of Forest Gate, donated £100 and land to the Congregationalist church, just behind what is now Forest Gate school, in the mid 1850's, for the construction of a much larger chapel (see map, above).

Sketch of the Chapel Street chapel.
  See footnote for source
A total of £1,560 was raised to pay for the 350 seater church (see diagram below), described as being "a commodious and neat building of Italian design, similar to those recently erected in Yarmouth and Lowestoft and by the same architect". It was opened in 1856, in what the 1863 map, shown below named Chapel Street (later Chapter Street), in honour of the building.
Forest Gate photographer, Edward
 Wright's undated photo of the
Chapel (later Chapter ) Street building
Membership of this congregation more than doubled by the 1880's - expanding significantly, in keeping with the rapid development of the area's population - and it outgrew the building.  So, it was, in turn, replaced by the 1,000 seater church, which still stands on Sebert Road.

1880's constructed, fourth and final
 location of Forest Gate Congregationalist
church, Sebert Road

We are getting ahead of ourselves. The Woodgrange Road building remained as a British school once the Chapel Street church was built in the 1850's. In 1871, according to the newly established West Ham School Board, it had a roll of 65.
One of the first acts of the new School Board was to construct its own purpose built school, Odessa, with a roll of 703. This opened in 1874 and the National School closed. Its, then, 88 pupils transferred along the road to Odessa school.

We do not have a complete timeline for the subsequent fate of the building. Kelly's Directory of 1890, however, shows it as the headquarters of the Forest Gate and Upton District Liberal and Radical Association, confirmed by the 1895 map, below and the turn of the century photograph taken by prominent Forest Gate photographer, Edward Wright.

1893 Ordnance Survey map, showing the premises as a "club", and round the corner, in Chapel Street showing a Sunday school (belonging to Sebert Road Congregationalist church) after the church itself re-located, yet again, a couple of hundred yards away to Sebert Road.

By 1908 the club had been renamed the South Essex Club.

Turn of century Edward Wright photo,
showing the building as headquarters
 of the Forest Gate and Upton
Liberal and Radical Association
According to histories of cinema venues, the building had a short life as a cinema, between 1910 and its closure at the start of World War 1, in 1914.  It was known as the King's Hall (not to be confused with the King's Cinema, which occupied what later became the Upper Cut Club, at the foot of Woodgrange Road). Unfortunately, no photograph of the building serving this function seems to have survived.

Between the two World Wars, the building was converted to become Max Fietcher's house furnishers (according to a 1925 trade directory), and subsequently Shenker Brothers, drapers (1938).

Following the second world war the premises housed WM John Biles, glaziers and glass suppliers, from at least 1949 until the 1990's, when it closed, having employed a dozen or so people. It was a well-known local landmark and boon to many a local builder and diy-er.

Since the 1990's the premises have been a restaurant, in a number of guises, most recently as Angel's - see photograph, below.  For at least some of that time it functioned as Forest Gate's most notorious drug dealing premises!

Angel's closed last year, having acquired a pretty poor reputation, food-wise and in terms of the behaviour of its customers. Since that time Pyramid Pizza were on the point of acquiring it, then pulled out after a rent hike, and after a short period of continues closure it re-emerged as a meeting place for an evangelical church - apparently without permission for a change of use.

In its current state. What next for
 this undistinguished-looking,
 but historic, local landmark?

The sign is now down - so watch this space for further twists in the development of this rather ordinary, but quite remarkable local building.

NB. We are deeply indebted to the publication Hitherto, Henceforth, published in 1956, celebrating the centenary of the Chapel Street church for the sketches, showing the meeting places of the Congregationalists, in Forest Gate.

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