The Group first met in the former Victorian gothic Lewisham Town Hall building in 1960. The first meeting was called by the Ethical Union, forerunner of the British Humanist Association. Among the founders was Barbara Smoker (chair for many years), soon joined by Don Langdown (treasurer for several years). Both are still active in the humanist movement.
The word ‘Humanist’ had gained popularity in the post-war years, and at that time humanist group were springing up in many towns and in universities. Barbara Smoker was quoted in the ‘South London Press’ in early 1960: “Humanism is the outcome of rejecting doctrinaire systems based on supernatural revelation, and demands no ultimate reality beyond human purposes and values. It teaches that as humans we are responsible for making the world a better place to live in”. She added it is ‘morality without religion‘.
Initially formed as the South East London, it soon became the Lewisham Humanist Group. Since its inception it has supported many national campaigns: abortion law reform, provision of family planning facilities, legislation for voluntary euthanasia, greater tolerance of ethnic minorities, rights for homosexuals, opposition to worship in state schools and the abolition of faith schools.
Locally there have been protests against racism and local church attacks on gays. There was an unsuccessful campaign to save the last cinema in Lewisham from becoming a property of the sect – the United Church of the Kingdom of God. More successful was the seven year opposition to the prominently displayed cross at Lewisham Crematorium, finally removed in 1989.
The Group has held regular monthly meetings at various venues in Catford: from 1973 until 2006 at the Unitarian Meeting House in Bromley Road, and since then at The Goose pub in Rushey Green. An archive of the discussions, debates and subjects covered is available. From 1986-2002 there was a stall at the annual Lewisham People’s Day, and more recently at Nunhead Cemetery Open Day. In 1998 Hon Secretary Denis Cobell was chaplain to the then Mayor of Lewisham Mark Nottingham. Appropriately the Borough Motto reads ‘Salus Populi Suprema Lex’ (the welfare of the people is the highest good) – quotation from the early humanist Cicero.