History of Methodism in Towcester
In 1993, Towcester Methodist celebrated the centenary of their building. We are very fortunate that the minister in post, Rev Martin Wellings, together with others, produced a history of Methodism in Towcester which has enabled us to give such a detailed account. Thank you to all who were involved in 1993.
John Wesley in Towcester
John Wesley first came to Towcester in 1760, arriving on a wet spring evening from London. In his journal he noted that “one person we found there, whose soul God keeps alive, although he has scarce any in the town to converse with”.
There are 14 further references to Towcester in the journal – most of them record simply that Wesley preached in the town, without any other comment. Some of the entries give us some more information though. In October 1767, Wesley took a “little tour” through Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire and he addressed a large but peaceable crowd in Towcester. Two years later, he found the congregation to be a “heavy unawakened people” although he said they proved responsive to the message.
Sadly, 15 years later, he commented that he had visited “poor dead Towcester” but tried to keep upbeat by saying “But is not God able to raise the dead?..... these dry bones may live?”.
His final visit was in November 1789 and he preached in the Dissenting meeting house (the Congregational Church) to a large congregation and he said “I believe our Lord was in the midst!”
First Chapel is built
We don’t know when the society in Towcester was established but it seems reasonable to assume that a company of Methodists had gathered in the town by the 1790’s, and perhaps earlier. By the early 1800’s the cause was strong enough for the creation of a new Circuit and for a permanent place of worship to be built.
In 1809 the decision to build was taken, however there were a number of legal formalities and the chapel was not opened until 1811. However for the record, 1809 was taken as the official 'start' date. The year before, Joshua Fielden and William Toogood had been appointed as the first ministers of the Towcester Circuit.
The chapel was built on the same site where the current one stands and once completed it was 40ft long and 30ft wide with a gallery on the north side and a house for the Minister attached. The cost of building, including the house is open to debate – trust deeds mention £1,420 but surviving accounts claims that the total was £1,668, 11 shillings and 7p! Included in this was the gallery which was costed at £66, 1 shilling and 6p. For comparison £1,668 is approx. £139,000 in today’s money.
The work was funded mainly by loans, two of the largest contributors were Richard Gardner who advanced £550 and Thomas White who loaned £250.
The twelve trustees named on the original deeds included a basket maker, an upholsterer, a wheelwright, two cordwainers and a schoolmaster.
Sadly we have not yet been able to track down a photo of the original chapel.
Hard times in the 19th Century
Within 10 years of the completion of the chapel, the Towcester circuit fell on hard times. As mentioned before there were two ministers in 1810, reduced to one in 1820. Several years later the circuit was merged with Northampton and it was only in 1835 that a second minister was appointed once again.
In January 1834, some 23 years after the building was completed, £700 debt still remained and the property was mortgaged to John Elliott of Greens Norton. In March 1834, thanks were specifically given to two members “for their constant attention to the interests of this chapel, during the years we have been in trying circumstances” so money had been a problem for some time.
During the 19th century, lack of money seems to have been an issue very often, both for the circuit and the Towcester society. In June 1879, the minutes record that the circuit was ‘bankrupt’. Various savings were suggested, and the circuit suggested they reduced the amount they paid to Towcester for the use of the Chapel House as a Manse. Towcester still had the debt of the building and so this proposal was rejected. In 1856 a three-day bazaar(!) was held to pay off a debt of £400 on the property, but the minutes note that 5 years later, there was still a debt due of £550 (£60,000 today).
But what numbers of members and congregation were attending the chapel? The 1851 Religious census recorded the attendance at every place of worship on Sunday 30th March.
Towcester’s returns were as follows: -
Morning congregation – 100 with 70 children in Sunday School
Afternoon Sunday School recorded 70 children
Evening service – 320 adults and 40 children.
The Minister who completed the forms, Rev Henry Keet, also confirmed that there were 200 free seats and 160 other sittings (i.e., pews rented by individuals or families) so the chapel was completely full that evening. Based on the population of Towcester at that time, approx. 13% attended the Methodist chapel that evening.
Changes to Original Chapel and Decision to Rebuild
Money problems continued over the next 15 years, with new loans to help the situation, alongside grants, but the society continued and improvements were made to the chapel – adding a new vestry in 1826 and a full renovation in 1876 which cost £267 (£32,000 today).
However, the two cottages in front of the church were now very dilapidated and the chapel needed enlargement. This statement is quite interesting as the membership between 1880 and 1896 was seldom more than 25 and by 1887 was down to 14 so the members were a very small part of the worshipping congregation.
Initially the works proposed were to demolish the cottages and renovate the chapel. The local authorities agreed and condemned the cottages as dangerous. When the costs were presented including the demolition of the cottages, they were £668 and the trustees decided to opt for an entirely new building. The minutes show that they hoped this could be done for £600 at most. This is £77,000 in today’s money and was clearly very optimistic at best!
The plans were drawn up showing a schoolroom, vestry, classroom and sanctuary and these were approved in July 1892. Interestingly there was no partition between the schoolroom and the chapel proper, making an L shape area.
It took a number of months for permission to be granted by the Connexional Chapel Committee and it became clear that the £600 estimate was far too low. In April 1893, the trustees accepted Mr Thomas Wheeler’s tender of £868 for the work and arrangements were made to rent temporary accommodation for the services.
New Chapel built in 1893 (photo at the top of the page courtesy of the Towcester History Society).
The foundation stones were laid in June, one by the District Chairman, Rev Ebenezer Moulton and the other by Mr Rainbow of Towcester and the building was opened on 2nd October 1893. In the end the total cost was £970 (£125,500 today) made up of £780 for the building, £35 for draining and fencing, £80 for heating and furnishing and £45 for the architect fees. Very generously the architect, Mr Dyer returned his fees as a donation to the building fund.
Now the new chapel was built, the congregation had to work hard to pay for it. Collecting cards were issued, coffee suppers and tea meetings were held and subscriptions were solicited – including a pledge of support from Sir Thomas Hesketh. A bazaar raised £46 and special collections at the stone laying and the opening service produced another £34.
As for the first chapel, the bulk of the money came from two loans totalling £650. The Rev Joseph Howard purchased a second-hand organ from the Walton Street Chapel in Oxford – with his own money and when he left the circuit was still owed money! A big push on fundraising over the next four years meant that the loans and Rev Howard were all repaid by 1897.
Towcester Methodists entered the 20th century with new premises and without any debt.
Early 20th Century Church Life
For nearly 15 years from 1903, the Towcester Circuit produced a monthly magazine and this gives a fascinating snapshot of church life during this time.
The most active group in Towcester was the Wesley Guild which met on Wednesday evenings at 8pm. The Guild was involved in raising money for the church and it was their fundraising in the main that, in 1915, funded the sliding partition between the chapel and the schoolroom, which we know and use now.
The Guild looked outwards from the confines of the church and did fundraising for the community. It was also involved in a programme to address local unemployment, when a wood store was opened and two men were employed whose job prospects were bleak. Sadly, we don’t know how long this continued.
Also at Towcester was a Band of Hope, a choir and a Sunday School. Somewhat unusually for Methodists, it seems at this time the singing was not particularly impressive! According to the magazine, someone wrote that “Life with a capital ‘L’ is what our singing requires”. The church at the time was paying for an organist and for an organ blower.
The magazine also tells us that in 1905, the interior was repainted with ‘Art Green’ walls and a ‘salmon pink’ ceiling! Very different from our neutral colour scheme today. Also, above the rostrum a scroll was added bearing the text ‘The Lord is in His holy temple’. It is not known when this was removed or the colour scheme changed again.
Centenary of Methodism in Towcester
June 1909 was the centenary of Methodism in Towcester and the Sunday school children were invited to enter an essay competition describing the celebrations.
The photos taken of this are in our church today and give a fantastic insight into those times. Everyone is in their extra Sunday best and there is an impressive display of hats. From reading the newspapers at the time, it was a big circuit event and the turnout was very large!
Inter War Years
Sadly, there is very little information of what went on between the wars. What we do know is that there was an active Women’s Bright Hour which presented a font to the society in 1933 and a pulpit bible in 1939.
Post War period
In 1940 the congregation numbered 30 or 40 people at the main service but by the early 1950’s the congregations were down to a dozen and the membership stood at 23. The choir and Sunday School continued, but with difficulty, and in 1956 the society lost a faithful member when the organist, Mrs Higginson died. Two years later the circuit was realigned and Towcester joined the Buckingham and Bicester circuit, now known as the 3Bs circuit.
Although a monthly newsletter was done for the Silverstone section – which included Towcester, it doesn’t give a great deal of detail of church life. One thing it does show, is a new development, family services.
The Towcester Manse which had been built in 1922 was retained after the circuit change and a minister lived in the town until 1973. The minister in post in 1968, Rev Arnold McIndoe died that February in a tragic accident at the manse. A new organ was bought for the chapel in his memory and dedicated in April 1970. Four years later, the trustees reluctantly agreed to sell the Manse.
Around 1974 was the low point of the society’s fortunes, when the closure of the chapel seemed a real possibility and abortive negotiations took place for a merger with the Congregationalists. However, the low point passed and the church was kept open and prepared the way for growth and expansion in the 1980’s.
1980 to date
By 1985 there were 21 members. The town was expanding and the church benefited from an influx of new families. The dedication of longstanding members began to pay off and once again, a major renovation scheme was planned – and undertaken. A new vestibule, cloakrooms, vestry and meeting room were created and after that, the kitchen was refitted.
This meant that we had premises fit for the 21st Century.
The centenary of the new chapel was celebrated in 1993 and at the time the society numbered 48 members.
In the booklet of the history, Rev Wellings finishes with the following :-
“The history of a church is not simply the history of a building, although the buildings are our most tangible link with the past.
The history of a church is the story of a Christian community, gathered for worship, for mutual support, for service, witness and mission.
Behind the account books, trust minutes and circuit plans are lives touched by the presence of God and people seeking to serve Jesus Christ in the church and in the world.
It is hoped that the story of Towcester Methodist church will continue to be the story of a community of faith, proclaiming the love of God in word and deed, both within the town and to the wider world”.