How Lyndhurst Hall became a Kentish Town institution

A book celebrating Lyndhurst Hall will keep its memory alive, writes Dan Carrier

Thursday, 14th April — By Dan Carrier

1964 Lyndhurst Hall_2

Lyndhurst Hall in 1964

DR RF Horton holds a special place in British academic history: he was the first non-Anglican to be appointed to teach at Oxford University since the Reformation.

A student whose promise saw him earn a First and become president of the Oxford Union, he became a celebrated historian who taught at New College full time and authored scores of books on theological and historical issues.

In 1880, he began working at the Lyndhurst Road Church, Hampstead – and it was his idea that the well-heeled congregation of his red-brick church should help spread the gospel by funding a mission down the hill in the slums of Kentish Town.

Dr Horton had a somewhat radical approach to life: after being officially ordained in 1884, he refused to be called pastor or wear clerical dress, saying he wanted to “wear no clothes to distinguish me from my fellow Christians”.

And it was Dr Horton’s work that saw the creation of an Kentish Town institution, sorely missed today.

In a new book, called A Penny For A Brick, author Christine Dyos tells the story of the life and times of Lyndhurst Hall. The building, which was demolished in 2006, for more than 100 years played a key role in the Kentish Town neigh­bourhood. Ms Dyos’s father Alex was the caretaker between 1964 and 1986 and Christine grew up in the hall’s caretaker flat.

“It was a promotion for him and a move to a new area for us,” recalls Christine. “At the time the building was undergoing restoration and when this was completed it became a focal point and resource for the community.”

It may seem strange today to think of Kentish Town as a place in dire need of some Godly guidance but, as Christine points out, by the 1880s the Victorian boom had created a neighbourhood with severe overcrowding, slum conditions and surrounded by industries that choked the skies with smoke.

Social reformers campaigned to improve social conditions, while may Christian activists believed one way of alleviating poverty was to build more churches, hoping a pious working-class person would improve themselves – or at least be content that poverty was God’s will.

Dr Horton said: “We began work in Kentish Town, taking the district around Litcham Street, which at that time had an evil reputation.”

The hall in 1985

And the Lyndhurst congregation put their hands in their pockets to get the hall on the go.

Dr Horton added: “In 1881, an anonymous gift of £5 had been received for the ‘poor’, but as there were no ‘poor’ [in Hampstead] he thought it would be well to apply it to Kentish Town.”

But the 100-year-plus history of Lyndhurst ended on a sad day in 2006, when the hall was deemed no longer viable to be redeveloped and instead was razed to the ground.

“In 2006, we were devastated to hear the hall was to be demolished,” Christine writes. “Although it had been closed and empty for years, we never contemplated it would actually be pulled down.

“The prospect of demolition prompted me to undertake research on the building, which was much-loved by my family and the community, and to bring together in one place all the information there is, along with people’s memories. Lyndhurst Hall may no longer be there but it would not be forgotten.”

Originally, Christine thought about writing a short pamphlet in memory of her father – but after embarking on the project, it grew in size and took 16 years of research to bring this comprehensive and enthrallingly story to life.

As she reveals, the church first established a Mission Fund to help cover costs, and a house in Litcham Street was found. Here, women “could meet to sew and mend garments either for resale or for jumble sales”. After five years, demand was such the centre moved to Preston Street, and then to Malden Road.

The Malden Road venue had a hall for 100, with rooms for a Sunday school, library, space for a boys’ club, a night school, a savings bank and a thrice-weekly social morning for young servants working locally. Once again the demand was such that a purpose-built hall was planned and by 1890 had started the search that would end at Warden Road.

The Dyos family in the caretaker’s flat in 1979

As well as the classes and social gatherings, the hall also played a role at the coal face of poverty.

In 1895, it set up a foodbank – sadly still required in Kentish Town today. That January, the Ham & High published an article that said: “The National Food Supply Associations wrote to advise that they have depots at work including a food centre at Lyndhurst Hall. The Association was formed last year and over 45,000 children and adults were provided with wholesome meals, consisting of soup and wholemeal bread at a charge of 1/2d.”

In 1891, a foundation stone was laid and inscribed with the legend: “The Lord hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful.” The honours were done by MP Samuel Smith, who then urged the young men present, “who intended to become Members of Parliament to go in for mission work, for the men who knew the sorrows and trials of the poor were best fitted to become legislators…”

Other stories will prompt memories of the past. During the Second World War, the hall’s basement became a bomb shelter. “With most of the children evacuated and adults busy with war work, the social activities of the clubs almost ceased, though the Sunday evening services continued. Then came the Blitz – and the basement became the most lively shelter in the neighbourhood, with community singing, dancing, lectures and film shows,” a contemporary report stated.

And the hall did not get through the conflict unscathed.

On Saturday May 9, 1941, seven incendiary bombs fell on the hall – but were dealt with “promptly and scientifically. Very little damage was sustained” according to a hall newsletter. It was struck again in 1943 and was hit by a flying bomb in 1944. Caretaker Donald Horder said at the time: “My wife and I were on the premises, but we are thankful to say that neither we or our infant son were harmed in any way, though every room of the building, with the reception of the shelter room, was damaged. In this room we were able to form a temporary rest centre and provide warmth, blankets and hundreds of cups of tea.”

A Penny For a Brick: A History of Lyndhurst Hall 1891-2006. By Christine A Dyos, Independent Publishing Network, £35.

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