Breaking the Mould. Stoke.

Bethesda Chapel

Dating from 1819 Bethesda was the largest Methodist chapels in England outside London, seating over 2000 people. It is known as the Cathedral of the Potteries. Brick with stuccoed facade. Organ in baroque case. Octagonal pulpit. Continuous raking gallery. Gallery unsafe - limited access. Seeking productive use. Open day once a month during summer.

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The Bethesda Chapel marks an important part of the life and society of the Potteries from the 1760's. As people moved into the towns as part of the wider industrial revolution, the Anglican parish system was put under pressure and many people felt it failed them. John Wesley had been travelling around Britain since the 1740's preaching to large crowds about an alternative, the Methodist movement. Methodism emphasised conversion, fellowship and living the Christian life. Wesley first came to Burslem in 1760, although other preachers had visited since 1757. A house of worship was first registered in 1759, and a chapel completed by December 1765.

In Hanley a group first met at the house of Job Meigh, who would later become one of Bethesda's founders. Another key person was Job Ridgway. Ridgeway had become a Methodist whilst in Leeds in 1781. He returned to Staffordshire that year and together with his brother George they began a pottery factory at the Bell Works. Another Methodist, William Smith joined them in 1795 and their business flourished.

Wesley's death in 1791 saw disunity among the movement. In Staffordshire the Hanley and Burslem groups disagreed about how they wanted to worship and about democracy within the movement. Unable to find a compromise Smith joined with other liberals to form the New Methodist Connexion. The Hanley group largely followed Smith, but the Wesleyans retained control of the chapel. The new group began meeting at William Smith's house in Shelton but soon outgrew it and they obtained a coach house on Albion Street in 1797, the site of the later Bethesda Chapel.

By the following year the congregation had outgrown the coach house. It was pulled down, the first brick of the new chapel was laid on the 5th June 1798 and the new building was finished by late September 1799. Within months all the 600 seats had been rented out and in 1811 the chapel was extended to hold 1000 people. And again after another six years the opportunity was taken to completely rebuild the chapel. J H Perkins was the architect. He designed a large building, with a large gallery supported on 24 cast iron columns. Wood had to be specially imported to meet the span - the main roof tie beam was made from Canadian redwood. There was restrained decoration, most notably the chequered brickwork externally. The Ridgway and Smith families were honoured for their close connection with the Chapel and would be buried in a vault under the Chapel along with ministers and respected local preachers. The design also allowed for a school house and other buildings on the site. In 1820 an organ was installed.

The congregation included many influential members, wealthy middle-class pottery manufacturers, the proprietors of the new department stores and many others who became civic, commercial and religious leaders.

In 1856 an octagonal shaped pulpit and communion rail was added, the windows were altered and a new organ from Kirkland and Jardine installed. A few years later its prominent status in the community was reflected by remodelling the Albion Street frontage.

John Ridgway, who had carried on his father Job's dedication to the Chapel, died in 1860, and that year marked the beginning of the building's decline. Further works were carried out in 1887, but social trends were changing and the wealthy were beginning to move out to escape the smoke from the factories. The loss of wealthy congregation members shrunk the Chapel's income and would soon lead to difficulties keeping up with repairs.

The Methodist Church began to unite once again and by 1932 the various factions had come together. However in Hanley, more people moved out of the town centre and by the 1940's there were only 150 regular worshippers. Costs for maintaining and repairing the building became too high and eventually it closed in 1985. Grade II listed, the new owners could make little significant change to the building, and for nine years it remained empty becoming progressively more run-down.

A Trust to turn the Chapel into a Christian resource centre was formed in 1994, but despite support from the Council the obstacles were too great. In 2002 the Historic Chapels Trust took ownership. A phased restoration project is now underway.

The Chapel met not only spiritual needs, but was in many ways a community. Many happy memories of former congregation members have been recorded at http://www.bethesda-stoke.org.uk

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