West Watford History Group

History of West Watford

St James Road Baptist Church

There is a wonderful wealth of information about St James Road Baptist Church (SJR), both on their website and in a very readable and informative booklet "St James Road Baptist Church, 100 years in the community". To fill in the gaps in the following history, please turn to these invaluable sources, the booklet readily available from the Church for a nominal fee.

Part 1 

St James Road Baptist Church began in a private house; it is recorded that three men first met together for Christian fellowship at no 42a St James Road in October 1902 and three months later, in January 1903, they were able to form a church with nine inaugural members. Mr W H T Chillman, who had previously been ordained as a Baptist minister, was appointed as the church's first pastor. In the early years, the church was greatly indebted to Mr & Mrs W F Bareham who, after joining the church, donated the site for the original building on the corner of St James Road and Farraline Road.They also gave generous assistance towards construction costs and helped relieve the church of various financial crises that arose. 

The stone-laying ceremony for the new building took place in June 1903 and the opening service later in the year was "bright and pleasing" and was followed by a "substantial tea". The cost of the building was £418.

The first baptismal service took place in 1904 and membership rose rapidly, with as many as 60 on the roll by 1906. An organ was acquired in 1906 and gas lighting was installed in 1907. The first wedding at the church took place in June 1910 - Miss Skeggs of Vicarage Road was married to Mr Cook of Markyate.

However, the church's first decade was somewhat tempestuous with three different ministers in the post until 1906. Pastor W H Chillman, with his wife, emigrated to Canada, followed by the Church Secretary. In 1909, following a misunderstanding regarding payment of his salary, the second minister, Rev James J Ellis, resigned.

The Church was then interregnum for two years, apparently unable to support a full-time minister. Assistance was received from a visiting minister, Rev D Newell, who was worshipping at Leavesden Road Baptist Church, until he returned to America in 1910. In 1911, the Rev Joseph S Bruce took up the full-time pastorate, when membership of the church was about 70, but Mr Bruce's tenure was short-lived. In April 1912 there was a major split in the church concerning the issue of joining the Baptist Union's Sustentation Fund (a precursor of today's Home Mission Fund), which had been set up to support its accredited ministers. Against Mr Bruce's recommendation, the church narrowly rejected joining the scheme, which prompted Mr Bruce to resign, together with four deacons and two members. A further 17 members sought to transfer their membership elsewhere. Thus ended the church's first decade.

During the next period of Rev J Willis's ministry, there were many new conversions  and new members joining. Alterations were made to facilitate seating for an additional 50 people and a new pulpit was built.  When Mr Willis was called to missionary work in Japan, his place was taken by Mr George Walker, who became the fifth minister. 

In February 1918, a 'Thanksgiving Tree Day' raised £119, which was more than enough to pay off the final £50 mortgage of the new church building.

George Walker and his wife, Clara, lived at no 54 St James Road and Mr Walker served the church from 1916 until his death in 1951 - 35 years of ministry.  

In March 1924, SJR agreed to assume oversight of the small Baptist Church at Abbots Langley, an association which continued for ten years. When the population of North Watford began to expand, a number of SJR members began a Holiness Mission in Balmoral Road, making a considerable contribution of £1,000 to the building costs.

In the St James Road Church, electric lighting was installed in 1926 and in February 1928 the significant acquisition of the adjoining property, no 7 St James Road, was made at a cost of £400. 'Number Seven' was to remain in the church's possession for over 65 years and part of the rear garden was used for an extension to the church to accommodate a classroom and kitchen.

In 1928, the church reached its 25th Anniversary, but chose not to celebrate this until the following year when special events were held from 26th to 31st October 1929. One of the guest speakers at this time at the Young People's meeting was advertised (in the semi-Jubilee brochure) as: 'The Copper Basher' of Harold Begbie's Broken Earthenware. (A full account of this interesting character is given in the booklet).

The membership in 1929 numbered over 150. 

Continuing under Mr Walker's ministry, a new baptistry was constructed and dedicated in May 1937. During the 1930's, SJR continued to reach out into the local community. At nearby Shrodells Hospital, special teas were held and services organised for the resident old people with Sunday evening services being held at the adjacent Victoria House. There was also work among tramps at the Casual Ward. 

In the 1940's, life slowly returned to normal after the war. In the minutes of the first post-war meeting in September 1945, it is noted that Mr Walker congratulated one of the Deacons, Mr J Wright, upon his election as Mayor of Watford. Mr Walker was subsequently appointed as Mayor's Chaplain. 

In 1947, part of the Building Fund was set aside to purchase a new organ and Messrs J W Walker & Co of Ruislip were commissioned to build a pipe organ, which was eventually installed for use in 1951.

On May 25th 1951, Mr Walker died and his replacement was Robert (Roy) Bell, who was ordained and inducted into the ministry in 1952. Also in 1952, it was seen that the original church building was falling into disrepair and it was agreed in principle to rebuild. At this time a suitable house for use as a manse became available at no 21 St James Road, which also had the advantage of an adjacent plot of orchard land. The purchase was agreed and at a meeting in November of that year, it was decided to erect a new building on the orchard site next to no 21. In April 1953, the architects' plans for the new church were approved, but it was over a year later before the contract was put out to tender. Messrs Costins of Harrow were appointed to undertake the work at a price of £7,650, agreed at a meeting in 1955 and two foundation stones were laid on 7th May 1955, one by Muriel Finerty in memory of her late father, Mr Walker and the other by Rev Henry Cook, then President of the Baptist Union. The new structure then became the main church building with the old building remaining in use as a Hall.

The Church's Golden Jubilee was meanwhile celebrated, but not in its fiftieth year of 1953 but, following the precedent set 25 years earlier, a year later between 9th and 13th October 1954.

After the departure of Mr Bell for Canada in 1956, the church again moved into an interregnum, with Rev J Clement Connell being appointed as a Moderator until, in 1957, another LBC student was called and Rev Norman K Archer was ordained into the ministry in September. During Rev Archer's ministry, new youth work initiatives were introduced, a Sunday School in Oxhey was 'adopted' and the monthly distribution of newsletters to hundreds of local homes significantly accounted for the considerable growth in the church during this time. 

Maintenance of the old Church building (the Hall) was becoming a problem as the condition of the building deteriorated. The possibility of erecting a new building on the site was raised at several meetings, but due to financial constraints, it was felt inappropriate at the time (1960 and 1961) to proceed and the project was temporarily shelved.

In April 1962, Mr Archer was called to ministry in Canada and in October 1962, Rev Normal L Trussler became the church's eighth minister, taking up his ministry as the church entered its 60th year. The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in its 'correct' year with many special events and services and another commemorative brochure was produced. 

In 1963, all debts in association with the 1955 building had been paid off and in 1964, more detailed plans were unveiled in consideration of a new building. The scheme planning and design period became protracted owing to delays within Watford Council and as the scheme developed, the forecast costs also escalated. Building Regulations approval was finally obtained in 1965 and the plans put out to tender. Professional Fees had added to the costs and the project in August 1965 was then in the order of £36,000 (from an estimate of £30,000 in May), but the tender from Messrs Y J Lovell was considered most favourable and they were appointed contractor. Demolition of the old 1903 building commenced in the December. 

Following problems with the foundations in early 1966, adding to the costs, the foundation stone was laid on 26th February, with work proceeding broadly to programme during the rest of the year. The organ purchased in 1951, which had been transferred to the 1955 building, was again moved and modified to fit the new building as part of the scheme. The new building was officially opened on Saturday 3rd December by Sir Cyril Black, the occasion covered by the Watford Observer, which made special mention of the glass partitioned area at the rear of the main body of the church ("Babies can cry in comfort in new church" ran the headline).

The 1955 building then reverted to use as a Church Hall.