Reverend Charles Voysey and the Theistic Church

One of Voysey's earliest architectural commissions after he set up in his own practice concerned his father's church.

The Reverend Charles Voysey

Charles Voysey was born in London on 18th March 1828. He graduated in 1851 from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and was then ordained and appointed to the curacy of Hessle, near Hull (where his son C.F.A. Voysey was born).

In 1858 Voysey was appointed incumbent of St Andrew's, Craigton, Jamaica. After eighteen months he returned to England and obtained a curacy at Great Yarmouth, but six months later, in 1861, was appointed curate at St Mark's, Whitechapel. He was ejected from that post after preaching a sermon in which he denied the doctrine of eternal punishment. In 1863 he was recommended to the curacy of St Mark's, Victoria Docks. Soon he moved to become curate of Healaugh, near Tadcaster in Yorkshire, and in 1864 he became its vicar.

Voysey's preaching and writing on religious reform were denounced for unorthodoxy, and in 1869 he was required to appear before the chancellor's court of the diocese of York, where judgment was given against him. He appealed to the Privy Council and conducted his own defence, but the York chancellor's decision was upheld on 11th February 1871. Voysey was sentenced to be deprived of his living, the penalty to be rescinded if within a week he expressly and unreservedly retracted the errors of which he had been convicted. This he refused to do. Wendy Hitchmough notes that Voysey and his son were always close, and comments that "much of the intractability of C.F.A. Voysey's adult character and his obstinate refusal to revise a principle, even in the face of substantial personal loss, must be attributed to the Healaugh trials."

Before the judgment, Voysey had begun to hold services in London at St George's Hall, Langham Place, to which he attracted a number of sympathizers. These gatherings eventually formalised as an independent religious denomination under the name of the Theistic Church. In 1885 Voysey established for his followers a regular place of worship in Swallow Street, just off Regent Street in central London, where he continued to hold services for nearly thirty years. His teaching was based upon a pure theism, without any miraculous element.

Voysey died at his home, Annesley Lodge, at Platts Lane in Hampstead (which had been designed for him by his son in 1895), on 20th July 1912. His congregation soon began to disperse, and the Swallow Street building was closed in 1913 and demolished shortly afterwards.

The church building

In July 1694 a French Protestant congregation opened a church at what is now 7-9 Swallow Street. In February 1709 or 1710 the lease of the property was bought by a congregation of Scottish Presbyterians, who apparently rebuilt it before 1734. In 1801-04 a new and larger church was built, in line with the rest of the street frontage. The architects were probably John Marquand and Thomas Leverton. In 1880 the lease was sold to Colonel Somers Lewis of the 4th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers, and by the autumn the building had been converted into a drill hall, the architect being J.M. Brydon. Two side galleries were removed at this time.

In 1885 Lewis sold the lease to Charles Voysey's congregation. It was altered and refitted for their use by C.F.A. Voysey. His work included the removal of the upper gallery, the insertion of "Cathedral glass" in all windows, "painting, papering and colouring throughout", and a new entrance at the north end of the façade. Wendy Hitchmough notes that the architect George Devey, in whose office C.F.A. Voysey worked in 1880-81, was both a member of the congregation and a generous donor to its funds.

The congregation obtained a new lease of the property in 1898, and the building was again repaired by C.F.A. Voysey. The spire was removed in or shortly after 1901.

C.F.A. Voysey's Black Book, in which records are kept from 1890, lists the following separate projects on the building:

  • 1897 : repairs
  • 1901 : removing spire
  • 1905 : outside painting and repairs
  • 1908 : painting and repairs inside and outside
  • 1909 : memorial tablet for Martin R. Smith
  • 1909 : sepulchre on bracket for R.E. Case

The lease was surrendered to the Crown in 1915, and the building was demolished later in the same year. The erection of a new block of showrooms and offices on the site was completed in 1916.

The accompanying photographs appear to have been taken in the period 1912-15 and each is described as a "Rutherstat copy of a photograph" with no further indication of provenance. The originals are held by the City of Westminster Archives Centre, with whose permission they are reproduced here. The external view is the only one known to the Society, and there are obvious similarities to the drawing of 1801-04. There are some other interior views, and some drawings of lettering and fittings, in the British Architectural Library.

The large wall-mounted plaque which is visible behind the pulpit in the interior shot appears to be in Voysey-designed script, and reads as follows (with our punctuation added for clarity):

Theistic wordThe theistic faith is belief in only one God, the Father Almighty. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all souls come.

(The last sentence comes from Psalm 65:2.)

Theistic Church exterior

The exterior of the Theistic Church.

Theistic Church interior

The interior of the Theistic Church.

Sources

We are grateful for information on the Reverend Voysey derived from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and on the Swallow Street buildings derived from the Survey of London, online at British History Online. The comments by Dr Wendy Hitchmough come from CFA Voysey (Phaidon, 1995), pp.13 and 20.


Page last amended 6th Julu 2016