Surrey Chapel | The Trailblazing Church and Boxing Ring
As part of my new walking tour Hidden Wonders of Waterloo I’ve been researching the history of Surrey Chapel, an 18th century church that once stood by Southwark Station.
Although it no longer stands today, it’s a prime example of the historic twists and turns a London building takes through the centuries.
History of Surrey Chapel
The history of Surrey Chapel is entwined with Blackfriars Road, laid out 1760s by Robert Mylne. Mylne was also responsible for the original Blackfriars Bridge which opened in 1769.
You can see from the R. Horwood map of 1799 that once this wide new throughfare cut through the rural land, a large new Methodist chapel appeared (circled in red).
It was establish by Reverend Rowland Hill (not to be confused with the Victorian postal reformer) and opened in 1783, It was designed in a striking octagonal shape, supposedly because Hill wanted it that way so the Devil can’t hide in any corners!
From this 1880 illustration of its appearance in 1814 I thought it looked wonderful, however clearly not everyone was impressed. The Survey of London calls it “ugly … with no pretension to any definite style of architecture”. They were kind about Rowland Hill though, calling him “eloquent witty and warm-hearted”.
The Chapel was important because of its independence. By welcoming non-conformists as well as members of the established church, it attracted a variety of speakers, preachers and societies who used it for meetings. Rowland Hill also approved of it hosting musical entertainment, quipping (possibly apocryphally!) that “why should the Devil have all the good tunes?“.
Rowland Hill was as multi-faceted as his chapel. Though himself a strict Methodist, he wanted the chapel to have an open door policy. The liturgy was Anglican but all Christian denominations were welcome. He was a compelling preacher, attracting crowds of 20,000 on his UK tours which helped him reach a wider section of society. Part of his outreach work led to the introduction of Sunday Schools and he founded a total of 13 in his life, attended by over 3,000 children.
He also was interested in the latest medical advancements. As a close friend of Dr Edward Jenner, credited with the creation of the smallpox vaccine, Hill opened a clinic attached for the Chapel in 1806 where thousands of children received their immunisations.
Christ Church Chapel
In 1859 the Surrey Chapel was in search of larger premises and the then-pastor Christopher Newman Hall leased a site on the corner of Westminster Bridge Road and Kennington Road.
Known as Christ Church Chapel, unfortunately only a section of this survives today, thanks to bomb damage during the second world war.
However, it does have a curious detail about it.
Known as the Lincoln Memorial Tower, look closely at the steeple and you can spot red stripes and stars including in the decoration.
The nod to the United States is because Christopher Newman Hall was a firm supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and his anti-slavery campaign.
Today just the tower and its foundation stone survive. The stone mentions both Christ Church and Surrey Chapel.
Back to the original Surrey Chapel site, from the 1880s its circular design became the perfect site for a boxing arena (naturally!)
The Boxing Ring
Known as the Ring from 1910, its new owners Dick and Bella Burge created a popular venue that – thanks to its cheap tickets – was a huge hit with the local working-class community.
Dick was a former professional boxer and Bella a ex-music hall star who was firm friends with the superstar of her day; Marie Lloyd.
Dick enlisted to fight in WWI, then died of the Spanish flu in 1915, leaving Bella to became the first female boxing promoter. The Ring would be London’s leading boxing venue for another 20 years, even getting a visit from the Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VIII very briefly before abdicating) in 1928.
The Ring was itself destroyed by the Blitz in October 1940 and today the site is occupied by the vast glass box of Palestra, an office block used by TFL and the London Development Agency.
It’s a shame they didn’t go for an octagonal-shaped building as a nod to its past, but the Victorian pub ‘The Ring’ is a reminder of the boxing legacy.
Across Union Street you can also find Rowland Hill House, referencing the former Reverend.
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