The Archives at Conway Hall

Liz Lutgendorff, Phd student at Oxford Brookes and Chair of Conway Hall Ethical Society, has provided the NSRN with an informative overview of the archive facilities offered by Conway Hall in London which may be helpful to researchers of secularism and nonreligion.

As part of my research into the history of atheism and secularism in the UK, I’ve become involved with Conway Hall Ethical Society (CHES) and I am currently the chair of Trustees. CHES may be better known to some as the South Place Ethical Society or South Place Chapel. It started as a radical Unitarian church in the eighteenth century and gradually evolved into a secular, ethical society in the late nineteenth century. It is now the only Ethical Society remaining in the UK and only one of two freethought and secular organisations in the UK with a hall purposely built for the promotion of ethical, secular, or humanist principles in the UK (the other being Leicester Secular Hall).

Since its inception CHES has maintained and added to its library and archive, forming the Humanist Library and Archives which documents much of the society’s history since its beginnings. It was an integral part of the society’s educational goals when it began.

The library and archive is a kindred archive to the Bishopsgate Institute which houses the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Rationalist Press Association (RPA) archives. It has also collected a wealth of primary and secondary research materials on secularism, atheism, religion and humanism.

The Object of the Conway Hall Ethical Society, which is a registered charity, is the research, education, and promotion of ethical humanist principles. The library and archives forms an integral part of that work. We welcome all researchers on any topic to come to the library and do research. There are well over 10,000 books, many journals, and around 350 boxes of archives, along with an array of portraits recently added to the BBC’s Your Paintings project, plus other unexpected collections.

It was while researching my MA that I discovered the CHES archives and library, which proved to be an invaluable resource during that research and continues to be during my current PhD research. As both a researcher and someone involved in the running of the society, the library and archive are critical to understanding the history of the society and also to guide the society’s future.

The kind of information available at the library and archives includes:

  • secularist and atheist periodicals from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including The National Reformer, The Literary Guide, The Ethical World, The Reasoner, SPES Magazine and many others

  • the archives of CHES and its predecessors from 1807, including minutes, accounts, correspondence, records of members and activities, deeds and property records and much more

  • books, pamphlets and letters by Moncure Conway, minister and lecturer and SPES from the 1860s to the 1890s

  • photographs, architectural drawings, paintings of people and places relating to the society

  • information, flyers, and music from the Sunday Concerts dating back to the 19th century

  • archives of the National Secular Society and related bodies from 1875, including minutes, accounts, membership, and property records, and photographs

  • correspondence, pamphlets, and ephemera from a large variety of secularist campaigns

  • books written by the various secularists involved in the society’s history

  • court papers from the Bowman v. Secular Society ltd case which settled the ability to leave money to secularist organisations

  • archives from the National Secular Society including meeting notes and campaigning literature

  • the H J Blackham archive – Harold Blackham’s personal papers relating particularly to his publications and involvement with various organisations including the Social Morality Council

  • general secularist, humanist, philosophical, and ethical secondary sources

These resources have largely been under-researched and it is one of the goals of the society to make it a well-known and well-used research library and archives for those interested in the history of freethought and secularism. In 2013, we were given a grant by the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives to catalog the archives of CHES and the NSS at Conway Hall and the BHA archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. We finished cataloguing the archives in September and formally launched the archives in conjunction with Open House London in September 2014.

This is just the start of what we hope will be a continued archiving and cataloguing program of the material available at CHES. We’re also hoping to start some digitisation projects in the future to make the archives and library even more accessible. We’ve done one small project which digitized the entire run of over 100 years of Conway Memorial lectures.

My own research has utilised the meeting notes, periodical literature, pamphlets, and books written by secularists from the 1880s to 1930s. There is a wealth of sources to be used by researchers interested in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century secularist history and campaigns. It is a vital resource to understand secularisation and the goals and achievements of secularist campaigns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

You can find out more about the archives by going to: