Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The grand portico of the Metropolitan Tabernacle at Elephant and Castle is a familiar landmark and by far the oldest structure in Newington Butts, having survived a serious fire, the bombs of the second world war, post-war reconstruction and the more recent regeneration. It stands opposite the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, still imposing and not yet diminished by the ongoing construction of multi-storey buildings around it. It remains an active place of worship with a long history and associated in particular with one charismatic preacher from the 19th century.
Though not built until 1861, the Metropolitan Tabernacle has served a congregation that dates back to the mid 17th century, to a time when Baptist and other non-conformist meetings were illegal. Initially, the meetings took place secretly in private houses but when the ban was lifted in 1688, the congregation built a chapel in Goat Street, Horsleydown in the area around the southern approach to Tower Bridge. John Gill became pastor in 1720 and served the congregation for the next 51 years. During this time, a new, more suitable chapel was acquired in Carter Lane, Tooley Street. John Gill was succeeded by John Rippon who served for 63 years. The meeting grew in size and prosperity, and by the end of the 17th century was regarded as the largest Baptist congregation within London.
The Carter Lane chapel was compulsorily purchased by the Corporation of London to make way for the approach road to the new London Bridge and for a while meetings were held met in other local chapels until in 1832 the foundation stone was laid for a new chapel in New Park Street. Six almshouses were built next to the chapel.
From 1720 to 1836 there were only two incumbent pastors for this whole time but when John Rippon died in 1836 aged 85 there followed three pastors who served for a shorter time and by 1853 there was once again a vacancy. The meeting was in decline with a dwindling congregation, perhaps many of the more well to do members had, since the introduction of the railway, moved away to become commuters. Geoffrey Holden Pike in his book The Metropolitan Tabernacle published in 1870 describes the deterioration:
“… the ancient Society in Southwark was apparently fast approaching extinction. … The pews were forsaken. The aisles were a picture of desolation. The exchequer was empty. The process of decay had bred apathy in the few remaining members, and sadness in the breasts of the deacons, who could devise no means of staying the catastrophe they dreaded – the disappearance from Southwark of a dear of Christian landmark.”
The deacons learned of a young man not yet 20 living in the village of Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire who was gaining a reputation for his preaching and extended an invitation to him to preach in the chapel in New Park Street. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born in Kelvedon, Essex into an Anglican family but underwent conversion in 1850 when he was aged 15. He was baptised soon after and became a Sunday School teacher, and within two years had become the pastor for the small Baptist church in Waterbeach. His sermons and preaching style quickly gained him the reputation as an exceptional orator.
Though he had misgivings, he accepted the offer from the New Park Street Chapel and wrote later of his arrival at a boarding house in Bloomsbury wearing “a huge black satin stock, and used a blue handkerchief with white spots, the young gentlemen of that boarding house marvelled greatly at the youth from the country who had come up to preach in London, but who was evidently in the condition known as verdant green.” The next day when he crossed the river to Southwark and caught his first glimpse at the chapel in Southwark he “felt for a moment amazed at our own temerity, for it seemed to our eyes to be a large, ornate, and imposing structure, suggesting an audience wealthy and critical, and far removed from the humble folk to whom our ministry had been sweetness and light.”
But the “boy preacher” was an inspirational and eloquent speaker, and after preaching at the chapel a few more times, became the Chapel’s pastor. He preached his first sermon to a congregation of 80, but word quickly spread and people now flocked to New Park Street. The fortunes of the chapel were reversed and went from a place of worship that was six times too large for its congregation to becoming one too small as even the aisles became crowded. Charles Spurgeon became the most popular and celebrated preacher in London.
It became clear the chapel would need to be enlarged as people were being turned away. While the chapel was being enlarged, Spurgeon preached at Exeter Hall in the Strand for four months and then for three years at the Surrey Music Hall at the former Zoological Gardens which could accommodate 10,000 worshippers. The enlarged chapel in New Park Street was still not large enough and, perhaps prompted equally by a tragic accident that involved the deaths of seven of his congregation while Spurgeon preached at the Surrey Music Hall, the decision was made to build a new, larger chapel.
The site in Newington Butts was purchased from the Fishmongers' Company where previously St Peter’s Hospital, almshouses for the Company, had stood since 1615 but had been vacated after new almshouses were built in Wandsworth. Deciding upon the style of the new chapel, neo-gothic was rejected, too reminiscent of medieval Catholicism, with Spurgeon himself favouring a neo-classical design. The interior was based on that of the Surrey Music Hall with two galleries as the acoustics of that building had been good. The foundation stone was laid by Sir Samuel Morton Peto, MP and railway entrepreneur, in August 1859 and less than two years later in March 1861 the new building was dedicated. It was able to accommodate a total congregation of 6,000 with 5,500 of those seated. In addition to the main hall, there was a lecture hall able to accommodate 900 people, a school room for 1,000 children, six class-rooms, a ladies’ room for working meetings, a young men’s class room and three vestries for pastor, deacons and elders. It was Charles Spurgeon’s wish the new chapel be called a Tabernacle in the sense it means House of the Lord, the architect suggested the addition of the word Metropolitan and the name Metropolitan Tabernacle was created.
As so often happens, whilst it was originally estimated the building would cost £15-£16,000, the final cost was £31,000. A meeting was held in the Tabernacle two weeks after the dedication that successfully raised the remaining £3,000 needed and so the new chapel was able to open debt free. A report from The Times reported on the meeting, commenting that the interior “was truly imposing. The chief colours being white and gold contrasted greatly with the sombre appearance of the multitude.” The entrance was no less imposing with the pediment supported by six Corinthian columns approached from the road by a set of steps that extended the full width of the building.
The work of the Metropolitan Chapel extended far with numerous organisations that included:
Almshouses built close to Elephant and Castle station. They were home to 17 pensioners over 60 years of age who had to be local residents and Baptists and nominated by the Metropolitan Tabernacle. In 1925, each pensioner received 15s (75p) a week and an allowance of coal and medical attendance.
A Pastor’s College
An orphanage in Stockwell
A Gospel Temperance Society
Mrs Spurgeon’s Book Fund
The Ladies Benevolent Society
The Ladies Maternal Society
The Mission to Foreign Seamen
The Mission to Policemen
Several Bible Study classes for both adults and children.
Sunday Schools and missions were also set up, not just in the Tabernacle but in many local areas such as Camberwell, Walworth, Bermondsey and Kennington, and further afield in Hoxton and Pimlico.
Charles Spurgeon died in 1892. He left behind him a vast legacy of sermons and other writings, popular in his day and still available and read today. The Metropolitan Tabernacle is still also known as Spurgeon’s Tabernacle and the Pastor’s College, located in South Norwood Hill, is known as Spurgeon’s College. The orphanages he founded in Stockwell have changed with the times and evolved into the Spurgeons organisation, a charity that supports children nationally and internationally.
Six years after Spurgeon’s death, a fire destroyed the building though the grand portico survived. The Tabernacle was rebuilt but the new building could only accommodate 2,700 due to the shorter overall length of the new building, wider spacing between pews and more space needed for stairways, aisles and passageways to comply with new regulations laid down by the London County Council. Sadly, the building was once again destroyed during bombing in World War II. Again the portico survived and again the Tabernacle was rebuilt and reopened in 1959. It was Grade II listed in 1972. The steps that had been built along the full width of the building leading into the entrance have been demolished, I’m guessing this was during the road widening in the 1960s.
The size of the congregation declined after the second world war as members whose houses had been destroyed in World War II were rehoused in other areas but congregation numbers have since risen steadily. There is now another long serving Minister, Dr Peter Masters, who has been pastor since 1970. Services are broadcast live over the internet – I feel certain Charles Spurgeon would have heartily approved of this.