July saw the commencement of work on Section C of our re-development programme and with it the removal of stonework embracing the Church and Transept.
What a different story it was, 63 years ago, in July 1944 when the Rev John Waterhouse (Minister from 1939-1944) recorded the following
“The Bombing of the Epsom Methodist Church July 3rd
The first flying- bombs were launched against the London area on Thursday night, June 15th, 1944. On that night, what appeared too many watchers to be an aeroplane on fire, crashed in Ewell West, doing considerable damage and inflicting casualties?
That was our first experience of the flying bomb (above), and the house of one of our members, Mr Horace Hart, was damaged on that occasion. During the next few weeks, the attacks became quite intensive, and continued without respite each day and night. On the night of June 26th, the Rev Robinson Whittaker, of the London Mission, addressed a public meeting in the Upper Hall. Despite alerts, there was a good attendance, and when Mr Whittaker had appealed for our help in the restoration of the many bombed centres of the London Mission, over £200 was given or promised by Epsom friends. Little did we know that exactly one week hence, our own church would be victim to Hitler’s latest weapon of destruction?
On the night of Sunday July 2nd, there was a constant stream of flying-bombs (shown above). I was on duty at the Wardens Post on Epsom Common till 4 a.m. Then I came home and lay down to rest in the Manse kitchen in my overcoat, as I had a feeling that I might at any moment be called out to an incident. My wife thought I had got a touch of nerves, perhaps I had I certainly had a feeling of apprehension. At about 4.40 am there came the drone of another flying-bomb, which was greeted by a salvo of gun fire. The engine of the bomb faltered, went on again, and finally stopped. I heard a tearing swishing sound, a loud explosion, and a clatter of glass. I said to my wife, ‘That would be Ashley Road, and probably the church is down’ She said she thought it was further away. I said I must go anyhow’ so I jumped on my bicycle. My first anxiety was for the safety of our two fire-watchers, Miss Jessie Cook and Mrs Robert Northcott, who were on duty at the church. I rode over a sea of glass, it seemed as though every window in the High Street was on the road. When I turned the corner of Ashley Road I found I had been right, to an almost uncanny degree, in my location of the bomb. The great block of flats known as Ashley Court adjoining our field, had been hit. The front was a pile of rubble and somewhere under the rubble there raged a fire. Partly by the light of this fire and partly by the first dim light of dawn I looked at our church. The building seemed a shell only. Not only the windows, but the doors, and much of the roof was gone, but the masonry around the windows had disappeared. Shreds of the black-out curtains were flopping in the breeze, and the whole building looked an abomination of desolation. I made my way through to the vestry and was amazed to find there an electric light burning. In the vestry was Miss Jessie Cook, quite unharmed but imprisoned. ‘Where is Mrs Northcroft’ I asked. “She has climbed out of a window” was the reply, and is giving first aid to the injured. It was a relief beyond measure to find that our firewatchers were safe. They had come off duty at the Ashley Court fire watchers post at 3.a.m. Had they been there when the bomb fell they would certainly have been killed.
After ascertaining that the fire watchers were safe, I climbed into the church and surveyed the scene. It seemed then that the church was almost beyond repair. One of the roof beams was split across, and hanging dangerously. Masonry, furniture, pews were all one great jumble. It was raining, and I saw pools gathering on the floor. . But the chancel was intact, the rose window unbroken, and a vase of flowers on the communion table remained untouched. After a quick survey of the school premises, which though much shattered, still stood. I hastened to Ashley Court to see if I could render any service there. In the field, near the gate, I almost stumbled across a body. It was a corpse. I learned later that it was of a Mr Meadow, a resident in the flats, whose body had been blown, by the explosion right across the field, against the side of the church itself. I think he had actually been blown on to the school room roof, from where he had fallen, as I saw the impression made by his body in the shrubbery by the Primary Room windows. The Wardens and Fire Services were working hard on Ashley Court. They were playing water on the fire, which I understood came from a gas main. Under the fire was a man, who was later safely rescued, though both scorched and drenched. It was a miracle that he escaped.
After rendering what help I could in Ashley Road, and visiting the homes of a few of our folk who lived nearby, I returned home. On the way back another flying-bomb came low over the town, and I remember flattening myself on the ground in the market place. I felt that Epsom was no longer a place for my young family and that same morning I sent them north. Mrs Waterhouse, however, stayed with me, and together we set about our tasks.
I cannot speak too highly of the work which Mr & Mrs Thomas, the caretaker, did during ensuing days and weeks. They started to clear up in the same manner as they would after a Guild Party, and never dismayed. We were greatly helped on the first day by a party of some 20 Canadian soldiers who turned up ‘out of the blue’ and worked like navvies on our behalf. I well remember how we salvaged hymn books and Bibles, which were scattered everywhere. We tried to keep the more important articles of furniture away from the rain, which steadily descended through the roof.
In the evening, crowds gathered outside in Ashley Road. I chalked up a notice ‘Hitler may destroy our building, but never our faith’ which many saw and read. Members of the Youth Club arrived in large numbers that evening, and gave help. Night by night, for weeks afterwards they toiled on, and showed true loyalty to the church. We made doors out of splinter wood, including the remnants of the Book Stall, from which we had sold books in the Market Place. We made frames for the windows of the lower hall, and filed them with rubberised material. The church building was considered unsafe, and we could do nothing about the windows.
Immediately after the bombing, we had generous offers of hospitality from the Congregational Church, the Parish Church, and from Christ Church. We accepted the first offer, which came from our friends of the Congregational Church. For one month we held United Services with them, in atmosphere of great friendliness and cordiality. It so happened that on the first Sunday (July 9th) both Mr Bates and I preaching at the two Services, spoke of ‘All things work together for good to them that love God’ I was informed later that the Vicar of Epsom had taken the same text at the Parish Church. On Sunday August 6th, the last Sunday of my appointment in the Sutton Circuit, we returned to our own building, holding services in the School Hall. The services were conducted by my wife and me, she preaching in the morning. In September it was possible to hold services in the church, whose roof was now covered and supported with props. The first Services in the church were on September 17th, the day of the Harvest Festival, and the Rev John Blamey began a new chapter in the history of the Epsom Methodist Church.
It may be of interest to record a few further points. On July 15th I conducted a wedding in the chancel of the bombed church (one of the old girls of the Sunday School) determined to be married in the church, not withstanding it’s open air character As the service began, an alert sounded – and as the service closed the all clear was given.
Large pieces of the fuselage of the bomb lay in the field. One considerable portion was found on the roof of the church itself. An old lady aged 90, resident in a house almost opposite the church, escaped injury, though her companion help was killed.
Considering the violence of the explosion, casualties were light. As far as I know, not more than five lost their lives. The church withstood the blast extremely well; it was well and truly built. In due course, it will be stronger and more beautiful than ever. We record our gratitude to Almighty God who sustained us through the fiery trial of these evil days, and brought us through the valley of the shadow of death “.
(Note; the reference by the Rev John Waterhouse to the field is of course our car park, and the land on which our Church Hall and Scout H Q stands, having been purchased in 1911 for anticipated future development)