Towards One Hundred Years
In 1991 Darlington Street Methodist Church celebrated the 90th. birthday of its current building. To mark this occasion a booklet entitled "From Glory To Glory" was produced. This page repeats an article written by Val Bigford on behalf of the Worship Consultation Committee for that leaflet entitled "The Roots of the Tree".
The Roots of the Tree
It would be so easy to concentrate our celebrations upon the ninety year old building standing at the corner of Darlington Street and School Street, but in order to put these last ninety years into their proper context, and to see our way forward into the next decade, we must identify the roots of our Christian witness in Wolverhampton.
Methodism first reached Wolverhampton in 1744 when Whitefield sent preachers to speak to the ordinary people of the town. These attempts were met by mob violence and suspicion but one of Wesley's helpers, a man named John Bennet, came to live and work in the town. He began a Society, meeting in the homes of sympathetic members, and from this original Society our roots at Darlington Street have grown. Together, this small group, amid strong opposition from townsfolk, struggled to build the first Methodist preaching house in Wolverhampton. This was in 1762 in Rotten Row (now Broad Street) opposite the Quaker Meeting House (currently where Westbury Chapel stands).
Wesley had already visited Wolverhampton himself in 1760 and found the people unruly and wild. Wild enough for a mob of them to tear down the new preaching house within twelve months of its building, so great was their fear and suspicion. Four men were imprisoned for this deed and the ringleader, a lawyer, was compelled to rebuild the preaching house which was then used for a further 25 years, thus firmly establishing Methodism in this town.
The Society grew and this growth called for a new worship centre. A site in Wheeler's Fold was found (off Lichfield Street). A rectangular building measuring thirty eight feet by thirty two, with the entrance in the centre of the west front, was opened on 28 March 1787 by John Wesley himself. He commented that the feelings of the people of Wolverhampton had visibly changed from the time of his initial visit to the town. Fear and suspicion had subsided into tolerance and acceptance of the Society.
This chapel must have been quite splendid compared with the old preaching house. It had five arched windows over the front entrance, a gallery for the choir and a large raised pulpit opposite the door. Family pews ran down the centre with free pews at the side, men and women sitting apart. The building was called Noah's Ark after a public house nearby, and in 1801 it was leading the Wolverhampton Circuit.
By this time our roots are strong and well founded and our witness powerful in the town. The Society grew so that more rooms had to be hired in John Street. The Ark could only accommodate five hundred, besides it was thought unseemly for the Chapel to be in such sordid company near a public house. A new site was sought in a more respectable part of town. The Earl of Darlington was developing land along what is now known as Darlington Street and Waterloo Road and the Methodist Society decided to try and purchase a plot of this land.
A banker named Richard Fryer had purchased a corner site which seemed ideal. Thomas Hancher, a shoemaker and respected member of the Society, was deputed to interview Fryer to see if he would sell. There was great opposition to this from the Anglicans at this time. They felt that a new Methodist Chapel in the town would increase the influence of the non-comformist element and saw this as a threat. But every banker has his price and Fryer's was five shillings per square yard - £396 for the whole plot!
So in 1825 Noah's Ark was sold and a new chapel opened on the site of the current church. It was a splendid building thought to be a real contribution to the architectural treasures of the town. It was built with pride and a lot of money, planned to seat eight hundred people, with a schoolroom and a vestry underneath. The building was begun in August 1824 by Richard Hickman of Bilston at a cost of £2461. This handsome edifice, this "chief ornament of the town" was the only building on the street and was surrounded by fields and gardens. The opening celebrations spread over three days during August 1825.
At this point our roots are founded in a large and growing Society, composed greatly of middle class businessmen and professionals, self made men. The witness of Methodism in Wolverhampton began to be blurred by things financial. The building of the new church had plunged the Society into debt.
Nevertheless the seeds of our mission statement were sown at this period. The Sunday School, originally begun in 1799 in rooms next door to Noah's Ark, grew to one thousand scholars, meeting in the crypt of the church. The Society worshipped three times every Sunday and there were more than one thousand confirmed members at one point. In 1848, the church was extended at the back and two new vestries were added. In 1857 John Hartley (later to become mayor) donated the land in School Street for the school rooms. Between 1825 and 1860 the Society sponsored the building of five new Methodist chapels in Wolverhampton. In 1855, more changes were made to the building as the vestries were redesigned and Sunday School rooms and a lecture room were added. The church needed new pews and during investigations prior to replacing them it was discovered that a great deal of repair was required to the fabric of the building. It was not long before a radical decision was made to demolish and rebuild a new church more suited to a new century of Christian evangelism.
So the decision was taken to build the Church we are still using today. Arthur Marshall of Nottingham was selected as the architect. Mr F Lindsay Jones won the tender to build at a cost of £16,300. The year 1901 was fraught with problems. In March the Society ran out of money to pay the contractor and a further appeal had to be made to keep the work on schedule. By May 1901, the two turrets were complete and the metal framework of the dome was fixed. But money ran out again which delayed the plasterwork on the interior. Would the building be ready in time? The opening was planned for 25 September. The situation was obviously far too worrying for the Superintendent Minister who resigned on health grounds in July 1901. The final blow was the death of the organist in August!
Not an auspicious year you may think, but the formal opening ceremony was held on 29 October 1901 at 3 o'clock followed by a service and the ubiquitous Methodist church tea - admission by ticket priced one shilling. There followed several weeks of celebration with special services led by key Methodist figures from Leeds, Belfast, Birmingham and london.
The new church was considered to be a joy both to preach in and to worship in. So we come to the ninety years during which this particular building has been part of our witness. The growth and development of the worshipping congregation at Darlington Street church has influenced the spread of Methodism throughout Wolverhampton. Every other Methodist church in the town today can trace its origins back to Darlington Street, and so to our common roots almost two hundred and fifty years ago when George Whitefield and John Bennet came to town. These roots, firmly fixed in the heart of Wolverhampton and amongst the ordinary citizens of this place, play an important part in our mission statement. The aim of our work is and has been for some time, to serve the town centre, to worship and pray, and to provide a meeting point for people needing Christian counselling and social help.
Over the last ninety years, this aim has been evident in many aspects of the church's involvement with the local community - in the establishment of a day school for local children, in the use of the crypt as a shelter during the war years, in outreach work with the local elderly, in work with ethnic minority groups, the physically handicapped and with youth.
In 1965 the crypt was converted as a Youth and Community Centre which began a serious relationship with young adults in the community which continues today. During the 70s this work developed on a huge scale encompassing counselling and advice, Victim Support Services, clubs for the physically handicapped and able-bodied, work with the homeless and particularly work with the unemployed. A Manpower Services Commission funded project for the adult unemployed led to more than three hundred placements being provided in construction, gardening and painting and decorating. In addition, a Youth Opportunities Scheme funded one hundred and fifty trainees.
Youth work included sports activities and a club averaging forty five people attending during the day and often doubling in the evenings. Counselling for drugs and alcohol abuse, housing and legal matters was also available. Much of this work is continued today through the work of the Methodist Centre and the agencies who are facilitated by the use of the church premises during the working week.
So what about the next decade leading up to our centenary? Financial matters may still weigh heavily on our minds. A listed building may preserve the Wolverhampton skyline but may also be a millstone around our necks. Our membership may be visibly ageing and perhaps not growing as we would like it but it is quality not quantity that counts. As Rev John Jackson said in 1961:
"...methodist churches are as strong or as weak as their laymen,..."
The people called Methodists currently witnessing at Darlington Street Methodist Church have roots with a very fine pedigree. There can be no doubts about the quality but it is 1991 and time to look ahead to build on the history of our witness in this town and to continue to live and work to God's praise and glory.