'The nonconformist movement was intertwined with the strata of a changing social structure and its buildings reflect this'
(Kenneth Lindley: Chapels and Meeting Houses John Baker (1969))
Bethesda Chapel is a model example of a late-19th-century town chapel. It is also one of the largest surviving chapels outside the capital. Its state of completeness and scale combine to create an historic asset of significant importance recognised by its Grade II* listed status.
Reproduction of the Ordnance Survey sheet of 1898, showing the chapel and its surroundings at the time
Bethesda Chapel is one of the Stoke's most impressive surviving 19th-century buildings (Historic Buildings Survey 1985). It is situated off the junction of Albion Street and Bethesda Street at the southern edge of Hanley town centre.
Its frontage, set back from the edge of the pavement, is flanked either side by commercial premises. The Chapel is part of a precinct that includes a former cemetery to the rear, now set out as informal amenity space (see pictures A and B on the History page). To the south, beyond the former cemetery, is the former Sunday School (see picture). Next to the chapel is the small, single-storey vestry.
The former industrial context of its setting has changed significantly in the last 50 years. The building contributes significantly to the local townscape. Its ornate Italianate front and apse rear (see picture) combine with the former cemetery and related buildings to create a high-quality urban environment.
When the Historic Chapels Trust was researching into the building, relatively little in the way of historic plans or drawings were found. However, it was possible to piece together written documentary accounts found during research of the Bethesda archive at Stoke-on-Trent City Archives, and during more general historic research into the development of chapels through the resources of the British Library. This information and additional sources from articles and photographs, together with a survey of the building, has enabled an initial appreciation of the context of Bethesda's historical development and an understanding of the significance of its surviving fabric.
Elements of chapel design
Chapels did not have the wealth of civil and ecclesiastical traditional associations that are a feature of churches of older denominations; the design, particularly of their interior, was therefore not so conditioned. The chapel was basically a house in which to meet, and the influence of local materials and traditional building methods was a major contributory factor in their local distinctiveness.
Though chapels differ in their architectural detail, there is a unity of expression between them. The composite picture of the typical interior has certain basic and recognisable qualities, which persist in spite of the centuries of changing fashions and fortunes. Though the composite parts are limited, each chapel offers its own variations, and it is this variety within the established pattern of elements and its state of completeness that is key to its significance in the modern day.
The key external feature of chapel design is its pointed gable end and rectangular plan form. The front façade is always slightly more imposing than other sides and includes the main door(s), windows and plaque or stone, which states the name of the chapel and the date of its construction. Windows are tall, and symmetry in the location of openings is also a key element. Even with an embracing of classical forms in later examples, the original principles of symmetry and relationships between elements is retained. Later, larger chapels also developed to incorporate steps up to a grand porch as an integral element in their overall design. A forecourt is also a common later feature, replacing the graveyard of older/larger chapels.
The circumstances of the town chapels were similar across industrial England. Their location was not usually near the town centre, as the central areas had long since been developed. Their location was usually on the outskirts, in the midst of the industrial areas/working communities that they predominantly served. The industrial setting of town chapels resulted in an architectural response to make their presence felt. This was manifest in the use of an assortment of complex masonry and heavy mouldings. As the vernacular tradition embraced increasing ornament, it often resulted in a mixture of styles being applied to one building. The late 19th century also saw the introduction of gothic motifs. The overall composition, although unsubtle, often made and still makes a significant contribution to the townscape.
The stuccoed Italianate front of Bethesda Methodist Chapel when it was an active place of worship.
Bethesda – a model town chapel
The land upon which Bethesda stands was first purchased in 1791, as a direct response to the emergence of the New Connexion and the need to make room for a new and growing congregation as well as to formally establish a presence in the community. The holding, which included a coach-house, was immediately fitted out for worship, though demand soon exceeded its 150 capacity.
In 1798 the first Bethesda Chapel was built, accommodating 600 people and opened by Alexander Kilham, the secretary of the New Connexion, and William Thom, its first president. A work entitled A view of the Potteries published in 1800 noted this early building as being ‘…large and elegant…’. The front elevation with its Roman cement finish and two-column porch with recessed end bays was later described as being ‘lofty’.
The Hanley circuit was the strongest in the Connexion, and the Chapel was one of the most popular; and the congregation soon outgrew the new building. The year 1811 signified the beginning of a cycle of change and expansion that was to continue throughout the century, when the Trustees resolved to extend the Chapel by adding a semi-circular end of around 10 yards in extent and a grand semi-circular gallery behind the pulpit. Behind the pulpit and underneath the north gallery a vestry was also built for the leaders and ministry. A schoolroom was built at around the same time (on the site of the present vestry building).
Rear of the apse, built about 1819
The Sunday-school building, built about 1819 and extended in 1836
The pulpit and communion rail
Highly decorated colonnade and columns, added about 1859
The additional seating provided by the extension increased the capacity of the Chapel from 600 to 1,000. Within a few months of its completion in 1812, the whole of the sittings had been let. The many potential worshippers who could not be accommodated had to take seats in other places of worship.
In 1819, faced with continued demand for seats, the Trustees resolved that the Chapel should be enlarged once more, to enable it to hold a further 1,000 people. Mr Perkins, a schoolmaster of the Royal Lancaster School, Manchester, and designer of the British School in Pall Mall, Hanley, was commissioned to produce the plans and costs and supervise the works, which were extensive.
The alterations involved taking down the newer, curved end of the Chapel. The older front end was left unaltered, but the corners were fitted up over the stairs to seat the scholars. Underneath the chapel a burial vault was constructed. The building was re-slated and re-plastered. It was at this time that the ground floor plan of three aisles was adopted, and it was ordered that the centre of the Chapel was to be fitted with square pews. As was common practice, several of the seats were rented and several more reserved for the choir and Sunday-school children. A relatively small number were free (150 seats). The most expensive of the rented seats were in the gallery. Though seating 2,000 people, the Chapel could accommodate up to 3,000 by making use of space around the aisles, the communion pew and the organ. All the pews were let within months. To complete the improvements a new organ was purchased, funded by five of the trustees.
In addition, a new single-storey school building was built to the south at the rear of the burial ground, replacing the one in the chapel yard. A second storey was added in 1836.
By the mid-19th century, Bethesda was recognised as a place of worship for the town's social elite and the middle-class residents of the town and district. With continuing demand for rented seats, in 1856 the free seats were converted to rented pews. Adaptations to the Chapel continued, and in the same year a new pulpit and communion rail were installed, designed by the architect Robert Scrivener. Scrivener was a member of the congregation and also designed Hanley Town Hall (1869).
In the autumn of 1859 the front of the Chapel was remodelled. A colonnade with Corinthian pillars was erected at the front of the building, a central upper window was added, and the whole was surmounted with a massive cornice and Grecian ornaments. The frontage was enclosed by a cast-iron palisade, with gates and pillars set in stone. Within the building, alterations included the installation of a ceiling centrepiece with a new sunlight suspended from it. The building was also painted and decorated throughout. In 1860 a new organ, built by Messrs Kirtland and Jardine of Manchester, was installed. These extensive works were carried out in preparation for the Annual Methodist Conference of 1860, which was to be held at Bethesda.
In 1887 Mr William Hill, a Leeds architect, was employed to make further extensive alterations, including new entrances to the gallery, an enlarged orchestra, improvements to the organ, added comfort to the gallery pews, reconstruction and re-pewing of the entire Chapel in pitch pine, and removal of all the earlier windows and their replacement with windows of ground glass with coloured margins. A pitch-pine dado was put around the body of the chapel and up the two new staircases; all the pews were re-cushioned, the aisles covered with linoleum and the whole sanctuary decorated. The minister’s vestry was also doubled in size and better lit. These improvements coincided with the holding of the Annual Conference at Bethesda in 1888.
In 1897 Bethesda and the Methodist New Connexion celebrated its centenary, when the Chapel was redecorated and electric lighting installed.
During the twentieth century it was the repair of the building and not its alteration and beautification that became paramount. A declining congregation created different needs, and the subsequent loss of revenue increasingly impacted on the maintenance of the fabric.