A Brief History of Witham Methodist Church
The exact date of the beginning of Methodism in Witham is not known, but Witham appears on the Weslyan plan for January 1837 as a preaching place. It seems probable that early Witham Methodists had to travel three miles to the village of Hatfield Peverel where a meeting place existed from the 1820’s. There is evidence for this since the statistics for Witham in its early years are sometimes included with those of Hatfield Peverel.
In her excellent book “A History of Witham” Janet Gyford states that it was 1863 when the Witham Methodist chapel was first opened in Guithavon Street. This was nearly 80 years after John Wesley stopped briefly in the town for refreshment on one of his many journeys throughout the country.
In 1863 the plot of land in Guithavon Street was purchased and it was agreed that the tender for building the Weslyan Chapel be accepted. At a trustees meeting in February 1864 it was agreed that the Chapel be opened on 17th May 1864 and that the Rev Rowe engage the services of Revd Luke Wiseman, Revd Wilkinson and Revd E. Coleman for the occasion, services to be continued on the following two Sundays. The Essex Chronicle of 17th May 1864 reported:-
“The new Weslyan Chapel in Guithavon Street was opened on Tuesday last. A tea meeting afterwards took place at the White Hart Hotel at which a numerous and highly respectable company attended”.
The Witham chapel site in Guithavon Street was next to the former town police station which was demolished in the 1980’s to make way for Mill Vale Lodge retirement flats. The land, originally owned by the Luard family, the most prominent in the town in the 19th century, was purchased from the longest established religious ‘dissenters’ in the town, The Congregationalists (now The United Reformed Church). Our chapel is understood to have predated, by about 5 years, an adjacent group of almshouses known as Paradise Row built by the Congregationalists for their poor. These cottages are illustrated in a c.191 0 photo reproduced in “Witham” compiled by Janet Gyford for the series “Images of England” published by Tempus. The foundation brickwork to those cottages can still be seen in the little car park on the east of the site.
The chapel was designed by Charles Pertwee and comprises a single storey brick structure with high gable ends supporting a steep pitched slate roof on large curved truss beams. It has tall, pointed topped windows on each side and high on the north front provided good natural lighting. There is a double door entrance porch with a lean-to slate roof; this originally divided to left and right isles but in 1987 a central doorway was opened into the body of the chapel and the side passages were converted to storage cupboards. By then it was being used just as a hall and a suspended ceiling and central heating radiators had been installed.
As the years progressed the need for schoolroom facilities was found to be necessary and in 1934 a building extension was added to the rear. The extension comprised of a kitchen, schoolroom and Guild meeting room. The exterior wall contains stones inscribed with names of those connected with the extension. Among these were Ebenezer Smith JP, Mabel Digby, Mr. & Mrs W.W. Marshall, Oscar Heddles, Rev James & Mrs Lewis and Joseph Rank. Circuit stewards were H.V. Norfolk and F. Powell and two other stones are inscribed Mr. & Mrs G. Wheeler and Mr. & Mrs W. Alderton. A photograph of the ceremonial laying of eight foundation stones on
1st of May 1934 appears to show a single door on the West side of the rear wall of the chapel. This suggests there was originally an additional room or rooms prior to the 1934 structure. There is now also an identical door on the East side of the rear wall
into what was a small kitchen. The adjacent, larger, schoolroom was then converted into a new kitchen. A gas fire in one corner, in a fireplace that had probably originally held a coal grate, was removed in that conversion.
Janet Gyford notes that one of the foundation stones is unusually dedicated to “Joseph Rank Esq. 30th May 1934”. Joseph, a Yorkshire flour miller, was a very philanthropic supporter of Methodism but normally very retiring about publicity. His son was the film mogul J Arthur Rank. The Rank Trust is still one of the largest supporters of the worldwide Methodist Church and has already agreed to provide funds towards our present enhancement and renewal work. His support in the 1930’s was no doubt an important addition to the fundraising and gifts and loans by the church members and the other Methodist churches of the Chelmsford Circuit represented at the ceremony.
By the mid 1940’s the chapel was inadequate in size and facilities and the church members started to raise funds for improvements but due to world events it was only in 1946 that positive steps were taken towards a new church building.
A Circuit Commission visited Witham in November 1952 to examine the situation in view of impending major expansion of the town as part of the Greater London Council Overspill Development Scheme. Their report to the Chelmsford Circuit Quarterly Meeting in December 1952 was that a new church should be built which would cost £10,000 of which central funds would pay 40% and the remainder would need to be raised locally. Evidently it had also already been decided that the land on which the almshouses still stood would be offered to the Witham Trust by the Congregational Church.
The Commission recommended the church should also purchase the house to the rear of the site and seek authorization for the building work. In the event the house purchase did not proceed; it was later sold to a private owner. Approval was obtained and fundraising effort was redoubled with the objective of a more modest scheme. The adjacent site of the Paradise Row cottages, demolished in the mid 1950’s, was purchased. Interestingly the proceeds of this sale to the Methodists were used by the URC to establish a charitable trust that has subsequently contributed considerable funds to supporting children in the town.
The existing church was built to the west of the chapel in 1961 “as a labour of love”, by Arthur and Leonard Corley, local builders whose family were church members. It is linked to the 1934 guild room by a low flat roofed block of rooms at the rear incorporating vestries, toilets and a corridor with an additional entrance from a central open yard. A flat roof vestibule and entrance is to the northwest corner of the church. Construction of the church started with an early morning dedication service on 2nd February.
The foundation stone for the new church building was laid on July 7th 1961 by Rev J.G. Beard and Mrs A.G. Corley, and it was formally opened on Saturday 23rd June 1962 by Mr. C A Walker with a service and celebrations led by the Chairman of the District, aided by the Superintendent of Chelmsford Circuit, the Minister of the Church Rev. John Beard and the Minister of Braintree Methodist Church. Some 3 to 400 people attended, filling both the chapel and the church.
The old chapel building is let out during the week for other community activities. A brief contemporary account of the building scheme exists in a record book, including newspaper cuttings and photographs, in memory of church members Bert and Dora Crosby who helped in the project. It is displayed in the church in tribute to all those involved in and funding the work.
CHURCHES TOGETHER IN WITHAM
This is based on a prayer requested by Churches Together in Witham. In making it I sought the indulgence of The Lord and the congregation for incorporating my interest in local history.
‘Father we pray for Witham and our Christian witness here and give thanks for this ancient town. Stone tools and traces of buildings in the ground have been found that were left here, in biblical times more than 3000 years ago, by prehistoric folk who also lived on the banks of the River Brain. Later a bronze-age tribe constructed earthwork for protection where we now have houses, roads and a railway station.
Archaeologists have also proved that, within a large area enclosed by banks near Witham Lodge, iron-age Britons and Roman occupiers of this land lived here and worshipped their gods at sacred pools. They also built a baptismal font in a chapel suggesting that Jesus Christ was worshipped here only 350 years after he came to earth. This tantalising evidence remains a shadowy clue through the mists of the dark ages but is perhaps still attested by the property name of “Ivy Chimneys” that seems to refer to old ruins recorded until relatively recently.
Over a thousand years ago, on St Nicolas’ site, an Anglo-Saxon Minster church served the Witham Hundred and in the 11th Century the Norman lords and East Saxons developed a planned town at Chipping Witham. A couple of hundred years later the Knights Templar of Cressing were granted rights to establish Newland Witham at the crossing of the River Brain on the old Roman Road) where it gradually prospered. The crossing place had been known as Wulvesford. It is within another large, ancient, earth-banked enclosure which can still be traced in Maldon Road and Lockram Lane but has yet to be fully investigated to explain what place it had in the history of the town.
In the mid 19th Century the Victorians built the Great Eastern Railway through ancient Chipping Witham and this stimulated housing and industry that filled the gap between “Chipping” and “Newlands” consolidating Witham town. That period also saw new places of worship including the building of the Anglican Holy Family Church, now occupied by the Roman Catholics, and of Congregational, Methodist and Evangelical Chapels and Quaker meetings. Our Methodist chapel apparently stands on former Congregational Church land.
We acknowledge that this followed centuries of religious and civil dispute as Europe forged the institutions and principles of ethical and equitable governance and freedom of worship. Lord God we honour the martyrs and the sacrifices of those whose courage, persistence and faith sustained the development of Your church throughout the ages where it has been Your will. We seek also Your forgiveness for those many times when Your will has not been done.
Lord we thank and praise You for the rich inheritance in Witham. We ask Your blessing, Father, on the fledgling Baptist Group and other ministry to serve the next expansion of Witham now under way. Thank You also for the work of Churches Together promoting our common heritage whilst cherishing the different traditions. We pray the friendships and integration of our congregations continue to develop and encompass the whole community.
May the Holy Spirit guide the daily lives of Christians in the town, their ministry to Your flock and mission to those outside whose need we see day by day is so great in this unbelieving, material world.
Lord help us listen to Your call and follow Your word and grant us the strength to do Your will. May the fountain of Your love and forgiveness, which washed away our sins, be known by all people of Witham. In the name of Your Son. Jesus Christ, we ask this “Amen”