There is a curious entry in Cecil Polhill’s financial records for “Cecil Rooms, Greenwich.” The balance of the entry in his capital account is large, £5062, suggesting ownership. Initial searches for the building online produced very little helpful information, so what could it have been? 


Cecil Polhill's Ledger of Accounts (1908-1912)

Perhaps it was a hotel named after the owner, but it seemed just a little too ostentatious for Polhill to have built Cecil Rooms as an entrepreneurial endeavour named after himself. He had, for example, been noted by the Pentecostal historian Donald Gee for his material restraint:

My first personal impression of Cecil Polhill was vivid…[I] knew something of his legendary reputation...for wealth. To my surprise he was wearing shoes obviously soled and heeled [repaired]...we were short of red-backed Redemption Songs and he shared his well-worn copy with the kitchen-maid. I was not used to seeing that kind of thing, and it made a deep impression. I felt that this was nearer to New Testament Christianity than anything I had then seen.[1]

No mention is made of the premises in any of the relevant missionary or Pentecostal sources (such as the China Inland Mission’s periodical China’s Millions; Polhill’s own periodical Flames of Fire or fellow Anglican-Pentecostal Alexander Boddy’s periodical Confidence), so its purpose was a bit of a mystery. The answer came in the form of a humble postcard for sale on eBay (pictured). Parts of the image of the building have obviously been edited by the creators of the postcard for clarity, but the indentation in the brickwork clearly reads “The Cecil Rooms.” It would seem, then, that Cecil Rooms was the mission hall of Christ Church, East Greenwich, London.

Cecil Rooms postcard, postmarked 1906.

It is natural to assume that Polhill named the building after himself, but this would be a little out of character for him. On closer inspection of his records, there are a number of transactions related to the building such as insurance and taxes, but in November 1904 he also made the following donation, “Cartaret Cecil de – chairs & advert Cecil Rooms: £34.18s.10d.” The Anglican vicar of Christ Church at the time was George Frederick Cecil de Carteret (1886-1932) latterly the Bishop of Jamaica. It seems probable then that the hall was named after the vicar, or perhaps a kind of wordplay on the names of both the vicar and the main donor.

Cecil Rooms which was situated on Woolwich Road, between Chiver Street and Denham Street, is no longer there, but the archives of Christ Church are now held at the Greenwich Heritage Centre. These seem to confirm that “Cecil Hall” was built around 1904 during the incumbency of Rev. de Cartaret.[2] It was used for children’s work, Sunday schools and the Church Lads’ Brigade amongst other things. The surviving documentation acknowledges Polhill as the main donor for the building.[3] The London Metropolitan Archive also holds a tenancy agreement, from 1934, between Polhill in collaboration with the Church Pastoral Aid Trust (an Evangelical Anglican group) and the Reverend Clarence H. Goodall (vicar of Christ Church East Greenwich at that time) to allow the vicar to use the hall for £1 per year.[4] The average salary in the 1930s was something in the region of £200 per year, but £1 per year for a large building like Cecil Rooms was still very reasonable. The conditions of this agreement were that the building could be used for religious, educational and charitable purposes so long as there was nothing “contrary to Protestant Evangelical Doctrine.”[5]

An elderly parishioner of Christ Church East Greenwich, Charles, also remembers the hall well. He told me that the Cecil Rooms building was large, with two floors. The ground floor consisted of several rooms while the first floor was a large hall which could be used for dancing and other functions. Before the war, the Church Lads Brigade used to have a “gun room” in the building in which real guns and live ammunition were kept, in case of invasion. After the war, the weapons were replaced with replicas. It is unclear if Polhill, an ex-cavalry officer, had any say in this paramilitary defence of the realm!

By 1948, the church had raised the funds to buy Cecil Rooms outright (at about the same price as the building had been erected for almost fifty years earlier), but subsequent administrative records indicate that it was underused and struggled financially.[6] Cecil Rooms was just one of three mission halls used by Christ Church (The Three Cups and Malborough Hall being the other two), but according to Charles, Cecil Rooms was just too far away from the church itself (almost half a mile away) to be practically useful for the congregation of Christ Church. It struck me, however, that the purpose of the hall was probably not for the convenience of the parishioners of Christ Church. East Greenwich was not an affluent area, so the hall would have been designed as a branch reaching out into the deprived community. When the community evolved, in a way that a fixed structure cannot, it may be the case that Cecil Rooms became a White Elephant for the church.

The minor mystery of Cecil Rooms has more-or-less been solved. It was just one of many evangelically orientated halls that Polhill funded because of his conviction that the church had to be pragmatic about reaching people. By the 1970s Cecil Rooms had been demolished, and the site is now occupied by Speedy Depot (a tool hire facility). It would not be the only building that Polhill invested in that, while significant at the time, has since been demolished (the Azusa Street Mission Hall, Los Angeles, and the Costin Street Mission Hall, Bedford, to name two). The ideas Polhill espoused through his promotion of Evangelicalism and mission, however, remain as strong as ever.

[1] Gee, D. Personal Memoirs of Pentecostal Pioneers: These Men I Knew (Nottingham: Assemblies of God Publishing House, 1980), 74.

[2] Rev. A. G. Hardip reminisced joyfully about the opening of Cecil Hall (a precise date is not given but late 1904 is likely); he was curate under Rev. de Carteret. Centenary Souvenir (1949), Archival records of Christ Church East Greenwich, Box 2, Greenwich Heritage Centre, Royal Arsenal, London. These boxes are currently unsorted and may be catalogued at a later date.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tenancy Agreement Between Church Pastoral Aid Trust, CH Polhill and Rev CH Goodall, of Cecil Rooms, Woolwich Road. Reference Code: P78/CTC/059. Listing link here. London Metropolitan Archives, London.

[5] Ibid, clause 7.

[6] Miscellaneous documents, Archival records of Christ Church East Greenwich, Boxes 3 and 4, Greenwich Heritage Centre, Royal Arsenal, London. These boxes are currently unsorted and may be catalogued at a later date.