Methodist Chapels

"..Too large for cottages, too small for factories.."

attributed to King Edward VII

Architectural Overview

A brief summary of Methodist church building is given by Benson Perkins and Hearn in which they outline the development from the plain rectangular preaching house without any thought of beauty or ornament, through elaboration with porticoes and columns to the later, rather poor imitation Gothic. The last quarter of the 19th Century saw the building of Central Halls in a more modern and secular style. Curl in his Victorian Churches also describes how the Nonconformist antipathy to the Gothic style so favoured by Anglicans had become to wane in the 1840's (especially in the North of England) when increased affluence allowed them to construct buildings that vied with those of the Anglican Church. During the later part of the 19th Century many simpler Methodist chapels were replaced on the same site by more ornate buildings as fortunes improved. However on the Island, with few exceptions, they never reached the architectural grandeur of the Welsh Non-conformist Chapel [Jones1984].

Island History

The first Methodist chapel was opened in Peel in the early 1780's - that of Thomas Street Douglas followed in 1787.
By 1800 there were around 15 Wesleyan Chapels.
In a 1813 circuit plan 67 meeting places were listed, of which 54 were specially built chapels. Within two years of the arrival of the Prims, a 1824 plan lists 23 places of worship (though most were cottages). By 1862 Moore quotes a combined total of 91 chapels, 20 ministers and 200 lay preachers. By the turn of the century the Methodists were divided 3:2 Wesleyan:Primitive with the former having 71 chapels (12 ministers and 173 lay preachers) and the latter some 39 chapels (7 ministers, 124 local preachers). Figures quoted by A.W.Moore History of the IoM (1900) p733

In their heyday there were probably some 115 active chapels scattered across the Island - typically there would be five or six chapels in each Parish; often each Wesleyan Chapel would have a corresponding Primitive Methodist Chapel as near neighbour. Following the amalgamation of 1932, and especially in the last 30 years, many of these chapels were sold off, often becoming private dwellings.

Initially most of these chapels were simple preaching boxes consisting of a rectangular room (often galleried) with pulpit facing the entrance with any architectural enrichment reserved for the street frontage. In fact many of the early, and especially early Primitive Methodist, chapels were simple single room buildings, though with a slate roof (most cottages were still thatched) and a corner flue.

A speaker at the opening of Kirk Michael ParkView described them as follows: "the site, in many cases was a waste ground, of no use for agricultural purposes. Right up against the road, with no boundary wall, enclosing lawn or shrubs, four square walls of doubtful composition were run up, and the poor building was made to do duty for all the church's purposes."

Town chapels were generally much larger and more imposing than country chapels. The large Primitive Methodist town chapels having their own style (common to much of Northern England) of entrance via a street frontage staircase giving access onto a first floor chapel level with the lower level serving as Sunday School and hall.
The Wesleyans, generally being more affluent, kept an earlier chapel building as the Sunday School and produced a galleried building entered directly from Street level.

In many ways I cannot do better than quote Charles McFee's [McFee72] comments on the architectural features of the smaller chapels:

Their Design

Their design is easily identified and is typified generally by Gothic lines, arched windows and doorways, the half-pitched slated roof, and small porch (if any) More recent rebuilding programmes included cornice work, corbelling, and some fine craftsmanship in the timberwork, roof trusses. rostrum and choir stalls.

The facade is slightly more imposing than the other sides, and elevations visible from public highways were never meant to be offensive.

Although nonconformity abhorred symbolism and avoided decorations, always keeping to a symmetrical simplicity of Puritan expression, they are monuments of an important era in the spiritual and physical development of the Manx social pattern.

Interior

The early layouts were inclined towards a two-aisle design, one on each side of the building, the entrance in the gable end by a centre door, the high-backed rear pews acting as a screen, or by two entrance doors leading into the respective aisles by direct access.

This arrangement followed logically and was determined by the segregation of sex requirements; the male section being provided with wooden pegs on which the puritan top hats of the men were hung.

Its straight-backed uncomfortable box pews were deliberately constructed to discourage drowsiness and lack of attention by the congregation.

The whole purpose behind chapel design was to facilitate worship and certainly "Not to ascend to Heaven on flowery beds of ease".

This singleness of purpose ruled out any need to provide for pageantry or outward show. Symbols and imagery were considered indicative of Priesthood, Popery and Conformity. These would have been a complete negation of stout Protestantism.

No altars were required and to erect one would have been tantamount to a denial of basic doctrine, the fervent adherence to a belief in the complete and spontaneous direct access of Man to the Divine without the indirect intercession of a priestly intermediary. The Supreme Sacrifice of Christ must not be challenged by an artificial altar of man's creation. Thus the architectural design was dictated by the doctrinal beliefs of the Builders. Even the Communion Rail was not apparent in many of the early chapels.

The more recent designs included the provision of a 'Box' Pulpit, but the earlier examples, especially the Primitive Methodists, were spacious allowing for the fervour and movement of the Preachers who needed the maximum scope for their unrestricted impulses.

Music was vocal only, instruments viewed with suspicion as being an invention of the Devil. Thus the early interiors did not provide a specially-planned alcove or recess for a harmonium. These were a later innovation and even at the present time are found placed in very nondescript corners. Later, organ installation showed a mellowing of attitudes and corresponded with the introduction of choir stalls, which sometimes became status symbols.

Reliefs

One form of decoration was acceptable, and that was the use of huge Scripture Texts painted on the wall-generally behind the Preachers-following the Gothic line or Scriptural Scroll Pattern.

If the community could not afford hardwood furniture, the old fashioned box pews with doors were generally oak stained and brush grained and varnished (humidity sometimes an inconvenience).

Another feature was the introduction of scroll cast-ironwork, found in the door and rails of the Communion area. Immediately placed in front of this was the renowned Penitant Form of early Methodist Revivals. Both Colby Chapels contained this feature until 1945.

A few localities were affluent enough to enhance their buildings and accommodation with galleries. These, strangely enough, were entered by an outside stone staircase. A good example still exists at the First Methodist Preaching House in the Island, still in use at Peel and now owned by the Rechabite Order [this however has since been rebuilt when it became a youth centre FPC]. Colby Station Road Chapel also had this arrangement until rebuilding, but the evidence of the earlier method is obvious.

Lighting System

The lighting systems were dictated by the age. Most of the old candelabra is gone. Lamp holders were in the form of wall brackets and ceiling pendants. Some of these have been retained as a characteristic touch to the modern conversion to electricity.

This change from oil lighting to electricity made congregations realise the amount of heat emission and thermal value of the oil lamps plus the old central coke-burning stove with its smoke stack ascending straight up to penetrate the roof at the apex.

The rural chapel was forced to accept the fact that modern lighting reforms had created a central heating dilemma. The stove has been removed and superceded by other forms of heating. Alas! The old smoke stack no longer protrudes as a vertical relief to a severe horizontal ridge-line of the roof.

Orientation

The East and West traditional building concept of the Church was treated with contempt, or perhaps expediency and lack of funds were factors in the acceptance of policy which ignored tradition and convention by a people who looked 'up' rather than to the East for salvation.

So much then for the Village Chapel, and its rightful place in the environment.

These buildings, though not at present of any great interest to the archaeologist, may in the future be of unique value to historians who, seeking to piece together the story of our Island's past, find that the Village Chapel contains many secrets and provides a most interesting specimen to be treasured in the archives of History.

Current Status

McFee concluded an impassioned plea for the retention and sensitive conversion to other uses of these buildings which still holds good today.

Quaint buildings dotted all over the countryside in odd corners of fields donated by devoted adherents, or in country lanes, their natural stonework and masonry often executed by rural craftsmen as a free voluntary gift towards the cause, form an integral part of the Manx Rural Scene. So long as they remain, they will be a reminder of the central place they once held in a way of life when religious freedom encouraged, and nonconformity altered, not only the social structure but also the skylines of the rural pattern.

Without them, the landscape will be the poorer and denuded of an essential traditional ingredient in its make-up.

.....

These box-like non-ornate chapels, severe in their simplicity, are important. Their intrusion into the rural vistas, and predominantly agricultural areas of the island are prominent and striking. In contrast is the grandeur of the architecturally-featured, spired edifice of the church and chapel situated in urban and town locations, where wealth and industry have combined and are complimentary to one another; influencing design and more ambitious effort, and generosity in proportion. The unique quality of the country chapel on the contrary, is not its size, splendour, or dimension, but its influence as asserted by its mere existence. What a loss to rural amenity if the chapels' simple architectural impact (even sometimes to the point of crudity) should be destroyed.

As can be seen from the more detailed pages devoted to individual chapels, much of this heritage still remains - those that have been converted into private dwellings are often well cared for and generally sensitive to their history. In some cases however the crude insertion of large garage doors to construct a garage or workroom makes a mockery of the original design.

The larger town churches have been less fortunate:
The ornate Douglas Victoria Street Church was demolished to make way for a nondescript bank building - destruction of its Victorian heritage has however been a feature of Douglas 'development'.
The Loch Promenade PM chapel was rebuilt to produce a more easier maintained and flexible layout, but in a style out of keeping with the Loch Promenade (though that itself probably only has a limited life given the attitude of Douglas Corporation) and some 25 years later looking decidedly the worse for wear. Rosemount (now Trinity) is still cared for and Bucks Road PM still looks good as a commercial building.
Peel Christian Street and Castletown Malew Street, both typical North of England, Primitive Methodist town churches still stand though used as commercial storerooms and in need of much tender loving care. They are however more fortunate than Ramsey Parliament Street, also in the same style, which has been replaced by one of the cheapest forms of shop building.
Peel Centenary Chapel (Atholl St), Castletown Arbory Street and Ramsey Waterloo Road are still loving cared for by their congregations. Port Erin Victoria Place has been turned into a very successful and attractive Arts Centre whilst Laxey Glen Road, after a period of neglect as a commercial building, is now resplendent as a private dwelling having gone onto the market (late 1997) for £259,000!.

References

C.C. McFee Colby Methodism and its Buildings Port Erin:Southside developments 1972
E. Benson Perkins and A. Hearn The Methodist Church builds again The Epworth Press 1946
D.A.Barton Discovering Chapels and Meeting Houses 2nd Ed C.I.Thomas & Sons 1990 (ISBN 0-7478-0097-9) [a 3rd edition is claimed on contents page [1996?]
A Jones Welsh Chapels National Museum of Wales 1984 (ISBN 0-7509-1162-x)
J.S.Curl Victorian Churches Batsford 1995 (ISBN 0-7134-7491-2)
A further source of historical information is the interim, and unfortunately incomplete, Story of Manx Methodism by Ms E.V.Chapman.


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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 1999