An Introduction to Birmingham Baptist Churches Damaged During World War II
by Ian McDonald
About the Author: Ian McDonald is the Research Officer in the Faculty of Computing, Engineering & the Built Environment at Birmingham City University in the UK. He is a member of the UK Baptist Historical Society, Strict Baptist Historical Society and Chapels Society. Follow him on Twitter @IanCMcD
Birmingham and its Baptists
Birmingham, located in the West Midlands county in central England, is England’s second most populous city (after London), and has a long Baptist tradition dating back to 1652 when records show the existence of a General Baptist congregation in the city. However, little is known about this church and its members.
The start of a Particular Baptist presence in Birmingham dates back to at least 1736 when a small number of faithful believers formed what came to be known as Cannon Street Baptist Church, in the heart of the city centre. This church was central to the development of the Baptist cause across Birmingham and the wider West Midlands region, with many churches being planted by, and/or sponsored by, it’s members. Cannon Street Baptist Church’s most famous minister was the ‘Seraphic’ Samuel Pearce, who was a close associate of William Carey, and was heavily involved with the establishment of the original Baptist overseas missionary society and its work in Serampore.
There are currently thirty-six Baptist churches in Birmingham which are affiliated to the main Baptist body in the country – the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB). In addition there is one Baptist church in the city which is affiliated to the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) and one which is not obviously part of any group, although it was once associated with the Gospel Standard network of Strict Baptist churches. This compares to a total of thirty-five BUGB churches plus thirteen ‘mission’ churches in 1938, one year before the start of the war, with, as today, the Salem Strict and Particular Chapel standing outside the mainstream union.
Readers may remember reading about, or may have even attended, the Baptist World Centenary Congress (2005) which was held in Birmingham.
Birmingham and the Second World War
Birmingham suffered heavy bombing during the war. Bird (1979) records seventy-seven air raids on the city, which resulted in a death toll of 2,241 people with 3,010 seriously injured and 3,682 less seriously injured. Damage was done to 140,336 houses and 6,368 factories, workshops and business premises of various kinds. Particularly heavily hit were what would now be described as ‘inner-city’ areas near large factories being used to support the war effort. One example is the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) factory. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a number of Baptist churches in inner-city locations were damaged by German bombing.
Aston Manor Baptist Church, Aston
The cause at Aston Manor began in 1859, when a small number of members left the existing Baptist church at Aston and formed themselves into a church at nearby Aston Manor. Three years later their building was complete. The Second World War was not the first major crisis which the church had encountered. In 1907 it had found itself in serious difficulties with regards to its mortgage. Thankfully the Lord provided the money needed through the donations of church members and kindness of the local association. On the eve of the war the church had a small membership (47), but a large building (capacity 400).
The church is recorded as suffering “bomb damage” during the war, which put it on the “verge of extinction.” Following the end of hostilities the church bravely attempted to continue, before eventually closing in 1968 as the Aston area underwent a great deal of change, resulting in the city council’s slum clearance programme. However, this was not the end for the church as it was reinstated only a year later in the new housing estate of Chelmsley Wood (ten kilometres from Aston).
Lodge Road Baptist Church, Hockley
Dating back to 1858, Lodge Road Baptist Church’s buildings experienced bomb damage during the war. The church had entered the war period in a fairly weak position with only 45 members (the building holding 350) in 1938. A combination of the war damage and the decision of a number of members to leave the area for safer environs meant, sadly, that the church never recovered from the damage it had suffered at the hands of the German bombers during the early part of the war, and it lay derelict for the remainder of the conflict. However, the Baptists’ loss proved to be a great gain for a growing group of Pentecostal believers in the area, who initially rented the one usable room before eventually acquiring and developing the entire site – the present building being opened in 1979.
Saltley Baptist Church
Saltley Baptist Church’s foundation stone was laid in 1894 and, despite two ministers been forced to step down due to ill heath, was a thriving church in the 1930s. When bombing commenced, the church suffered bomb damage so extensive that there was a real danger that the church would not be able to continue functioning. Despite the significant hardship of a complete loss of heating, the faithful at Saltley managed to continue meeting and to operate their Sunday School. The church overcame the damage suffered during the war and continues to bear witness to the Gospel in what is now a very multi-cultural area of Birmingham.
Small Heath Baptist Church
The Baptist cause at Small Heath dates back to 1873 when a few believers started meeting in a local schoolroom. It was not until eighteen years later that the site which it now occupies, on the corner of the main road from Birmingham to the neighbouring city of Coventry, was purchased.
At the outbreak of hostilities, the church was an in extremely healthy state boasting 590 members and 750 children in Sunday School classes. In 1938, the minister was Rev. T. Percy George who was President of the regional Baptist association (West Midlands Baptist Association). The church’s hall and adjacent rooms were destroyed on 9th April 1941 during a bombing raid which was widespread across the city, and shortly thereafter the whole premises were deemed unsafe. Members were not to be deterred by this setback. Soon some of their number, assisted by sympathetic friends of the Church, had erected a temporary facility. A great sadness hit the Church in June 1943 when Rev Percy George died from an illness brought on by distress at the damage caused to the area by the War.
Stratford Road Baptist Church, Sparkbrook
Not far from Small Heath is Stratford Road Baptist Church, situated on the main road between Birmingham City Centre and Stratford-upon-Avon (birthplace of the great play-write, William Shakespeare); this church was one of the many churches in the region which owes its existence to the work of Samuel Pearce and Cannon Street Baptist Church. It was founded in 1878 and even possessed an American organ at one stage!
At the outbreak of war the church was very active, but unfortunately the war threw many obstacles in its path. In 1940, the minister (Rev. W.F. Knight) suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually had to resign, whilst the church building suffered from the devastation of German bombers, with incendiaries falling on the church and high explosive bombs blowing out windows and damaging the roof. The church’s own history records that on some Sundays during the war only eight people attended the services. However, brothers and sisters in Christ at nearby Baptist churches (Hall Green and Moseley) helped the church recover from its injuries and, after the end of hostilities, a new heating system was installed in the Sunday School rooms and the church was rewired.
It is not surprising that a number of Birmingham’s Baptist churches were damaged or destroyed by bomb damage and it is quite probable that others may have suffered minor damage, although records may not have survived to document the damage. What is clear, however, is that Birmingham’s Baptists faced the threat of the German air raids with great bravery and a steely faith. Many people left the most dangerous areas for safer locations and did not return to their original homes and home churches once the war was over, but those who remained and helped keep the Baptist cause alive during Birmingham’s darkest hour deserve to be remembered.
Leslie Puddephat, Secretary of Stratford Road Baptist Church for a long period which included the years of the Second World War’s duration, preached to his members during the darkest days of the conflict, on the text, “Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward” (Exodus 14:15) – it was this spirit which kept the Baptists of Birmingham going as bombs fell around them, their city was badly damaged and their loved ones killed or made homeless.
Betteridge, A. (2009) Deep Roots, Living Branches. A History of Baptists in the English Western Midlands, Matador, Leicester.
Bird, V. (1979) Portrait of Birmingham, Robert Hale & Co., London.
Chambers, R. (1963) The Strict Baptist Chapels of England – The Industrial Midlands, Fauconberg, London.
Fisher, H. and Reeve, O. (unknown) Still it flows. Lytham: Lord’s Publishers.
Hart, V. (1992) Balsall Heath: A History. Studley: Brewin Books.
Heart of England Baptist Association (2013) ‘Churches’ (http://www.baptist-heartofengland.org/index.php/churches) (accessed 3 August 2013)
Langley, A. (1939) Birmingham Baptists Past and Present. London: Kingsgate Press.
Williams, E. (1979) Buiding for the future: The story of the Baptists of Sparkbrook. Birmingham: Stratford Road Baptist Church.
Records for Edward Road Baptist Church, Balsall Heath, state that “only the schoolroom was useable until 1942” but there is no further information as to whether the church was actually damaged by bombing or not.