History of the church

The Dissenters of Tooting

['Dissenting' from the Latin dissentire, 'to disagree']

"Dissenter...a mamber of a religious body who has, for one reason or another, separated from the Established Church or any other kind of Protestant who refuses to recognise the supremacy of the Eastablished Church in areas where the established Church is or was Anglican..."

Before the Act of Toleration in 1689, Dissenters had suffered nearly three decades of persecution. It was difficult and dangerous to be a nonconformist and although there were congregations across Britain, it wasn't until the Act that people were legally allowed to establish nonconformist congregations.

The congregation that is now Tooting United Reformed Church began life in 1688 so it's history maps the history of the Dissenting Church and is an important part of the development of Tooting itself.

There is a persistent rumour that Daniel Defoe, the author of 'Robinson Crusoe', used Tooting as a hiding place during the days of nonconformist persecution, and that he was one of the group who founded the church. The congregation met in a wooden hut until the widow of a previous minister, Mrs Emma Miles, gave the funds to build a chapel that was completed in 1776 called the Defoe Chapel. The building can still be seen at 19 Tooting High Street, next to the Market, where the distinctive frontage of the first floor is still more or less intact.


The first minister there was Joshua Oldfield.He was the son of one a Puritans clergyman. The story of Joshua and his friend Daniel Defoe is brought to life in a pageant written by church members for the 250th anniversary of the church in 1938. The drama is set in the Speaker's official residence at Westminster in the year 1668.

By the early 1900s the numbers at the church (now a Congregationalist church) were too large for the Defoe Chapel and a new church was built on Mitcham Road in 1906.


This was a landmark building and the church prospered. The Boys and Girls Brigades were thriving and the Sunday School had about a hundred children attending. There many other clubs and organization working in the church. In 1950 the Sunday School celebrated their 150th anniversary attended by the Mayor and other local dignitaries and was widely reported in the local news papers. Some of the ministers were very involved in the community of Tooting and were influential local leaders, such as Revd Anderson and Revd Bevill Allen.

The beautiful octagonal brick building was demolished in 1988 and a new building was planned, to incorporate sheltered housing (now called Joshua Oldfield House) and a new church in Rookstone Road.


The present building, although only 26 years old, has quite a bit of history. In 1997 Just before Revd Iain Stewart was due to come and preach with a view to becoming minister, the church caught fire and caused much damage, and the loss of many church records. Not being deterred by this, the congregation held their services in Seely Hall in Chillerton Road, the hall of St. Paul’s, including the Revd. Stewart’s service. The church members continued to worship in Seeley Hall during the re-building and they joined Tooting Methodist church for evening services in Totterdown Street. Revd Iain Stewart was with us from 1997-2005.The re-dedication of the church after the fire took place in 1998.  At that time more than one Alpha courses was held. 'Pilots' (childrens' organisation') was running and for a short time a Friday night youth club. Also a Toddlers and Carers group was held on Thursdays. By this time members from Earlsfield URC joined us as their church was closed down and demolished.

Tooting had become a very multi faith and multi-cultural community - very different from the time of our ancestors such as Daniel Defoe and Josua Oldfied,  when Tooting was a little village with surrounding fields. But by the grace of God the people heard the Good News. It’s interesting to think that if the government had not ruled that independent churches were only allowed to worship several miles outside of London, the Defoe Chapel may not have been built in Tooting with its subsequent history. God indeed moves in mysterious ways.

In 2007 Revd Andrew Fairchild became our minister and had the task of overseeing three churches; St. Mark’s and St. Andrew’s in Balham, and Tooting, plus being interim moderator to St. Andrew’s Battersea and East Hill. Eventually it was agreed that another minister was needed. In September 2012 Revd Helen Matthews became minister to Tooting, St. Andrew’s and St. Mark’s.

The 325th Anniversary of the church was held in June 2013 when a historical exhibiton was compiled from the remaining archives and using the invaluable oral records of long-standing church members, notably Miss Dorothy Jones.


(History written mainly by Communications Secretary, Janice Dodds)


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