The Conway Hall Ethical Society, formerly the South Place Ethical Society, based at Conway Hall, is thought to be the oldest surviving free thought organisation in the world, and is the only remaining ethical society in the United Kingdom. It now advocates secular humanism, a life stance which embraces human reason, ethics and natural laws, and is a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
The Society originated in 1793 in a congregation of nonconformists known as Philadelphians or Universalists. William Johnson Fox became their minister in 1817. In 1824 the congregation built a chapel at South Place, Finsbury.
In 1929 they built new premises, Conway Hall, at 37 (now numbered 25) Red Lion Square, on the site of a tenement, previously a factory belonging to James Perry, a pen and ink maker. The opening ceremony was on Monday 23rd September 1929.
Conway Hall is named after an American, Moncure Conway, who led the Society from 1864–1885 and 1892–1897, during which time it moved further away from Unitarianism. Conway spent the break in his tenure in the United States, writing a biography of Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was one of the great fiery voices of the American Revolution. Publishing pamphlets such as Common Sense, a popular pamphlet that argued for complete American independence from Britain.
In 1888 the name of the Society was changed from South Place Religious Society to South Place Ethical Society (SPES) In 1950 the SPES joined the Ethical Union. In 1969 another name change was mooted, to The South Place Humanist Society, a discussion that sociologist Colin Campbell suggests symbolized the death of the ethical movement in England. In November 2012, the name was changed to Conway Hall Ethical Society.
Conway Hall was designed by Frederick Mansford and built on an L-shaped strip of land which the Society had acquired. It is a Grade II listed built in 1929 and was Mansford’s largest project.
The main entrance is located on an angle with a narrow arch rising to the top of the upper floor. The arch is flanked by two columns in silver-grey brick while the rest of the buildilng is varied with red-brick detailing. There is a lot of glass in the facade with wide windows to the Library on the upper level and in and above the entrance doors. The glazing bars form a distinctive tiny criss-cross pattern reflected in Conway Hall’s logo.
Mansford was aware that his design could appear incoherent and tried to make the elevation hang together by placing six stone urns, bought from a City bank, along roof level, two of them on top of the entrance columns.
The main auditorium can hold 300 plus 180 in a gallery. Wooden panelling nailed directly to the brickwork was used to give the hall excellent acoustic qualities.
It is onsidered the best hall in London for chamber music. This made it very suitable for the performance of music and there have been regular recordings and concerts there. The ceiling of the auditorium was glazed and this made it very light and airy for the time. It opened in 1929 and has continued in use since.
Above the proscenium arch the words, To Thine Own Self Be True. These words were originally inscribed on the back wall of the red mahogany panel at the original South Place Chapel.
In 1935 twenty members of the Society signed a document stating that Conway Hall was their regular place of worship. It was therefore certified for marriages until 1977 when the Deputy Registrar-General ruled that the Hall could not be used for weddings under the terms of the Places of Worship Registration Act.
The Sunday Concerts at Conway Hall can be traced back to 1878 when the Peoples Concert Society was formed for the purpose of “increasing the popularity of good music by means of cheap concerts”. Many of these concerts were held at the South Place Institute but in 1887 the Peoples Concert Society had to cut short their season through lack of funds. It was then that the South Place Ethical Society undertook the task of organising concerts. The thousandth concert was played on 20 February 1927, and the two-thousandth concert was held at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 March 1969.
The Conway Memorial Lecture was inaugurated by the Society in 1910 to honour Moncure Conway who died in 1907. The decision to create the Lecture was made in 1908. The Humanist Library and Archives based at Conway Hall is the UK’s foremost resource of its kind in Europe and the only library in the UK solely dedicated to the collection of Humanist material.
Since 2014, Conway Hall has been host to the Sunday Assembly, a popular secular service which takes place on the first and third Sunday of every month.