I moved a street away from Highgate Road Chapel as a toddler. It was 1951: my family had come from South Wales to give work opportunities for both my father and my aunt Doreen, a nurse who was highly thought of in the Valleys.
Doreen was part of a huge recruitment drive which brought thousands to London to be part of the new movement towards health visitors and midwives. The creation of the National Health Service in 1948 had revolutionised the way that health care provision was given. The migration of families like us challenged the local churches, and soon they knocked on the door to invite us to the building at the top of our road.
Sunday School, Friday Club, Rounders on Parliament Hill Fields, Christmas parties and a caring community were all on offer – and that began my association with the place.By the 1960s life had changed in the church, and Falkland Hall had been sold. The minister, Mr Wilmot, retired and the elders and deacons had to consider where they were in the new dawn of a changing London.
Their answer was to invite a gifted young orator from Northern Ireland to be the one to take Highgate Road into a new era.
Jack Graham could preach and had an ability to connect with young people. His life at the church was just part of the London-wide connections he made, and soon he was the speaker of choice in colleges across the capital.
It was at this time that many students from London Bible College started attending the church and bringing their views. This was not a happy time for the older generation of the community. The challenges to the established way of life that young, intelligent questioners had, left them wishing for a return to the black-and-white rulebook of the past.In 1970, a couple, Janet and Frank Anderson, visited the church from their home in Vancouver. They turned up one Sunday afternoon breaking all the rules (see box below) by buying an ice cream on a Sunday and eating it in the church building.
They were delighted by the preacher they found in this place, and lost no time in inviting him to visit them in Canada and preach to the Dunbar Heights Baptist Church. So in 1971 Jack Graham left Highgate Road with his family and began a new life as the minister of Dunbar Heights in Vancouver, many thousands of miles away from Kentish Town.
Jack Graham’s time in Canada was to be a watershed moment for him because he couldn’t keep to the black-and-white life he was part of in Highgate Road Chapel. He was human, after all, and left his wife and family for another relationship in Canada, causing heartbreak and catastrophe to the reputation of the church and its ministry.
This event had huge repercussions for those left back at Highgate Road who had revered this man and the changes he brought to the attitudes and thinking of the church at that time.
Jack Graham’s crisis of faith and the fallout caused cracks in Highgate Road. An epidemic of relationships which would in the past been considered wrong were being played out. Affairs, court proceedings, single parenthood and many other social issues of the time were all there and became the legacy that Jack Graham left behind – because they largely happened on his watch.The relationship issues and lack of playing by the rules was a hot topic at that time. The 60s and 70s brought social and philosophical change to people in the church and there was no going back. The church began to flounder despite the best efforts of old school replacements that were brought in to save the day. The decline was accentuated by the deaths of many of the stalwarts who had funded the place without the recruitment of new believers.
The faithful muddled through until finally they could do no more than to sell the larger part of the building to a developer to make into exclusive apartments. The area that had once housed the outbuildings of the church was developed by the builders as part of the deal, with a smart new church opened there in 2008, which continues the work started there in 1877.
These days Highgate Road Chapel sits in a beautiful, sought-after area where politicians and actors live side by side. It has a bit of money in the bank because of the sale of the greater part of its building, and still does community work with young people. It only once lost its way because it behaved as though it was superior to the times in which it lived.