Christian enterprise on one site in Canning Town has a history dating back to 1894, and which, at its peak, had 10,000 people belonged to the clubs, sporting activities, nursery schools and church.
The site is ringed by Vincent Street, Tant Avenue and Burke Street; placed at the confluence of the Thames and the Lea; and set in a communication 'arm-pit' of the A13 with its fly-over and Canning Town station rail and bus 'hub'
From the original marshland, the area developed by the 19th century into heavy industrial uses (factories and docks) and dense housing. The population inrush led to inadequate housing and poverty. The 1939-45 war brought the Blitz and evacuation, followed by rebuilding. Population movement has seen the dilution of the working class with extensive immigration. Currently (2010), a major regeneration programme is under way.
On this one site there have been four phases of Christian enterprise and activity
1 1894-1918 MALVERN MISSION
2 1918-1957 DOCKLAND SETTLEMENT
3 1958-2003 MAYFLOWER FAMILY CENTRE
4 2004- RIVER CHURCH & CHRISTIAN CENTRE
Each phase features external changes in leadership, buildings, programmes and style. There have been large-scale rebuilding programme in response to changing social needs linked with physical rehabilitation of the buildings. Coupled to this there have been internal underlying shifts in theologies and churchmanship responding to the local social changes. From the initial 'Mission' emphasis of the Anglican establishment, widening to the social element carried within the Settlement movement - from Broad Church to Anglo-Catholic, followed by Evangelical stress in the Mayflower era to Charismatic, Independent influence in 1990s and then Pentecostalism from 2003
1 MALVERN MISSION 1894-1918
Malvern College, a public school, shared in the wider wave of Universities and Public Schools establishment of 'Missions' in deprived areas that sought to both 'educate' boys from the upper and middle classes and 'to do good' to the poor.
When Vincent Street was voted 'the worst street in London' in a London newspaper the Rev G.F Gillett was appointed as the first Missioner in the 17,000-strong parish. Work began in a small house, a workman's cottage. A network of Boy's Clubs, Church Lads' Brigade, Working Men's Clubs, Sunday Schools and open-air meetings together with the building of the little iron church St Alban and the English Martyrs) and the coming of a Mission nurse sprang from the ambition 'to carry on the church's work amongst her people from both a religious and a social point of view and to be a centre of religious influence and social good'
The arrival from Malvern of Reginald Kennedy Cox, first as a voluntary helper from the school in 1905, staff member from 1907 and then as the first lay warden in 1918 accelerated and widened the work. (A block of flats in near-by Cooper Street is named after him). New buildings were grouped around an Oxford University style courtyard. The residential blocks, in 16th century style, occupy two sides of a quadrangle, connecting them at one end is the chapel, designed to imitate Lincoln's Inn Hall. Football teams and film shows were added to the expanding programmes, but the 1914-18 war precipitated a major shift in both approach and name.
DOCKLAND SETTLEMENT NO 1 - 1918-1957
The name change brought the work within the Settlement movement begun in nearby Toynbee Hall in 1884 and eventually led to 10 'off-shoots' in Dockland areas of London and the UK. The network of Docklands Settlements and Malvern College clubs were formally constituted in 1923.
Locally, the entire rebuilding between 1924 and 1934 of the network of club rooms to become a large hall housing many activities, a swimming pool, theatre, roof garden and residential accommodation - men in 1931, women in 1934 - occurred, backed by extensive external finance. Nationally, royal patronage, widespread publicity, big events (e.g. a ball at the Albert Hall, football matches at West Ham United) and philanthropists all contributed to both the reputation and financial support.
Three names dominated this period. In 1918 Ben Tinton joined Kennedy-Cox in leadership of the large teams of workers and took over in 1937 when Kennedy Cox retired. Both men told their stories (see 'Writings', listed below). Douglas Minton joined in 1919 and became director of all the clubs.
Social work built on a religious basis was the expressed philosophy. Popular Sunday Services - as many as 8 on a Sunday - ran alongside the community work. The building of a new chapel within the Settlement site to replace the church of St Alban underlined this. It was called the Chapel of St. George & St. Helena - completed and dedicated in 1930, and named after the patron saint of England and Princess Helena Victoria- a patron of the Settlement.1200 people packed into the 800-seat chapel at the opening. "Flat against the wall was a 100 of the biggest Scouts and on the opposite wall a 100 of the biggest Guides .The pick of the men in the Docklands Noble order of Crusaders were in one of the minstrel galleries and the choir of the Chapel Royal, Savoy were in the other. The band of the Royal Engineers behind the altar, at the front of the altar steps boys from the other Docklands Settlements in Southampton, Bristol, Rotherhithe and Millwall. Princess Helena Victoria was in the chancel. Following bishops in the procession came the guest of honour, Her Majesty the Queen'1
The extensive programmes, financial backing, publicity and national replication continued until the 1939-45 war. Then clubs shut down, hostels were used by the Army, and the halls were used as dormitories. By the end of the war deterioration, bomb damage and debt had seriously weakened the Settlement. Sir Reginald Kennedy-Cox came out of retirement and a series of wardens came during the 1950's and struggled to continue the work.
In 1955 Anglican concern led the Bishop of Barking to appoint David Gardner - an evangelical instead of an Anglo-Catholic. Settlement workers were now to be Christian; the residential blocks were let to Christian teachers working in the Borough. Bible Classes re-started. The work continued on similar lines but the climate had changed, with this the emphasis changed together with the coming of the Welfare State.
In 1956 the decision to close Dockland No 1 was taken and the headquarters of the Dockland Settlements moved to Stratford. In 1957 the Bishop of Barking worked together with David Sheppard to change the name, the committee, the style and the leadership. Dockland Settlement No 1 became the Mayflower Family Centre.
3 MAYFLOWER FAMILY CENTRE - 1958-2003
There are three chapters in the overall story of the Mayflower:
1958 - 1969: Establishing local evangelism
1970 - 1981: Developing the vision
1982 - 2003: Difficulties and decline
Establishing local evangelism - 1958-1969
David Sheppard centred and led, working with a team of full-time and voluntary residential workers. Converted at Cambridge, cricket captain of England, Anglican curate - he came with inner city experience and a concern for youth.
His summarised objectives, passed on to his successors were:
1 To help an indigenous church develop in the district with local Christian leaders, local Christian homes. 2 To serve the district in the name of Christ, trying to meet some of the some social and educational needs of Canning Town. 3 To provide a training ground, though not in any formal sense of training, for Christians, (generally those from other social backgrounds) who want to learn something about Christian work in areas like this.
Open clubs and the Sunday group replaced the out-dated uniformed and 'churchy' organisations. Local leadership and an indigenous 'working class' church were priorities. Over 120 local men and women became Christians, lived in the district) a farewell being given to those who moved more than a mile away) and joined in the work. Service to the district came through the youth centre and the nursery school. Training for urban mission on a 'hands on basis' through the 24 'live-in' volunteers or part-time workers and the initiation of national networks like the Frontier Youth Trust, The Evangelical Urban Training Programme and the magazine Christians in Industrial Areas ran alongside the local programmes.
Support came from the 5000 supporters in the UK who received 'The Log of the Mayflower' together with oversight from the Mayflower Council
The story is told in various books, listed below. David Sheppard left in 1970 to become Bishop of Woolwich and then Bishop of Liverpool and became a key leader in the Urban Mission movement culminating in the Anglican Faith in the City movement from 1986.
Developing the vision 1970-1981
The new leader, Dennis Downham (1971-1973), faced a series of difficulties. Social conditions were changing with unemployment and poverty dominating. A new team and approach were required. Tensions existed between the local church and the over-arching Mayflower Council.
Under Roger Sainsbury, 1974-1981, redevelopment was expressed in buildings - a new youth centre, the conversion of the swimming pool to a dry sports hall, changing the hostel into a training centre and the incorporation of an elderly day centre, welfare advice service, offices and reception into the central Vincent Street complex.
Wider partnerships with the local Newham Council (Roger Sainsbury becoming an Alderman) and the National Sports Council led to Job Creation Programmes, the establishment of Newham City Farm in 1977 with 21 workers and a concrete boat building project.
New team members like the youth leader Pip Wilson came, as did and Roy Trevivian ( a former BBC chaplain). By 1981, 38 people were employed full or part-time in and around the Mayflower
The local congregation felt diseased by the concentration on 'bricks and mortar', the scale of community work and concerned about the implications of public funding on evangelism and a group left the church to form The Family Church in Plaistow.
Difficulty and decline - 1981- 2003
Against a backcloth of accelerating people-movement: outward to suburbs and inward by immigration; industrial shut-down (the Docks closed), 'equal opportunities' and multi-faith development, Mayflower again changed leadership, style and programmes.
It was decided to appoint a warden with responsibility for the Centre and the staff team and a chaplain who would look after the church, thus Peter Wotherston and Edward Furness began work in 1982. Peter has commented, 'the youth work dominated the rest...the local church, though in theory at the centre of everything, appeared to be sidelined. There were local people involved in youth work but practically none were church members. The work seemed to have fragmented. Wrestling with the overall vision and the relationship between incoming leaders and local church still pre-occupied'.
Control of the Nursery School passed to Newham Education Department in 1987, premises were used by a widening range of groups - African churches, dancing schools, Alcoholics Anonymous, Neighbourhood Care. The Huntingdon Arms (the local pub) was converted to a laundrette.
Other work itself was becoming difficult. The youth team had been reduced to keeping order and police intervention became more common. Pip Wilson left in 1985. By 1989 all open youth work had stopped and there was no youth work leader
In 1991 Newham Council ended all grants (after controversy over letting to gay groups) and in 1994 the Diocese of Chelmsford could no longer fund the posts of warden and chaplain. Mayflower became independent and the Anglican connections were loosened.
Alan Craig became Director of the Centre in 1996 and David Gill became minister of the church. By 2001 the neighbourhood immediately around the Mayflower was listed as the most deprived ward in London. The Mayflower continued to struggle with dwindling finances and support. By 2002 the local congregation was in difficulties and the youth facility was closed. In 2003 massive changes were forecast for the neighbourhood - £750 million over 10 years on a housing regeneration project aimed at changing a deprived council estate to mixed housing.
Alan Craig went on to found the Christian People's Alliance Party -3 councillors by 2006 but eliminated in the 2010 elections and continued to work locally from a community-political base..
4. THE RIVER CHURCH AND CENTRE - 2003 onwards
Formal and informal discussions began with the local Elim Church, led by Roger Grassham, which led to a merger. In September 2003 both churches, Elim and Mayflower, began meeting together on the site. In January 2004 a celebration service marked a new era.
The River Church (the church congregation) and the River Christian Centre (facilities and outreach) were named after the nearby rivers Thames and Lea, and implicitly expressed the flow of faith - which had now become Elim Pentecostal.
Unified leadership persisted in Roger Grassham as Senior Minister of the Church and Managing Director of the Centre. David Gill continued as a minister, moving from the Baptist to the Elim denomination. In the 2006 Christmas newsletter the RCC Trustees 'unanimously agreed to go ahead with the re-development programme'
From the outset, overall direction and impetus has been embodied in one central figure: The Rev G.F Gillett (1894-1918); Sir Reginald Kennedy-Cox (1918-1937); Captain Ben Tinton (1937- 46); Rev David Sheppard (1958-1970); Rev Roger Sainsbury (1974-1981); Rev Roger Grassham (2003-).
Many often stayed for long periods and went on to significant ministries. Of these, David Sheppard became Bishop of Woolwich, then Liverpool. He wrote extensively and led the Faith in the City national project. Roger Sainsbury became Bishop of Barking, sometime Alderman of Newham and chairman of Urban Bishops, etc.
Successive organisations have also been influential: a 'seed site,' Dockland Settlement no. 1 was the HQ and the centre for 9 other settlements in London and other cities.
Mayflower was a model and training ground for the Urban Mission leaders from the 1960s - Frontier Youth Trust, Evangelical Urban Training Programme, Christians in Industrial Areas all root back to Mayflower.
12 books published from this site, 5 from Dockland Settlement era, and 7 from the Mayflower period.
All the authors were leaders of the work
1934 An Autobiography Reginald Kennedy-Cox
1939 Through the Dock Gates Reginald Kennedy-Cox
1941 War comes to the Docks Ben Tinton
1946 My 25 Years in Dockland Ben Tinton
1955 Dockland Saga Reginald Kennedy-Cox
1964 Parson's Pitch David Sheppard
1965 People matter more than things George Burton
1969 A Study in Contradictions David and Jean Hewitt.
1975 Built as a City David Sheppard
1984....Towards 1984 Roger Sainsbury
1985 Gutter Feelings Pip Wilson
1985 Justice on the Agenda Roger Sainsbury
1994 A different kind of church - the Mayflower Family Centre Peter Wotherston, (with many local people)
Footnote 1 - this quotation comes from the above title at pp 24/25
(Text: Colin Marchant Faith Flows in Newham, 2010 with some abridgements. Photo: Matthew Crisp)