Early Days – Wesleyan Pioneers
Methodism first arrived in Camden Town in 1821, when the Wesleyans began religious meetings in various rooms in the vicinity. At this time Camden was still little more than a few buildings along a main road. The Regent's Canal had opened to traffic just a year before, leading to rapid development of what had been, up to that time, mainly open fields.
These early Wesleyans were men of action and fairly quickly a decision was made to erect a chapel. In 1824 it was agreed to lease a former lint factory in Little King Street (now Kings Terrace). This was the rear half of the present church site, with an entrance on Kings Terrace. The building was converted into a galleried chapel seating 150. The following year a Sunday School was started, which, in addition to religious instruction, included the teaching of reading and writing.
The new society was incorporated in the recently created Great Queen Street Circuit which reached out as far as Finchley and Barnet and was served by thirty seven local preachers.
By the middle of the century the congregation had outgrown the chapel and in 1860 "a more suitable and commodious sanctuary" was erected around the corner in Camden Street, the old chapel being offered to the Primitive Methodists.
The Primitive Methodists
The Primitive Methodist connexion had been founded in 1810, their first metropolitan chapel being opened in Shoreditch in 1824. In 1850 the Primitive Methodists began open air preaching in Camden Town and there was soon sufficient response to form a society. A former paint shop was rented as a place of worship, the opening services taking place on Palm Sunday 1851. Within a few months membership increased from 3 to 30.
The purchase of the old Wesleyan chapel offered premises that were a vast improvement over the existing accommodation. However, there were only 29 years of the lease remaining. Others may have been deterred; the 'Prims' turned a problem into an opportunity. Not only did they negotiate a new 999-year lease, but also acquired the leases to three shops fronting King Street (now Plender Street). This enabled them to erect a new, far more substantial chapel.
Opened in 1890, the 'New Camden Chapel' was one of the largest in the Primitive Methodist connexion, capable of seating 850. Ironically, not long afterwards the congregation lost over a third of its number when the minister Revd W H Allen left the Primitive Methodist Church to become minister of a Congregational church in Kentish Town – followed by many of the members. However, new people joining the church ensured that by the turn of the century the membership had returned to its former level.
Twentieth Century – the United Society
Both Wesleyan and Primitive societies continued to flourish in the early years of the 20th century, supporting a wide range of activities – Bible classes, Boys Brigades, Guide companies, Bands of Hope and women's meetings. In recognition of the growing population – and poverty – in the area ministries such as a 'Penny bank', free legal advice, drop in for the unemployed and a children's film show were run at the New Camden Chapel.
This continued for several years after the union of the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist denominations in 1932. It was not until July 1939 that the two societies merged, with the closure of the Camden Street chapel for worship. The Camden Street premises continued to be used as a youth centre.
During the Second World War the basement of the church was used as a night shelter, shored up with wooden beams and installed with bunk beds to sleep 120 people. A canteen was set up for those who practically lived in the shelter during this time. Church members also staffed the canteen at the Deep Shelter which was opened below Camden Town Underground Station. Despite hardships, neither church nor Sunday School closed during the wartime years.
After the war, church life continued with a wide range of activities and clubs for children and adults. However, the post-war period was a time of change as private houses were replaced by high rise blocks of flats. Church members, many of them young people, moved out of the area. And in the era of the Welfare State, the need for the social services of the church began to dwindle. In 1958 the Camden Street premises were sold and all work transferred to Plender Street.
With continuing changes the church began to look for new opportunities in mission. In 1979 the basement rooms were converted into a Christian Community Hostel, with accommodation for 12 students.
Not all changes were negative. As older members of the church moved away, others moved into the area, including Methodists from the Caribbean and Africa. This has completely transformed the church into what is today a majority black congregation. In recent years there has been a steady increase in attendance. However, we are increasingly constrained by a church which was built to serve a previous era. We are therefore presently undergoing a thorough review of our ministry and mission, in order to ensure our work continues 'to serve the present age'.
Last Updated: 9 March 2020