Fight the Good Fight – the Church Lads’ Brigade in Fulham

Church Lads' Brigade badgeThe Church Lads’ and Church Girls’ Brigade is an organisation that welcomes young people of all faiths and none. Paradoxically it came into being because a Fulham vicar, the Revd Ernest Stafford Hilliard wanted the boys’ group at his church to be exclusively Anglican.

In 1889 Walter Mallock Gee, a 44 year old Devonian who had recently brought his family to live at 22 Edith Villas, West Kensington, became Secretary of the Junior Branch of the Church of England Temperance Society. He noted the growing popularity of the Boys’ Brigade and wanted to bring it to his local church, St Andrew’s Fulham Fields. ES Hilliard, the new vicar, gave his consent so long as membership was restricted to Anglicans. This requirement was unacceptable to the Boys’ Brigade so Gee proposed creating a brand new organisation.

Walter Mallock Gee, founder of the Church Lads' Brigade

Walter Mallock Gee, founder of the Church Lads’ Brigade

Walter Gee wanted the St Andrew’s Lads’ Brigade to be militaristic in its uniform, its programme (including rifle practice) and its discipline, with a full range of ranks. A hundred boys turned up for the first parade in July 1891. The London correspondent of the Newcastle Weekly doubted whether young people would accept the idea of saluting officers on and off duty and calling them ‘sir’:

“That will never suit an age that is becoming more and more democratic and is almost sufficient in itself to kill off a movement however excellent and praiseworthy.”

The writer had misjudged the mood of the time. In conjunction with other like-minded individuals, Gee founded the Church Lads’ Brigade in October 1891, using an old mission hall near St Alban’s Church, Fulham, as its first headquarters.

Walter Mallock Gee, founder of the Church Lads' Brigade

Walter Mallock Gee, founder of the Church Lads’ Brigade

The organisation proved popular, not just within Britain but across the Empire. A reputed quarter of a million Church Lads fought in the First World War, and some 20,000 perished. With the return of peace the public lost the taste for militarisation, and some changes were made to the Church Lads’ Brigade, though the uniforms and drill were retained.

Plaque in memory of Walter Mallock Gee, founder of the Church Lads' Brigade

In 1971 a thanksgiving service was held at St Andrew’s Fulham Fields to mark the 80th anniversary of the Brigade’s foundation. Walter Mallock Gee, who had died peacefully in 1916, was honoured by a commemorative plaque unveiled by the Brigade’s Governor and Commandant Air Chief Marshal Sir Augustus Walker. The service was conducted by the Bishop of Shrewsbury, and the Vicar of St Andrew’s Fr Johnson said he considered this day as the proudest of his 18 years in Fulham.

Church Lads' Brigade article, West London Observer, 11 November 1971

The CLB enjoyed a revival at the Revd Johnson’s church, and won the Junior Football Shield (Fulham Chronicle 1st March 1974). It also supplied young voices for the church choir.

St Matthew's Church Lads' Brigade on guard, 1920

St Matthew’s Church Lads’ Brigade on guard, 1920

St Matthew's Church Lads' Brigade at camp, 1920

St Matthew’s Church Lads’ Brigade at camp, 1920

St Matthew's Church Lads' Brigade, 1920

St Matthew’s Church Lads’ Brigade, 1920

In 1978 the CLB merged with its sister organisation, founded in 1901 and originally known as the Church Ambulance and Nursing Brigade for Young Women and Girls.

The Brigade has not featured at St Andrew’s Church for some years. When senior officers left the district or retired, no-one took their place. However the Brigade still thrives as a worldwide organisation with the Queen as President and the Archbishop of Canterbury as Patron.

[Morgan Phillips]

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