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China Inland Mission: History of the grand Victorian building on Newington Green that now houses City students

PUBLISHED: 14:48 17 January 2019

Clerkenwell and Islington tour guide Rob Smith outside the former China Inland Mission building at 45 Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock

Clerkenwell and Islington tour guide Rob Smith outside the former China Inland Mission building at 45 Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

The large archway, Edwardian-Baroque facade and distinctive bullseye windows make 44-45 Newington Green one of the square’s most recognisable buildings.

The China Inland Mission building on Newington Green in 1969. Picture: Courtesy of Collage – The London Picture Archive, a free online database of over 250,000 historical images of London - collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/City of London CorporationThe China Inland Mission building on Newington Green in 1969. Picture: Courtesy of Collage – The London Picture Archive, a free online database of over 250,000 historical images of London - collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/City of London Corporation

Today, the unique building serves as student accommodation.

But it had a previous life – as a hub for one of the country’s most radical missionary groups, China Inland Missions.

“It’s an interesting set of buildings around the square,” said Rob Smith, from the Clerkenwell and Islington Guiding Association.

“There is a long time focus of nonconformists and dissenters in Newington Green, and the Chinese Inland missionaries carried on that tradition.”

According to council records, a building on the west side of Newington Green was built in 1895 to house China Inland Missions, a nonconformist missionary group founded by James Hudson Taylor in 1865.

China Inland Missions specialised in missions to China. The group also helped spread western medicine, technology and trained doctors to the country – Taylor himself was a doctor.

In 1920, the group expanded and constructed the distinctive red-brick gate that stands on the square today, just down the road from the oldest terraced houses in London at 52-55.

According to Alex Allardyce, the author of The Village that Changed the World: A History of Newington Green, London N16, Taylor lived just around the corner from the headquarters, at 6 Pyrland Road.

45 Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock45 Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock

It is estimated that 18,000 conversions to Christianity were made in his lifetime by the missionaries he trained at Newington Green.

“One of the things that made them different was that they had a lot of working class missionaries working for them,” Rob told the Gazette.

“Often, missionary groups recruited from universities and were often theological students.

“But China Inland Mission had a lot of working class men, and had a lot of single women, which was unusual.”

They were also proponents of assimilating the Chinese culture.

Missionaries would adopt Chinese clothing and hairstyles, and live day-to-day in the culture of the areas they were placed in.

The group’s missionaries were very successful and well-known during their day, Smith said.

However, It wasn’t a safe time to be proselytising in China. China Inland Missions had 56 missionaries killed in the anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion in 1900 that targeted westerners and Christians, and also had members executed during the Chinese Revolution that began in the 1910s, Rob said.

The China Inland Mission building on Newington Green in 1969. Picture: Courtesy of Collage – The London Picture Archive, a free online database of over 250,000 historical images of London - collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/City of London CorporationThe China Inland Mission building on Newington Green in 1969. Picture: Courtesy of Collage – The London Picture Archive, a free online database of over 250,000 historical images of London - collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/City of London Corporation

By 1949, the People’s Republic of China government had come to power, and asked foreigners to leave.

The group changed its name to the Overseas Missionary Fellowship International and focused on spreading the Christian gospel to other south-east Asian countries such as Malaysia.

OMF International continued to train missionaries on the Newington Green site for more than 50 years, Rob said. And, according to Alex, a hostel for students from overseas also operated on the premises at the same time.

“There was a lot of diversity in Newington Green at the time, because of all of the students from all over the world,” he explained.

OMF International continued to inhabit the building at 44-45 Newington Green until 2002.

The group still exists: today, it has 1,400 members from 40 nations working throughout both east Asia and western nations where people of east Asian descent live.

In 2004, the site was redeveloped as student accommodation.

The buildings fronting the green were kept, while the remainder of the site was reconstructed as four blocks of new student housing for City University (now City, University of London) postgraduate students.

45 Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock45 Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock

The architect, Haworth Tompkins, earned an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects for the project in 2006.

Besides the China Inland Mission wording facing the front of the building, there’s another clue of the history of the site. Under the large brick archway, two plaques with Chinese letters are set on the right-hand side as you enter.

“Newington Green is an amazing place,” said Rob.

“So much great history went on here. People aren’t always aware of that.”

Rob will run a guided tour of Newington Green later this year, when you can find out more about its architecture and radical history. Visit islingtonguidedwalks.com for more details – and to find out what else is on offer

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