Bethesda Methodist Chapel, Stoke-on-Trent, is one of England's grandest town chapels, impressive for its size, ambitious in its architectural design and in its heyday capable of attracting huge congregations to hear many noted preachers. For a long time during the 19th century, Bethesda was Stoke's most popular place of worship.
Its former burial ground (see photo A) has recently been relandscaped (B) as Bethesda Churchyard, in which are set a few historic monuments (C).
The chapel and its former burial ground...
... and after the burial ground was landscaped
The present building, which dates largely from 1819, was constructed on the initiative of members of the Methodist New Connexion, the first division in Methodism after John Wesley's death. The Connexion was brought into being in 1797, reflecting the desire of the laity to be as involved in the denomination's governance as its ministers. Worship had originally begun in a coach house in Albion Street in 1797. In 1798 a purpose-built chapel was erected on the same site, and this was enlarged in 1811 with the intention of seating 1,000 people. This building also proved too small, and in 1819 was rebuilt to its present dimensions.
For several years, the Chapel was the venue for the annual Conference that governed the Methodist New Connexion and its modern body, the United Methodist Church.
The leading benefactors were, significantly, important manufacturing families such as the Ridgways and others who were high in local government. The Ridgway family factory was sited close by in Bethesda Street, and other notable pottery manufacturers were Job Meigh, Joseph Clementson and Michael Huntbach. These leading citizens were wealthy enough to make Bethesda into not only an outstanding monument to the Methodist movement but a symbol of the confidence and civic pride of Stoke-on-Trent.
The pulpit in 1970
The seven-tiered gallery in 1970
The Kirtland & Jardine organ
The Corinthian capitals as they are today
The 1819 buildings
Plans of the 1819 buildings were provided by J H Perkins, a local schoolmaster. His contribution is retained in the curved, chequered-brick façade and two tiers of windows that face the former burial ground.
The main entrance to the church is from the north, on Albion Street, where a new frontage was created in 1859. This was the work of Robert Scrivener, a local architect and keen member of the congregation; it was clearly meant to provide even greater consequence and a fitting sense of style to what had become Stoke's leading place of worship. He achieved this by rebuilding the façade in the fashionable stuccoed Italianate manner, integrating a portico of eight Corinthian columns (D) and new entrances. Above is a central Venetian window; crowning the roofline is a bracketed cornice with a central broken pediment.
Within is a vestibule from which two flights of stairs lead to the gallery above. Ahead is the minister's vestry, which opens into the chapel proper where, immediately in front and unusually for a Methodist chapel, stands a handsome pulpit (E). The pulpit is of interest in its own right, having been designed by Robert Scrivener also, and being octagonal in shape, with a double flight of stairs. It is made of mahogany, and sensitively proportioned to fit the scale of the chapel with an encircling communion rail and kneelers. The focus of the entire chapel is on this magnificent piece of furniture.
From the pulpit are sweeping views of a vast interior, notable for its continuous oval gallery containing seven tiers of seats (F). The gallery is supported on 24 slim, cast-iron columns. At the far end the effect of the columns was somewhat compromised by the introduction of several meeting rooms in the 1950s. Sadly, the original ceiling with its enriched cornice and hanging gasoliers has also been lost.
A stained-glass copy of Holman Hunt's The Light of the World
In 1887 the ground floor pews were renewed on a different seating plan and new windows were installed with ornamental window lights. Some stained glass was commissioned, including a depiction of William Holman Hunt's celebrated Victorian oil painting, The Light of the World (H). The detailed furnishing is impressive, including expensive stained and coloured glass, timber furnishings and door fittings of the highest quality.
Below the entrance and vestibule is another rarity for a Methodist chapel: a burial crypt containing the remains of prominent chapel members.
There is a detached vestry block on the west side of the chapel and a large former school building, now in different ownership, on the far side of the burial ground. In front of the main entrance is a small paved area and a pair of prominent noticeboards, a characteristic feature of nonconformist places of worship. The chapel reputedly seated up to 2,000 people.
In the 20th century a declining congregation created different needs, and the subsequent loss of revenue increasingly impacted on the maintenance of the fabric. The direction in that century is typified by proposals for its conversion.
In 1935 the Home Mission Department of the Methodist Church (London) had plans to convert Bethesda into a great mission centre for the Potteries. The idea was to redefine Bethesda as a town centre facility, and in so doing move away from the idea of Bethesda as being a 'local' chapel. The Bethesda Trustees, however, considered the alterations too extensive, preferring instead to broaden the Chapel's activities in a more incremental way.
The Home Mission Department thought the Trustees' approach comprised half-and-half measures that would not succeed and that 'making a place one thing in the morning and another thing at night had not proved successful in other places'.
One of the schoolrooms constructed about 1940, as it is today
The roof and ceiling were highlighted as requiring special attention. During the Second World War, the ceiling was replaced and three schoolrooms were constructed (using pews) at the back of the gallery, after the Sunday School was taken over for the war effort.
In 1947 the Conference Commission reported proposed changes in the organisation of the Circuit at Handley. In the 'spirit of the progressive tradition' of Methodism, it was proposed that the three Hanley Circuits would be amalgamated, with the exclusion of Bethesda, which should become a separate Circuit. The Commission anticipated that the centre of Hanley would undergo considerable changes 'as a result of town planning', and, though wishing to retain a presence in the town centre, also anticipated that this would eventually be at a new site. The numbers attending Bethesda had been falling steadily over the previous 25 years, with no sign of a reversal in the trend. By 1946 only 150 members were attending worship. The recommendation was that work continue 'aggressively' at Bethesda while a new site was being secured, and to this end the Commission noted the urgent need for temporary buildings, although it was anticipated that in the medium term Bethesda would be sold.
A schedule of repairs by architects W Campbell and Son (Hanley) at this time identified extensive repairs needed to the exterior and interior of the Chapel. The major items included rebuilding the boiler house; refurbishing all the sash windows; repointing; replacing or refixing rainwater goods; and (the single most costly item) redecorating the inside of the Chapel. Extensive repairs to the front entrance off Bethesda Street were also advised. At this time the leaders of the Chapel had laid down the foundation of Youth and Community work. Drawings were later prepared by Campbell's practice for the proposed formation of classrooms on either side of the pulpit and for a new platform and choir. These ideas were not followed through.
During 1948, the reconstruction plans for Stoke led to many discussions about Bethesda, including concerning its possible purchase by the Water Board. Although the exhumation of the graveyard was a particular cause for concern, many of the congregation at Bethesda were against relocation, thinking that the Chapel could not be improved upon, particularly following the town centre improvements when it would overlook Piccadilly (once the buildings at the bottom of Piccadilly were demolished).
The suspended ceiling added in 1974, as it is today
During 1974, records indicate that there were problems with the roof. The continued upkeep of the building included the replacement of the ceiling and related timber treatment and replastering, as well as the turnerising of the newly sheeted asbestos section. The original decorative plaster ceiling was taken down and replaced with a suspended ceiling of acoustic tiles. The windows were redecorated and the gold of the pulpit rails repainted.
In 1978 various repairs were identified by the Manpower Services Commission, a scheme that trained young people in the trades of carpentry, building and decoration.
The repairs included pointing the vestry and the chapel (where the former boiler house had been demolished); replastering the wall of the staircase to the gallery following the removal of dry rot; replacing wooden panelling and skirting boards to the staircase; decorating the church up to gallery ceiling level; staining/sealing the pew area; decorating the gallery staircases; and demolishing an air-raid shelter.
In 1982, facing the cost of ongoing repairs, the Trust commissioned a feasibility study to investigate the potential of the building for reuse, while also retaining space for continued worship. Five proposals were investigated. The option considered the most viable was based on conversion to offices, given the town centre location of the building. The scheme involved horizontal subdivision to create a first floor at gallery level. This new first floor retained the raked gallery seating at the north end as well as the organ. The pulpit and communion rail were to be relocated from the ground floor. All pews were to be removed from the ground floor to enable subdivision, which included a community room. External alterations would include two new entrances in the rear wall to give access to the offices.
A similar proposal was subsequently put to the Trust to offer the lease of the site to a developer at a low ground rent in exchange for car parking (approached from Bethesda Street), a ground-floor chapel and multi-purpose community centre approached from Albion Street, and such other accommodation as might be required. The proposal was that the developer would then provide as many floors of office accommodation (at the former Sunday School) as considered necessary to make the scheme economically viable. At the time, the advantages were considered many, not least that the Trust retained the freehold.
The end of worship at Bethesda
The congregation considered all potential options and decided that their efforts would be better focused on supporting the Ministry elsewhere. In 1985, facing a declining and aging membership, the Methodist District Redevelopment Commission was called in and recommended to the Church Council that listed-building consent to demolish Bethesda should be sought. The Bethesda Society closed on Sunday 29 December 1985, following the 6.30pm service.
Listed-building consent to demolish was refused. Subsequent proposals for the building's reuse included one for a combined exhibition and workshop/studio space, put forward by West Midlands Arts and designed to encourage young artists and sculptors to stay in Stoke. At the same time, Ansells Brewery also showed interest in converting the building to a restaurant/wine bar. In 1987 a private owner purchased Bethesda. One of his main aspirations was to convert the building into a nightclub, a proposal not supported by the City Council.
Into the 21st century
In 2000 the Bethesda Heritage Trust acquired the building. The Trust's reuse proposal aimed to retain part of the building for worship while also providing an office for The Saltbox (a local Methodist organisation), alongside community meeting rooms and an educational resource that included a permanent exhibition on Christian Heritage. A subsequent bid for funding to realise the proposal was unsuccessful. The Historic Chapels Trust acquired Bethesda in 2002.
M.W Greenslade (1983): A History of Hanley Staffs County Library
Smith and Beard (1899): Bethesda Chapel (Hanley New Press, Hanley)
Ken Powell (1980): The Fall of Zion (SAVE)
Ken Powell and Celia de la Hey (1985): Churches: a question of conversion (SAVE)
Andrew Trimen (1849): Church and Chapel Architecture (Longman et al)
City of Stoke HB Survey (1985): Bethesda Chapel City Museum/Art Gallery
Kenneth Lindley (1969): Chapels and Meeting Houses (John Baker)
Recording Britain, Volume III (1948): (Oxford University Press)
Bethesda Heritage Trust (2002): Bethesda Conservation Project Bid Submission
The Bethesda Archive