Until the 18th Century Brixton was an area of natural woodland watered by the River Effra making its way to the Thames from its source in Crystal Palace. The Effra was navigable by small boats from the Thames so far as Brixton and Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to have used it to visit the Brixton home of Sir Walter Raleigh. From the late 17th century the woodland was gradually cleared and market gardens appeared, making Brixton famous for her strawberries and game.
The opening of the Vauxhall Bridge in 1816 was followed by the upmarket urbanisation of Brixton, villas being all the rage. Remnants of this development can be seen on Brixton Water Lane, including the doctors' surgery. It was this pleasant and propitious setting that a committee of gentleman meeting at the Horns Tavern in the Oval in 1837 chose for the building of the chapel which opened on-time and to budget in 1839.
The chapel's founders and early members were Dissenters or Nonconformists, that is Protestants who felt that they could not conform to this or that belief or practice of the Established Church of England. They owned their own places of worship, ran their own affairs and appointed their own ministers. Such groups included the Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Unitarians.
It was to the Unitarian group that our founders belonged and to which we still belong today. What distinguishes us from other Free Church groups is the primacy we place on the individual's own understanding of religious truth, utilising reason and intuition. Thus with our friends the Quakers, who hold similar beliefs, we are Liberal Christians and fellow travellers (such as those with a multi-faith or humanistic approach). Yet we might be thought even more liberal. It would be unthinkable for us to have anything like Quaker Faith and Practice. We are also distinguished from the Quakers by our continuing commitment to professional ministry, music and singing.
Many of the wealthier members belonged to distinguished Nonconformist families tracing their roots to the first Dissenters of the 17th century, such as the Martineau family. They included Sir Henry Tate (as in Tate & Lyle Ltd. and The Tate Gallery) and the Mappins (as in Mappin & Webb, the Royal jewellers and silversmiths). Later members included a major ship owner, an MP and an Attorney General of New South Wales. The chapel has had a number of distinguished ministers and ran an important school for many years. Sir Henry Tate gave generously to Brixton, building the free library and a nurses' home. The original chapel building was destroyed by bombing in 1941 and the congregation met in the Effra Road Synagogue and in temporary accommodation until the building of fine new premises in 1962 which we enjoy today.