Memories of the Wesley Hall by Brian (Bill) Whitefield

I have no memory of the first visit to Wesley Hall, not surprisingly as I was only a few days old.  When in 1933 on Harvest Festival Sunday I was born in St Nics, now a housing estate, mothers usually carried their babies home and mine took me into the church on the way to home in Alabama Street.  It was to play a large part in my life for the next 28 years.

My first real memory is of being taken regularly to a children’s welfare clinic, either in the Classrooms or Scout Hut, to be weighed, measured, inoculated, obtain subsidised Marmite and be generally monitored.  Modesty was preserved by use of tall, brown, cane roll-up screens with distinctive odour.  There was a milestone when graduating from shop-type scales to a stand-on weighing machine and shame when a nurse insisted on relegating me to the former.

Also in the Classrooms was a weekly Sisterhood meeting to which to which my mother took me.   That was fun as in addition to the fuss from other ladies there was tea and biscuits to enjoy.  While still a babe-in-arms I was taken on a Sisterhood coach outing to Canterbury and during a tour of the cathedral the guide offered to relieve my mother of her weighty bundle but even he tired of carrying me and at one stage dumped me onto the Archbishop’s throne for relief.  Even in school years I was taken to the meetings during holidays until teenage.

Sunday School took place in afternoons at the Scout Hut but I can remember very little about it; certainly none of the teachers.  For lessons we sat in groups on the floor around a teacher seated on a chair.  I do remember being given my first illuminated text, a quotation from Isaiah, “I will not forget thee not forsake thee.” that hung over our fireplace for many years.  It was a comfort during the hard days of the war.  Of church services I remember little during early childhood, the highlights being church parades and Harvest Festivals when the place was packed.

There are memories of Gang Shows that ran for three nights each year with an accompanying band.  Of the musicians only Len Hogger on trumpet and Len Clifton on saxophone come to mind.  There was also an annual bazaar that took place close to Christmas when the body of the hall was full of stalls selling items.  The Sisterhood sold groceries and the Scout Group Cadbury products.  To a little boy it looked next door to Heaven.

With the coming of war in 1939 everything changed radically, never to be quite the same again.  Young men went off to armed forces, older men and some women were directed into war work nearby or in other parts of the country and children were evacuated to what naively were thought safer parts of the country.  Those from Timbercroft went to Tovil near Maidstone.  Quite quickly the congregation had dwindled to little more than a handful.  Only one Sunday service was held, in the morning, in the Classrooms.  The stewards were Messrs Pocknell and Algar, the pianist Miss Rush.  Wesley Hall at that time was part of a circuit additionally comprising Herbert Road, Plumstead Common and Robert Street.  Wesley Hall had been in the care of Pastor Spink but he left presumably for National Service before returning after the war as the Reverend Spink.  Elsewhere in the circuit some ministers remained.  The one at Herbert Road was Harold Eburn who also had a role with Woolwich Borough Council for youth work and at Plumstead Common William Warren. These were supplemented by elderly Local Preachers. Occasionally attendance fell to such a low level that services were suspended for a time.

However things were still going on.  The Cub Pack may have closed, the Rover Crew and Scouters gone off to war but there were boys determined to keep the scout troop going on a do-it-yourself basis.  In this they received great support from the District Commissioner, Ernie Mintern.  The nucleus was my brother Stan, Reg Barratt, Dereck Fairclough and Eddy Clarke.  Despite being on 5-year apprenticeships and involved in evening class studies they found time to erect numerous Morrison steel indoor bomb shelters and participate in many fundraising events for the war effort.  They even managed to go camping on Nightingale Farm at Southborough near Tonbridge, where Reg had been billeted on evacuation, carrying all their kit on bicycles.  That was a useful contact as the farm supplied sheaves of wheat every year for Harvest Festivals, that Reg then fed to hens in his back garden.  As the pointlessness of evacuation became apparent and children returned home there came demand for re-starting the Cub Pack.  Peggy and Barbara Pearson undertook a door-to-door canvass looking for recruits and soon had a waiting list for joining.

Another DIY enterprise was the Youth Club that in the absence of an adult leader but with encouragement of Harold Eburn contained among others Reg Barratt, Jim Watling, John Read, Peter Laming, Eddy Clark, Derek Fairclough, Stan Whitefield, Pat Dolman, Edith Cherry, Vera Algar, Dorothy Smith and the McKelvey sisters.  Among their activities was tennis on the Plumstead Common courts, Bank Holiday rambles around the Darenth valley and concerts at venues in and around London.

At the end of the war the church stood almost undamaged.  Although there was extensive bomb damage in Garland Road, Pendrell Street and Alabama Street there was little more damage than broken windows.  The church was filled for thanksgiving services but soon after congregations began to dwindle and that continued for many years.  There were several reasons for this:  some of the young men who went off to war were killed, National Service conscription continued until 1963 and broke the church habit of most men who were involved, marriage often involved moving away from the area, generally the pattern of work changed from local to more widespread with more moving and for some of those who had remained during the war anno domini took its toll.  Eventually congregations were so sparse that it was decided to convert what had been the Rover Den to a side chapel and that was where I last attended a service on Christmas Day 1963.  Not all was gloom and doom though; other things were happening all the time.

With Harry Hogger returning from Heavy Rescue to resume as GSM, Stan Hopgood returning from war work in Somerset as SM with Frank Bryan as ASM and Arthur Boyce ASM of the Senior Scouts the group became very active again, buoyed up by the success of the Cub Pack and assisted from time to time by the Rover Crew.  The Guide Company was re-formed by Marjorie and Doris Pocknell assisted by Nina Smith.  The Sunday School thrived and the Sisterhood continued for many more years.

The Youth Club, encouraged and supported by Ben Medd, continued with widening activities.  Twice a group went on a MAYC holiday to Guernsey, a very daring thing to do in the late 1940’s.  There they met up with members of other groups and maintained contact with those from Weybridge, Southfields and Walthamstow well into later life.  As they reached the age of 21 members left and eventually the club withered gracefully.  However there were similar clubs later run by Len & Doris Clifton, Frank & Marjorie Bryan and Stan & Cherry Whitefield.

It was sadly ironic that in a new circuit Welling, Bexleyheath and Barnhurst were vibrant church communities while Wesley Hall, despite thriving youth activities, was as a church a pale shadow of what it had once been.

 [Having read some of the blogs it is clear that over time memories may become inaccurate.  If I have misrepresented people or happenings here I apologise.]

Bill Whitefield

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