Wesleyan Societies

Now follows an account of the former Wesleyan Societies in the Reading Circuit.


Opened in 1873, the mother church of the Wesleyan Circuit, Wesley became a worthy successor to Church Street. At the time of the Centenary, an excellent souvenir brochure was prepared, recording in detail the history of the building, the organisation and the achievements of the members. Its pages bear witness to the skill and artistry of the architect and builders, to the steadfastness of the officers and leaders, and to the devotion and service of the members who have cared for the material and spiritual life of Wesley and made it into the welcoming, attractive place we know today. The names of Beecroft, Whiting and Davis will always be associated with the early years of the life of Wesley church and some of their descendents are with us today. Present and future historians will the name of J. J. Beecroft for he has left us a wealth of information on the activities of the Circuit between the days of Wesley’s visits and more recent records.

In his account, in 1899, of the fund raising for the building of Wesley, Mr. Beecroft mentions the generosity of the Gilligan family and goes on to relate the story of one Charlie Pearson, an ordinary man with a great heart. Every morning at 3:30, Charlie walked to the home of an engine driver to call him up for duty and this received sixpence a week. At the end of 12 months Charlie presented the sum of 26 shillings to the Building Fund – a sacrificial gift reminding us of Luke 21, 1-4.

The first ordination at Wesley took place on 11th May 1894 when the Reverend James Claude Whiting was ordained prior to his departure for work in South Africa. The ordination of four more ministers for the South African field took place in 1898. During the present century a further four members of Wesley have entered the Methodist ministry, has had some distinguished ministers who, as superintendents, have diligently conducted the affairs of the Circuit. One, in the 1920s, is reputed to have had an unusual leisure pursuit, that of riding to hounds!

On a visit to Wesley in 1897 the Reverend Dinsdale T. Young urged his hearers ‘Not to yield to the sin of the silence in face of the appalling growth of evil in such a time as this’. ‘The Lower Hades, or the place and state of the lost between death and judgement’ was the topic on which the Wesley minister preached on 28th March of the same year – powerful stuff! Also in 1897, in connection with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, special sermons were preached and collections taken in aid of the Victoria Nursing Home, a scheme to supply the poor of Reading with professional nursing in their own homes.

Work among women was already established in 1894 when mention is made of a Mothers’ Meeting and of a Young Ladies’ Soiree. In 1896, a hundred women from seven denominations gathered for prayer on New Year’s Day, and the work prospered as a number of women’s organisations grew up within the church. The work of the overseas church has always figured largely in the life of Wesley, several members having served on the mission field. The Girls’ League fired the enthusiasm of young women from around the circuit and many still mourn its demise. Nothing comparable has ever been put in its place. Most of its former members are or have been active in Women’s Work, but now that too is losing its identity. Since 1921 Wesley has enjoyed a lively Bright Hour which, in 1940, was joined by the ladies of London Street. The Annual Daffodil Day, attended by hundreds of women from many denominations, was the highlight of their year. The Women’s Guild of Friendship and Service has contributed much to the life of Wesley and beyond, and, in conjunction with Women’s Work, has fulfilled its role of service to the community at home and overseas.

The Sunday School, once drawing its scholars from the residential area around the church, now finds its numbers considerably reduced. However, the work of J. M. A., always a strong point, continues and hopefully will expand as once more housing returns to the town centre. During wartime, evacuated children were made welcome in the homes of members and generous hospitality was extended to men and women in the forces.

As at Oxford Road, Wesley Church was generously presented with its organ by Mr. George Gilligan. Music has always been a feature of Wesley life, especially since the amalgamation in 1940 with London Street whose great musical tradition added its own beauty to worship.

The University Methodist Society has always found a home at Wesley and has enriched the fellowship there. The Circuit, too, has been blessed by the commitment of these young people who share their joy in the Gospel with congregations throughout the Circuit.

Spring Gardens/Whitley Hall

While the Society at Church Street was struggling to discharge the debt upon its premises a new Society was emerging at the top of Whitley Hill. As in most of the earlier Societies the work began in a cottage and, in this instance, among the very young children of pre-school age. These tiny mites soon outgrew the confines of the small cottage in Tank Road (after the water tank, now a play area, and later renamed Spring Gardens). Sunday services were held in a cottage in Mount Street. Once the Church Street debt was cleared the circuit could concentrate on its plans for Spring Gardens and Wokingham Churches.

At an auction sale in 1849 several plots of land alongside what we now know as Boult’s Walk were acquired and in the following years, as they became available, other adjacent plots were added. The son of the Reverend John Waterhouse, who pioneered the work at Church Street, came to lay the foundation stone in August 1870 and the building continued. An enlargement in 1873 became necessary and an iron building was acquired.

Throughout this time and in continuing years the work had been prayerfully maintained by a band of devoted workers, and their missionary zeal had been of the highest order. In the 1890s we read of open air missions which, with the assistance of the Spring Gardens Band and a Cycle Mission, held its meetings at Whitley Pump. In 1934 the Spring Gardens Band, which began its life in the local Methodist Society, severed its links with Methodism but became locally famous and has been a feature of Reading life for many years.

Once again the numbers attending services became too great for the buildings and it became necessary to have a larger chapel. The last services were held in the old chapel in July 1897 and December saw the opening of the new building and, in 1901, a new organ was installed. By 1904 everyone was looking forward to the new Whitley Hall which we know today. Opened in 1906 at the Whitley Pump crossroads, it has its own history of worship and witness, and of outstanding Sunday School and youth work, notably among Brigades. In 1956, 1966 and 1981, booklets, celebrating 50, 60 and 75 years respectively of the present building were issued.

[Building closed, now Hindu temple; the society meets in scout head quarters]


Records show that the Reverend John Waterhouse, whom we have already met as leader and prime mover of the Wesleyan cause in Reading, set in motion the work in Wokingham. A room was secured for a meeting place until, in 1819, when he left Reading, a barn in Rose Street was converted into the first chapel. The numbers attending were quite small and the cause somewhat despised by the more affluent members of the Wokingham Society until, on an afternoon in 1824 an event took place which was to alter the history of Wokingham Methodism. A young woman from a wealthy family was attending worship in the barn chapel when, through the preaching of the Reverend Joseph Dunning, God spoke to her and her life was thenceforth devoted to His Service. The young woman, later Mrs William Heelas, visited the sick, gathered children of the poor together for Christian instruction, and in many ways supported financially the overseas field and the work at home. Her premature death in 1841 was a great loss to the cause at Wokingham. How William Heelas remarried, and how the new Mrs. Heelas contributed to the life of Wokingham Chapel is told in ‘Methodism in Wokingham 1817-1967’ by the Reverend E. Ralph Bates.

In the mid 19th century, Primitive Methodism came to Wokingham and received immediate support which led to a decline in numbers attending the Wesleyan Chapel. Baptists and Anglicans were reporting large congregations. At this time two transfers of membership were made to the Wesleyans, one of whom, Isaiah Gadd, threw himself into the work and encouraged his fellow members so that new life was breathed into the cause. We became Sunday School Superintendent, married a Methodist bride, and settled down in Rose Street in a house opposite the Chapel. Mrs. Gadd, and later Miss Gadd, occupied the seat at the harmonium and organ for 52 years.

Plans were drawn up for a new chapel, made possible by generous gifts from the Heelas family and others. On 17th April 1870 the last services were held in the Barn Chapel and on 11th May the stonelaying ceremony of the new chapel was held, followed, on 10th November, by the official opening. Soon, provision was made for a Sunday School and vestry.

We are told Wokingham’s contribution to the 20th Century Fund was extremely large, so the new century began with hope. By the good offices of the Perkins family and a grant from the Carnegie Trust, the organ was installed in 1908. During the First World War the Women’s Own and the Wesley Guild began. Then came the uniformed organisations with the need for additional accommodation for all youth work, including the Sunday School. Anniversary days were important events in the School’s year with a medal, a prize Bible, and book prizes being awarded by the Superintendent. Those less fortunate were not forgotten, however, for we read that in 1899 flowers were sent to the West London Mission and, later, a London hospital received a gift of primroses.

During the 1930s and after Methodist Union, when all the Methodists of Wokingham united under one roof, the Free Churches of the area began to share in fellowship together. Joint Sunday School outings and united services were held. When war came, members of the armed forces were given hospitality, and work among young people increased and prospered. Work for Overseas Missions, both in the generous fund and J.M.A, was vigorous and the giving generous. Legacies and gifts enabled the original Rose Street Church to be enlarged and adapted for the work of their second century.

Today the Junior Church and Cubs and Scouts are flourishing, together with a Youth Club and two fellowship meetings for young people. The ‘Men of Rose Street’ have their own monthly meeting, and work among women of all ages continues. The membership of the Church also continues to increase as more young business people move into this attractive town with its excellent communications and proud civic history.

[Wokingham moved to the new South East Berkshire Circuit in 1991 (now Berkshire Surrey Borders). The Bradbury Community Centre opened behind the church in 2006]


On New Year’s Day 1900 the circuit assumed responsibility for a nonconformist chapel in Ipsden which had been in use for 19 years. During that year a Circuit rally and tea meeting has held and two dozen hymn books were presented, but Methodism’s stay was short-lived. The last services were held in 1901.


Tilehurst was just a small village of country roads and few houses when the first open air services were held in 1861. In front of the Red Barn on a triangle of land at the end of School Road was an open space where meetings were held. Occupants of nearby cottages, and the landlady and customers at ‘The Old Plough’, accepted an invitation to attend and, having shut up shop, the landlady arrived, bringing with her her Wesleyan hymn book! Meetings continued during the summer months, moving in winter to a cottage with an open hearth, upon which dog irons supported the logs. A Bible, reading desk, hymn books and a few seats were purchased and Tilehurst was put on the plan with afternoon and evening services. So the work continued until the tenants of the cottage, being too old to work, had to leave. The Bible, hymn books and reading desk, having been carefully housed, were brought out again when the congregation reassembled in a coach house and stable kindly loaned by Mrs. Morden.

Here the work grew and prospered until Mr. Martin John Sutton, Mayor of Reading at the time, offered to the Society, on reasonable terms, an iron building. When the present building was completed on 8th March 1905, the iron building was removed to the rear and continued in use for many years. The new church was opened by Mr. H. T. Morley and the Reverend A. Winsor Yeo preached the first sermon. Until 1934 the Oxford Road minister was responsible also for Tilehurst, but from this time Tilehurst had its own minister and the work really took off. The years have seen a gradual expansion both of the ‘village’ and of the membership and the old iron building has been superseded by the pleasant premises which we see today and already the accommodation has reached its capacity, making it necessary for two services to be held each Sunday.

One of the more fruitful periods in the life of the Tilehurst Society took place during the early years of the war when many young people, servicemen and women from Britain and the U.S.A., were drawn within its orbit. On one Sunday evening 60 young people dedicated their lives to Christ and have since taken his Gospel to all parts of the world. The Christian Commando Campaign of 1943 will long be remembered as a time of renewal and spiritual uplift.

In the post war period the church grew rapidly and regular Fellowship and Youth Services have been held. An increasing number of members have felt a call to preach and have offered themselves for service as local preachers. A door-to-door mission with leaflets and an invitation to attend Tilehurst Church has been conducted in Calcot and, as a result, a fellowship group has been formed on this new housing estate.

A drama group attached to the church has been contributing to the social side and a church orchestra has been formed. The close relationship with Kentwood, forged in the 1930s, had continued, with shared activities and literature, and united worship services.

Looking to the future, plans are afoot to develop the adjoining house into a coffee and book shop, and ecumenical project which should commend itself to many passers-by on this busy main road.

Burghfield (Trash Green)

This tiny chapel maintained its witness for just over a century in this small hamlet on the Theale Road. A Mr. Day, who in his youth had been employed as a carter on a local farm and had been the victim of some hard treatment, ran away to London where he became converted and ‘Go prospered him’. In thanksgiving he decided to build a chapel in his native village and it opened in 1836. Devoted members kept the flame alive and later, when the Hews and Parfitt families moved into the area, the work continued to increase.

Mr. Matthew Parfitt, who came from Somerset in 1883, was associated with the Wokingham Society until taking over Moatlands Farm at Burghfield in 1887. He was made a Circuit Steward in 1901 and on numerous occasions entertained the Quarterly Meeting. On can picture the generous farmhouse hospitality to which, no doubt, the assembled company did full justice. Moatlands Farm was for many of the Reading Societies the venue for their Sunday School treats. As early as 1894, and possibly before, the Circuit gathered annually at Trash Green Chapel on Good Friday for tea and evening rally. Traditionally on Good Friday and Easter Monday the country chapels of the Circuit held a tea meeting, and to this day those Good Friday lardy cake teas at Trash green remain in the memory of many Circuit members. Hundreds went out from reading on foot, by horse-drawn brake, by cycle, or, later, by ‘bus or car. Sometimes as many as 300 attended and, between the ‘sittings’, went in search of primroses in Hose Hill woods.

A Sunday School was begun in 1893 and at Christmas a tea meeting packed the chapel to the doors as children received presents from the Christmas tree. In 1899 concern was expressed at the difficulty of keeping older Sunday School scholars, leaving the villages in search of work in the towns, in touch with the church. In the following year a united mission with the Primitive Methodist Chapel on Burghfield Common, and the Congregational Chapel at Sulhamstead, was held.

In time the principle families of Burghfield Church either died or moved away, and the remaining few struggled on until, in March 1938, it ceased to be a Methodist church. The building remains but is now a private house.

Oxford Road

So no longer a neighbourhood church, the years have seen many changes on the Western edge of the town since a small band of Church Street members began to meet in West Street Hall in 1871. The Sunday School registers, in beautiful copperplate script, date from this time. Scholars were drawn mainly from that area of Reading now occupied by the Civic Centre and Inner Distribution Road, which was then a maze of tightly packed streets and courts.

Soon a permanent situation was called for and land was purchased from Zinzan Estate at the corner of Waylen Street, and an iron chapel was erected in 1873. The church hall followed and in 1893 foundation stones for the Church were laid. The opening, on 7th February 1894, was a great occasion. The Reverend Dr. R. N. Young, governor of Handsworth College, preached at 3:30 from Ezekiel 17-9: ‘And everything shall live whither the river cometh’. Five hundred people sat down to tea and the capacity evening gathering was addressed by Dr. Young, the Reverend Enoch Salt (Chairman of the District) and by the Reverend Ambrose Shepherd representing the Free Churches of Reading.

Mr. John Minty, a generous benefactor to Oxford Road and Caversham churches, had bequeathed £1600 towards the £4500 cost of the building. In the same year a three day bazaar was held which raised £300. The Manse at the corner of Waylen Street (now Church House) sported a Union Jack, and flags spanned Waylen Street. Each Society in the town had a stall and local businessmen contributed generously. Mention was made of a Mr. and Mrs. Tennant who, by their own exertions, furnished a stall selling useful articles ranging from mustard plasters to chocolate creams!

Also in 1894, on 1st April, began a very successful venture, the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon, which was both devotional and educational in character, holding many social events and catering for those inside and outside the church. At this time we first read of the Oxford Road Wesleyan Cricket Club and also of the formation of the Wesley Guild. In 1896 the first of many annual P.S.A. river outings took place, highly publicised by means of placards adorning the engine or boat.

Gradually the beautifying of the sanctuary was taking place. Mr. Arthur Newbery, an Oxford Road member and local businessman, gave the five carved panels which adorn the pulpit, electric lights were hung in clusters from the ceiling and gallery, and a fine organ costing £400 was given by Mr. G. G. Gilligan in memory of his wife. The schoolroom was redecorated and wall paintings of The Good Shepherd were designed and executed by Mr. L. H. Beecroft. Oxford Road has been singularly fortunate in the financial help given from those early days right down to the present day by the late Mr. Newbery. A handsome, kindly gentleman, who entered fully into the life of the church, he gave generously during his lifetime as the need arose, and the circuit continues to benefit by the generous provision of his bequests.

The Wesley Guild flourished and provided a meeting point for men and women of all ages. In 1904, consternation was expressed that a social evening should end with a ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’. Such worldly abandonment as a country dance was just not the done thing! What would they have made of today’s disco?

Sunday School work continued, with uniformed organisations, Junior Guild and Youth Fellowship. Dramatic productions were staged in Church and hall, and week-night religious film services were held in the Church. Servicemen and women were made welcome during the 1939-45 war. The advent of the car and television reduced the numbers attending and the gallery is no longer used. After a disastrous fire in 1978 which destroyed the organ, the seating has been reorganised and the whole church re-carpeted. House fellowships, youth work and a flourishing Women’s Fellowship, now 60 years old, form the basis of weekday Oxford Road life today.

A commemorative booklet to celebrate the centenary of Oxford Road was issued in 1972.

[Church subsequently closed and congregation joined Emmanuel.]


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