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The United Reformed Church in Hartlepool: A Short History
The United Reformed Church was formed in 1972 by the union of the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches. Both these denominations came to Hartlepool when the population rapidly expanded in the nineteenth centuary.
In 1800 there were less than a thousand inhabitants in Hartlepool. The Presbyterian Church was founded in 1839, the Congregational, or “Independent” in 1840. The Presbyterians built a church on the Headland in 1883, called “St. John’s”, which was destroyed in a fire on the 7th May 1944. Much of the insurance money helped to built the present St. Columba’s, Billingham. The Headland Congregationalists suffered a fire also, but the damage was much less, and the United Reformed Church continues there, with the pleasant sanctuary opened after fire damage repairs in June 1972. In the same year the name “St. John’s” was adopted by the Park Road Presbyterian Church.
An argument between railway companies led to the creation of “West Hartlepool”, a rapidly expanding Victorian new town. People of Congregational and Presbyterian persuasion found the journey to the Headland a bit much and founded their own West Hartlepool churches. The first was Tower Street Congregational Church (1854), which was loaned to the Presbyterians for the ordination of their first minister. The Presbyterians began in a hired room in 1856, built a church of their own in 1859, sold this to the Wesleyans in 1877 and met in the Temperance Hall till the Park Road church was opened in 1880. In 1902 the Presbyterians opened extra church halls and the Congregationalists opened a completely new church, St George’s, Park Road, which cost a total of £17,000. It is a measure of twentieth century inflation that a review of insurance put the value at 35 times that amount. All was not well, though, and unfortunate choice of slate meant that the entire roof covering was replaced in 1958.
Meanwhile Belle Vue Congregational Church had been formed (1875) and Sandringham Road Presbyterian Church in 1900.
The fortunes of the two Park Road churches in the twentieth century reflected the fortunes of the Church countrywide. Numerically both reached their peak in the years after the first world war, and have faced decline ever since: though the closing of Tower Street Church in 1930, added 45 to the St. George’s membership, while the closure of (old) St. John’s in 1945 and the re-union of Sandringham Road, in 1958, added to the Presbyterian membership. Those three Churches cannot be forgotten in any thanksgiving for the witness of the two Park Road churches.
This has been a list of dates and places, as it was meant to be. But, behind these bare facts there are people. Some of our Church folk have been distinguished in the life of the town – such as the first Mayor of West Hartlepool, Alderman William Gray, and several Mayors since. Most of our Church folk have no such fame, but the important thing is that through these various Churches, in worship, fellowship and service, they have known and responded to the love of God in Jesus Christ. That is the abiding thing for which to be thankful.
The Ministers were:
Rev. W. Heath (1902-1920)
Rev. E.J. Heap (1920-1921)
Rev. W.D.F. French (1921-1926)
Rev. F.W. Nicholls (1927-1951)
Rev. E.O.A. Brampton (1952-1961)
Rev. J.S. Hutton (1963-1974)
Rev. A.R. Ritchie (1977-1982)
Note: Rev. Ritchie was formerly minister of St. John’s and oversaw the joining together of the congregations, which also included Belle Vue.
Rev. W.J. Jones (1984-1988) – died in service
Rev. M. Grunwald (1990-1991)
Rev. C.P. Nevard (1992-1999)
Rev. Val. A. Towler (2001- 2014) – Our first female minister.
Rev. Sue Fender (2018 – 2021)
The Presbyterian Church (last church was St. John’s, Park Road):
Rev. T. Campbell, Rev. J. Adamson, Rev. J. Colville, Rev. W.K. Smiley, Rev. A.E. Dalton, Rev. V.J. Abernethy, Rev. W.G. Hughes-Edwards, Rev. A.R. Ritchie.
Remember all the other people; leaders of organisations, caretakers, organists, treasurers, secretaries and session clerks.
The minutes of meetings mostly record the routine things of Church life, from repairs to the premises to difficulties over the Youth Club. Some minutes still catch the eye, though:
1857: ” A great deal more was said which amounted to nothing”.
1860: The Presbyterians decided that no woman be allowed to preach in their new church in Musgrave St.
1902: The Congregational deacons, several times, had to consider how to deal with the habitual drunkeness of the Clerk of Works for the new building.
1923: “The Works Committee was empowered to spend any money necessary to exclude the pigeons from the roof”.
Our thanksgiving must include the many people whose voluntary service in the everyday and often dull details of church adminsistration provided – and will provide – a fit setting for the work of the Kingdom.
To be continued ………. Alan J. (September 2012)