Mar
06
2013

First places of devotion

Amongst Britain’s diverse population are adherents of all of the world’s major faiths. Religious devotion often requires a place of worship: churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and gurdwaras. A reference to the first purpose built mosque in the UK made me wonder when each of these religious buildings were first erected in Britain.

Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys is now into its fourth series on BBC Two. It continues to provide a rich harvest of facts and blog ideas to be reaped from Portillo’s deliciously awkward interviews. This week I saw him journey through Woking and visit the UK’s first purpose-built mosque – the Shah Jahan mosque. It made me wonder where other firsts might be for the major faiths followed in Britain.

Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking - the UK's first purpose built mosque - By RHaworth (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

With good timing, the Office for National Statistics had released a first cut of the 2011 census data, providing an overview of the demographic composition of the nation. The most common religions followed were (in order of number of adherents) Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism.

It is impossible to say for certain which place has the distinction of being the site of the first purpose-built church in Britain. Early Saxon Christians are known to have had places of worship, but exactly when such buildings were purpose built or consecrated and whether they were churches as we would understand them is uncertain.

The earliest clear foundation is of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury which marked the rebirth of Christianity in southern England. It was built at the end of the sixth century by Saint Augustine and later chroniclers attributed its foundation to 598. This was part of Augustine’s courting of King Æthelberht of Kent and the start of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the Church of Rome.

Remains of Augustine Abbey, Canterbury By User Willhsmit on en.wikipedia (own-work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first church in the newly established Church of England (i.e. after the Elizabethan Settlement of 1563) appears to be St Michael the Archangel in Woodham Manor, Essex. A local resident, Ann Maxwell, sought confirmation of this from the librarian at Lambeth Palace, who confirmed that:

“I believe that your church would be reasonably justified in making a qualified claim such as – this church is believed to be the first consecrated after the Elizabethan Settlement, and as such has a claim towards being the oldest purpose-built Church of England place of worship.”

The oldest surviving Roman Catholic Church built after the Reformation is St. Ninian’s Church in Tynet, Scotland. At the time of its construction in 1755, Catholic worship was tolerated as long as worship was out of the way and in non-descript buildings. These ‘clandestine churches’, simple, unadorned and whitewashed, can easily be mistaken for cottages, a low barn or farm buildings. London would have to wait until 1891 when St Patrick’s Church, Soho Square was built.

In 1290, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from England. The edict was only overturned in the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell sought to attract rich Jewish merchants to bolster English trade. Although their foothold in the country was precarious (domestic merchants in particular were keen to expel experienced and capable rivals), their community grew large enough to sustain a synagogue.

The Bevis Marks Synagogue (Sha’ar ha-Shamayim) was built in 1701 close to the eastern fringes of the City at Aldgate. It has served the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community for more than 300 years and continues to operate as a place of worship. But it may not be the oldest synagogue in use: Jew’s Court in Lincoln, built in the second half of the twelfth century, has been returned as a site of Jewish worship following a centuries long hiatus.

Interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London By Deror avi (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

As noted above, the first purpose-built mosque in the UK was the Shah Jahan Mosque built in Woking in 1889. London would have to wait until 1924 for its first mosque – the Fazl Mosque in Southfields. But the first recorded mosque in Britain was in Cardiff, when the buildings at 2 Glyn Rhondda Street were converted to Islamic worship.

Hindu temples took longer to establish, with the first purpose-built Hindu temple constructed in Slough in 1981. It would take a little longer for a temple to be built that could claim to be an ‘authentic’ Hindu temple in design as well as purpose: the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir London, commonly known as the Neasdon Temple, was finally opened in 1995.

The first Sikh Gurdwara had similarly humble origins as 79 Sinclair Green in Shepherds Bush, London. Maharajah Bhupinder Singh donated the site to the then embryonic Sikh community for use as a Gurdwara. It was later sold to fund the building of a purpose-built Gurdwara in Queensdale Road.

Commonly known as the Neasden Temple, the Shree Swaminarayan Hindu Mandir was  the first Hindu temple to be built in the UK in a traditional architectural style  www.CGPGrey.com [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The first purpose-built Gurdwara pre-dated the Queensdale Road site by five years and was found in Bradford. The Guru Gobind Singh Ji Gurdwara opened for its first service on 29 March 1964.

The first purpose-built Buddhist temple was the Wat Buddhapadipa Temple, Wimbledon, London. It was built in the ‘Thai’ style in 1976, having moved from previous buildings used since 1965.

The UK now boasts a wide range of religious buildings: over 1,500 Mosques, 400 synagogues, around 200 Gurdwaras and 135 Hindu temples. This is alongside a plethora of Christian buildings of various denominations including 16,000 Church of England churches and 3,066 Catholic parish churches in Great Britain. The UK has many cathedrals: 42 Church of England, 35 Roman Catholic, eight Scottish Episcopal Church, eight Church of Ireland, six Church of Wales, nine Greek Orthodox, three Russian Orthodox and one Ukrainian Orthodox.

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