City’s rock of ages

Pictured are members of the Sheffield Chistian Education Council owners of the Montgomery Theatre building in Surrey St...LtoR. Dawn Reynolds,Julie Fancher,Glyn Jones,Lindsey Beagles,Margaret Brown
Pictured are members of the Sheffield Chistian Education Council owners of the Montgomery Theatre building in Surrey St...LtoR. Dawn Reynolds,Julie Fancher,Glyn Jones,Lindsey Beagles,Margaret Brown

A SHEFFIELD church organisation is marking its 200th anniversary by launching a £750,000 campaign to secure the future of its historic home.

Sheffield Sunday School Union was founded in 1812 and its base, Montgomery Hall in Surrey Street, was later built by public subscription to commemorate the life and work of its leading light, James Montgomery.

The building opened with a city-wide celebration involving 5,000 singers, 500 instrumentalists, 30,000 Sunday school children and 70,000 visitors. But these days few people are aware of its existence, let alone its role.

Now the union – known today as Sheffield Christian Education Council – is setting out to change all that.

Ambitious refurbishment plans are designed to make the building more useful and more accessible. They include installing a lift, upgrading the toilets, refurbishing the Montgomery Theatre and creating two new floors to house a studio, rehearsal space, a recording studio and a gallery.

It is hoped that work will start this summer. The finished building will be a public resource, available to groups across the city.

A focalpoint will be the new Montgomery Arts Centre, which is being established at the hall to promote creative and performing arts while also encouraging people to use the building.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” admits Lindsey Beagles, the SCEC’s development officer. “But we just want to show that this funny building on Surrey Street had a role to play – and still does.”

Montgomery Hall originally comprised two vast spaces, which were used for meetings and worship, as well as for training Sunday school teachers: hence the organisation’s name.

In 1910 the larger hall was modified to become a theatre, which is still in regular use by amateur dramatic and other groups. And in 1949 the lower hall was leased to Tuckwoods as a restaurant, now the London Club grill.

Other users over the years have included the city council and the wartime military authorities. But the SCEC retains ownership and responsibility for its upkeep.

The organisation is one of the region’s biggest ecumenical organisations, with around 150 member churches from all Christian denominations.

These days it offers training, resources and events to its members, but also has space for public use – which is where the refurbishment comes in.

A fundraising programme is being drawn up to support the plans - £150,000 must be raised before even the lift can be installed.

Starting the project will be a fitting climax to the SCEC’s bicentenary celebrations, which begin on Saturday with an exhibition at Weston Park Museum.

The display, which will run for two years, will feature everything from old Bibles, certificates and photographs to clothing, badges, trophies and magic lantern slides.

“We’ve had some amazing stories as a result of our appeal for contributions,” says Lindsey. “But we’ve also been shocked by what we’ve heard.

“The Sunday schools were formed to better the lives of young people, to educate them and rescue them from drinking, gambling and crime. In many ways it feels like history is repeating itself.”

Details: www.scec.org.uk