Mostly taken from Croydon Unitarian and Free Christian Church - The First Hundred Years, by Roger Thomas, published in 1970.
The congregation first met for worship on 9th October 1870 in a borrowed church on London Road. Within a matter of months, permanent premises in Wellesley Road had been purchased from a Baptist congregation, and the first service in "The Iron Church", as it was known (the building being made of iron), was held on December 11th, with James Martineau as guest preacher.
Martineau, then head of Manchester New College, London (now Harris Manchester College, Oxford), played a significant role in setting up the church. He introduced the congregation to Robert Suffield, the first minister. He was also influential in persuading it to accept the name "Free Christian Church", which had less doctrinal and sectarian overtones at this point in history than "Unitarian" and so allowed greater weight to be placed on reason and conscience.
Suffield had left Roman Catholicism earlier in the year after a long intellectual struggle with the concept of papal infallibility. Under his ministry, the church is said to have been "rather less staid" than many longer-established Unitarian churches, with a flourishing social calendar. But his health broke down in 1877, and he felt obliged to tender his resignation the following year.
His successor, Edmund Geldart, a former Anglican, was a stimulating preacher under whose stewardship the congregation rapidly outgrew its premises. In 1883 the Iron Church was moved (bodily) to the back of the site, where it became the church hall, to make way for a bigger building of grey-faced stone walls with large gothic windows and pinnacles. One of its more unusual features was a lofty and sizeable vestibule.
The old church
It is ironic that George Coverdale Sharp should have been the longest-serving minister in the church's early history. Influenced by his experience as a Methodist, he insisted at the outset of his ministry that he would remain in the post no longer than five years and resigned on numerous occasions, only to be talked into staying on time after time by a devoted congregation.
The Second World War took a heavy toll on the church. Evacuation and other causes robbed the congregation of many of its members. Then, in April 1941, a bomb fell directly onto the old Iron Church, destroying it entirely and considerably damaging the new building as well. From this point on, worship took place in the lofty vestibule during the summer months. In winter, the congregation met at Dennett Hall, a Mission started by the church in 1886, until heating was installed in the vestibule in 1949.
Inside the old church
In the fifties, town planners claimed the Wellesley Road site for redevelopment. In exchange, the existing site was made available to the congregation, and the current church was built between 1958 and 1959. The compensation sum released by the War Damage Commission was less than anticipated, and the architect, who had first been consulted as far back as 1954, was obliged to scale down his plans. In addition, the congregation was required to meet the heavy cost of furnishing and fitting out the new premises.
In 1961, the church's longest-serving minister, Gábor Kereki, who had the distinction of training at the theological academy at Kolozsvar in Transylvania, and who had led the building of and been the first minister of the Unitarian church at Kocsord, took over. Soon afterwards, the word "Unitarian" was added into the church's official title, as this was now felt to identify it more accurately within the religious spectrum. In 1999, the church appointed its first woman minister, Elizabeth Birtles.
The fiftieth anniversary of the new church building was celebrated on November 1st, 2009.
Watch a video of the congregation singing a specially-written hymn, whose words can be found in the Order of Service.
In 2014, the church hall was leased for ten years to a provider of day-care for children.
Robert Rodolph Suffield 1871 - 1877
Edmund Martin Geldart 1878 - 1885
Christopher James Street 1886 - 1892
John Page Hopps 1892 - 1903
William John Jupp 1904 - 1910
Walter Moritz Weston 1911 - 1916
William Alfred Chynoweth Pope 1917 - 1920
George Coverdale Sharpe 1921 - 1937
Roger Thomas 1937 - 1946
Arthur Benjamin Downing 1947 - 1949
James Percival Chalk 1949 - 1960
Gábor Kereki 1961 - 1984
Philip R. Giles 1984 - 1985
Stephen Wilkins Dick 1985 - 1996
Dennis Vernon Marshall 1996 - 1997
Elizabeth Hamilton Birtles 1999 - 2006
Arthur G. Lester 2006 -