IN THE BEGINNING
In the early 1880s, The Salvation Army was without a dedicated place of worship in London’s West End, so when the Princess Skating Rink on Oxford Street became vacant, General William Booth (the founder of the Salvation Army) bought the lease. Following renovations, the Regent Hall Corps (number 258) - thereafter affectionately known as the Rink - was opened on 18 March 1882. One newspaper described the opening night: “The hall was well supplied with illumination; behind the gilded gates of the entrance row, gas jets burn with a seductive glare, enough to make the gin palaces look to their laurels.”
The Founder was accompanied by his wife – Catherine - who presented the Corps flag to Captain William Baugh, the first commanding officer. Present in the congregation was seven-year-old Herbert (Bert) Twitchin, who would later serve as Regent Hall deputy bandmaster for 25 years and bandmaster for another 37. At first there were four other locations, later incorporated in the main Corps. The band would also occasionally visit an outpost at Edgware, making the 12-mile journey on foot.
Regent Hall’s open-air work started in Hyde Park. The Skeleton Army was very active at that time – started up in opposition to the Salvation Army’s work - and Bandmaster Blowers, the bandmaster of the day, would sometimes be left guarding instruments while bandsmen protected the soldiery and the flag.
THE EARLY 20th CENTURY
The Corps grew significantly during the early part of the 20th century. At one stage, Sunday meetings were held in an old music hall while extensive alterations to the Corps buildings were carried out.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Worship services continued throughout World War 1, and the Corps band played an active role in supporting the military by playing at military establishments and escorting troops to and from embarkation points. On one occasion, when a march was halted by a severe air raid, it eventually continued through Whitehall at five o’clock in the morning.
Following the cessation of hostilities, the Corps thrived despite the 1920s depression. By the late 1930s, Salvation meetings were attracting congregations of between 700 to1 000 worshippers.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The Corps programmes were maintained during the war, although this often required great resourcefulness. Attendance was depleted because of war service and firms evacuating from London. Air raids often damaged the hall and the Corps officer’s quarters.
MOVING FORWARD IN THE 20TH CENTURY
The Regent Hall band first played in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace after the death of King Edward VII in 1910, and by royal command of Queen Alexandra. Following World War II, the band again played at Buckingham Palace, when Bandmaster Herbert Twitchin - later awarded an MBE in recognition of 64 years’ Salvation Army service - was presented to King George VI. In 1952 - the year of the corps’ 70th anniversary - Queen Elizabeth II invited the band to present a programme of music in the palace forecourt. Further invitations were extended in 1972 and 1977 (the Corps’ 90th and 95th anniversaries respectively).
In 1956, the first televised Salvation Army carol service was relayed from Regent Hall. The following year - the corps’ 75th anniversary - the band presented a radio broadcast on the BBC Home Service. An open-air service in Trafalgar Square in 1959 was filmed by the BBC for direct transmission to ten European countries.
THE WORK GOES ON
The Regent Hall Corps celebrated The Salvation Army’s Centenary in 1965 with marches through London’s West End and Soho and daily festivals. ‘Shut-in’ runs were started and Christmas dinners provided for disabled, lonely and homeless people.
Throughout the 1970s, Corps activities were frequently disrupted because of bomb explosions and false alarms. During such occasions, the Corps provided refreshment to grateful emergency services.
The Rink was open for 12 hours daily throughout the Salvation Army’s 1978 International Congress. Meetings included two sell-out performances of the musical Glory by the Corps’ drama group.
100 YEARS OF MINISTRY
Commissioner (later General) Eva Burrows launched the Rink’s Centenary year in 1982. New Corps colours were presented, and the band again played at Buckingham Palace. A Festival of Thanksgiving was held at Westminster Abbey, which included a cornet antiphony - Regent Hall - composed especially for the occasion.
ON TO THE NEXT MILLENIUM
In 1983, the Corps was again forced to find other venues while essential renovations took place. The venue for Sunday meetings was the YWCA building in Great Russell Street and the Sunday evening march to the open-air meeting in Argyll Street continued (a distance of 1.4 miles each way).
The band accompanied General Eva Burrows to Rome in Easter 1987. Following this very successful campaign, the corps raised £4,500 to help the Army’s work in Italy. Other trips abroad for the band included two visits to California, where the band participated in the annual New Year’s Day Rose Parade in Pasadena.
THE 21ST CENTURY
There have been many changes since the Rink first opened its doors. The Corps’ Sunday programme of three indoor and three outdoor meetings – in place for many years - has been replaced with a more relaxed format of two open-air meetings and two indoor meetings at 11am and 3pm.
There is community outreach at the Corps, with a coffee shop and bookshop which are open six days a week. There is a ‘drop-in’ centre next to the main hall, and a weekly Come and Meet Each Other (CAMEO) club and Home League, which are both open to all age groups. There is a large Sunday school, with different stages of learning for those from six months up to 15 years old. There is no need to be a member of the Salvation Army to attend any of these activities.
The Rink’s public programme includes its annual Expressions concert. Held on the Thursday before the National Brass Band Championships, this event is for everybody and through use of music, audio visual aids and movement provides an avenue to showcase different facets of the Salvation Army’s musical expression in a modern setting.
The Skeleton Army and two World Wars are long gone, but there are other problems to face. There remains the constant threat of terrorism; the challenges of coping with a multi-cultural society; modern-day indifference to Christ’s message of love; drugs; homelessness; loneliness; and depression. Then there is the huge issue of fitting a modern and diverse corps programme into a Victorian-era building. In 2009, a major redevelopment programme was placed on hold due to the global financial crisis. A renovation programme was initiated in its place to ensure that the building will continue to support the Salvation Army’s work in the West End.
The Rink has a proud history and remains in a unique position as the only church on Oxford Street – a major world-renowned shopping precinct. Regardless, the Regent Hall Corps mission has not changed in its almost 130 year history – to save souls, grow saints and serve suffering humanity.
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