Priter Way, Bermondsey - A Story of Dockside London
History reveals that in the early days in Rome, Christians met in vaults and catacombs under that city to escape detection, but who has heard of Christians gathering regularly for 25 years, in an arch under a railway-line, for the purpose of Christian fellowship and service ? The South East of London can boast of just such a case. In Bermondsey. one of the old Boroughs on the south bank of the river, directly opposite to Wapping and not far from the City of Tendon itself, there are Christians, meeting at the Priter Way Gospel Hall, who fulfil these conditions.
A Strange Situation. The arch under which the hall is located is one of a series in Priter Way, a passage-way travelled by many people daily on their way from one adjoining street to another. These Arches have had a chequered career. Some in close proximity to the hall have been used for the storage of empty food-cases, with the result that the hall has been infested frequently by mice and occasionally by rats. Externally, the appearance of the hall and the buildings about it serves to bring home to one the value of every square yard of space in this part of the Metropolis. With a cafe on one side, a public call-box on the other and a brick erection almost immediately in front, this is not an enviable site for a meeting-place for believers and the proclamation of the gospel. Yet it is not the first arch which a few of the Lord's people in that area have rented, for they first had another in the same group, vacating it in favour of the one they now occupy, with its promise of more space.
Renovation. Before their present premises could be made lit for use however, much labour had to be expended upon it. Thick oil and grease, a legacy of the days when it had done duty as a garage for long-distance lorries, had to be scraped from the concrete floor, which they then proceeded to overlay with wood. The two entrance-doors which had admitted the lorries had to be completely altered, a single entrance-porch taking their place. For heating, two gas-radiators were fitted. Electric lighting was installed. All the cleaning was performed by the Christians and all alterations likewise, apart from lighting. Even now the ceiling has to be periodically brushed free from the fungus caused by damp, permeating from the railway track overhead, whilst a heavy fall of rain will cause water to drip at times on the floor of the hall. This is not the sum of all their drawbacks. There is no sanitation of any kind, although water is laid on, and no natural lighting apart from the area covered in by glass above the door under the curve of the Arch—a sort of large half fanlight and, as a result of this they have hail to have recourse to artificial means of ventilation in order to ensure a continual change of air. Their first hall of this kind held only 30 people, but their present accommodation seals 50 adults and has been known to seat 60 and even 70 children.
Their Beginning. The decision of these Christians to acquire a place to meet in as a corporate company of believers takes us back to the year 1027. Just over half-a-dozen of the Christians who were ' founder-members' had been in association with a Nonconformist church in Bermondsey- Separately, and in by no means similar ways, these believers had become concerned about their continuance with this body because of what they felt to be unscriptural practices, and after much heart-searching finally decided to leave. Their action, as is often the case, aroused much misunderstanding on the part of those from whom they severed their previously-close connections whilst, on the other hand, there were others who wished to imitate their actions but without any real conviction as to the Tightness of their course. These were very wisely counselled to take no steps unless they knew what they were about.
" At first this little company met together in the home of W. R. Reynolds, who was held in great esteem by all with whom he came into contact. This brother was called into the presence of the Lord in September, 1936. For several months the time was occupied in reading the Scriptures and in prayer, seeking the mind of the Lord in His will for the gatherings of His people. There was no other activity at that time, but the truths that were learnt became very precious and were the basis upon which the present assembly has been built." Although " there was no other activity " during the two years when they met in this way, the Lord was pleased to add others to the company, and some of these still meet with them. This period brought forth its own difficulties and false doctrines crept in, but the purveyors of these took their leave after a while, not without doing some damage.
Expansion. Soon they began to realize that they would require some other meeting-place if they hoped to extend their fellowship and so they began to pray. It was by this means that in 1929 they first acquired a railway arch. It was found that 30 persons could be contained in it and it was used for gospel preaching to young and old, as well as for all gatherings of believers. If they had any doubts of the wisdom of their move these were made to disappear, for the Lord was pleased to grant saving faith to some in those first few years. But it became evident that the accommodation was unsuited for its purpose, as the continual penetration of water from the railway track overhead made it necessary on occasions to sweep the rain-water out of the hall before a meeting could be commenced !
Prayer was again made and after five years God saw fit to answer their prayers, for a second arch—their present accommodation—became vacant.
Their Labours. Although the Lord gave them a humble place for meeting, lie has been pleased to give them large vision and enterprise, especially where evangelistic work is concerned. How many groups of believers realize the importance of adequate publicity in the proclamation of the gospel ? Some indeed are frightened of it—not so the saints in Bermondsay, who avail themselves of the publicity value of a much-used railway station—London Bridge— to display a Gospel Text together with an invitation announcing the times of the relevant meetings. Open-air work and tract distribution are rated highly, each week during suitable weather seeing the believers in the open air with the Glad Tidings, and 1,000 tracts find their way into local homes every month. Individual ventures also deserve a place—one of the Christians regularly goes a board the ships moored along the Thames, armed with Gospels and booklets in many languages. On Tuesdays the gospel is preached to children when between 40 and 50 attend, and on Thursday nights, the only Message that can bring stability, hope and real freedom to young people, is heard by a good number of adolescents of the neighbourhood. There are some interesting cases of conversion, some of whom had been in the thralls of habits that only degrade. Many have never openly confessed their faith in Christ and so have stopped short. Quite a few date that joyous day of their New Birth from God to the visit of Charles McEwen just before this last war, some of whom now occupy positions of responsibility among the saints. Today the believers continue to gather, nothing daunted by the shortcomings from which their present abode suffers. A well-known minister of the Word reports how on one occasion when he was addressing the believers, he was at first all too aware of trains thundering by overhead but gradually became unconscious of this as he watched the intent faces of the listeners drinking in the Word of God.
A New Hall. The story of the Lord's dealings with the saints at Priter Way can be brought up to date, and startlingly so, to the eye of faith for as a result of the air-raids, many spaces appeared where none had been before. It occurred to some of the believers that one such unused plot of land near their hall might provide a good site for a new hall so, at once, the Lord's guidance was sought in the matter. In the course of their subsequent inquiries they learnt that others had had their eye on the laud. Just over four years ago therefore, an approach was made to the concern whose property the ground was, only to be met with a blank refusal, the owners stating that they intended to build on the site themselves. This did not deflect the saints from their purpose and they persisted in prayer for many months.
(1) Two signposts. Then two things happened, which they saw to be an indication of the Lord's over-ruling. First, the believers were given an assurance from the owners that in the event of then-disposing of the ground, the Christians would be given the first option. The next was a communication from the owners themselves requesting a meeting, at which the believers were offered the ground for what was felt to be a large sum but not surprisingly so, ground being costly in that vicinity. So the saints accepted and the necessary wheels, legal and otherwise, began to be set in motion. Many months elapsed, during which they were made increasingly aware of the financial burden which the cost of the ground and the hall would impose upon them, but encouraged by the Lord's guidance up to this point, they determined to place the burden upon the One who had so faithfully met their needs in the past. This was no light thing for them to do, since the Christians involved had only meagre resources. Then they thought of the souls without Christ in their midst and thus they were brought, time and time again, to pray.
(2) " Before they call . . . while they are yet speaking ..." One such night they were at prayer, with this matter very much at the forefront of their minds, the Architect of the proposed building, a Christian, being present with them, and surely on that night was t ho wonderful promise of Isaiah 65 fulfilled. At that moment, completely unsolicited, a letter was in the post on its way to them from the owners, arriving the following morning, the contents of which disclosed that they had reviewed the position and were now prepared to sell the land to them for just over one third of their original price—the Lord's hand indeed !
(3) " The contribution from the saints." But such a development has never caused the believers to relax their own efforts. A building fund had been started a few years back on the strength of some gifts from Christians not in that assembly, but it was thought high time to sound the believers about their willingness to contribute towards the new building. The method employed was to ask them to indicate on paper how much they would be prepared to give when it would be required, and the assembly has already demonstrated in a marked way its awareness of the fact that, financially, responsibility must rest, under God, first and foremost on them.
Arrangements are now well forward for the planning of the new hall but the believers who meet at Priter Way are depending on the Lord for His direction and enabling, and for the start of building operations, which they hope will be in the near future.