UK's first purpose-built deaf church to close

Agnes and another lady are looking at a hymn sheet and signing

After 140 years of services in sign language, the UK's first purpose-built church for deaf people is up for sale.

The St Saviour's foundation cornerstone was laid in 1870 on London's Oxford Street by the Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Alexandra, who had progressive hearing loss. The first service took place in 1873. Fifty years later the building was demolished to make way for development and the church relocated to Acton.

Fred Cuddeford is 105 years old. He was deafened a century ago in the same horse and cart accident that killed his mother. He has been a regular at St Saviour's Church and Deaf Centre for 94 years - in its old and new home.

For him and many other, St Saviour's has not only been a church, but a social club for deaf people. These were once very important places to meet, where sign language users were able to have conversations.

Fred's son Freddie says that his father will miss out socially when the church has gone: "This is Dad's only outing."

Fred met his first wife at St Saviour's, played various game tournaments and took his hearing children there to integrate them into the deaf community.

Image copyright Wellcome Library, London
Image caption An 1892 newspaper graphic of a "silent service" at Oxford Street's original "deaf and dumb" church

Historian Mike Gulliver, who is researching the church's history, says the original church was built around a central hall so that everyone could see the preacher's hands as he was signing.

"There was no rood screen, or choir, or organ," says Gulliver. "It was built more in the style of a non-Anglican, non-conformist church." There were also twin pulpits, one for a signing preacher and one to accommodate an interpreter for hearing visitors.

While most hearing Anglican churches face east, St Saviour's Oxford Street faced north. This was for light reasons, says Gulliver. It was thought that a steady stream of light throughout the day was better for deaf people's communication.

The current church is a simple but functional 1920s building, which hosts many of the original fittings and artwork.

At the St Saviour's 2014 Easter service, Fred Cuddeford, now also with failing sight, touches all 14 stations of the cross dotted around the church's perimeter - a tradition that commemorates Jesus's journey leading up to his crucifixion and burial.

The Reverend Anne Richardson, chaplain to all deaf Christians in London and the leader of the service, pushes her lectern along the route so she can sign the prayers and hymns at close range. Seated worshippers are able to follow the story via a series of images and the written English translation projected on to the wall.

Image caption The Rev Anne Richardson accompanies Fred Cuddeford, signing the prayers to him as they touch the cross

Richardson is a hearing person but trained as a signer. "Older people were encouraged to speak English at school rather than sign, so they like the service to be interpreted word for word," she says.

"Younger deaf church-goers have grown up with British Sign Language as their main way of communicating and so are comfortable worshipping purely in BSL."

During more evangelical-style worship, big screens show signed video versions of hymns and the speakers are turned up to high volume so those with the least hearing can feel the vibration.

Gulliver says that the prominent church was a "shop window for the hearing world", so that the Anglican Church could show off what it was doing for the deaf community in a prestigious building. He says rich benefactors were invited to a special yearly service and encouraged to pay subscriptions to keep it running.

Image caption The club has been an important social space

The original church was built to house 250 "deaf and dumb" worshippers. Seven deaf men, who were already preaching in BSL in lecture rooms, came up with the idea for a "church of our own" and a "cradle-to-grave deaf club", according to Gulliver. Lord Shaftesbury and William Gladstone were among the original fund contributors.

The church was upstairs but, downstairs, below street level, Gulliver says there was a "bubbling deaf club with 150 chairs and a gymnastics kit". He says the downstairs lecture room was a sanctuary for deaf people. Their art graced the walls and they often held their Thursday night church service in that space instead of in the church. The building was known by many as their cathedral.

Nowadays, St Saviour's church and club is used just once a month by a small group of deaf OAPs. At other times, it is hired out to hearing groups. The CEO of the Royal Association for Deaf People, Dr Jan Sheldon, says they need to sell. "Sadly we do not have the funds to meet the substantial repair costs associated with maintaining such old buildings."

The Rev Anne Richardson says deaf people are sanguine about it and that her group will find somewhere else to worship. "From a Christian perspective, the people are more important. Having a church is like a symbol but the wider deaf community hasn't made much use of it."

Despite the dwindling congregation, Richardson says young deaf people do go to church. Some use interpreters to integrate with hearing congregations. Others hold BSL-only services in churches which the groups hire.

Richardson runs a "busy" deaf evangelical service at a hearing church in Enfield, which she says is quite different to the one at St Saviour's. "We don't follow the English liturgy. All the elements are there but we do it entirely in BSL. And we've got more deaf leaders there than at St Saviour's."

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