High Leigh Centennial

July 2022


100 years of Christian conferencing at High Leigh

It all started with a vision

In 1910, Dr Tissington Tatlow returned from a visit to the USA enthused by the conference centres for Christian student events that he had witnessed on his trip. Dr Tatlow, who was the General Secretary of the Student Christian Movement of Great Britain and Ireland, decided to bring together representatives from missionary and other Christian societies with a vision to make Christian conferencing a reality in the UK for the first time.

Army Chaplains Conference April 1926

After much discussion and fundraising, First Conference Estate Limited was incorporated on the 11th of May 1910. Shortly after, The Hayes in Swanwick, Derbyshire was purchased for £11,500 (£1.4m in today’s money) to become the first permanent Christian conference centre in the UK.

High Leigh gardens in 1922

The birth of conferencing at High Leigh

Towards the end of 1919, the directors of First Conference Estate began to think of setting up a second conference centre close to London, and various sites were inspected; one such location was High Leigh in Hoddesdon. Originally built in 1853, High Leigh had been bought by the successful banker and committed Christian Robert Barclay in 1871. His son Robert L Barclay was a board member of First Conference Estate at that time and agreed to sell High Leigh to the organisation for £16,000 in shares (£0.8m in today’s money).

Woodlands Lounge in 1922

Plans were made for alterations and additional buildings at High Leigh to cater for up to 25,000 visitor each year. The new conference centre opened to churches and Christian organisations in 1922 with the price set at 9s per person per night (£23 in today’s money). Whilst at High Leigh, guests could take part in croquet for 6d per person per hour or cricket at 5s per game.

Chinese Students Conference August 1925

In 1924, Robert L Barclay offered to gift a chapel to the company at High Leigh. He was, ‘strongly of the opinion that this should be a plain building of oak timber, similar to a country barn in structure and would normally contain no ornaments which could partake of the nature of religious representations and symbols.’ The Board was very grateful for this offer but stipulated that the building would have to be large enough to accommodate as many guests as the centre could sleep.

High Leigh Capel 1926

The late nineteen-twenties were good years for the company and thoughts soon turned to enlarging High Leigh.

The nineteen-thirties were difficult years for High Leigh with a reduction in the level of business due to the great depression and no possibility of increasing the cost for guests to stay.

Dining hall 

Pause for the Second World War

The possibility that the country might soon be at war was marked by an application in 1938 from a maternity home at Hampstead requesting to use High Leigh as a hospital outside London. In the end, High Leigh was rented by the London Co-operative Society, who in 1941 also asked whether the company would be prepared to sell High Leigh to them. The sale did not materialise but the Managing Director, Dr Tatlow, was asked to look out for possible purchasers.

Unexploded bomb on the lawn in 1940

The Board of Directors confirmed in June 1945, just days before D-Day, that the company and its work should continue at The Hayes and High Leigh after the war. This demonstrates the remarkable confidence the Board had for the return in demand of Christian conferencing.

An original non-ensuite bedroom

Onwards and upward

High Leigh made substantial financial losses in 1947 and 1948, with many of the staff no longer working and guests being slow to return. There was no prospect of the company repaying its bank overdraft out of trading profits and as it was also unable to increase the charges to guests, a new full-time professional manager was sought. Wally Milne took on the role and over the next 35 years, he shaped the future of High Leigh and The Hayes.

Garden Hall 1960s

The Hayes received significant investment and bounced back quicker than High Leigh after the war, which was locked in a vicious circle of failing to generate the profits needed to improve its potential. It was eventually decided to use the profits from The Hayes to finance the much-needed developments at High Leigh. The old campsite was abandoned and a new meeting hall and bedroom block were built to bring the centre to life and back into profit.

High Leigh in the 1980s

By the early 1980s, The Hayes and High Leigh were trading at over £1 million a year for the first time. Further development took place and High Leigh’s popularity soared, with over 300 conferences and events each year.

In 1996, the organisation that owned High Leigh registered as a charity under the name The Christian Conference Trust to better describe its mission, 'to the promote the Christian faith', which we are known to this day.

High Leigh today

High Leigh prepares for the future

In recent years, there has been significant investment in High Leigh, with £3 million spent on a stunning new en-suite bedroom wing and £1 million on the tower and first-floor meeting room refurbishment. These new facilities were opened in 2022, the year that High Leigh celebrated 100 years of Christian conferencing, as the centre invests for anticipated growth in the years to come.

New Signature meeting rooms

Despite the extensive development that has taken place over the last 100 years, much of the original manor house remains unchanged. The most preserved aspects are the Woodlands Lounge and Oak meeting room. Take a look at the pictures here and see if you recognise the spot where they were taken.

New Ellen Lounge

Over 2.5 million guests through the doors

Over the last 100 years, High Leigh has welcomed over 2.5 million visitors. In 1922, High Leigh welcomed guests from a range of groups including St Albans Diocesan, Ladies Home Mission Union, South American Missionary Society, Anglican Evangelical Group Movement, Wesleyan Missionary Movement Society, Presbyterian Church of England, Methodist Fellowship, Salvation Army and Officers Christian Union. Some of these groups still use High Leigh today!

We thank God for his blessing and protection over High Leigh for the past hundred years and look forward to serving the Christian community here over the next 100 years.

Please share your memories and pictures with us on social media by using #HighLeigh100

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The Hayes

The Hayes

Swanwick, Alfreton
Derbyshire, DE55 1AU

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Lord Street, Hoddesdon
Hertfordshire, EN11 8SG

Belsey Bridge

Belsey Bridge

Ditchingham, Bungay
Suffolk, NR35 2DZ

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