International Heritage Centre blog

‘Evangelical Thrust’: The Salvation Army in the New Towns

‘Evangelical Thrust’: The Salvation Army in the New Towns

Our Director, Steven Spencer, recently published ‘"Even the poorest hall is the House of God": Salvation Army halls in the twentieth century’ in Twentieth Century Architecture 15: Holy Houses Places of worship in twentieth-century Britain (The Journal of the Twentieth Century Society). This blog posts explores the wider context of some of the halls discussed in his article.

The Salvation Army’s best known architectural expression must be its citadels built in the late nineteenth century. Designed with turrets, arrow-slits and crenellations, they looked suitably militaristic for the places of worship of The Salvation Army. Four of these fortress-style citadels built in the nineteenth century have been given protection by being made historic listing buildings.

Sheffield Citadel

Sheffield Citadel, 1894

Photograph: David Rogers, 2009 (Creative Commons)

However, in the first decades of the twentieth century the landscape of Britain’s towns and cities began to change. Slowly, even reluctantly, the architecture of Salvation Army halls began to change with them. As urban populations in places such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow continued to expand at the end of nineteenth century, people living in cities and large towns were bested by a range of social problems brought about by overcrowding and lack of amenities.

The late nineteenth century idea of garden cities, developed by Ebenezer Howard, were seen by some as a solution to this overcrowding. Howard’s idea of self-sufficient satellite cities around London with large areas of green space were realised in Hertfordshire with Letchworth Garden City (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920). Salvation Army churches (called ‘corps’) were established to serve these new developing communities, with a corps opening in Letchworth in 1907. The corps at Welwyn took longer to establish and opened in 1936, although it built a new corps hall in the same year. In this year a purpose-built hall was finally completed for Letchworth. Both halls were designed by the new Salvation Army chief architect, Brigadier James Vint.

The years after the First World War were ones of increased state intervention in the supply of social housing with several ambitious plans drawn up for new housing estates and suburbs outside Britain’s largest cities. The massive housing estate at Wythenshawe outside Manchester was begun in 1920 as a ‘garden suburb.’ The Salvation Army’s work began in Wythenshawe in 1935 with a new corps hall opening in 1938. The Salvation Army was far from being the only denomination to open a church in this new estate. The articles in Twentieth Century Architecture 15 show that Vint’s Salvation Army hall was joined by Ernest Bower Norris’ Roman Catholic St Thomas More (1935), Cachemaille-Day’s Anglican St Michael’s (1937) and a Friends’ meeting house designed by Hubert Castle (1939).

By the end of the 1930s it had become evident that a few garden cities and leafy suburbs were not going to solve Britain’s chronic housing problems or the social problems in the inner-cities. Plans were afoot for a more ambitious scheme. One of the bodies involved in these plans was the 100 New Towns Association, which advocated for the creation of new towns to alleviate pressure on the big cities. One of the presidents of the Association (alongside the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Viscount Esher and an admiral) was Commissioner David Lamb of The Salvation Army, a recognition of the role played by The Salvation Army in urban communities.

In 1944 the Abercrombie Plan for London proposed eight new towns around London to alleviate overcrowding and similar plans were produced for cities such as Birmingham and Manchester. A New Towns Commission was set up by the government in 1945, which led to the post-war 1946 New Towns Act. This Act legislated for the creation of Development Corporations which would establish the New Towns. The archival legacy of the New Towns is currently being explored in a Wellcome Trust funded project, The New Jerusalems: post-war New Town archives in Britain and Ireland, working with a range of local authority archives which hold the records of the Development Corporations.

The first of these new towns was Stevenage and the development of The Salvation Army here is illustrative of the varied nature of their expansion into the New Towns. As with the other New Towns, Stevenage was not a completely new development on a green-field site and The Salvation Army had originally opened there in 1893. This corps closed in 1953 for reasons which are unclear, only 7 years after the establishment of Stevenage as a New Town. However the growth in population led to the corps reopening only 5 years later in 1958.

Stevenage town centre and joyride statue

Stevenage New Town

Photograph: Ruth Ward 2019 (Creative Commons)

Many of the first wave of New Towns, designated between 1946 and 1950, were in towns which already had a Salvation Army corps. Some were longstanding such as Crawley which had a corps from 1902 and Hemel Hempstead had a corps from 1883 (both were designated New Towns in 1949). Cwmbran had a corps since 1883, 64 years before it was designated a New Town.

Other corps had opened only in the decades before the New Towns were established, probably following the same population trends that the New Town movement built on. Corps had opened at Welwyn in 1936 and at Hatfield by 1922 before they were designated New Towns in 1948. The Salvation Army began work at Bracknell and at Corby in 1933, before they were designated New Towns in 1949 and 1950 respectively. The development of New Towns also had an impact on existing corps in smaller towns around a designated New Town, so the creation of Basildon New Town in 1949 led to the merger of corps at Pitsea and Laindon in 1969 to create a new Basildon corps.

There were corps that opened in the wake a New Town designation, to work with a newly expanding population: the corps at East Kilbride opened in 1959 (actually a reopening as a corps opened in 1929 had closed) and at Newton Aycliffe in 1961, following their designation in 1947. At Harlow, also designated in 1947, meetings were held in the home of a Salvationist from 1955 before a formal corps opened in 1957. The membership of this corps expanded so rapidly that a new corps hall opened in 1964 needed to be replaced by a larger venue in 1974.  Glenrothes, however, had been designed a new town for 29 years before a corps opened in 1977. This was followed by a purpose built hall in 1981. An outpost of the corps at Easington Colliery was established at the nearby New Town of Peterlee, designated in 1948, but this ceased work in 1977.

There were subsequent waves of New Towns designed in Britain and Ireland in 1961-1964 and 1967-1970. Salvation Army corps operated in many of these developments. Cumbernauld in Scotland was established as a New Town in 1955 and The Salvation Army began work there in 1974. Probably the most high profile of the later New Towns was Milton Keynes, when it was designated a New Town in 1967 it incorporated a number of existing settlements. Four of these already had corps: Bletchley, New Bradwell, Stony Stratford and Wolverton (although the corps at Stony Stratford had closed before 1967). The corps at Bletchley and New Bradwell both became corps for Milton Keynes and changed their names to reflect the fact in 1984. Milton Keynes New Bradwell then closed in 1992 and Milton Keynes Bletchley continued as simply ‘Milton Keynes.’ The small corps at Wolverton continued as an outpost of New Bradwell but closed in 1983.

The development of the New Towns had a lasting impact on the design of Salvation Army corps halls. The old hall at Hemel Hempstead had to be vacated due to the development of the new town and compensation was received from the local authority towards the cost of the new building. This compensation came with accompanying conditions imposed on the style of the new hall, which sat at the centre of the new town on a corner of the new Market Square. These conditions led the Salvation Army’s Chief Architect, Lt-Colonel William Charles, to design the “first hall to be handled in a modern manner” in 1954. While at Stevenage, the new hall in 1958 was based on a standard design developed by the Architect’s Department for a small hall that could be cheaply constructed with Tyrolean rendered panels.

Hemel Hempstead hall

Hemel Hempstead hall, 1954

Photograph: Elain Harwood, 2004 (courtesy of the photographer)

In the 1950s and 1960s, The Salvation Army expanded into many developing suburbs and areas of post-war rebuilding. The new design of halls became widely adopted, particularly as many older were compulsorily purchased by local authorities and new halls built to replace them (as at Hemel Hempstead). When the new hall opened in Hendon in 1957 (designed by Wycliffe Noble, a Salvationist who would become the drummer with the Salvation Army’s popular music group, The Joystrings), it was described as “strategically placed for evangelical thrust” as it was located close to a soon-to-be-built housing estate thus giving Salvationists the opportunity to bring the Gospel to new audiences. While Hendon wasn’t a New Town, it did have a rapidly expanding population close to London and this attitude characterised the Salvation Army’s approach to New Towns: people who were moving out of inner cities into better physical environments should also have the opportunity for spiritual development in a ‘New Jerusalem.’


February 2023

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