Methodism grips the town

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

According to the results of the national census of 1861, during the past 10 years Scarborough’s population had grown from 12,158 to 17,204, a phenomenal rate of increase. Even more surprising, though impossible to verify, was the claim made by a contemporary that at least 2,000 of the borough’s residents during the 1860s were Methodists. In the dramatic words of this same source, “Wesleyan Methodism may be said to grip the town at all points”.

Evidence of this extraordinary explosion of Methodist membership, Primitive as well as Wesleyan, can be found in the architectural record of the 1860s. At the beginning of the decade, the United Methodist Free Church opened its new Claremont chapel in Castle Road. Two years later, the Wesleyans replied with their classic masterpiece in Westborough. Not to be outdone, the Primitive brethren and sisters completed their Jubilee chapel in Aberdeen Walk in 1861 and their splendid new chapel in St Sepulchre Street four years later. By the end of the same decade, Falsgrave’s Primitives had their own place of worship in St John’s Road. Five new chapels in nine years!

The Scarborough Gazette waxed poetic about the Claremont chapel, first opened November 1, 1860: the new building, it said, was in a Grecian style and both “beautiful and commodious”. Built in stone and yellow brick, it had five bays facing the street and a three-bay pediment above. Below ground level, the Nottingham architect, Thomas Simpson, had designed a school with six classrooms. Above it, the chapel was lit by 216 gas burners arranged in four “star lights”. Claremont was to be the first major casualty of the declining numbers of Wesleyan Methodists in the 20th century, but today has survived, after many different secular uses and with a modernised interior, as Scarborough’s Christian Centre.

If Wesleyan Methodism prospered in Scarborough 150 years ago, so did the Primitive kind. In 1860, out of a number of architectural proposals for their new home in Aberdeen Walk, the trustees chose that of William Baldwin Stewart. Recently, he had finished the North Sea Bathing Infirmary on the Foreshore and later was to design many of Scarborough’s schools, almshouses, chapels and not least the Borough Gaol on Dean Road.

There was nothing “primitive” about Stewart’s Jubilee chapel. On the contrary, in the words of the Scarborough Gazette in April 1861, when the building was first opened, its exterior was “imposing” and its “internal arrangement, superior”. Built of a mixture of red and white bricks, its entrance from the west side of Aberdeen Walk was by way of a broad flight of stone steps and each of its four corner towers contained staircases to upper floors. A basement had classrooms for 300 children. The principal chapel with seating for 1,140 was lit by a “corona lamp” containing 80 gas jets.

What the Gazette had once called “an additional ornament to the town” was completely demolished in 1966 and replaced first by a supermarket and then by Scarborough’s Job Centre, a perfect paradigm of what has happened in our society during the last half century.

The rapid spread of Scarborough westwards by the 1860s, gradually filling the open space that once separated the town from Falsgrave village, revealed the growing inadequacy of Queen Street chapel, even though it had been built for 1,600 Wesleyans. Accordingly, a plot of land opposite the railway station, known as Newton’s Field and belonging to Henry Fowler, the Wesleyan solicitor and shipowner, was bought from him for £500. In the past, Newton’s Field had often been used by travelling fairs, but in 1860 it was re-named Belle Vue Square, a flattering title derived from Dr Peter Murray’s mansion house on the opposite side of Westborough. On Friday November 16, 1860, following a service in Queen Street, local Methodists took part in a procession to the new site where Henry Fowler laid the foundation stone. Afterwards, “a monster meeting” was held in the basement of Queen Street “where nearly 1,000 persons, including the workmen engaged in the new building, drank tea”.

Thirty-three different designs had been submitted in a national, competitive bid and that of William Baldwin Stewart was accepted. Though initially the cap was set at £5,500, the final bill came to £2,000 more. Indeed, it seems that no expense was spared: Westborough was, and still is, the grandest of all Scarborough’s past and present Methodist chapels.

Instead of the brick of its contemporaries, the frontage, superb Corinthian columns, sides, corner towers and grand entrance stairway 
were all of the finest Whitby ashlar.

Inside there were places for 1,260 worshippers, though only 260 of them were free of pew rent. These Methodists were in the main affluent Wesleyans, a long way socially from the Primitives of the old town. The whole building was lit by gas and heated by radiators.

The Primitive Methodists had built their first chapel in St Sepulchre Street in 1821 and, 20 years later, enlarged it to accommodate up to 600 members. Even so, such was the increase in demand, that despite the opening of the Jubilee in 1861, the chapel in St Sepulchre had become inadequate.

As a result, the trustees employed one of their own, Joseph Wright, the Hull architect and pupil of Cuthbert Brodrick, to design yet another enlargement for the lower town congregation. As in the previous case of the Jubilee, the result was far from “primitive”. Wright’s design was a most handsome structure built to house up to a thousand worshippers at any one time. However, also like the Jubilee, it lasted little more than a century: in 1965 the whole building was demolished and the ground at the corner of Springfield and St Sepulchre Street was re-used for modern housing.