A Century of the Chiswick Mission

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 3 (1982)

To mark the centenary of the Chiswick Mission in 1980 Diana and Derek Butcher investigated its history. They relied on the surviving minutes of the Mission and used local newspapers for extra information, especially for a nine year period for which no minutes exist. This is the story they told in a lecture to the society in 1981.


Chiswick Mission was founded by Robert Thomson Smith. Born in Cheltenham in 1860, be had already decided that he wanted to be a missionary as a boy. He was sent to London at the age of 15 for treatment for his deafness. In no time he was involved in evangelical work, particularly visiting pubs in poor areas, distributing tracts and invitations to services. His sense of humour often stood him in good stead in these circumstances.

In 1879 he became a clerk at Thorneycroft’s Works and moved to Chiswick. He was horrified by the heavy drinking of many of the firm’s employees and soon set up a coffee stall at the gate of the works to encourage the workers to miss out their visits to the pub on the way to work. When a man was being sought for non-sectarian mission work in the Chiswick area, he was recommended and accepted to post at £1 per week. He was to be Superintendent of the Chiswick Mission until 1896 and remained its Leader until 1913.

The first official Sunday meeting took place in November 1880 – the mission met at first in a fruit and vegetable store somewhere in Chiswick High Road. Three years later an iron building costing £150 was erected on the corner of Furze Street, near Devonshire Road. Shaftesbury’s Ragged School Union was already established in William Street and the two bodies linked to form a Sunday School. This was in September 1883. A house was rented to provide accommodation for them and two years later a new Sunday School was built on that site. In 1886 Mr E C Rattray came to assist R T Smith; he ran evening meetings and covered in the yard at the ragged school, providing a bath there to teach poor children that “cleanliness is next to godliness”.

There was plenty of local support for the mission: Sir John Thorneycroft and his partner paid Smith’s salary for twenty-one years (raising it to £2.10s on his marriage!), Mrs Shipway of Grove House gave two Bibles as prizes for good attendance at Sunday School in 1899 (9 children were eligible for the prize so 7 more had to be bought!) and Fromow and Johnson gave plants to encourage the children’s interest in horticulture. The Watts family of Duke’s Avenue were particularly generous: Mr. Watts was a ship-owner and had coal and iron interests in Alabama. He raised £36 with a chrysanthemum exhibition in his conservatory in 1888 and his wife and daughter ran a creche, sewed clothes for the children and held a garden party in 1889. In 1890 Watts donated £250 toward the purchase of a site from Alexander Fraser, Joseph Quick and George Rickett (all commemorated in local street names) for a new mission building. Subsequent he donated a further £2,500 for the new building itself. He also made his views known on the running of the mission. He objected strongly to girls’ gymnastics in the mission hail and put a stop to it, fearing that boxing or even dancing might follow!

In the first twenty years of the mission, breakfasts were provided for thousands on children and dinners for hundreds of men; coal, coke, soup and coffee were provided to alleviate distress, especially after the closure of Thorneycroft’s Works. In 1893 a “Robin Dinner” of roast beef and plum pudding was provided for 240 children and a “Fresh Air Fund” provided jaunts for children through the mission – 450 went on a ‘treat’ in 1899.

To encourage thrift a savings bank was established; with deposits of ¾ p (a farthing) a time, £4.10s was saved in the first year but by 1904 this had risen to £650. In 1921 this Farthing Club was abolished and replaced by a Penny Bank.

The Butchers found some interesting information in a letter from a M. Alf Goodall, born in 1881 and the son of the caretaker at Chiswick Library. He remembered being taken on a canal holiday by the Superintendent, Henry Dean, and also described the Boys Brigade Band, marching for 2 verses of a hymn from the Mission to Duke Road, turning right, 2 verses to Reckitt Road, turning right, 2 verses to Dale Street and 3 verses back to the Mission! “We thought we were something in those days”, he wrote.

Smith began in 1896 to concentrate on his Homes for Motherless Children, based in the Chiswick area. His association with the Mission was to continue until 1913, however. When he left he was presented with an illuminated address and a wallet with £100; a gold watch and flowers were given to his wife.

The Mission flourished: at the 1899 Sunday School anniversary celebrations there were 160 children in the infants’ school and 103 juniors. Coping with large numbers of children had its problems. In 1907 it is recorded that the choir was continuing to talk and pass notes in spite of previous reprimands’. In 1911 it was decided that because of their bad behaviour children were to be kept at the back during evening service and the smallest ones were not to be admitted at all. The Minutes reveal the range of groups associated with the Mission: by 1908 a Boys’ Brigade, a Band of Hope, a Mothers’ Meeting, the Choir, the Sunday School and the British Women’s Temperance Society were all represented on the Committee.

When R T Smith left in 1913 a new Superintendent proved difficult to find, but eventually they asked Sister Lizzie from the South Street Mission in Hammersmith to join them. She brought her well-known Silver Band with her, and abolished the Committee – no minutes survive between 1912 and 1920 but the work of the Mission is mentioned from time to time in the local paper. A Women’s Own Sisterhood and a Business Girls’ Meeting were added to the Mission’s activities.

Sister Lizzie was succeeded by Mr Grogan on three months trial – he was still Superintendent when the Second World War broke out.

The 1920s were a busy time. Five charabancs were needed to take the Sisterhood on an outing to Worthing in 1925 and there were 16 Sunday School teachers. By 1927 there were 900 depositors with the Savings Bank. 1930 marked the 50th Anniversary of the Mission. A committee with Cllr Cato as treasurer and R T Smith Jnr as secretary planned the celebrations. The exterior of the building had been renovated two years previously; now it was planned to build an extension, provide better seating in the large hail and purchase a mission house for the Superintendent. Money for this was to be raised through flag days and “books of bricks”. The purchase of a house was deferred but to pay for the new chairs the Mission aimed to collect fifty pounds, fifty shillings, fifty pence, fifty halfpence and fifty farthings, while the Sisterhood contributed 1/- each towards the cost of a new piano. Many old Sunday Scholars were traced and invited to come back for the celebrations and Brentford and Chiswick UDC was invited to send representatives.

The Second World War had its effects. In 1940 the doors were blasted in and in 1943 the gates and railings were taken as scrap metal. Permission was sought for the Mission to be used by the ARP if necessary, but this was not taken up. In 1941 the 60th Anniversary was celebrated one year late! Schemes for improvement were drawn up after the war and soundproofing, using sawdust under the floorboards, was suggested. A First Aid Box was provided. Mr Grogan retired and Mr Reeves from the Victoria Docks Mission was Superintendent during the war years and then returned to his father’s old Mission. Mr Dean, a big man with a booming voice, succeeded him and was to stay for 25 years. The Superintendant at the time of the Centenary was Mr Walter Moodie who joined the church in 1977.

The Chiswick Mission has played an important part in the spiritual life of Chiswick, and in its social life. It has attracted tremendous loyalty and long service from many of its members. The Centenary was marked, amongst other events, by an exhibition of photos and documents about the work of the Mission resulting from Derek and Diana Butcher’s research.

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