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Conway Hall Ethical Society

Coordinates: 51°31′11″N 0°7′6″W / 51.51972°N 0.11833°W / 51.51972; -0.11833
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Conway Hall Ethical Society
FoundersElhanan Winchester
(The Philadelphian congregation),
William Johnson Fox
(South Place Chapel),
Stanton Coit
(Ethical Society)
TypeEducational Charity
Registration no.1156033
FocusThe advancement of study, research and education in humanist ethical principles.
  • London WC1R 4RL
Coordinates51°31′11″N 0°7′6″W / 51.51972°N 0.11833°W / 51.51972; -0.11833,
OriginsSouth Place Chapel
Area served
England & Wales
OwnerConway Hall Ethical Society
Revenue (2022)
Increase GBP £917.69K[1]
Formerly called
South Place Ethical Society, South Place Institute, South Place Chapel

The Conway Hall Ethical Society, formerly the South Place Ethical Society, based in London at Conway Hall, is thought to be the oldest surviving freethought organisation in the world and is the only remaining ethical society in the United Kingdom. It now advocates secular humanism and is a member of Humanists International.



The Society's origins trace back to 1787, as a nonconformist congregation, led by Elhanan Winchester, rebelling against the doctrine of eternal damnation.[2] The congregation, known as the Philadelphians or Universalists, secured their first home at Parliament Court Chapel on the eastern edge of London on 14 February 1793.[3]

William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation in 1817. By 1821 Fox's congregation had decided to build a new place of worship, and issued a call for "subscriptions for a new Unitarian chapel, South Place, Finsbury".[4]

Subscribers (donors) included businessman and patron of the arts Elhanan Bicknell.[5] In 1824 the congregation built a chapel at South Place, in the Finsbury district of central London.[6] The chapel was repaired by John Wallen, of a family of London architects and builders. This chapel later became the home of South Place Ethical Society. The chapel stood on the site of what is now the office building known as 8 Finsbury Circus; the building has an entrance in South Place which bears a plaque commemorating the chapel.[7]

In 1929 they built new premises, Conway Hall, at 37 (now numbered 25) Red Lion Square, in nearby Bloomsbury, on the site of a tenement, previously a factory belonging to James Perry, a pen and ink maker. Conway Hall is named after an American, Moncure D. Conway, who led the Society from 1864 to 1885 and from 1892 to 1897, during which time it moved further away from Unitarianism. Conway spent the break in his tenure in the United States, writing a biography of Thomas Paine. In 1888 the name of the Society was changed from South Place Religious Society to South Place Ethical Society (SPES) under Stanton Coit's leadership. In 1950 the SPES joined the Ethical Union. In 1969 another name change was mooted, to The South Place Humanist Society, a discussion that sociologist Colin Campbell suggests symbolized the death of the ethical movement in England.[8]

The original name, South Place Ethical Society, was retained until 2012, when it changed to Conway Hall Ethical Society. In November 2013 Elizabeth Lutgendorff was elected Chair of the Conway Hall General Committee, becoming the youngest Chair in the society's history. On 1 August 2014 the society became a Charitable Incorporated Organisation with a new charitable object: "The advancement of study, research and education in humanist ethical principles". This replaced the previous object: "The study and dissemination of ethical principles and the cultivation of a rational religious sentiment."[9]

Humanist ceremonies


In 1935 twenty members of the Society signed a document stating that Conway Hall was their regular place of worship. It was therefore certified for marriages by the Registrar-General until 1977 when the Deputy Registrar-General ruled that the Hall could not be used for weddings under the terms of the Places of Worship Registration Act. This followed the report in the winter of 1975 of a marriage solemnised at Conway Hall. He was probably influenced by the 1970 ruling of Lord Denning, that marriages could only be solemnised in places whose principal use is for the "worship of God or [to do] reverence to a deity.[10] Until the ruling the Society had an established tradition of performing secular funerals, memorial ceremonies and namings of children at Conway Hall.[10]

Sunday Concerts


The Sunday Concerts at Conway Hall can be traced back to 1878 when the Peoples Concert Society was formed for the purpose of "increasing the popularity of good music by means of cheap concerts". Many of these concerts were held at the South Place Institute, but in 1887 the Peoples Concert Society had to cut short its season through lack of funds. At that point the South Place Ethical Society undertook the task of organising concerts under the first Honorary Secretary Alfred J. Clements and Assistant Secretary George Hutchinson who continued to run them under the name 'South Place Sunday Concerts'.[11] The thousandth concert was played on 20 February 1927,[12] and the two-thousandth concert was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 March 1969.[13] Clements was the Honorary Secretary for over 50 years, from 1887 to 1938. The Clements Memorial Prize for chamber music was set up in his name in 1938. Composer Richard Henry Walthew also had a long association with the Sunday Concerts, from the early 1900s until his death in 1951.[14]

The concert series provided a rare platform for the work of women composers during its first few decades. The programming included a still small, but significant number of compositions by women compared to other concerts in London. Women composers featured in the first 1,000 concerts included Alice Verne-Bredt, sisters Amy, Annie and Jessie Grimson, Liza Lehmann, Ethel Smyth, Edith Swepstone, Josephine Troup and Maude Valérie White.[15][16]

Hawkins Catalogue


Frank A. Hawkins served as Treasurer of the Sunday Concerts for 24 years from 1905 until his death in June 1929. He collected nearly 2,000 pieces of sheet music of principally classical and romantic chamber music, which were bequeathed to the Society. The collection has been catalogued by composer and instrument combination and is held on the Conway Hall premises.[17]

Conway Memorial Lecture


The Conway Memorial Lecture was inaugurated by the Society in 1910 to honour Moncure Conway who died in 1907. The decision to create the Lecture was made in 1908 and the first Lecture, The Task of Rationalism, was given by John Russell and is presumed to have been chaired by Edward Clodd.[18]

Prominent lecturers have included Bertrand Russell, Lancelot Hogben, Stanton Coit, Joseph Needham, Edward John Thompson (1942), Jacob Bronowski, Fred Hoyle, Edmund Leach, Margaret Knight, Christopher Hill (1989), Gilbert Murray (1915), Hermann Bondi (1992), Harold Blackham, Laurens van der Post, Alex Comfort (1990), Fenner Brockway, Jonathan Miller, David Starkey, Bernard Crick, AC Grayling and Roger Penrose. No Lectures took place in 1958-1959 and between 1961-1966.[19]

The 2014 Conway Memorial Lecture was given by Professor Lisa Jardine on 26 June 2014. It was titled "Things I Never Knew About My Father" and detailed the MI5 files kept on her father, Jacob Bronowski, who sixty years earlier had delivered that year's Conway Memorial Lecture.[20]

Prominent members (past and present)

Samira Ahmed talks with Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Adam Rutherford and Giles Fraser at Conway Hall in 2015.

Other notable people associated with the Society



The front page of the December 2012 edition of the Ethical Record, the journal of the Conway Hall Ethical Society

The journal of the society, which records its proceedings, is the Ethical Record. The issue shown for December 2012 was volume 117, number 11. This edition outlines the procedure that took place for the historic change of name the previous month.

Sunday Assembly


Since 2014, Conway Hall has been host to the Sunday Assembly, a popular secular service which takes place on the first and third Sunday of every month.[26]

See also



  1. ^ "Charity Details". beta.charitycommission.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 15 December 2015.
  2. ^ "A short history of Conway Hall Ethical Society". Conway Hall. 11 September 2017. Archived from the original on 26 September 2021. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
  3. ^ Conway, Moncure (April 1895). "Two historical South Place editors" (PDF). South Place Magazine. 1 (1): 1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 April 2017. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  4. ^ The Christian Reformer, Or, New Evangelical Miscellany. Vol. 9. 1823. p. 134.
  5. ^ "The building of South Place Chapel, 1821 - Conway Hall". Conway Hall. 21 November 2013. Archived from the original on 2 August 2018. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  6. ^ Fowler, Jeaneane D. (1999), Humanism: beliefs and practices, Sussex Academic Press, p. 27, ISBN 9781898723707[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Plaque commemorating the South Place Chapel now displayed on the wall at the South Place entrance of a modern office building which now occupies the site and is known as 8 Finsbury Circus in the City of London.
  8. ^ Colin Campbell. 1971. Towards a Sociology of Irreligion. London: MacMillan Press.
  9. ^ "Daily Hansard". 28 June 2005. Retrieved 15 June 2024.
  10. ^ a b MacKillop, I.D. (1986). The British Ethical Societies. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521266727. Archived from the original on 15 June 2024. Retrieved 13 May 2014 – via books.google.com.
  11. ^ Cole, Hugo (12 March 1987). "Passionately Progressive". Country Life.
  12. ^ Meadmore, W.S. (1927). The Story of a Thousand Concerts (1887-1927). London: South Place Ethical Society. p. 5.
  13. ^ Hawkins, Frank V. (1969). The Story of 2000 Concerts. London: South Place Ethical Society. p. 42.
  14. ^ Dunhill, Thomas. 'Richard Henry Walthew' in Cobbett's Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929)
  15. ^ The women musicians of Conway Hall’s past Archived 8 October 2022 at the Wayback Machine Conwayhall.org
  16. ^ Jessica Claire Beck. The Women Musicians of South Place Ethical Society, 1887 – 1927 Archived 8 October 2022 at the Wayback Machine, Manchester Metropolitan University thesis (2018) via 1library.net
  17. ^ Conway Hall. South Place Sunday Concerts history and archive Archived 11 June 2021 at the Wayback Machine conwayhall.org.uk
  18. ^ "Mr Voysey on Rationalism". The Literary Guide. 1 September 1910. Retrieved 15 June 2024.
  19. ^ "Conway Memorial Lectures Archive - Conway Hall". Conway Hall. Archived from the original on 16 December 2014. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  20. ^ Things I Never Knew About My Father Archived 16 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Conway Hall
  21. ^ Royle, Edward (1974). Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791–1866. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 309. ISBN 0-7190-0557-4.
  22. ^ Conway, Moncure (1904). Autobiography: Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway (v. 2). London: Cassell and Company, Limited. p. 39.
  23. ^ American Unitarian Association 1922, p. 1094.
  24. ^ MacKillop, Ian (1986). The British Ethical Societies. Cambridge University Press. p. 70. ISBN 9780521266727. Archived from the original on 15 June 2024. Retrieved 23 September 2020.
  25. ^ "Our Patrons". Conway Hall. Conway Hall Ethical Society. Archived from the original on 19 February 2019. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  26. ^ "SA London – The London congregation of the Sunday Assembly". london.sundayassembly.com. Archived from the original on 8 August 2014. Retrieved 5 August 2014.


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain: American Unitarian Association (1922). Christian Register (Public domain ed.). American Unitarian Association – via books.google.com.
  • Conway, Moncure Daniel. Centenary History of the South Place Society: based on four discourses given in the chapel in May and June, 1893. London/Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1894
  • MacKillop, Ian (1986). The British Ethical Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-26672-6

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