The Wesley Halls’ Story
At the beginning of the 20th century the Downham area land belonged to the Forster Estate and was used mainly for agriculture plus some forestry.
The London County Council (LCC) acquired the land from Lord Forster and began to build an estate. The development eventually became one of the largest Council estates in Europe.
The LCC sold the site of today’s Wesley Halls to the Methodist Church Trustees under a condition that if the land ever came up for sale the LCC would have the right of pre-emption to buy the site back.
Between the years 1929 to 1930 on the corner of Shroffold Road and Downham Way the Methodist Brethren built a Church, Halls and Manse (a three bedroomed minister’s house). They named the Church after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement.
The premises originally comprised of: a Church, a small chapel, 2 large Halls, a kitchen, 4 toilets, storage cupboards, a boiler room and 5 small rooms.
Even though wedding ceremonies were performed in the Church’s Chapel the Halls were not let for wedding receptions. This was for fear that alcohol might be consumed. Alcohol was not allowed on the premises which was in line with the Methodist doctrine that does not permit the consumption of alcohol at any time.
The purpose of the Halls themselves was to support a varied programme of social, educational and sports activities. These were: a Boys’ Brigade Club, Old People’s Lunch Club, Methodist Women’s Fellowship, Retired Men’s Group, and a Play Leadership Scheme. The Play leadership Scheme was set up at Wesley Halls in 1955 and remained in existence for over 30 years. Two of the original workers who worked at Wesley Halls are Derek Clift and Mary Benett. They are still involved at the Centre; Derek as a Youth Worker, and Mary as an organiser of the Pensioners’ Club. Mary is also a member of the current Management Committee.
The Trustees of the church used to employ a full-time cleaner. He had the arduous task of stoking the coal-fired boiler to keep the halls warm and during the winter months he had to keep the boiler burning 24 hours a day.
During the Second World War, an air raid shelter was built next to the Manse. The air raid shelter was 11 metres long and 9 metres wide and was built with sand lime bricks and had a concrete roof.
Another very important task Wesley Halls were used for during the Second World War was a mortuary. (To-date some local people still believe that the halls are haunted.)
After the dissolution of the London County Council, all the dwellings on the Downham Estate were transferred to the Greater London Council.
In July 1974 the Methodist Trustees indicated to the Greater London Council that they wished to sell the site and vacate the Church because the Halls were operating at a continuous financial loss. For years the Halls had not been managed properly and the accounts were kept haphazardly. In fact the biggest drawback in any negotiation to sell the church and the land was the lack of accurate information about the running costs by either the Methodist Trustees or the GLC and it was therefore difficult to put a price on the property.
The last recorded estimates of outgoings were only slightly in excess of £1,000 per annum that included the cost of oil fired central heating, gas, electricity, insurance and repairs excluding cleaning and rates. Eventually, however, it was agreed that £3,000 per annum was a more realistic sum for the running expenditure. From thereon it was easier to negotiate a price because the sum of £3,000 was used as the basis to negotiate a price.
In 1977 the rateable value of the church site for redevelopment was approximately £25,000 and the rateable value of the halls/manse site as a cleared site for redevelopment was about the same. The size of the site was estimated to be approximately 1.1 acres gross.
Once it was known that the Methodists wished to sell the Church and its adjacent land several organisations showed interest in acquiring the site. The Bermondsey and Brook Lane Medical Mission wanted the Health Authority to buy the site. The Inner London Education Authority also considered its purchase; as did the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs. However, the GLC decided to exercise its pre-emptive right to re-purchase the whole site and did so at an agreed price of £17,200.