The Mission (known at first as the 'West Central Mission') was founded in 1887 by Hugh Price Hughes, a leading figure in the Forward Movement of the 1880s and 1890s, in response to Andrew Mearns' The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883), which vividly depicted the plight of the urban poor. In the spring of 1884 the Rev. George Lester gave a paper on The Bitter Cry at a meeting of the London Ministers' Meeting, and this persuaded the London Mission Committee to undertake new initiatives.
The West London Mission was one of these. It was committed to seeking to overcome the gulf between Wesleyan Methodism and the working classes, by a combination of evangelism and social work ministries.
Hughes had first to convince opponents that the Mission would not detract from the established work of the Hinde Street and Great Queen Street Circuits, but would have its own distinctive pattern of mission in London's West End. He was the first Superintendent of the Mission, with Mark Guy Pearse as his colleague. The Mission began its popular Sunday evening services - soon attended by 2,500 worshippers - in the hired St. James's Hall, Piccadilly, and for overflow services used the nearby Princes' Hall. The preacher at the opening service in St. James's Hall was the Baptist C.H. Spurgeon. Soon auxiliary centres were established at Wardour Hall (formerly a Congregational chapel), near Oxford Street, Cleveland Hall in Cleveland Street and the People's Hall in Charlton Street Hall, Somers Town.
From 1887 Hughes' wife, Katherine Price Hughes, organized the Sisters of the People, a uniformed order of women who engaged in evangelistic and social work among the poor and among prostitutes. Other provisions of the Mission included a creche for children of working mothers, a clothing depot, a men's labour exchange, a Medical Department with dispensary, a convalescent home in the Gloucestershire countryside, St. Luke's House, a Home of Peace for the Dying (1893), a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics and a day centre for the homeless. The Conference of 1890 passe a motion of appreciation for the Mission's work.
From its earliest years the Mission undertook open-air preaching on Sundays at Hyde Park. In 1912 the Mission opened its own purpose-built headquarters at Kingsway Hall. In 1917 Hinde Street and Dorset Gardens churches were incorporated into the West London Mission circuit. During the outstanding superintendency of Donald Soper from 1936 to 1978 the Mission developed its wide-ranging ministries. A Men's Hostel for discharged prisoners was opened (1938). St. Luke's and St. Mary's (1961) served as a rehabilitation hostel for men and women suffering from alcoholism. A Day Centre for single homeless people was opened at Kingsway in 1973. Dr. Soper also focused on outdoor preaching, both at Hyde Park and at Tower Hill, and pioneered the Kingsway Preachers, who conducted open-air preaching campaigns across the country and were eventually organized as the Order of Christian Witness.
In 1959 Hinde Street and Kingsway were separated into two circuits, partly because of the rapid growth of student work at Hinde Street. However, in 1972 the two circuits were reunited and in 1982 the Mission vacated Kingsway Hall, which had become prohibitively expensive to maintain, and moved to Hinde Street as its centre, from which its varied mission and social work continues at present.
' The usual restraints in social atmosphere are entriely absent in West London, which is a vast Bohemia with a code of ethics of its own. It is very easy to live a double life there and to deceive others, and easiest of all to deceive the self. The wonder is that as many live honest lives as they do. The moralist may well weep at the spectacle of West London, but he should also exult over the thousands of young people for whom the best citizens make no provision. In the midst of the fire of temptation they walk unscathed as yet.'
Dorothea Price Hughes, The Sisters of the People and their Work (c.1905) pp. 53-4
'I spent the first Sunday of the West London Central Mission in the old St. James's Hall with Rev. Hugh Price Hughes, Rev. Mark Guy Pearse, and their workers. The Mission marked the triumph of the "Young Methodist" Movement. That Movement had been looked on frowningly by the Mandarins of the eminently respectable Methodism of the period. Dr. Gregory especially, who spoke with authority in the counsels of Methodism, had sought to save Methodism from such a dangerous experiment as the proposed Mission. Hugh Price Hughes, however, was not a man to be held in leash when his soul was fired. On that Sunday I detected a shade of anxiety. He had undertaken in faith a revolutionary movement that had to justify itself by great results. The idea that the West End needed salvatioin just as much as the East End was only faintly realised. Sin was identified largely with sordid and shabby people who indulged in the vulgar vices. There was a sub-conscious feeling that the respectable were not in serious soul peril … Hugh Price Hughes wanted to get beneath the varnish of the respectability and 'convict of sin' the people who, though horrified at the victims of the vulgar vices, were themselves guilty of the sins of selfishness and cold-blooded indifference to the sufferings of their poorer brethren. The Jew mingled with the Welshman in his physical constitution as in his mental and spiritual make-up…
'One of his colleagues told me that he asked Price Hughes how it was that the Mission's lay evangelist got so many conversions, while they seemed so rare under the preaching of Price Hughes and himself. "The explanation," said Price Hughes, "is that the man has been down there himself with them. He sees what he was himself in those people and he speaks to himself in them. You and I have never been down with them and we do not know how to approach them." '
Harry Jeffs, Press, Preachers and Politicians. Reminiscences: 1874-1932 (1933), pp. 129-30, 131