Saturday, 18 June 2016

54 Rev. Leon Atkin

54 Rev. Leon Atkin (photos: Leon Atkin and Dylan Thomas at the Bush) - 18 June

From 1934 St Paul’s Congregational Church, opposite Joe’s Ice Cream Parlour in St Helen’s Road, provided refuge and assistance for homeless people through the work of its controversial and unconventional minister, Rev. Leon Atkin.  When he took up the challenge of becoming its minister, St Paul’s had only 12 members and a debt of £2,000 (a very considerable deficit at that time).

St Paul’s Congregational Church had opened in 1881, and since closing as a place of worship in the late 1960s was used as a cinema (often showing what might be termed “adult” films), before more recently becoming Miah’s Indian Restaurant.  Though currently closed, it seems likely to re-open again as an Indian Restaurant. 

Born in 1902, one of seven children, Leon Atkin would attend the Methodist chapel next to his home in Spalding, Lincolnshire.  When he was 12 the family moved to Staffordshire, where within a few years he became well-known as a boy preacher.  Following an engineering apprenticeship, he trained in Birmingham for the Methodist ministry. 

His concern was always for the disadvantaged - at Risca in Gwent he preached the “social gospel”.  Prominent in America in the early twentieth century, this sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems such as poverty, alcoholism and poor housing.  Its activism challenged religious belief that lacked any practical outworking in a person’s life.

At the Methodist Central Hall in Bargoed in 1932 Atkin used the large chapel and its schoolroom to assist the unemployed.  The building was open every day of the week, with a shoe repairing workshop, a barber shop, and a kitchen providing free meals.  Part of the building became a hostel for some young unemployed people to have an address (which enabled them to claim benefit), which brought him into conflict with the authorities.  

When Leon Atkin moved to St Paul’s Congregational Church he held popular open-air meetings, preached a social gospel, and dared to challenge militant Communists and to criticise the ineffectiveness of the Labour Party (to which he belonged) and churches in Wales.  He courageously challenged Oswald Mosley’s anti-Semitism at a British Union of Fascists rally at the Plaza cinema in July 1934.

Leon Atkin’s care for “down and outs” in the crypt of St Paul’s (in spite of the opposition of the deacons) became known through his articles in the press, especially in the Sunday newspaper “The News of the World”.  His congregations grew to 200 on winter Sunday nights and, with holiday visitors, to over 500 in the summer.  Though he was something of a maverick, public disapproval never deterred him, and unlike most ministers he would christen babies of single mothers.

From November 1935 he served as a Labour councillor for Brynmelyn Ward, changing to an Independent in 1947, and remaining on the Council until 1964.  Ironically the outbreak of war curtailed performances of his play at the Llewelyn Hall “Until the Day Break”, with its exposure of injustice.  Though formerly a pacifist, during the war he joined the Royal Artillery, before being invited to become an Army Chaplain, in which capacity he served in the Netherlands.  

The crypt of St Paul’s became a refuge for the homeless and “down and outs”, particularly during the bitter winter of 1946-47, and they were welcomed each Christmas.  Leon Atkin would visit Swansea pubs each Friday to collect money for the homeless and to enable children from poor families to enjoy Guy Fawkes’ nights and to visit the circus.  Though criticised by ministers for going into pubs, he would drink with Dylan Thomas, notably at The Bush in the High Street before Dylan’s final visit to New York.
With his beret and clerical collar Leon Atkin was a well-known figure, admired by people with little time for churches, ministers or organised religion.  Though he died in 1976, Christian ministry among the homeless and disadvantaged carries on today at Zac’s Place in George Street.  

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