Conway Hall Ethical Society
Conway Hall, now numbered as 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL
|Architectural style||Art Deco|
|Address||25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL|
|Country||England, United Kingdom|
|Construction started||February 1928|
|Inaugurated||23 September 1929|
|Cost||GBP £28,485 (1928)|
|Owner||Conway Hall Ethical Society|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Frederick Herbert Mansford|
|Main contractor||John Greenwood Ltd|
|Conway Hall History PDF|
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 the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
The Society has its origin in 1793 in a congregation of nonconformists known as Philadelphians or Universalists. William Johnson Fox became their minister in 1817. In 1824 the congregation built a chapel at South Place, in the district of central London known as Finsbury. The chapel was repaired by John Wallen, of a family of London architects and builders.
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 Conway, who led the Society from 1864–1885 and 1892–1897, 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.
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."
Conway Hall was designed by Frederick Mansford, being built on an L-shaped strip of land which the Society had acquired between Theobald's Road and Lamb's Conduit Passage. It is a Grade II listed building built in 1929 and was Mansford's largest project. The main entrance is located on an angle with a narrow arch rising to the top of the upper floor. The arch is flanked by two columns in silver-grey brick while the rest of the buildilng is varied with red-brick detailing. There is a lot of glass in the facade with wide windows to the Library on the upper level and in and above the entrance doors. The glazing bars form a distinctive tiny criss-cross pattern reflected in Conway Hall's logo. The general feel is that of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Mansford was aware that his design could appear incoherent and tried to make the elevation hang together by placing six stone urns, bought from a City bank, along roof level, two of them on top of the entrance columns.
The main auditorium can hold 300 plus 180 in a gallery. Wooden panelling nailed directly to the brickwork and acoustic plaster was used to give the hall excellent acoustic qualities, considered the best hall in London for chamber music. This made it very suitable for the performance of music and there have been regular recordings and concerts there. The ceiling of the auditorium was glazed and this made it very light and airy for the time. It opened in 1929 and has continued in use since.
Above the proscenium arch the words, To Thine Own Self Be True, (a quote by Polonius from Shakespeare's Hamlet), can be seen. These words were originally inscribed on the back wall of the red mahogany panel at the original South Place Chapel.
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. Until the ruling the Society had an established tradition of performing secular funerals, memorial ceremonies and namings of children at Conway Hall.
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 their season through lack of funds. It was then that 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'. The thousandth concert was played on 20 February 1927, and the two-thousandth concert was held at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 March 1969. Clements was the Honorary Secretary for over 50 years, from 1887–1938.
In 1929 the South Place Ethical Society had the Conway Hall purpose built for them and with the exception of the war years, the concert seasons have continued. The concerts have now been organised by Artistic Director, Simon Callaghan.
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.
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.
Prominent Lecturers have included Bertrand Russell, Lancelot Hogben, Stanton Coit, Joseph Needham, Jacob Bronowski, Fred Hoyle, Margaret Knight, Harold Blackham, Laurens van der Post' Fenner Brockway, David Starkey, Bernard Crick, AC Grayling and Roger Penrose.
No Lectures took place in 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, or 1966.
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 had delivered the Lecture 60 years previously.
The Humanist Library and Archives based at Conway Hall is the UK’s foremost resource of its kind in Europe and the only library in the UK solely dedicated to the collection of Humanist material.
Prominent Members (past and present)
- Annie Besant
- Harold Blackham
- Fenner Brockway
- C. Delisle Burns
- Herbert Burrows
- Peter Cadogan
- Alfred J. Clements
- Stanton Coit
- Moncure Conway
- Andrew Copson
- George Hutchinson
- Elizabeth Lutgendorff
- James O'Malley
- J. M. Robertson
- Sid Rodrigues
- Donald Rooum
- Athene Seyler
- Barbara Smoker
- Harry Snell
- Reginald Sorensen
- Dr Harry Stopes-Roe
- Nicolas Walter
- Elhanan Winchester
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.
- Ethical Movement
- National Secular Society
- British Humanist Association
- Rationalist Association
- Sea of Faith
- International Humanist and Ethical Union
References and sources
- Jeaneane D. Fowler (1999), Humanism: beliefs and practices, Sussex Academic Press, p. 27
- Colin Campbell. 1971. Towards a Sociology of Irreligion. London: McMillan Press.
- "British Listed Buildings".
- "CONWAY HALL". English Heritage. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
- MacKillop, I. D. (1986) The British Ethical Societies, Cambridge University Press, [online] Available from: http://books.google.com/books?id=mqgsFS_MN9UC&pgis=1 (Accessed 13 May 2014).
- I. D. MacKillop (2011), The British Ethical Societies, Cambridge University Press, pp. 69–70
- Cole, Hugo (12 March 1987). "Passionately Progressive". Country Life.
- Meadmore, W.S. (1927). The Story of a Thousand Concerts (1887-1927). London: South Place Ethical Society. p. 5.
- Hawkins, Frank V. (1969). The Story of 2000 Concerts. London: South Place Ethical Society. p. 42.
- "Music - Conway Hall". Conway Hall Ethical Society. Retrieved 8 August 2013.
- Conway Hall website: http://conwayhall.org.uk/our-library [Accessed 13 May 2014]
- Moncure Daniel Conway, 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
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Conway Hall.|
- Conway Hall Ethical Society
- The Ethical Record Online
- Conway Memorial Lectures with texts
- Conway Hall Ethical Society, Registered Charity no. 251396 at the Charity Commission