The History of the Brighthelm United Reformed Church (URC)
Union Street Chapel
The story of Brighthelm URC is part of the history of non-conformism in Brighton. The Great Ejection (1662) saw the vicar of Brighthelmstone ejected from St Nicholas church for failing to adhere to the Act of Uniformity which required Church of England Ministers to conform to the Book of Common Prayer. The minister and his congregation were forced from their building and were no longer part of the Church of England. The congregation then met in peoples homes and suffered some persecution as the state proscribed the gathering of non-conformists for collective worship. By the 1680s the restrictions had eased somewhat and the small Union Chapel was built in what is now Union Street. This was used first by Presbyterians and latterly by many independent Christian groups, hence the name Union, indicating a bond between these non-conformist Christians and was still in active service in the 1900’s owned and used by the then fledgling Pentecostal Church.
The south facing Hanover Chapel which is now part of the Brighthelm Centre was built in 1825 as an Independent chapel for the Reverend M. Edwards. It was then used by the Presbyterian Church from 1844 until 1972, when the congregation combined with that of the Union Congregational Church.
In 1845 Queen’s Road was built over the western edge of the Hanover Chapel’s graveyard which also housed pre-existing burials. The cemetery’s boundary wall and railing remain today on the western side of Queens Road as a raised pavement.
In 1949 the gravestones were removed to line the perimeter walls. At this time a list was made from what could be read on these monuments. This list shows the names and dates that were decipherable on 297 graves and from transcriptions from copies held at the History Centre.
The memorials in what is now the Brighthelm garden were recently cleared by volunteers and they continue to arouse considerable interest. We are keen to encourage visitors who are researching family history to look at the gravestones, we now keep a booklet of the names at Reception.
Congregational Church at Queens Square
The Congregational Church was built in an Early English style in 1853-54 to the designs of James and Brown. A tower was planned in the south-west corner but was never ultimately built. However, in 1867 the church was enlarged and remodelled by Mr Paulton of Reading and in 1898 the congregation merged with that of the Union Street Chapel to form the Union Congregational Church as seen in the photo above taken in 1935: The image is here reproduced from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council.
Congregational Church at Seven Dials – Formation of the United Reformed Church
In 1968 the Congregational church at Seven Dials merged with the Union Congregational Church at Queen Square and the Presbyterian congregation of the Hanover Chapel and together, in 1972, became part of the newly formed United Reformed Church, renaming the new congregation as the Brighton Central Free Church in 1973.
Sale of Sites – The Vision for Brighthelm URC and Community Centre
These changes led to some years of discussion about the future. It was decided that the site at Queen Square, which was in very poor repair, and the Seven Dials church should be sold and the proceeds invested in a major development at the North Road site. The sale was concluded in 1983, with the Queens Square church demolished by 1984. The subsequent development of a four story purpose built community centre, leading through to a fully renovated ‘auditorium’ in the shell of the original Hanover Chapel became the Brighthelm Church and Community Centre, housing the congregation and providing space for many community activities and meetings.
The organ from Queen Square was rebuilt and incorporated in the new building designed by Wells-Thorpe and Suppel Ltd. It opened on October 10th 1987.
The new Church entered into a Covenant for Mission with St. Nicholas, which completed the circle started with the ejection of the vicar of Brighthelmstone in 1662. The Church formed an Ecumenical Management Committee to run the Centre which had a Manager supported by both paid and voluntary staff.
Clermont Road United Reformed Church
With the turn of the century came yet further changes. The Church at Clermont Road elected to join the Brighthelm project and the Covenant for Mission was renewed and now included the Chapel Royal and subsequently the Methodist Church.