Exploring Our History - The Visitors’ Book from 1945

Starting as the Foreign Missions Club in 1893, The Highbury Centre has been offering Christian accommodation in North London for over 125 years. We are fortunate to have a treasure trove of historical documents which give us a window on to the past and remind us that our original vision, to provide affordable accommodation to those who serve the Lord from around the world, is still as strong today as it ever was.

Bound in red morocco and with ornate marbled end papers, the visitors’ book for 1945 and onwards is jam packed with stories, written in spidery, faded copperplate. Each entry tells a fascinating story. A brief scan across the first two pages shows that the club welcomed guests from the Belgian Congo, China, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda in 1945, while closer to home, guests from Weymouth, Derby, Worthing, Ayrshire, Oxford, Plymouth, Belfast, Norwich, Glasgow and Cardiff also came to stay.

Then as now, groups from overseas found the club the ideal place to stay. In July and August 1949, a number of groups from Scandinavia were in residence, along with a party from the British Embassy in Lisbon. Many guests give their address as a vicarage or rectory, in many cases bringing the whole family along. No doubt the children played in the open green spaces of Highbury Fields just as our younger guests do today.

The visitors’ book often gives tantalising glimpses of thrilling journeys and adventures. In 1951, a Miss Laura W Darby instructed the club to send her mail from Chunking, China to St Johns Newfoundland via the SS Robb, Canadian Pacific Steamships. Miss Darby was clearly a well-travelled lady.

Our sunny breakfast room is always full of people from many countries and in November 1952, this was particularly true. Guests from Calcutta, Bengal, the London Missionary Society and the Indian Mission rubbed shoulders with diners from the Church of the Brethren (location unspecified), Haifa, Grenada British West Indies and the Sudan United Mission. Breakfast at that time must have been fun!

By 1958, the first visitors from Japan were making an appearance in the book. The final entry, for 5th December 1958 records guests from Ethiopia, Cape Town in South Africa, Norway and Germany. An Elisabeth Strauss from Basel was staying for 6 months. There were also guests from Southampton and London SE24.

When I last stayed at The Highbury Centre, I sat with a couple from Hobart, Tasmania. I felt completely at ease asking them to join me although we’d never met. On the same morning, groups of students from the USA and Sweden were enjoying their breakfast with lots of laughter and chatter.

In the 125 years since the original vision for offering affordable and welcome Christian accommodation in London began, everything has changed and nothing has changed. While the visitors from the 1940s and 1950s would be hard put to recognise many aspects of modern North London, we think they’d find exactly the same warm and accommodating welcome at The Highbury Centre as they did when they stayed with us all those years ago.

19th November 2019

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