A History of Methodism in the Reading Area

‘How many years were we beating the air at this town, stretching out our hands to a people as stupid as oxen.’ This oft repeated phrase summed up the feelings of John Wesley when he visited the town in 1777. How would our Father in God view his followers 210 years later?

The intervening years have seen many changes, and much prayer and sacrificial giving have kept the flame of Methodism alive. Places of worship have been built to serve new housing estates and rural areas. In some cases numbers have declined, populations have moved, and new estates have grown up like those at Tadley Common, Woodley and Lower Earley. Perhaps the most significant change which has taken place is that which came as a result of Methodist Union – one united circuit.

John Wesley paid a number of visits to Reading. On one occasion he met John Cennick who became one of his lay helpers. Little is known of the small band of followers of Wesley who met together towards the close of the 18th Century, except that they met in a room at the top of London Street and not without some opposition, but in 1811 a room was secured nearer to the junction with Queen’s Road which, having been used a school, became known as the Inkpot Chapel. Here the Society flourished, especially during the ministry of the Rev. John Waterhouse from 1815, and it became necessary to seek larger premises.

A market garden in Church Street [on the south side opposite the Friends Meeting House] was secured at a ground rental of £31 p.a. and in 1816 the foundation stone of the chapel was laid by the M.P. for Dover, Mr. Joseph Butterworth. On this occasion the Reverend John Waterhouse preached from the text ‘Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ Methodism’s famous Reverend Jabez Bunting preached there in January 1817.

Though a struggling cause, efforts were made to operate as a Circuit with new Societies at Blackwater (Hants), Henley, Wokingham, Burghfield (Trash Green), Whitchurch Hill and Twyford. Encouraged by the promise of £300 by a gentleman whose ‘Ship from the East Indies’ was expected, the trustees at Church Street further extended the premises, but the gentleman disappeared and the trustees found themselves faced with a total debt of around £3000. Fortunately, the owner of the land, one James Wild, waived the sum due to him for arrears of ground rent, and grants from the Connexional Centenary Fund, the Chapel Committee and subscriptions, somewhat reduced the debt and enable accommodation in an upper room to be provided for the Sunday School. It was not until the Jubilee Year of the Chapel in 1867 that the proceeds of a three day bazaar at the Town Hall, together with various donations, enabled the Society to wipe the slate clean and to consolidate the work in Reading centre before the great forward movement of the turn of the century.

The Wesleyans

While fund raising played a major part in Methodist life of those days, the spiritual side was not neglected. Every aspect of church life was undergirded by prayer. The weekly prayer meeting was as important as the class meeting and Sunday worship in the life of a Society. Here the great and the humble could meet on more or less equal terms. Many quite wealthy business people, looked up to and respected, and the more humble folk, who were treated with courtesy, learned much from one another. The minister was never addressed by his Christian name. He and his wife would be placed on a pedestal and it must have been a lonely world for the wife, making do in a draughty manse on a low stipend, yet expected to mix only with the wealthier women of the congregation, though she probably had a resident maid to help with the housework. It was said that the Church Street minister’s house never saw the sun in any of its chief apartments – a gloomy place, indeed!

In 1868, twelve ladies met at Church Street and formed ‘The Reading Wesleyan Dorcas and Maternal Society”. This was probably the forerunner of the Ladies’ Sewing Meetings which were once a feature of Circuit life. Exquisite embroidery and garments were produced for all the many Circuit bazaars, and many hundreds of pounds were raised by the women of the church. Later came the Women’s Bright Hour and Women’s Own, which ministered to the spiritual needs of many ordinary women on the fringe of the Societies. Now, as Women’s Fellowship, it continues to provide a meeting place and friendship for many women, though nowadays mainly church members and adherents.

The needs of the wider world were not ignored. Annual efforts on behalf of Home and Foreign Missions were held in each church and collections were taken for famine relief in India, and, at Christmas morning services, for Dr. Stephenson’s Orphanage which later became the National Children’s Home. The poor of the locality were cared for, particularly at Christmas time. In 1900, 850 children from the courts and lanes were each given a warm garment, a toy, sweets, biscuits and a card, and plans were afoot to make these gifts available to an even larger number in subsequent years. 1899 saw the introduction of the Connexional 20th Century Fund, of which Reading’s part was to be the raising of 1000 guineas.

Synod met in Reading in 1894 and probationers had to preach their sermons in various churches in the town at 7:00 a.m.!  There were some interesting subjects for resolutions passed at Synod – the suppression of slavery in Zanzibar, oppressed Armenians, and the extension of the ministerial term. Conference, meeting that year in Birmingham (with 1000 ministers present) found itself with a female representative, a Miss Dawson from Redhill. This occasioned considerable discussion, and it was finally agreed that she could remain but that this must be the last appearance of a woman for some time!

These were the days of the great orators: Gipsy Smith conducted am eight day mission in the Large and Small Town Halls; Mark Guy Pearse could always pack Wesley Church to the rafters (with every available form from the schoolroom being pressed into service); and Dinsdale T. Young, Lax of Poplar, Hugh Price Hughes and F. L. Wiseman – and later Leslie Church, Will Sangster, Leslie Weatherhead and Donald Soper – all drew the crowds.

There was a sense of purpose in Circuit Life though it cost a great deal in terms of effort. People loyally supported what was being done though it might mean walking many miles. Open air services were held at most churches during summer months but on winter evenings the support was not withheld. Preachers walked many miles to their appointments, spending up to 3 hours walking each way, summer and winter, sometimes in pitch darkness, meeting no one, often having to negotiate plank bridges across swollen streams on their way. To quote one such instance in 1900 ‘One Brother Avery, aged over 60, walked from Knowl Hill to Burghfield and at 9:00 had reached Reading on the return journey!’ There were critics. A letter to the ‘Reading Circuit Record’ in 1894, criticising the introduction of children’s sermons at Morning Service reads ‘Business men who come to the House of God do not want to hear mild platitudes addressed to the juveniles, they want something more satisfying!’ He got his answer in the next edition!

Every church had its Band of Hope which aimed to keep the young people in its care from the evils of the demon drink and it was the accepted norm for most adult members to sign the pledge.

The ‘Pleasant Sunday Afternoon’ movement, which seems to have been a con-conformist association, had great success at places like Oxford Road and Elm Park Hall. It catered for the man in the street and provided many with a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon.

By 1902 the 20th Century Fund target was reached and the Circuit could realise its plans for new churches at the four corners of the town. To this end a most ambitious three day bazaar was held in the Town Hall in 1903. The theme was an old Normandy village and an elaborate handbook was issued. In 1905 another three day event took place, this time with a Spanish flavour, and an ‘Abbeys and Castles’ bazaar in 1908. Every Society had its stall and the names of those who took part make interesting reading. Some of their descendants are active today in the Circuit and can trace their ancestry back through several generations of Methodists. A present member of Wesley proudly claims an ancestor baptised by John Wesley (not in Reading) and seven succeeding generations active in Methodism.

The Primitive Methodists

The early years of the 19th century saw the rise of Primitive Methodism in the country. Records state: ‘it did not owe its popularity to any outstanding personality or to influential patronage but to the contagious enthusiasm of a multitude of humble men and women who had consecrated themselves to … winning the world for Christ.’ Indeed, wherever a few people could be gathered together, a house, barn or hall would be pressed into service and the cause placed on the plan. During the summer months meetings were held in the open air. When the response to the call warranted it and resources were available, a permanent building was acquired, but without fuss. In 1838 a resolution ‘That a chapel be built at Burghfield if all clear, and that Brother Ride and W. Scribbans see to it as possible’ and at the autumn Quarterly meeting in the same year ‘That Burghfield new chapel be opened on Sunday October 28 by Brother Samuel West.’ There was no elaborate opening ceremony, the saving of souls being their first priority.

In 1835 we first learn of the Primitive Methodist Movement in Reading when on Sunday 12th April services were held in the grounds of the Forbury which remained its rallying ground for the next six months. Dreadful persecution, including physical violence, had been meted out to converts in the surrounding area but they gathered from far and wide, joining up with the Reading Congregation at the top of Castle Hill, and, led by the Reverend John Ride, marched to the Forbury. Five year previously, this John Ride and fellow missionary Thomas Russell, had met for prayer and consultation on a cold winter’s morning on Ashdown, high on the Berkshire Downs. When the time came to part, something seemed to hold them back. ‘Let us have another round of prayer’ one said, and, regardless of the snowy terrain and personal discomforts they prayed, ‘Lord, give us Berkshire’. Rising from his knees, Ride declared: ‘Yonder country is ours and we will have it.’

Sunday 11th October 1835 saw the move from the Forbury to a more permanent site when the Society took over a room at the top of London Street at a rental of £25 per annum. This room had been the scene of  Wesley’s ministry in the town and the home of the first Wesleyan Church. Here the Society flourished and from this house went out bands of evangelists into the surrounding countryside and into the neighbouring counties. The London Street room soon became too small for the nightly congregations and too noisy and exuberant for the neighbours, so in October 1839 Salem Chapel was purchased. This appears to have been situated at the end of a passageway near to the north western end of Minster Street [where Heelas extension is] and must have been a place of some significance for a number of years and a rallying point for the work in the south of England. Here was held the first Conference in the south of England in 1841. The ‘Fathers’ of the Primitive Methodist movement, William Clowes and Hugh Bourne, were present and conducted services which began at 5:00 a.m. Business sessions were held in secret. Conference was again held in Reading in 1885 and 1915, at London Street.

Strict discipline was imposed upon the preachers in those early days. They had to be totally committed and their behaviour exemplary, Woe betide that man or woman who ‘neglected’ his or her appointments. Admonitions were plentiful:

1839 – ‘That Brother Ride admonish Edward Long for long preaching.’

1841 – ‘That the preachers in this circuit … conform to the rules relative to their hair and dress.’ ‘That Sister Mildenhall be fined 6d for not publishing the collection at Burnt Hill and Buckholt and that Brother Hedges get the fine.’

1842 – ‘That the travelling preachers are requested not to wear Dandy Chartist hats.’

1844 – ‘That Jesse Herbert have a note informing him that our connexion does not allow its members and official characters to attend worldly amusements.’ ‘That Brother Gilbert shall wear his hair in its natural form.’ ‘That Brother Gilbert shall wear his watch in his trousers pocket.’

1846 – ‘That Brother Smallbone be admonished for being found on the race course.’

Quarterly meetings often began as early as 7:00 a.m., with a tea meeting to follow at 5:00 p.m. Prayer was offered every hour and a timekeeper appointed. If business was not completed it was resumed the following morning.

The church in Reading went into decline for a while when John Ride, its first minister and a man of amazing ability, was moved to London to become the General Superintendent of the mission work there. However, in the mid 1850s Salem was the scene of revival and again the work expanded. Other churches in the surrounding areas came into being and at Salem the accommodation became grossly overcrowded, records showing that older members clung tenaciously to Salem which for them enshrined hallowed memories. Here most of them had met the Saviour in the way and had communed with Him so constantly that they had become ‘men and women of the burning heart’.

Eventually, in April 1866 during the Superintendent ministry of the Reverend Peter Coates, its tenth Superintendent, the Society returned to London Street. Mr. Coates proved a tower of strength and executive ability, and the transition from the beloved Salem to the larger premises, whose façade remains today, was smoothly executed. Again, however, the numbers flocking to the cause fully stretched the resources and it was reluctantly decided that Primitive Methodism should no longer be contained within the Mother Church but that Societies should be formed in other parts of the town. Thus came into being Cumberland Road, Friar Street and Oxford Road churches.

Not until 1899 were pews installed in the London Street church, followed in another five years by the balconies and rostrum. The organ was installed in 1885, and extensions and decorations enhanced the beauty of what eventually became a very lovely building. The London Street Society celebrated its Diamond Jubilee in 1926 when those present gave thanks for the devoted service of many to youth work, uniformed organisations, and the cause of total abstinence, but above all for the fellowship of believers and the ministry of the Word.

Just before the turn of the century open air meetings were held in many parts of the district and efforts made to establish new Societies. United Camp Meetings were planned for Palmer Park, Elm Park and the Caversham Road Triangle. In preparation for the latter, prayer meetings were held at each of the town churches together with processions of witness to the camp sites. The London Street Brass Band accompanied the singing at all camp meetings. The cost of band instruments had been met by the efforts of the young men of the band. In a house in Addington Road regular services were held and members of the Palmer family promised generous support to a project to build a church and Sunday School on a nearby site, but this did not reach fruition.

The Union of the Circuits

From the time of the Methodist Union in 1932 until September 1940, Reading had two Circuits, Wesley and London Street. The Wesley Superintendent at the time, the Reverend Leonard Babb, had a vision of a united Circuit. Unfortunately, because of Mrs. Babb’s ill health he was obliged to leave the Reading Circuit before a way was opened for his dream to become a reality. However, his London Street colleague, the Reverend W. E. C. Harris, was able to assume responsibility for the union of the two Societies, move into Queen’s Road manse and become the first Superintendent of the united Circuit. He and Mrs. Harris were greatly loved and it was a time of blessing to the entire Circuit. The service of dedication was held on Sunday 6th October 1940 with a procession of witness from London Street to Wesley and with the chairman of the District, the Reverend Stanley Bishop, conducting the service. The Secretary of the Amalgamation Committee which conducted negotiations so harmoniously was Mr. Corney W. Fisher who, in 1987, was called to Higher Service in 1987 in his 100th year.


As Stupid As Oxen Index