by Dr Jack Binns
When he died in 1811, Thomas Brown, founder and first minister of Scarborough’s earliest Methodist society, was buried (significantly) in an Anglican graveyard. The inscription on his imposing granite monument, which stands to the north-east of St Mary’s Church, reads: “In memory of Thomas Brown, one of the first members in this town of the people called Methodists, in connexion with the Rev John Wesley MA. He was a local preacher for 50 years and for 65 years a member of the society. Born October 25, 1731. Died June 2, 1811.”
Both location and dedication are revealing. Brown devoted nearly all his long life to Methodism and was largely responsible for Scarborough’s earliest chapels, yet he died and was buried an Anglican. Even as late as 1811, some Methodists had still not reconciled themselves to an identity separate from the established church.
When John Wesley, now in his 80s, paid yet another visit to Scarborough in 1784, again travelling down from Robin Hood’s Bay, it was suggested to the new parish vicar of St Mary’s, the Rev John Kirk, that he might invite the elderly, ordained missionary to preach in his church. Kirk not only refused but justified his refusal in a sermon preached the following Sunday before Wesley in person.
The veteran itinerant admired Kirk’s homily: “A keener sermon I never heard”, he wrote afterwards, but he despaired of the vicar’s mindset. “So all I have done to persuade the people to attend the Church is overturned at once! And all who preach thus will drive the Methodists from the Church, in spite of all that I can do.”
That same evening, only yards away from the parish church, at Church Stairs meeting hall, Wesley preached on Corinthians I, xiii, 1, 2, 3 on the highest virtue of charity. Was this his indirect criticism of John Kirk as well as a plea to his listeners to exercise patient tolerance towards Anglicans?
Wesley’s final appearance at Scarborough was in June 1790. The congregation that evening was “unusually small” because the day had been excessively hot and there had been a violent thunderstorm in the afternoon.
Also, with a rare note of gentle irony, Wesley explained that the town had “not yet recovered from the blessed fruits of the election”. Presumably, his reference was to the traditional orgy of drinking and treating that accompanied parliamentary elections in the borough. On this last occasion, he is believed to have lodged at 11 Castlegate, an address still known as Wesley House.
When John Wesley died the following year, 1791, there were said to be 621 Methodists in Scarborough, so that the neat and elegant meeting-house where he had preached in Church Stairs was already too small to seat them all. In 1813 it was pulled down and replaced by a less elegant but much larger building in Bird Yard off Cross Street.
Finally, just a hundred years after John Wesley had delivered his first open-air sermon, in 1839 the foundation stone of Queen Street chapel was laid by Henry Fowler, JP. Appropriately for such abstemious people, they chose a site which had been occupied previously by the Blacksmith’s Arms. With seating for about 1,600, the chapel cost £7,000, illustrating the huge success of Wesley’s posthumous movement.
Queen Street’s Wesleyan basement was as extensive and as vital as the ground floor assembly room above with its “admirable acoustic properties”. Little Wesleyans were given their Sunday schooling there and on the other side of a wooden partition their elders and parents practised their Saturday night band meetings. The entire building was heated by two gigantic stoves known as Gog and Magog.
Throughout his long and richly creative life as a preaching missionary, John Wesley had never determined the distinctive identity of his following. Rather than call it a church or denomination, he settled on the ambiguous “connexion” and when he died there were already growing divisions between the sacramental “Arminians” and the more radical “Calvinists”. By 1840, the dividing lines had become as much social as doctrinal.
Primitive Methodism appealed more to the poorest, especially seafaring, members of the Scarborough community, whereas Wesleyan Methodism had become “respectable” and conservative. At first, the “Primitives” held outdoor meetings in the Castle dykes. Then, in the year of Thomas Brown’s death, two evangelical Wesleyans, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, formed the Society of Primitive Methodists. A decade later, under the leadership of Clowes, they put up a “home-made” structure in St Sepulchre Street, on the corner of Spring Gardens, which by 1840 had been enlarged to hold up to 600 members.
Another place of worship favoured by fishermen and their families was the Bethel Mission on Sandside. In 1800 the Common Hall had moved out of this cramped old building to more spacious modern premises on Long Room Street, leaving the Quaker Tindalls to buy it for a “place of religious worship for sailors and fishermen”. Unlike any other chapel in the town, its services were non-denominational and to avoid competition held on Tuesday and Saturday evenings.
So, by 1840, Scarborough’s Christians were “spoiled for choice”. Apart from the “respectable” Wesleyans in Queen Street and the Primitives in “Saint Pulkas”, Baptists worshipped in Longwestgate; Independents or Presbyterians on Palace Hill; Roman Catholics in Auborough Street; and Plymouth Brethren gathered in King Street. St Mary’s parish church on Pillory Hill, which overlooked them all and had dominated and monopolised Scarborough’s religious life for centuries, had become only one of many alter- natives.