A New Home for the Society
“Sunday, September 1, 1929, is a memorable date in the history of the South Place Ethical Society, for on that morning its members met for the first time in Conway Hall. It was a moment of joyful excitement. At last the new home was ready for occupation and here we were in it, congratulating one another on the event. The spaciousness of the vestibule was a pleasant surprise to everyone, and the first glimpse of the main hall confirmed the impression of dignity and beauty that met one as one entered. And the furniture and decoration set off the character of unaffected modernity that speaks in the design.”
The Ethical Record, October 1929
Conway Hall Ethical Society has a history dating back to 1787 and a nonconformist congregation, led by Elhanan Winchester, rebelling against the doctrine of eternal hell. This group of freethinking individuals, based in a small chapel on the eastern edge of London (Parliament Court Chapel), was the beginnings of what was to become a society of radicals and social and political reformers, devoted to freethought. There is no other Society in the United Kingdom, possibly the globe, that has such a long history dedicated to creating a fairer, more equal world through free religious thought and ethical enquiry.
Throughout its early history as a religious institution, the Society’s ministers led the congregation through various spiritual quandaries, including the rejection of the Trinity, which lost the Society many of its members. It weathered the loss, however, surviving and flourishing after many similar erosions of membership on the progressive journey from universalism and unitarianism to the present humanist position, which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.
In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the Society, and in 1824 a new chapel was built in South Place, Finsbury to hold the ever growing congregation. This the Society occupied for 102 years, taking its name from its new home, becoming South Place Ethical Society until 2012 when the name was changed to Conway Hall Ethical Society. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (numbers twelve to thirteen) which stands on the original site.
By 1900 the Society realised its current home in South Place was no longer fit for purpose, and began debating whether to repair the existing building or investigate erecting a new one, potentially on the same site. At this early stage plans were drawn up by architect Frederick Herbert Mansford F.R.I.B.A. (1871–1946) for a new home. Mansford, along with his three siblings, had been a lifelong member of the Society. His brother, Wallis, advocated selling the Chapel and erecting a new building which would have a ‘swimming bath convertible into a gymnasium in winter months,’ a bookshop, separate lending and reference libraries, a labour and emigration bureau and a roof garden. Sadly, progress was halted by the outbreak of the First World War, but money raised from the sale of South Place Chapel in 1921 along with an appeal for funds finally allowed the construction of Conway Hall in 1928. F. Herbert Mansford was appointed architect.
The new building was to be a place of enlightened education and social activity, and was designed with this in mind. Whilst funds did not allow for the extent of Wallis Mansford’s wishlist, his brother worked with the building committee to create an edifice with space to hold lectures, concerts, dances, social evenings and play-readings as well as spaces for the various membership groups, such as the Ramblers’ Club and the Poetry Circle. The new headquarters for South Place Ethical Society opened officially on 23 September 1929.