The changing places and faces of worship

THE WAY IT WAS...the former church on the corner of Dene Side and Regent Road.Pictures: SUBMITTED

THE WAY IT WAS...the former church on the corner of Dene Side and Regent Road.Pictures: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

THE congregation at Christchurch in Great Yarmouth has an extra incentive “to sing to the Lord with cheerful voice” this year, for it is three-quarters of a century since the building in which it worships was erected. Back in 1938, the opening of the Dene Side Methodist Central Hall initiated a new chapter in the denomination’s long history in the town.

In the intervening 75 years worshippers there have witnessed almost unimaginable changes in the world and their borough, in society and technology, and in their lives and aspirations. Even their place of worship has embraced change, for in 1990 the Methodist Central Hall amalgamated with the town’s United Reformed Church, progressing confidently into the future under the name of Christchurch.

In 1938, when the opening was celebrated with events spread over no fewer than 18 days, not even the most imaginative science fiction author could have envisaged that on the occasion of the 75th anniversary the church/hall would have a computer website explaining that the refurbishment had provided “a multi-purpose building accessible and equipped for the needs of all people and providing for concerts, exhibitions, small conferences, with various rooms used for meetings by local organisations.

“The church is on the first floor. There is also a small chapel downstairs for private prayer. Unite, the Yarmouth branch of Youth for Christ, has offices in the building. There is no Sunday school but activity packs are available for visiting children.”

Its coffee shop has proved a popular spot for folk wanting a drink, snack or light lunch. Mrs Peggotty and I have enjoyed visits to the coffee bar, but invariably my presence in the building reminds me of the time, perhaps in the late Sixties, when a reporting assignment took me to the Dene Side Methodist Central Hall – as it was then – with staff photographer Les Gould to cover a visit by George Cansdale, popularly known as “television’s zoo man”.

He was the VIP guest, his national celebrity attracting a large congregation to see him receive, mainly from youngsters, Sunny Smiles gifts of money for the Methodist-run National Children’s Homes.

My problem was that George Cansdale came to Yarmouth with the shape of a sack housing his pet python, Percy! And I am petrified by snakes. Yes, I know that snakes are warm and smooth and not cold and slimy, but nothing will endear me to them and I have no intention of deliberately getting within striking distance of one.

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Although he was well away from me in the crowded hall, I could not take my eyes off that slithery snake as it entwined George Cansdale, then was draped around the shoulders of some of the fearless kiddies who had delivered the Sunny Smiles envelopes to him.

Les Gould was, of course, right where the reptilian action was, snapping the so-called zoo man and the children close up. For me, a growing problem was that I needed to have a chat with Mr Cansdale at the end of proceedings, and I prayed (I was in the right place to do that) he would have put the python safely back in its sack by the time I approached him. Worse, he might have suggested that Les should photograph me for posterity, wearing the Percy the Python like a serpentine stole!

Honestly, I cannot recall what happened then, but I know unquestionably there was always a safe distance between me and that pesky python.

Of course, the Mercury covered the opening of the Dene Side Central Hall in April 1938, and I have the actual souvenir booklet and programme, discovered years ago at the back of a press office cupboard..still in perfect condition, apart from some scribbled pencil shorthand notes in margins by the reporter.

That inauguration ceremony included reception of gifts and promises for the chair fund and the “aggressive fund,” whatever that latter means; opening of the new school and hall, dedication service during which the new Compton organ was unlocked, reception and tea, “great public meeting”, organ recital and demonstration by the technical director of the John Compton Organ Company, “Great Cinema Service” at which were screened two “sacred sound films”, prayer meeting, young people’s and women’s rallies, young people’s demonstration, sacramental service, rendition of Stainer’s Crucification rally, and Sunday school playlet.

The organ, by the way, “is in many respects unique, designed and serve the special purposes of the hall, giving not only the normal accompaniment for religious services but providing a concert organ for performances of light music for other occasions.”

The Yarmouth minister, the Rev Stanley Parker, wrote in the brochure that for a century the Dene Side Chapel was one of the outstanding places of worship in the Methodist Church, its influence felt throughout the land. The good accomplished during that century was incalculable.

“Now the hour of departure has come, and the living church is finding a new home in what will henceforth be known as the Dene Side Central Hall,” he continued. “The spirit of the old chapel lives on, but the very name of the new building indicates the onward march of events, for today Methodism is finding in the central hall type of church some of its most effective centres of work and worship.”

One of the prime movers in the ambitious provision of the new hall, Mr E F Keable, declared that its position was “in the main thoroughfare of the town which, during the autumn and winter, is thronged with young life, and will therefore prove a drawing power in this new age.”

From 1838 Yarmouth Methodists worshipped in the purpose-built church (known as the Cathedral Church of East Anglian Methodism) at the Regent Road-Dene Side junction, a prime town centre and holiday area site sold in 1937 so Greens department store could be constructed. I remember Greens from my childhood, and its successor – British Home Stores that rebranded as BHS and still trades there today.

The Deneside Central Hall rose on land previously occupied by the Congregational Church, which relocated to Middlegate Street.