Watford Labour Church
The following is a history of the Labour Church Movement and, in particular, the history of the Watford Labour Church, a Church described here in wonderful detail and which played an important part in the Movement. We are wholly indebted to Roger Kattenhorn, whose excellent research this is and for his permission to reproduce the work here. Copyright remains with him.
The Labour Church Movement
John Trevor was born in 1855. He became an orphan early in life and was sent to Wisbech to be raised by his grandparents. These were strict Puritans who force-fed the young John Trevor a terrifying Fire and Brimstone version of Christianity. In his autobiography, Trevor described it thus: “How to escape Hell – that was the absorbing question of my early years”.(1)
It was in reaction to this early experience that brought him, in his teenage years, to the rebellion of Agnosticism. Yet by the age of 22 he had discovered that he could not live without Faith and eventually he found solace with the Unitarian Church. This was a denomination that had stripped religious dogma down to the simplest elements of belief. As their name suggests, the Unitarians did not accept the concept of the Holy Trinity. They also held to a denial of predestination and of original sin. These were important factors in the subsequent development of Trevor’s theology and politics.
Another crucial influence came when he was appointed as assistant to the Unitarian Minister Philip Wicksteed. He is remembered now mainly as an Economist whose ideas prefigured the later Austrian school. In fact, Wicksteed was a polymathic genius and he introduced Trevor to the works of August Conte, Henry George and William Jevons.
In 1891 John Trevor, now a Unitarian Minister himself, was given his own church in Manchester. The following year he attended a conference for Unitarian Ministers in London. It was there that he heard the dock workers’ leader Ben Tillet speaking. Tillet berated the churches for their alienation from the working classes. Trevor had heard similar sentiments from Wicksteed, but was struck by the power of Tillet’s oratory. In a later conversation on this topic, his anarchist, atheist friend William Ballie* told him: “What you want is a sort of Socialist Salvation Army”.(2) The movement that Trevor subsequently devised was more theologically radical and challenging to orthodox Christianity than General Booth’s conservatively militarised missionaries.
*It was Baillie who also suggested the name ‘Labour Church’.
At that time the Anglican Church was generally considered to favour the Conservatives, while the Nonconformist Churches were thought of as favouring the Liberals. Ministers of both varieties were not above instructing their congregations from the pulpit on how they should vote. Neither of these two mainstreams of Christianity was particularly interested in the needs of the labouring classes. Wicksteed and Trevor deplored the antipathy of the Churches to the growing demands of Labour and felt that the existing Churches were not addressing social injustices as religion should. Trevor said that the contemporary churches saw slums as a sign of God’s anger at sin and a warning to others of its perils. The working classes, however, knowing this not to be the case, simply left the churches. One such, a member of Trevor’s Unitarian congregation, told Trevor that he had left because he could not stand the social climate there. He said that, for him, religion had become identified with “black clothes, kid gloves, tall silk hats and long faces”.(3)
When Trevor began preaching his new ideas, he faced much hostility from the Unitarian hierarchy. He finally left the Unitarians to establish his new Church having despaired of the hope that social reform could be supported by any of the existing Churches. These Churches were facing the challenge of Darwin, Lyell and Conte and in reaction to this challenge they had developed a habit of precision in their presentation of religion. For Trevor, this represented the stuffiness and dogma which he loathed. He drew a distinction between faith and theology and he was prepared to cast off the husk of formal doctrine if it were to reveal intact the kernel of Faith. It was an attitude shared by Keir Hardie, the first working class MP, who said: “The more a man knows about theology, the less his is likely to know about Christianity”.(4)
It has been said that the Labour Church was a forerunner of a move within Christianity towards a more immanentist view in religion, but Trevor was almost literal in his idea that God was manifesting His Will in the rising Labour movement, just as he had once used Christianity.
“In the existing Churches we heard how God had been active in the world two thousand years ago, but since then, nothing. At the Labour Church you would hear how God was active in the world right now”. (5) The point of the Labour Church, as Trevor saw it, was to “develop the religion of the Labour Movement into clearer self-consciousness”.(6)
In 1891 Trevor drew up 5 Principles for all Labour Churches to adhere to. These were ratified by a Union of Labour Churches.
1) The Labour Movement is a Religious Movement.
2) The Religion of the Labour Movement is not a class Religion, but invites members of all classes in working for the abolition of commercial slavery.
3) The Religion of the Labour Movement is not sectarian or dogmatic, but free religion, leaving each man to develop his own relations with the power that brought him into being.
4) The emancipation of Labour can only be realised so far as men learn both the economic and moral laws of God and heartily endeavour to obey them.
5) The development of personal character and the improvement of social conditions are both essential to man’s emancipation from moral and social bondage.
After the founding of the first Labour Church in Manchester, the movement spread rapidly. Churches sprang up in the cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Fenner Brockway told an instructive story about the genesis of the Bradford Labour Church. At a public meeting organised by a Liberal candidate who was opposing a Socialist, a number of wealthy Non-conformist Ministers sat upon the Liberal platform. Fred Jowett stood up and gave them a warning: “If you persist in opposing the Labour Movement … we shall establish our own Labour Church”.(7)
As more Labour Churches came into being, the response of the existing Churches varied from complacency to contempt. Dr G. B. Barrett, the Chair of the Congregationalist Union, saw it more clearly – “This attempt of Labour to vindicate its right to a place in the Church of God [is] a rebuke as well as a warning to us”**. (8)
(**The established Church ultimately revised its opinion to the extent that William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, said of a Leicester Labour Church Service he attended in 1907 “I have never felt so near the real presence of true religion.” – quoted in ‘William Temple – F.A. Iremonger’ 1948 p332)
The Labour Churches did not take hold so well in the South of England and John Trevor described London as “the despair of the Labour movement”. Watford’s Labour Church was something of an exception in that sense and also in the fact that it seems to have continued flourishing long after the demise of the movement elsewhere.
Such was the background to the Labour Church movement. Entirely opposed to dogma of any sort, what form then, did their services/meetings take ?
Hymns were still very popular. The Labour Church produced its own Hymn Book, but within it, alongside some approved traditional hymns, were songs by William Morris, Charles Kingsley, Longfellow, Tennyson and Edward Carpenter, who’s ‘England Arise’ seems to have been something of an anthem of the Church. The normal service took place on Sundays and seems to have been conducted along these lines:-
A reading (from a Socialist writer rather than scripture)
Notices and Collection
An address (usually from a guest speaker)
Some churches, perhaps recognising a need for ritual, worked out a form of ceremony for Births, Deaths and Marriages. Most Labour Churches involved themselves in some form of community or charity work. Most enduring of all their activities were the Socialist Sunday Schools for children and also the Cinderella Clubs that provided treats for children.
The make-up of the congregation varied. Philip Wicksteed observed “They were of all classes, but the great bulk I took to be workmen”.(9) Other descriptions bear out Trevor’s concern that they were not reaching the poorest workers, “well –to-do members of the working class, respectable responsible working class and decently dressed artisans and mechanics, some of the highest grade”. The majority were male, but women were in higher representation than in other comparable organisations. This was especially so on the platform. Women’s emancipation was paid lip service to at the very least and in Watford, a genuine sympathy for Women’s Suffrage appeared to be the case, albeit within the mental confines of the era. The great success of the Labour Church movement, but also a contributor to its decline, was the innovation of a guest speaker who gave an address in place of a conventional sermon. Between 1890 and 1900, thousands were won over to Socialism by oratory as well as the printed word. Listening to a good speaker or a debate was a crowd-puller in a way that it no longer is. All of the speakers at the Labour Church movement were missionaries for Socialism. One of the best of these speakers was Philip Snowden, who said of the Labour Church Movement: “It was something new in politics. It was politics inspired by idealism and religious fervour”.(10) When these speakers appeared regularly at Labour Churches, the attendances soared. However, the breadth and variety of their opinions tended to undermine the necessarily thin religious basis of the Labour Church. John Trevor wanted to push the Movement beyond rhetoric into greater organisation and constructive activity in order to reach the poor. However, the speaker issue tended to prevent this. Furthermore, the speakers themselves tended to use the Labour Church network to further their own aims, which were often more narrowly political. They did practically nothing in return for the Churches than simply turn up. This is one of the reasons why, despite the fact that they featured so many luminaries and celebrities of the era, the Labour Church is virtually unknown today. One can search the autobiographies of these speakers in vain for a mention of the Labour Church. They did nothing to build the Church Movement, content with the idea that by making Socialists, they would create Socialism. Trevor tried other tactics to establish a form of Clergy to do pastoral work, but none of his ideas came to fruition. By 1898, in poor health, he packed it in. He eventually came to the resigned conclusion that “We have a new religious message for the world, but practically no messengers to deliver it”. He remained friendly to the Labour Churches, but declined to offer advice or criticism. He continued to develop his thoughts on philosophy, despite declining health, bereavement and poverty. In 1909 he hinted at another reason for backing away from the Movement. He wrote that he had become increasingly convinced that someday he would be compelled to address the sex question and feared that this would injure the Labour Church cause. At that point his thinking had ascribed to an ideal of the unrepressed individual and free love. He had been much impressed by the example of the Oneida Community in the USA. The development of his thought continued until, ultimately, he despaired of the idea of any religion as an intermediary between the individual and God.
Inglis, in his study of the Labour Church, wrote that where they persisted, it was because they performed some useful secular purpose locally or sometimes as a neutral mediator between groups, as appears to have been the case in Watford, a “common meeting ground – where the SDF Lion may lie down with the ILP lamb and receive the benediction of the Fabian”. (11)
Although it was not a political organisation itself, the Labour Church helped to facilitate a dialogue between the varieties of political socialist organisation. This dialogue, by 1918, allowed them to unite into a Labour Party which, ever since, has consistently described itself as a ‘broad Church’.
Post Script: In 1942, William Temple, The Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote Christianity and the Social Order. This finally answered the prayers of the now dead John Trevor. It set out an Anglican Social Theology that married Faith to Socialism and a vision of a just post-war society that the Labour Government of 1945 legislated into place.
References to ‘The Labour Church Movement’
1) My Quest For God – John Trevor, Manchester, 1897
2) Quoted in Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, Sheila Rowbottom, Verso, London 2008
3) My Quest For God – John Trevor, Manchester 1897
4) Quoted in Churches and The Working Classes in Victorian England – K.S. Inglis, Routledge, Kegan and Paul, London 1963
5) My Quest For God – John Trevor, Manchester 1897
7) Socialism Over Sixty Years: The Life of Jowett in Bradford 1864 – 1944 – Fenner Brockway, London 1946
8) Quoted in The Origin of the Labour Party 1880 – 1900 – Henry Pelling, Oxford University Press 1965
9) Quoted in K.S. Inglis ibid
11) The Birmingham Labour Church cited in: The Reformers’ Yearbook for 1909
~ oOo ~
“If you want to know what Socialism is and what it is not, come to the Labour Church. If you are tired of the make-believe of conventional religion, you will find yourself in a congenial atmosphere and be brought in to touch with men and women who know that they believe and know, too, that it is worth fighting for. No fair-minded person will be content to judge Socialism by what its opponents say of it. At the Labour Church you will hear what some of the most prominent workers in the movement say about it and you will then be in a position to decide how far it is in accordance with your own ideas. So once more, please come to the Labour Church!”
(1) The Watford Critic, October 1905, p5
The Watford Labour Church
Frederick Hunt Gorle
A building fund was established and its target rapidly achieved. Frequent week-night meetings kept the members together and a plot of land, on the recently laid out Pretoria and Durban Roads, was acquired. A prefabricated structure that promised “quick erection” was purchased from W. Harbour’s iron building works in South Bermondsey. This firm boasted that they could have “buildings shipped and erected in any part of the world” and that they could provide “Churches, Chapels, Mission and School Rooms, Cottages, Shepherds’ and Keepers’ Huts, Stables, Coach Houses, Farm Buildings (several buildings always on view and 50 tons of iron kept in stock)”. (3) The advantage of a simple A frame construction meant that as the popularity of the church increased, the structure could be easily expanded lengthwise to accommodate the enlarged assembly. This modification did happen later and ultimately the entire site was filled by the building.
The new church was opened on Tuesday October 1st. F.H.Barnes, a correspondent for the Watford Observer who attended the event, remembered Fred Hunt Gorle as “a very earnest young man at the opening ceremony … reading letters from well-known socialists wishing the venture well”. (4) At that time Watford was expanding in an unprecedented fashion as the modern town was being created and this area was full of building activity. Now familiar residential streets were coming into being at a rapid rate. The location of the Labour Church was described as ‘behind the Victoria Board Schools’ (a single building that stood where Chater Junior is today). The atmosphere of the haphazard construction of West Watford is captured in an account of the early days of the church, “the members, in quite surprising numbers, having in thick darkness to encounter brick stacks and debris and to wade through such great pools of water, or such formidable heaps of mud as would have damped the ardour of less resolute pioneers”. (5) Also apparent from this account is the nature of the minimal laissez faire Local Government that these socialists were so opposed to. “After a time, the Urban Council offered to light the new roads if the church would provide the lamps. This cooperation, on principle, the latter refused til at length, by some means, lights did appear”. (6) It is hard to imagine such a dispute about the responsibility for lighting a public street today.
One hundred and eleven years later, the exterior of the building remains basically unchanged, if a little careworn (Harbour’s trade plates are still visible). The modern interior, however, shows no connection to its original purpose. Luckily a contemporary photograph of the interior of the church in its heyday does exist. (7) It is a glass plate created for use as a lantern slide. Taken from the entrance, this picture shows seating for upwards of 130 people, all identical wooden chairs with turned legs and spindle backs. The walls and raked ceiling are lined with painted tongue-and-groove boards. For illumination six large oil lamps are slung from the crossbars of the A frame trusses. Facing the ranked seating, at the opposite end of the hall, is a raised platform with a curtained backdrop. On the platform itself stands a wooden table with three chairs arranged as if for a debate, with the Chairman’s behind the table and the two contenders’ chairs placed on either side. High above, on the top of the curtain and stretching across the entire width of the stage, dominating the hall itself, is a decoratively bordered banner bearing the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” in Art Nouveau letters nearly two feet high. On the left hand side of the stage is an ornamented pump organ with a mirror to allow the organist to view the congregation behind. To the right is an upright piano. Set in the rear wall are two doors, which presumably, in some way, led out to the two outside toilet blocks, which used to stand behind the back of the building. At the right hand side of the photo, an iron stove can just be made out. This seems to be the only evidence of heating in the hall. Around the walls are placed framed pictures or texts. Unfortunately, despite the long exposure that must have been necessary to take this picture, the contents of the frames are indistinct. A description of the Labour Church in February 1903 tells us that some of the pictures were portraits of William Morris and John Trevor; others were designs by Walter Crane and one was the emblem of the Masons and Decorators Societies, (since evolved into the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians – UCATT). The writer claimed that as a result the hall “has quite an artistic appearance”.(8). (See photo gallery)
Apart from the Sunday meetings and guest speakers, the Church also had weekly associations of the Labour Church Women’s and Men’s Guilds. The Women’s guild met on Mondays at 7.30 pm and the Men’s group on Thursday at the same time. In the late 1980’s, Watford Museum was made a donation of crockery that had been used by these Guilds - “Two saucers and a plate marked with the crest of ‘The Watford Labour Church’. The donor remembered his mother telling him how Emily Pankhurst and her followers camped at the church on their way to the famous (Suffragette) marches in London. (9) The Guilds provided the volunteer foot soldiers that organised the many social activities that went on around the core of the Sunday meetings. There were innumerable evening ‘Socials’, entertainments and the Church even had what was termed an ‘orchestra’. (Miss Eileen Duane played something called a violoncello).
In February 1903, the Church was described as “a scene of animation most nights during the past month”. (10) That New Years’ Eve there had been “a crowded social and the New Year was ushered in to the lusty singing of “England Arise”. (11) This Edward Carpenter hymn evoked the Nation awakening to a new epoch. The same report speaks of the previous occasion that month when the Church had been “crowded to overflowing”. This was when a play had been staged. Surprisingly perhaps, not an uplifting propaganda piece, but a farce – ‘A Blighted Being by Tom Taylor’ (a very popular Victorian playwright, now largely forgotten except for the fact that Abraham Lincoln was watching one of his plays when he was assassinated). Among others in the cast was a ‘spirited’ performance by Miss Jessie Syme, daughter of eminent local architect and Labour Church stalwart W. H. Syme. Away from the premises, outings were organised and garden parties and bazaars took place at William Syme’s Park House at the top of the High Street. The Church would occasionally close for periods while the whole organisation would decamp to neighbouring towns, as attempts were made to drum up support for Churches in St Albans and also Hemel Hempstead, where “to arouse public interest, there has been a well-attended series of open air meetings held and the response made justifies the hope that a vigorous organisation will grow up in that town”.(12)
On Sunday morning at 10 am and again in the afternoon at 3 pm, the Labour Church organised one of its most popular and enduring activities, the Socialist Sunday School. The first such school had been set up by Mary Gray in 1892, an SDF member in Battersea. At first she had only her own two children and one other, yet 20 years later there were 120 schools operating in the country. The one in Watford had been functioning for 11 years by that time. The school educated its charges in the tenets of Socialism and the children learned to recite the Socialist Commandments.
Another activity organised on behalf of children was the Cinderella Club. This idea had been popularised by Robert Blatchford, the author and editor of the Clarion newspaper. Less formal than the Sunday School, these clubs offered uplifting education, hospitality, entertainment and the socialist message alongside ideas promoted by followers of William Morris’s Craft Movement. At the Watford Cinderella Club, the emphasis seems to have been on treats, fun and games, particularly the New Years’ Day party of 1903 where “73 children were entertained and from the noise it can only be concluded their enjoyment was of the fullest”. (13) For organising this event, J Abrams and Andre G Grenville Manton* were credited for their efforts and to which the ladies of the Women’s Social Guild “lent indispensable aid.” ibid
(*Manton was an eminent local artist who produced two portraits, now in Watford Museum, of local grandees. He was brother of pioneer aviator Andre Manton).
At this time it seems children were often targeted as the unknowing recipients of adult hopes and concerns, be they religious or political. A supporter of the Labour Church reports an example of the confusion that must have been engendered in local children. It was said to have been overheard at the Watford Band of Hope (this was a Christian Institution promoting alcohol abstinence to children!
By 1900, it was part of the fabric of Victorian society and the Church).
“Parson - “Name some of the Houses of God”
First girl - “Christchurch”
Parson - “Right”
Second girl - “The Wesleyan Chapel”
Parson - “No, we cannot call that a House of God, it is only a chapel”
Third girl - “The Labour Church”
Parson (in a sepulchral tone of voice) - “No, unfortunately, UNFORTUNATELY, the Labour Church is not a House of God. I wish that it were”. (14)
The Watford Labour Church does seem to have been an example of John Trevors’ apprehension that the Church, as a whole, provided no pastoral care for its members. However, if the Watford Church did not attend to spiritual guidance, there is some small evidence of temporal help to adult members as well as children. An example of this occurred when a stone mason was injured while working on the construction of the Royal Caledonian School in Bushey (now the Purcell School of Music). He was crushed by a ½ ton block, but taken to the Cottage Hospital in Vicarage Road. There he had to wait four hours in pain before a doctor attended him. The Labour Church remonstrated on his behalf. The indignation was magnified by the fact that this was not a charitable case. As the correspondent pointed out, the patient’s Union was a subscriber to the hospital. In this case, as in others, the assistance of the Church often usually had a political element. In this instance, his unfortunate circumstance was used to underpin a campaign for municipalising the hospital. Most of the Church’s practical assistance went towards supporting issues from the wider Labour and Union movement. For instance, regular collections were gathered for the Bethesda Quarrymen who were locked out of work for three years in a dispute over Union recognition with Lord Penryn, the quarry owner. On another occasion a march of “the Northern unemployed” on London was received in Watford where “the majority slept on the floor of the Labour Church upon straw”. (15)
In the spirit of solidarity, Watford’s Labour Church was also very active in the national organisation The Labour Church Union. Delegates were always sent to conferences and members of the executive often spoke in Watford, as did John Trevor himself. In 1908, Fred H Gorle was elected President of the Labour Church Union. In March 1906, at the Annual Conference, there was a feeling that the movement was growing. The optimism was mainly based on some breakthrough election results, “a resolution proposed by one of the Watford delegates congratulating Keir Hardie, MP, on his election … was carried [and] the Secretary of the Birmingham Labour Church called attention, amid applause, to the fact that, since the last conference was held, the member of the Executive hailing from Watford had been raised to the dignity of Municipal Councillor”. (16)
“Collectively the Labour Church holds no dogma, unless it be that all human life is a unity, harm done to any part of which is an injury inflicted on the whole. The full-hearted realisation of Brotherhood is in conflict with privilege and idleness in whatever sphere and yearns and labours for the elevation of the submerged masses. The Church makes to all an earnest appeal to unite in working for the early establishment of a veritable Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth”. (17)
References to ‘The Watford Labour Church’
1) The Watford Critic - October 1905, pg 5
2) The Watford Critic - September 1902, pg 3
3) The Cumberland Pacquet - January 30th, 1902, pg 7
4) F. H. Barnes, Watford Observer - March 1st, 1940, pg 3
5) The Watford Critic - September 1902, pg 3
7) Watford Central Library Collection, Lantern slides, B-series, Image No 481
8) The Watford Critic - February 1903, pg 5
9) Watford Museum News - July 1988
10) The Watford Critic - February 1903, pg 5
12) The Watford Critic - September 1902, pg 3
13) The Watford Critic - February 1903, pg 5
14) The Watford Critic - March 1906, pg 5
15) The Watford Observer - February 10th, 1906
16) The Watford Critic - April 1906, pg 5
17) The Watford Critic - September 1902, pg 3