A “lost church” hidden in plain sight
In some streets in London today there are so many coffee shops of one particular chain that you can see the next one further down the same street. In earlier days the same was true of churches, chapels and mission rooms along some streets of Northampton. The St Michael’s Road area is a good example.
Figure 1: Plan of St Gabriel’s, St Michael’s Road, Northampton. Goad’s Insurance Plan, 1899
© British Library Board [Maps 145.b.12.(3.)]
The first question that needs to be addressed is why it is called St Michael’s Road when St Michael and All Angels church is some little distance away on the east side of the Kettering Road? The Church Extension society had purchased a plot of the north side of St Michael’s Road before the houses we built in the early 1880s. As a temporary arrangement an “iron church” was erected in Lower Mounts, presumed to be on the north side. However, the gift of a benefactor a Mrs Whitworth secured the site which became known as St Michael’s Mount and the church was erected there. The St Michael’s Road site was subsequently sold. This area of the town was rapidly expanding and by 1894 the parish had a population of 13,000 but its parish church had only 620 places. Not that the area was short of a Christian witness: Baptist churches in St Michael’s Road and Kettering Road, Primitive Methodists in Grove Road and Wesleyan Methodists in Queens Road. The Anglicans continued to be challenged by a lack of suitable premises in the area. A new site was acquired on the south side of St Michael’s Road, between the Baptist chapel and the Kettering Road at a cost of £1000. On it the “iron church” that had previously been home to St Matthew’s on Kingsley Park which was purchased and re-erected on the new site for £300. It could accommodate 350 worshippers. Remarkably this same building still stands today (2019) on the site, albeit in a rather sorry state of repair.
Figure 2: View of St Gabriel’s, hall and Sunday school
© Google Maps, 2019
The church was dedicated on Tuesday, 23rd October 1894 by the Bishop of Peterborough. The Rev. G C Day the senior curate of St Michael’s took charge of the new enterprise which remained part of the St Michael’s parish for all of its existence.
The Church Extension Society had been particularly effective in promoting and raising the funds for an ever-increasing need for an Anglican presence in the town and its annual reports provide snapshots of the society’s progress. By 1897 there was a discussion of the need for an additional presence in St Michael’s, St Edmund and Abington parishes, this was despite the work already completed at St Matthew’s and St Gabriel’s. The same report for 1897 records:
“From St Gabriel’s, a district formed out of St Michael’s, a loud cry for help is heard. The church officers, members of the congregation, and parents of scholars have sent in a memorial, showing what difficulty has ensued upon the success of the work in the district. The iron church, with its vestries, lobby, etc., are so crowded with school children that teachers are compelled to surrender their seats, while three children share two chairs between them. A few hundred pounds, in this case, would suffice to relieve the greater part of the stress.”
Key to the early success was no doubt due to the leadership of the curate in charge, Rev. G C Day, but in November 1898 the planned depart of Rev. Day for South Africa was marked by a church tea in St Michael’s rooms in Magee Street .
Work at St Gabriel’s progressed as in 1899 the Church Extension Society allocated £100 towards the cost of acquiring a site for Sunday Schools in connection with the church.
No attempt here has been made to document a complete history of St Gabriel’s however after the First World War, the Anglican church like other churches was beginning to show signs of not having enough ordained clergy for all of its congregations. In 1925 it was reported at the annual parochial meeting for St Michael’s on 17th April, of which parish St Gabriel’s was still part, that there were difficulties in securing the services of a new curate after the departure of Rev. Hilary Waterworth. The same report also gives us an insight into the finances of the two churches. Collections at St Michael’s were £442 and St Gabriel’s £130. St Michael’s showed a deficit for the year of £2 7s 1d (£2.35 = £141.69 in 2019 prices) and St Gabriel’s a surplus of £12 1s 7d (£12.08 = £728.32 in 2019 prices). From the vicar’s report in response to rumours of the closure of St Gabriel’s, he responded by indicating he would say little about that specifically but did concede that there was to be a re-arrangement of the parish boundaries. He went on to add that for a long time the congregations of St Michael’s and St Gabriel’s were divided into two watertight compartments with every organization in the parish duplicated.
Events seem to have moved quickly, as at a meeting of St Gabriel’s congregation on 16th June 1925 the vicar, Rev. W J Smith, announced his decision that St Gabriel’s was to close. The decision was not received well by the congregation and seems to have been triggered because of a proposal to extend the parish of St Giles whose population was declining. Evidently, if St Gabriel’s closed before the re-arrangement of the boundary the church funds would remain with St Michael’s otherwise it would be taken by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, presumably destined for St Giles. Before the First World War consideration had been given to creating a separate parish of St Gabriel’s and fundraising towards a permanent church building had continued. One prominent member of St Gabriel’s reported:
“We have over 300 regular communicants, over 200 children in the Sunday School which has sixteen teachers and two superintendents, one of the largest troops of Boy Scouts in Northamptonshire, a girls’ Bible class with 40 members, and a boys’ Bible class with 25, and a women’s guild with over 40 members.”
The congregation did not accept the decision quietly and took to writing to the local press and a petition was organised by 27th June with over 200 signatures sent to the Bishop of Peterborough requesting a stay of closure at least for at least a year. Their efforts were in vain as services ceased at the end of June 1925.
In April 1926 the site including the land and buildings formerly the mission church of St Gabriel’s, together with a brick-built and slated building known as St Gabriel’s Hall and school was advertised for sale. The property was put for auction on 12th May 1926 but did not result in a satisfactory outcome. The site was withdrawn from sale at £1025, the mission church itself was withdrawn at just £50, but the hall and schools were sold for £1050.
The mission church building continued in community use when from August 1926 it was being advertised as the venue of the Unity Adult School, a use that continued and evolved through much of its subsequent life.
Returning to St Michael’s, the annual parochial meeting in 1927 revealed that the proceeds of the sale of St Gabriel’s had been distributed with £500 going to the Christ Church building fund, and the remainder to the Church Extension Board of the Archdeaconry of Northampton. The accounts for St Michael’s did show a healthier position compared with 1925 with total collections £860, and after other items of income, a surplus of £440 compared to a deficit of £2 in 1925.
The legacy and verdict
The purpose of history compared to journalism is to record the facts and where possible provide a balanced judgment of the events recorded. Viewed from the perspective of 90 years it could be argued that the closure of St Gabriel’s was a high-handed decision by the vicar of St Michael’s. The church was faced with a real shortage of clergy but St Gabriel’s was a viable and financially self-supporting community, with an enviable list of community groups, albeit small in comparison to other parishes.
The Adult Unity School acquired the buildings in 1925. Until the early 1940’s the large hall was used as a meeting place, for large county gatherings, drama, music and elocution festivals. Now known as the National Adult School Organisation (NASO) meetings moved into the smaller rooms in the building, and the large hall is let to Tricker’s Shoe Manufacturers.
The hall and school-room have returned to Christian use, now the home of the Wesleyan Holiness Church in Northampton.
The scout troop moved to St Giles in 1925 rather than St Michael where it remains today as the 2nd Northampton (St Giles) Scout Group.
Whilst there were some frank exchanges by the various parties in the local press, the vicar did try to keep the issues out of the public domain although extracts from a parish magazine did find their way onto the front page of the Chronicle and Echo.
“I had hoped that it might have been possible to postpone action in this matter until these plans for re-organisation [of the parish boundaries] were more advanced. This, however, has proved to be impracticable, since the uncertainty with regard to the future of St Gabriel’s seems merely to be delaying the development of wider consideration. It would appear that in the past encouragement has been given to the hope of the creation of an entirely separate parish of St Gabriel, with the result that there has been a consistent furtherance of organization and equipment with this end in view…. It now transpires that this hope was never well-founded, and in present circumstances is quite impossible of achievement. This being the case, the question arises as to the necessity of the existence of two places of worship, with full organisations duplicated, in connection with one parish. Such a necessity can scarcely be seriously argued, especially in circumstances which provide totally inadequate clerical oversight even for one Church with its manifold organisations.”
A year later the St Michael’s parochial meeting was again front-page news recording the vicar’s attempt at the closure of the issue:
“… I ask you to consider how unfortunate, not to put it more strongly, would have been our position, if we had permitted the re-arrangement [of the parish boundaries] to take place before we had disposed, as is our right, of that property, which is the property of St Michael and All Angels.”
We might conclude then that the decision was an economic one in the face of the potential loss of an asset to the parish rather than the greater Christian work in the community.
Northampton Mercury : Friday 26 November 1897 : page 6 col 3 ↑
Rev. G C Day left St Michaels in 1898 for missionary work in South Africa, Northampton Mercury : Friday 4 November 1898 : page 8 col 1. He subsequently became rector of Thaba ‘Nchu, South Africa, People’s Friend (South Africa) : 26 June 1915 : page 3 col 4 ↑
There were apparently 4000 fewer priests in 1925 compared with 1914. Of four candidates, one was near 70, one well over 60, one would have to give up his existing benefice and the last accepted another position that offered a benefice with a house attached. Northampton Daily Echo : Saturday 18 April 1925 : page 7 col 4 ↑
Rev. Hilary Waterworth had left in 1924 to become vicar of Stoke Golding, Leicestershire. He was ordained in 1915 and served as curate at St Edmund for 2 years before becoming an army chaplain, returning in 1919 as curate at St Michael’s with responsibility for St Gabriel. He became rector of Brington in 1930. Northampton Mercury : Friday 01 November 1929 : page 5 col 5. Crockford Clerical Directory 1932. Oxford, 1932 ↑
St Gabriel’s Scout troop commenced in 1911 and closed in 1925. A photographic archive of a summer camp in 1922 shows the size of the group. https://web.archive.org/web/20130818150514/http://northampton-scout-history.co.uk/page23.html (Accessed 26 July 2019) ↑
Northampton Daily Echo : Friday 19 June 1925 : page 4 col 3 ↑
Northampton Mercury : Friday 23 April 1926 : page 4 col 3 ↑
Northampton Mercury : Friday 14 May 1926 : page 1 col 7 ↑
Northampton Daily Echo : Friday 27 August 1926 : page 2 col 6 ↑
Northamptonshire Adult School Organisation https://web.archive.org/web/20121229122016/http://naso.btck.co.uk/About%20us (Accessed 26 July 2019) ↑
NASO History, Eric Frost, undated http://btckstorage.blob.core.windows.net/site2973/NASO%20History%20by%20Eric%20Frost_4.pdf (Accessed 26 Jul 2019) ↑
St Giles Centenary Year – 2012, https://sites.google.com/site/stgilesnorthamptonscoutgroup/group-pages/st-giles-centenary-year—2012 (Accessed 26 July 2019) ↑
“St Gabriel’s, the creation of a separate parish” Northampton Daily Echo : Saturday 18 July 1925 : page 1 col 4 ↑
“Vicar and the passing of St Gabriel’s”, Northampton Daily Echo : Wednesday 14 April 1926 : page 1 col 5 ↑
© 2019, Graham Ward. All rights reserved.