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Highgate United Reformed Church: 160th birthday for the church with a past of coming together

PUBLISHED: 18:30 17 May 2019

Highgate URC congregation and minister outside the church on its 160th anniversary. Picture: Martin Atkinson

Highgate URC congregation and minister outside the church on its 160th anniversary. Picture: Martin Atkinson

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Highgate United Reformed Church came together last month to celebrate 160 years since its opening in Pond Square.

David Currie with the mayor, Jenny Headlam-Wells at the church's 160th anniversary celebrations. Picture: Martin AtkinsonDavid Currie with the mayor, Jenny Headlam-Wells at the church's 160th anniversary celebrations. Picture: Martin Atkinson

The imposing chapel, designed by Thomas Roger Smith, was the idea of previous minister Josiah Viney, who came to the church in 1857.

At the time, the United Reformed Church was still split. Mr Viney was the minister of the Congregational church, while the Presbyterian church was still separate and practising on the corner of Cromwell Avenue and Hornsey Lane.

The existing building for the congregational church was in Southwood Lane, and is now used by Highgate School.

Viney had said the church in Southwood Lane was "small, inconvenient, and unattractive." They received donations, large and small, and it opened in 1859, costing £4,684, the equivalent to about £520,000 in 2018.

Reverend David Currie at the door of Highgate United Reform Church. Picture: Polly HancockReverend David Currie at the door of Highgate United Reform Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

David Currie, who was appointed minister of the church in 2017, led the anniversary service on April 28 to mark the occasion.

The service was attended by outgoing mayor Cllr Jenny Headlam-Wells.

Rev Currie said: "It's 160 years for this building - the first service was on April 30, 1859. It's a nice anniversary to be able to celebrate, and it's great that the mayor was able to come down and support us."

Two world wars disrupted church in Pond Street - both its congregation and its building.

Highgate United Reform Church. Picture: Polly HancockHighgate United Reform Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

In the First World War, 13 young members of the congregational church died. They had been part of the Highgate Camps, set up by minister Dugald MacFadyen, which took young boys and teenagers from Highgate sailing and camping.

Ernest Grimwade, a master at Highgate School, and Jim Young, a Sunday school teacher, led the camps. Both were killed in the conflict.

Their names are featured in the church's war memorial, at its frontage, looking out into Pond Square.

In the second conflict, two decades later, fewer members of the church were killed.

But the church building was badly damaged by a bomb, dropped by German air forces in 1944, hitting the east windows and wall.

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While services continued, the effects lasted long into the church's future.

Ninety-year-old John Thompson, who wrote a book on the church's history, said: "They continued to worship, and hold the Sunday school downstairs until it was repaired after the war finished.

"After the war they moved and used the Presbyterian church in Cromwell Avenue, because Pond Square was badly damaged. Rebuilding after the war was so slow, and they weren't able to repair it."

The church in Pond Street was still used for weddings, funerals and christenings - but not so frequently.

This was against a backdrop of increasingly closer ties between the national Presbyterian and Congregational churches. In Highgate, joint services had been held since the 1960s. However legal discussions between the top bodies meant a formal merger wasn't made until 1972.

When this happened, they decided to sell the Presbyterian Church in Cromwell Avenue, which is now used for flats. Work began to overhaul and repair Pond Square, which threw up some interesting discoveries.

"The organ was full of water and there was dry rot," said John. "And they had carried on playing it. I don't know what sort of sound it would have made!"

Initially they had settled on replacing it with a electronic organ. However, church secretary Christopher Driver made it his mission to find an authentic pipe organ. He succeeded in finding one in a farmer's barn in Tamworth.

Today, the church is adapting to modern times. Community groups use the building, as part of an attempt to engage with those outside the church.

Rev Currie is the church's first full-time minister in 30 years, with this being paid for by the congregation. He lives in Onslow Gardens.

The 68-year-old started as a Church of Scotland minister in East Kilbride in 1983, and previously worked in Melbourne.

He said: "We have a small congregation, up to about 20 to 30 on a Sunday, but we have a number of community groups using the church throughout the week.

"We do work with the homeless, have mother-and-baby groups and a weekly community lunch.

"Some people think that because there is a church, that's where God is.

"I believe that God is all out and about, and all around us. Our doors are always open to everybody."

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