The Sunday School - Darlington Street

In March 1999 the Wolverhampton AdNews produced a special publication entitled "Yesteryear in Wolverhampton". In it was an article by Christine George (or Tina Kinch as she was known to the members at Darlington Street) which set out the history of the Darlington Street Sunday School.

Two Hundred Years of Service

A brief look at the work of the Methodist Sunday School in Wolverhampton by Christine George.

It was exactly 200 years ago that a Sunday School was founded in Wolverhampton by early Methodists.

The year was 1799, just eight years after the death of John Wesley, and 30 years after the world's very first Sunday School had been started.

Methodism in 1799 was still in trauma after Wesley's death with factions springing up in many places as earnest people sought to be new leaders.

The decision to start a Sunday School in Wolverhampton would not have been taken lightly. For many children it would have been their only schooling, and much was required of those leading such a venture.

In 1769 a young woman called Hannah Ball had started a Sunday School in High Wycombe - eleven years before the more celebrated Robert Raikes had begun his venture in Gloucester.

Wolverhampton had therefore one of the earliest Sunday Schools in the country.

It was very much seen as school held on Sunday in those days. Teachers, many quite unqualified taught what they knew of the "3Rs" along with Bible stories and lessons in moral behaviour.

Methodism's founder John Wesley had visited the town several times between 1760 and 1790 with varying degrees of success.

Noah's Ark was the name of their Preaching House, (they were never called meeting houses) one of the many springing up across the country. It was Wolverhampton's second preaching House, the first having been close to the site of the old Quaker Burial ground, probably in Canal Street off Rotton Row (Broad Street area).

This had been razed to the ground by an angry mob and then rebuilt by the ringleader "a lawyer forsooth" after he had appeared at Stafford court.

Methodism had started in Wolverhampton as early as 1744 after a visit by fiery preacher George Whitfield. The first recorded leader was one John Bennett in whose home they used to meet.

The moving from Canal Street to the new premises had meant going into debt, but they took a step of faith and went ahead.

Wesley and the early Methodists still passionately saw themselves as members of the Church of England, and it was as late as 1815 in Shropshire that the final break was made.

Noah's Ark, which was opened by Wesley on March 28 1787, was situated in Wheeler's Fold, off Lichfield Street. Its name derived from the Noah's Ark pub, behind which it was situated. Children met for Sunday School in the church basement at first and then in a second building which had been constructed, divided from the church by yet another pub - the Pig and Whistle!

Wesley looked on Wolverhampton as a "den of lions" speaking of its inhabitants as wild, stupid and ferocious on different occasions. But he soon began to notice a difference and was calling them "deeply attentive" and "very changed" by the time Noah's ark was opened.

Noah's Ark, which seated 500, soon became too small to house the burgeoning congregation.

The children in Sunday School alone at the time numbered nearly 600.

One of Wesley's demands for Methodists was to "earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can". This rather obvious advice was to lead to numbers of people becoming quite wealthy for the time. The now prosperous Methodists were able in 1825 to buy land and have the first of three buildings on the corner of Darlington Street and School Street built.

The first huge edifice was to be enlarged once and then completely rebuilt in 1901.

At first, Sunday School was held in the church basement, but when the day schools were erected along School Street in 1858 they were used also on Sunday.

The Sunday School quickly grew, with boys and girls eager to learn, or forced to attend, dependant, as ever, on their own personalities.

Methodism made a point of appealing to the masses - those left behind by the "respectable" churches of the era.

But all too soon Methodism itself was becoming middle class and attracting numbers of business leaders across the town.

The saying was rife that the poor and the rich attended Darlington Street - there was no middle way!

Sunday School records show there were some 400 children attending morning sessions and 700 in the afternoon.

But times were moving on and people were leaving the small town centre streets for the suburbs.

In 1880 great celebrations were held for the centenary of Robert Raikes (poor Hannah, although a Methodist, was all but unknown, and her centenary in 1869 passed uncelebrated).

The present church in Darlington Street was built in 1901, with a seating capacity of 1,200, leaving the congregation with a debt of £11,000, despite their most generous giving.

In 1907 the attendance of children at the jubilee celebrations was 396. In 1910 it was decided to divide the children into departments by age "with satisfactory results".

In 1908 the Wesleyan day schools were transferred to Wolverhampton Education Authority, being known as Darlington Street Council Schools. They closed finally in July 1913 and were later demolished.

The Great War saw huge difficulties for the Sunday School, now back again beneath the church and also using the adjoining Lecture Hall.

Numbers of church and Sunday school leaders answered the call to arms and life was difficult for those left behind. But the work continued through the new century.

The oldest church member today, who attended Sunday School as a pupil and then a teacher, is Miss Bettie Blakeney who will be 80 in March.

She attended both morning and afternoon sessions and can remember some 200 children on the books. One of her teachers Miss Gladys Osborne walked from Penn each Sunday to save the bus driver having to work on the Lord's Day on her behalf!

She remembers Sunday School Anniversaries, with the girls all in white dresses and all hymns learnt by heart. All 1200 seats were taken on those days!

Bettie and her colleagues collected money for overseas missions with great gusto - a work that still continues to this day.

Today the Sunday School still thrives, although with fewer children. They attend when they can, which means not every week, and have created a microcosm of Wolverhampton with their rich, ethnic mix.

Many of their grandparents can remember their first Sunday School memories, sitting under a mango tree in the Caribbean to shelter from the burning sunshine.

A far cry from the grey streets of this town with its fascinating history!

The Sunday School bicentenary services will be held on May 9 (1999) at 11 am. and 6 pm.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Christine George (Tina Kinch).

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