A church for all in the heart of the city
John Wesley did not visit Cambridge but when he visited Grantchester on Sunday and Monday 10th & 11th January 1762 he wrote in his Journal “I was sorry I had no more time at this place, especially as it was so near Cambridge”. At other times he preached at Bottisham, Harston and Melbourn, but there is no recorded occasion of the founder of Methodism preaching in, or indeed visiting, Cambridge itself. John Wesley was, of course, an Oxford man!
We know, however, that two of his preachers from Bedfordshire travelled to proclaim the Gospel in Orwell and Meldreth as well as other villages, and the Bicentenary of Methodism in South Cambridgeshire was celebrated at Orwell Methodist Church in 1959.
It was not until 1805 that the work of Methodism in Cambridge itself began when a room was hired in the inn yard of “The Brazen George”, on a site opposite to the south-east corner of Christ's College in St. Andrew's Street. “The Brazen George” was originally a medieval students' hostel, and through the centre of the yard ran the “King's Ditch”, one of the old and notorious features of the town.
The room that was hired could accommodate 40 people and was adjacent to, and partly overhung, the putrid waters of the ditch, from which many noxious smells permeated through the floor. By all accounts it was a wretched neighbourhood, matched only in its squalor by its inhabitants; so early Methodism went not simply to those who needed its ministrations, but to those who needed them most.
A Society was formed which, after 6 years numbered 80 members, and a proper Chapel became a necessity. A plot of ground was purchased in Regent Street but finance was not available to develop it and it had to be abandoned. Instead, a site was found in Fitzroy Street, and Barnwell Chapel was built by members of the Society in their leisure hours, out of their meagre earnings. Those who could not give money gave their time and labour and, as proof of their devotion and labour, this first Chapel was opened free of debt.
Despite their lack of funds, the Methodists of Fitzroy Street wished to open another chapel in the town and were offered the lease of premises in Green Street where “Independent Congregationalists” worshipped. The sale of the lease was effected for £70 and a further document gave “the Wesleyans the rights to the possession of the Pulpit”. A disadvantage for the chapel was its position, hidden behind “The Stagg's Head” and difficult to find. Despite this, the membership increased to 122 in 1841 and to 300 by 1845.
By this time the building in Green Street was showing signs of age and, again, a larger chapel in a more commanding position was called for. A scheme was launched and eventually a new chapel in Hobson Street was built. It was opened in 1849 and Green Street Chapel was closed. The driving force behind the Hobson Street Chapel was Charles Vinter, a University robe-maker by trade, who came to Cambridge in 1828 and was a Class Leader and Local Preacher at Green Street, ministering to its younger undergraduates.
The Hobson Street Chapel was built of white bricks, with a lofty portico in stone in front, fashioned to match much of the architecture of the University buildings. The school-rooms were situated underneath. The cost of the buildings, excluding furnishings, was £3,300. The greater part of this sum was raised by members of the Society and their friends. In this venture the spirit of sacrificial giving which had been shown at Fitzroy Street was again evident. This was no small sum for the members to raise as they had already paid over £900 for the site.
The assistance received from outside sources was remarkable. In particular, Rev. Robert Hall, Minister of the Baptist Congregation in St. Andrew`s Street from 1790 to 1806, raised £500 from the surrounding churches.
One relic of the opening day of Hobson Street Chapel remains. In November 1962 Mr. L.B.W. Jolley of Richmond presented to the Methodist archives at Wesley's Chapel in City Road, London, an ornate tea-pot. This bore the inscription “Presented to Mr. William Baker by the Trustees of the Wesleyan Chapel, Cambridge – in acknowledgement of valuable services rendered in its erection April 6th, 1849”.
After the Hobson Street Chapel became established, the congregation from Green Street having moved there already, those members from Fitzroy Street joined them in 1856, and Wesleyan Methodism in Cambridge became centred in one place.
While serving the community at large and with a considerable number of townspeople within its membership, the outstanding work of the Hobson Street Chapel was among the undergraduates. Many of those attended, and within 40 years it was found that these premises also were inadequate, particularly in those areas where educational and social activities could be conducted.
In 1888 a special committee was appointed by the Trustees to enquire into the possibilities of either enlarging the building or erecting a separate set of school premises. Neither scheme was practicable, although some minor alterations were done to the existing building.
When the Hobson Street Chapel celebrated its Jubilee in 1899 it was stated that “The Chapel has afforded a Spiritual home for Methodist graduates and undergraduates; and never were so many members of the University attending as during the present term”. Something had to be done. It was realised that what was required was beyond Cambridge Methodism alone but a matter for the Methodist Church as a whole. Consequently the Methodism Conference of 1901 appointed a special “Committee on Methodism in Cambridge” to consider this subject.
A report to the Wesleyan Conference summed up the situation : “Hobson Street Church premises, situated in an obscure corner of the town are antiquated and utterly unsuitable; the accommodation, apart from the auditorium, being wholly inadequate, badly lighted and ventilated, underground, and shut in by closely adjoining buildings…..The present premises are unthinkable for a Church representing the cause and bearing the responsibilities that Hobson Street does”. Of course the case was overstated to whip up support. Hobson Street was not too obscure a corner for the County Council's new premises!
It nearly didn't happen!
In 1901 (in true Methodist fashion!) the Conference was persuaded to appoint a committee to explore the possibility of a worthy building in Cambridge and the oversight of the increasing numbers of Methodist students. There was clearly a fear that without a new building and better oversight, promising young Methodists would be seduced by the glories of the college chapels and lost to Methodism (and particularly to the Methodist ministry).
The proposer in the debate was Henry Bisseker, a Birmingham brassfounder and almost certainly uncle to Harry Bisseker, later headmaster of The Leys School. He was supported by Dr. H.J.Pope, the senior connexional Home Mission Secretary and by other speakers, including J.H.Moulton, then on the staff of The Leys, and two former ministers in the circuit. The committee appointed was huge by modern standards, 41 ministers and laymen; of the 42 laymen (only men!) appointed or reappointed over the years only 23 ever attended a meeting although the ministers did rather better. In the December a sub-committee visited Cambridge and the following summer the Conference reappointed the committee and authorised the connexional Chapel Committee to assist in obtaining a site.
By November 1903 the site had been obtained. Poplar House, situated at the corner of Short Street with a frontage to Christ's Pieces, a “gentleman's house, stables and gardens” was purchased for £4,500 and a body of trustees, including both local and national figures, had been assembled. The money for the deposit was lent by Josiah Gunton, later to be architect for the new church, and the rest by the Connexional Chapel and Home Mission Committees at 3% p.a. The Hobson Street trustees and the circuit meeting expressed support, “provided that the circuit is not involved thereby in financial responsibilities beyond its strength” – connexional support had to be “most substantial and generous”. Already in the summer the Conference had authorised the purchase and had commended the scheme to the “generous sympathy and help of the Connexional Funds and the Methodist people”.
This period was one in which many new churches and mission halls were being built, especially in the inner cities, and Methodism was awash with financial appeals. A new church for privileged young men in Cambridge stood little chance in competition with the glamour of mass evangelism among the urban working classes. So the scheme effectively stagnated. The Hobson Street trustees were urged to sell up in order to realise capital, but they were reluctant to do so, not unreasonably without assurance that there would be a new building to move into.
By 1908 it was getting desperate. Less than half the £10,000 estimated to be necessary even to start building had been raised. Unless £5,000 was raised immediately from outside Cambridge there would be no option but to sell the site and abandon the scheme. In response the Conference appointed a special fund-raising sub-committee with an experienced fund-raiser, Rev. Thomas E. Westerdale to convene it.
At this point farce took over! The superintendent of the East London Mission died, leaving a building with a £15,000 debt. Westerdale was diverted to deal with it (which he did). For a whole year the “special” sub-committee appointed to deal with the emergency did not meet! However, the Poplar House trustees did agree to build a manse on part of the site at a cost of just over £1,000. Progress!
Eventually Westerdale became available. He spurned the convention of big meetings and general appeals and arranged a few intimate gatherings with targeted individuals. The target for outside money was raised to £10,000. The method worked and by early March 1912 the amount contributed or promised from all sources had risen to £19,000. The trustees began seriously planning the buildings.
The plans were ambitious. Seating was to be for 800, later scaled back to 700. There was to be a separate building for the Sunday School and other meetings in which the main room would seat 300 and there would be a caretaker`s flat. The architect appointed was Josiah Gunton of the partnership Gordon and Gunton, and a buildings sub-committee was formed. By June tenders had been received, the builder was Wallis of Felixstowe and Cambridge and a date was fixed for the stone-laying. Life became seriously busy. In 1912-13 the trustees met 12 times and the buildings sub-committee 33 times, sometimes twice a week. The Hobson Street chapel was sold to the County Council for £3,500 (less than originally hoped) and the congregation made use of the Cambridge Electric Theatre and Victoria Rooms on Market Hill (later rebuilt as the Victoria Cinema).
On 10th October 1912 the stonelaying took place. The principal stone was laid by the Rt Hon Thomas Ferens, Liberal MP for East Hull and a generous benefactor to many causes, and a major donor to this scheme. Another stone was laid by J. C. Isard, senior master and bursar of The Leys School, a third by Miss E. Wyburn on behalf of her sister Rhoda. Finally Mrs. Ann Lavender, who had been present as a child at the stonelaying of the Hobson Street chapel re-laid the same stone in the new building (and with the same trowel), thereby marking the continuity between the two buildings. It was decided not to inscribe the stones, whether for reasons of cost or for lack of time is not clear. The Cambridge Daily News reported that under the main stone a bottle was placed containing details of the scheme and the names of those involved.
So the building got under way, 9 years after the site had been bought. Much of it is recorded in the trustees' minutes of the time, although there were curious gaps as they failed to explain why certain things were changed. There was plenty of evidence of cost cutting (where the effect would not show), some of which only came to light at the refurbishment of the building in 1988. How much the trustees were aware of these details and how much the builder was trying to get away with is not clear. He appeared to be short of money and twice the trustees had to bail him out with emergency funds to ensure the job was completed on time, or indeed at all!
The schoolrooms were opened on Thursday 8th May 1913, and a caretaker was installed in the flat. The main church was opened on 30th October 1913. As there was no pipe organ at the time an American organ was secured for the opening services at which the University and King`s College organist played. Pew rents were fixed, the most expensive, at four shillings, at the back (!), with free pews for students and others at the front and in the transepts. A three day bazaar was arranged for the weekend to complete the fund raising.
On the day of the opening a thousand people were reported to be present, and seven hundred sat down (or stood up) for tea. There were many speeches. The President of Conference, the Vice Chancellor and the Mayor all took part, along with other Wesleyan ministers and lay figures, and local ecumenical representatives. There was a united choir of Wesley and Hills Road members. Much was made in the publicity beforehand, and on the day, of the provision of the library (now incorporated within the refectory, but originally a separate room) as a meeting place for students. To mark the importance of the occasion the Cambridge Independent Press published an exhaustive account of the proceedings, as also did the Methodist Recorder in an article entitled “The End of the Journey”.
In 1914 the Conference committee was able to report to the Conference that the scheme was complete. With some reliable promises still outstanding only £116 18s 7d remained to be raised. All concerned could breathe a big sigh of relief. The heroes of the whole project were undoubtedly JC Isard, its treasurer, who saw it through from start to finish and was cheered at the opening as “the father of the whole scheme”, and two superintendent ministers, William Bradfield at the beginning, a man noted for his “cheery optimism that withstood all opposition”, and James Lewis at the end, who had to oversee all the problems of planning and building and must have committed endless hours to it, along with responsibility for the entire circuit. They were all thanked in the Conference of 1914.
The involvement of prominent Cambridge business figures, including the tailor and robemaker James Neal, and of the headmaster of The Leys, Dr. Barber, together with some notable Old Leysians and former masters are also of vital importance. We must not ignore or undervalue, the fund-raising efforts and generosity of local Methodists, including those at Hills Road who only cleared the debt on their own building in 1910.
Wesley Church, Cambridge nearly never happened and we think it is important to stress that what we have is substantially the gift of wider Methodism to Cambridge.
Far from it being the end, however, it was just the beginning, as is revealed by the remarkable story of the wonderful work which has been, and still is, carried on at Wesley. The work with University students that began at Hobson Street has been continued at Wesley, and in each succeeding generation there have been men and women in every corner of the world who have acknowledged their debt to the church of their student days.
Shortly after Wesley was opened the First World War began and some precious lives were lost of men associated with Wesley. During the war the schoolrooms were adapted for the soldiers` use: reading and writing rooms were furnished, a post office was improvised, a canteen established and run by the ladies of the congregation. Their efforts were enormously appreciated by the soldiers: Sunday services were crowded and, at the farewell tea, over five hundred were present.
The interruption of the war made it difficult to gauge how successful or not was the “great trek” from the old to the new Church. Some of the schoolrooms were still unfinished and the Library was “a cheerless place”. Some years after the opening the whole place was transformed thanks to the generous help of five Connexional laymen and it was not long before the room was filled by Methodist Society (MethSoc) meetings.
Other factors helped the Sunday Services. The opening of Wesley House brought its students into closer touch, to their benefit, and to that of Wesley itself. It may sound surprising but it was reported that the General Strike of 1926 was a help rather than otherwise. The Church and schoolroom premises were opened to the displaced workers and their families. Once again, reading and writing rooms, a canteen, and unknown to Wesley workers, a separate room which Trades Union officials and members who had to “check-in” could use, were swiftly arranged. Each night a one-man entertainment was given by Donald Soper. He was already a Pacifist, and could not support either side in the conflict. “His performances were sheer genius.”
In the following year the various Conferences agreed that Methodism should become one again. But not immediately. The Union was postponed for five years and fixed for 1932. The Union Committee worked out a scheme of preliminary preparation and made appeals to the Youth of the new Church. This involved the Methodist Society at Wesley, since Cambridge had a larger number of known Methodist students than any other University. How could the young people be reached? A deputation of them went to London with an elaborate, and therefore, costly plan of campaign which the Committee rejected. They were told to make the appeal themselves!
Briefly, the students' religion was second-hand rather than first-hand, gained mostly from their homes and families, a matter of tradition rather than of living personal experiences. However, as they talked and prayed together, these students realised that, before they could talk to other students, God must talk to them. More and more, prayer dominated their meetings, and even their personal contacts: they ceased to meet as a Committee and began to be a Group.
Not by force but by desire their prayer life became more disciplined and constant. Two of them were having tea together at Wesley House one afternoon when, at 5.30pm, a noisy alarm went off. The guest nearly jumped out of his chair, and said, “Whatever in the world was that?” His friend explained that it had been intended that it should strike at 5.30am – he needed the morning time for prayer, and wanted to make sure of it. It was part of a real struggle to open his life to God. None of those who went through those days with this man ever forgot the language he used when he told of the new life upon which he had entered:-
“Now I (“Vincent”) have found the ground wherein Sure my soul's anchor may remain”
So, the Cambridge “Committee” began with 16 people, considering together some programmes of approach to fellow students. It ended as a Group and soon became four Groups. News about them began to travel and they began to travel themselves as invitations came for them to explain their success until they had started, virtually, a nation-wide movement. More importantly, it was not confined to the University people for whom it was first intended.
Here at Wesley where it all started, there came a time when there were as many as forty Groups at work. They comprised University men and women, townsfolk, Methodists and non-Methodists, Christians and non-Christians. A distinguished Harley Street specialist, a former Trinity man said “I have never been a Methodist, but I used to go to the Groups and Methodist Society whenever I could, and I still regard them as the biggest thing I met in Cambridge”. He had gone down from Cambridge 25 years earlier!
The early years of the “new” Wesley, therefore, had more than repaid those who had had the faith first to agree that a new building was required and, secondly, to find the money to complete it. Wesley Church continued to be a centre of Methodist worship, not just as a University Church to serve the generations of Methodist students who come and go through the years, but also to serve the residents of Cambridge.
The church and adjacent premises were in constant need of repairs but a regular maintenance programme was carried out. A new stained glass window was donated through the generosity of the Rev. Herbert Kirby and his wife who had worshipped at Wesley for many years in their retirement. Other furnishings were donated to the Church.
In 1972 the congregation from Hills Road joined Wesley when it was decided that the Hills Road building had become too costly to maintain. With funds from the sale, some more extensive work was done to improve the school buildings at Wesley but many knew that it was only a matter of time before something more substantial would have to be considered.
The mid-1980s proved to be a critical period for Wesley. Was it worth investing yet more in the building or should we be thinking more radically? What did we need premises for, anyway? The Church Council was not initially convinced of the severity of the problem. There were discussions under the heading “Whither Wesley?” Derek Nicholls, one of a small group who were later to oversee the refurbishment, said “it was exhilarating to be part of a church family that was trying to think fundamentally about our role and how best to serve the kingdom of God in Cambridge.
“Having convinced ourselves of a continuing role for a central Methodist Church, we then had to think about premises. There was broad opinion that we should abandon the school buildings and the old manse next door, and improve and extend the church building for a range of activities. There was, however, sharp division between those who wished to retain the 1913 building and change it as little as possible, and those who wished to demolish and start again with a modern set of premises. That decision was removed from us when the building was officially “Listed”, meaning that we would have to preserve it, not demolish it.
“Steve Pennington, a church member and an architect, produced an imaginative scheme which seemed to give us the best of both worlds – retention of the main building, with ingenious additions and modifications to give us flexible new premises. The degree of agreement with which the congregation united behind the scheme was remarkable and inspiring. So were the Sunday mornings packed like sardines into the old hall for worship while the work was done.
“Another of our members, Beryl Green, was appointed by the Church Council to be the official link between the scheme`s architect and other consultants. She was supported in the role by Henry Collins and Harry Palfreman. When Beryl became ill and unable I (Derek Nicholls) was appointed to the triumvirate in her place. Henry and Harry were fantastic in that they were on site nearly every day, keeping an eye on things, doing all sorts of useful jobs, selling salvaged materials for recycling, and keeping me informed.
“I conducted the formal correspondence and arranged regular site meetings with architect and quantity surveyor. My wife, Rosemary, was appointed co-ordinator of the fund raising efforts and part-time church administrator. Gallons of midnight oil were burned in our house as discussions with the chairman of the Finance Committee, Grahame Miles, struggled with devising ways of encouraging people to give, and give again. The response from the people of Wesley was extraordinarily generous.
“Inevitably, the project gave us some very bad moments, none worse than the meeting at which the quantity surveyor quietly reported, when the work was in its final stages, that the cost would be £150,000 more than we had been led to believe! I was flabbergasted and demanded an explanation, ordering an immediate suspension of any element of the work programme that had not actually been started or to which expenditure had not been fully committed.
“The explanation ranged from yet more extra costs as a consequence of the “Listed” status of the building to the higher front wall which the architect`s assistant had authorised without reference to anyone (it took us over 10 years to get rid of that wall!) to a failure by the quantity surveyor to count correctly the number of doors when the original estimate was prepared. We reduced the lighting specification in the nave (what a pity we had to do that) and went for a cheaper carpet, but were determined to see the scheme through. And we did. The building firm soon went bankrupt, as did part of the architectural firm, but Wesley survived!
“What a joy it has been to have premises which are so welcoming and user-friendly: and thanks to a succession of caretakers and property stewards who have cared assiduously for the building and kept it that way. As a church family, we were inevitably rather exhausted by the effort required to carry the scheme through to completion and perhaps we have been a little slow to realise the full potential of the building”.
Wesley can be very thankful that the vision that inspired its members in the late 1980`s has equipped us well into the new millennium and its Bicentennial celebrations as a spring-board for further growth in mission and service to the community. Perhaps, after all, sincere thanks should also go to the Listed Buildings authority!
The whole scheme cost £1.5 million. Almost half of this sum came from the leasing of the school buildings and manse area for development of what is now known as Epworth Court.
There was a further story that must be incorporated in the refurbishment and that is the saving of the Eastbrook Hall organ from a collapsing building in Bradford but that is a separate story!
Methodism has come a long way in Central Cambridge since the early days of services in The Brazen George to the modern day Wesley. It has long been the philosophy of Wesley not only to raise money for charities but for its members to be involved in furthering the mission of the Church in the community and also further afield. Many members of the Church, including at Wesley House or at Cambridge University, have been Missionaries in many parts of the world, especially India, Africa and the West Indies and it would be invidious to name them here as it would be so easy to omit some.