Rotherham, Wellgate Church, Yorkshire
A Century of Fruitful Service
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. Joseph Maland
For a hundred years our church at Wellgate, Rotherham First Circuit, has rendered splendid service in confession and conduct in the busy town of Rotherham, and has a noble record that evokes admiration, pride, gratitude and keen expectancy of even greater and grander achievements for Christ and Primitive Methodism. The story of the beginning of Wellgate Church takes us back to the close of the first decade of our Connexional history, and it is full of interest and inspiration. We are at once arrested and enthused as we view the courage, resourcefulness, and undauntable, all-conquering zeal of the pioneer missionary, Rev. Jeremiah Gilbert, and his small, but heroic band of coadjutors.
Accepted for the ministry of our church by the Nottingham Quarterly Meeting, May, 1819, Mr. Gilbert was sent forth on his missionary labours and directed to go whithersoever the Divine Spirit led him. In the good providence of God he was led to Sheffield and adjacent towns and villages where he succeeded so marvellously and on so grand a scale, that Sheffield was made the head of a circuit in 1820, and later became the head of a district.
Like most of our early missionaries, Jeremiah Gilbert had to encounter much fierce and wicked opposition and to suffer greatly In his endeavour to vindicate free speech between man and man about religion, and in his proclamation of salvation for all through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. But all his experiences were endured with unfaltering faith and perennial cheerfulness. The temperament and character of this remarkable man are well evidenced in a record made after one of his imprisonments. On the way from Nottingham to his work at Sheffield, he came to Bolsover, then a town of about a thousand inhabitants. He felt he had a message for this people and seized the opportunity to proclaim it. He commenced his service in the open-air, probably at the market cross, and was proceeding with his address, but was not allowed to finish. The local constable pulled him down, arrested him, and put him in the lock-up called the “round-house.” Of his experiences whilst there imprisoned he afterwards wrote:
“While I was in Bolsover Round House, where there was neither bed, nor straw, God took possession of me, body, spirit, and soul, only Him to possess the whole.”
Before visiting Rotherham he missioned the neighbouring villages of Greasborough and Wickersley, where foundations were well and truly laid of two of the best village churches in the Sheffield district, with excellent, well-equipped Sunday-schools and C.E. Societies, and peoples and officials among the most devoted and progressive on the circuit of which Wellgate is the head.
The following extracts from the missionary’s journal tell of the commencement of Wellgate Church. “Wednesday, May 24th, 1820 – preached at Rotherham. A refreshing time, and one person was set at liberty and praised Jehovah.”
“Thurs. June 22nd, 1820, at Rotherham, led a prayer-meeting. A young woman was set at liberty and praised the Lord Jehovah.”
“Friday, 23rd, at Bradgate, preached and held a prayer-meeting, One woman said she believed the Lord had forgiven her all her sins and had made her happy in the love of the Redeemer.”
These, and other services, were doubtless held in the open-air, but soon, the cause taking root and prospering, a building became necessary, and a room in Westgate, as shown in illustration, colloquially known in those days as “The Ranters’ Chapel,” was secured, and a Church and Sunday-school were established. Here many were won to Christ and self-denying redemptive service, and numbers of young people received their first religious instruction. Here, as elsewhere, our church being built up out of the ranks of ungodly and unchristian homes.
Among the early ministers was that remarkable man the Rev. John Verity, who rendered distinguished service in consolidating and extending the influence of the church. His staunch Free Churchism, ardent Protestantism, hatred of priestism (qualities none too prominent to-day), vigilance for the rights of the King of Kings are strikingly exhibited by an inscription the writer discovered on the outer covering of an old Wellgate baptism register, which reads as follows:
“Rotherham Register of Baptisms of the Primitive Methodist Church enrolled in the High Court of Chancery according to the Statute made by Act of Parliament, 1845.
Having been first duly stamped with the authority of heaven, according to the Act of King Jesus, ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords.’ The only Maker of the Apostles and of all their successors for evermore, notwithstanding all the pretensions of any Popes and Puseyites to the contrary.”
Quite early in its history Wellgate Church rooted itself deeply and permanently in the social and religious life of the town, especially in its advocacy of the economic and social rights of the toiling masses, the principles of the Free Churches, temperance reform and work generally among young people. Then, as now, the Sunday-school Anniversary became a very popular town event – one of the chief items of the religious calendar. A record in the Rev. Thomas Morgan’s journal (father of the late Rev. F.J. Morgan) for 1845 indicates that the Westgate room had proved too small for anniversary occasions and that they were celebrated in rooms usually occupied for other purposes.
“ October 5th: preached Rotherham school sermons. Had the use of the Court House; large congregations; a good time at night.”
Such a story reveals progress and also a changed attitude on the part of the civic authorities. For preaching the true gospel Jeremiah Gilbert had to suffer imprisonment. In order that Thomas Morgan might minister to a larger congregation than our rooms would accommodate, the Court House is freely placed at his service. When the present writer preached the Centenary Sermon in June last year, the Mayor and Corporation attended in state and one of the most appreciative members of the congregation was the Chief Constable. Thus do time and work justify the adventurous, unfaltering mission of the servants of Christ! Thus did our fathers by their sincerity, boldness, self-abnegation, and Christliness disarm opposition and gain friends among all classes and convert many!
July 24th, 1847, we find Hugh Bourne at Rotherham and baptising two baby girls – Lydia Norah, and Martha Ann Sellars from miners’ homes. Bringing a blessing with him, as always, he departed, leaving our church greatly enriched, and journeyed to his next appointment, heartened by the zeal, determination and manifest progress of his Rotherham confrères.
The coming of the Rev. Edward Morton to Rotherham about 1850, a plodding, bold saintly minister of our church, marked the beginning of a great forward movement, which laid the basis of our present position in the town and district. The members in school and church had grown so strongly, that more commodious premises were absolutely necessary. A fine, commanding site was secured in Wellgate and a chapel, school-room, and minister’s house built in 1851. Here under ampler conditions, and from a better strategic centre, the good work started at Westgate was continued by a band of noble stalwarts of sterling character and untiring devotion to Christ and their church, and served by some of the noblest and ablest ministers of our church, whose words and works are enshrined in the memories and lives of a grateful people. Primitive Methodism has never been better represented than by these loyal, generous, people and pastors, the relations between whom have always been exceptionally cordial and happy. They built, better than they knew and the products of their labour speak forth their praise in ever-growing moral and spiritual power and fruitfulness.
Nor did they content themselves with work at Wellgate. They were not cribbed or cabined or parochial in their outlook! They aspired to win the whole town and neighbourhood to Jesus Christ and did much to actualise their aspiration. They heard and answered, God’s call to other and wider responsibilities. In the summer of 1866 – during the great and gracious ministry of the Revs. J. Thomasson and R. Bryant – they commenced services in the house of one William Bennett, 11, Chapel Street, Parkgate (two miles from Rotherham) later they took over from the Wesleyan Methodists, Ebenezer Chapel in Rotherham Road, and encouraged by much success, and needing larger accommodation, in 1874 or 1875, under the sagacious leadership of the Rev. John Dickenson, a site of land in Lloyd Street was purchased, and the present Bethel Church and School-rooms were erected at an outlay of upwards of £3,500. To-day we hold the premier position among the Parkgate Churches; have a pulpit famous throughout the district; one of the largest and best Christian Endeavours in the Connexion, and a generous, hard-working people, of whom we are rightly proud, and in its troop of young people immense possibilities for a further advance on a grand scale.
Later the enthusiasm for the spread of the gospel and evangelistic fervour of our Parkgate compatriots led them to sally forth to evangelise a rapidly growing population on the Eastwood View side of Rotherham, and to those evangelistic efforts we owe the formation of our church there. For a considerable time services were persistently conducted by the mission bands in the open-air, the good seed rooting in many hearts. Eventually a room was obtained, and a Sunday-school started, and therein lies the origin of what is now a powerful and thriving church, with excellent buildings, beautifully decorated, electrically lighted, one of the best sites in the district, and all clear of debt. The work of Alderman George Clarke, J.P., and his good wife (recently called to higher service) in this church for towards half-a -century, is a glorious record of self-forgetting, generous work in which they have been supported by loyal and true fellow-helpers, and the stimulus and guidance of the circuit ministers. Among those who freely acknowledge their indebtedness to our Sunday-school here in the creation of lofty ideals and the formation of robust character is Alderman T.W. Grundy, M.P., the member of Rother Valley, as the writer heard him testify three years ago at a great Sunday-school demonstration.
In the year 1871 the Wellgate Society missioned Masbro’. They met with very gratifying success right away. They quickly secured a room known as the “shovel shop,” where a vigorous church and Sunday-school were established. So greatly had the work advanced that in 1877 a site was purchased and a School-Chapel erected, where many souls were won to Christ and many homes brightened and purified through the scholars. In 1895, the commodious Church and School-room in College Road were erected at a coat (with organ and renovations) of £5,420. As the head of Rotherham ll. Circuit, Masbro’ Church, under the able and very successful Superintendency of the Rev. B. Arnfield, exerts a very gracious influence and is a growing power for good. Its well-staffed and well-equipped Sunday-school is one of the best in the town. At Holmes, Catcliffe, and Dalton Brook, we have products of the same self-denying labour and heroic venturesomeness.
The present Wellgate Church and school-room were erected during the enterprising ministry of the Rev. S.B. Reynolds in 1892-3, at a cost of £6,021, including freehold of site and cost of organ. The renovation and various improvements have cost an additional £500. This amount and current expenses have been met and the debt reduced to £988. The church in all its departments – Sunday-school, C.E., Choir and Brotherhood and Sisterhood is in a healthy state and the outlook for the new century is full of promise.
Last year the Rotherham I Circuit of which Wellgate is the head, raised for debt reduction £1,609, for Home and Foreign Missions, £100, for Orphan Homes, £24, for African Jubilee Fund, £128, and reported increases of members, Sunday-school scholars, and Christian Endeavourers. At the request of the Missionary Committee it has taken over from the South Yorkshire Mission, Maltby, and, Leslie Avenue Societies, an arrangement, we believe, that will prove of mutual benefit to all, and under the ministry, varied and many-gifted, of Rev. J. Burkett, Mr. A. J. Fish, and Miss Perrett, great blessing will come to all the societies.
To record these achievements is easy! But who can estimate the worth of such brave, liberal servants of Christ? The records tell of difficulties, many, especially during the past two decades, and burdens exceedingly heavy, and countless demands for endurance, courage and unfaltering devotion. Heroically and triumphantly they met the challenge! Ever and always, there was a cheerful and wholehearted response!
In the life of Rotherham – civic, social, educational and religious, Wellgate Church has played a prominent and noble part in the past we were well represented by Mr. J.M. Archer, Chairman of the School Board, by Mr. Councillor J. Chesterfield and Mr. Alderman T. Woodhouse, a distinguished occupant of the Mayoral Office, and to-day by Mr. Alderman George Clarke, J.P., of Eastwood, whose Mayoralty was exceptionally popular and useful, Mrs. J.W. Fell, on the Board of Guardians, Mr. Councillor S. Hall, of Masbro’ Church, Mr. R.H. Dawson, the popular Choirmaster and a Leader in the Cooperative movement, and leading tradesmen like Messrs. J. Haigh, R.W. Grayson, J.W. Barrett. The Postmaster, Mr. T. Youden, is an old Wellgate scholar. She has given good workers to other churches in the town and co-operated in all forms of religious and social service. In Primitive Methodist Churches in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Grantham, she is well represented and is proud of her scholars, the Rev. and Mrs. J.R. Fell of Kafue, North-west Rhodesia and the Rev. W.C.H. Fell, Guernsey.
The recent Centenary celebrations were characterised by enthusiasm and marked by a rededlcation of our people to larger undertakings for their church, school, town and Divine Maker, confident that there is:
“So much to do that is not e’en begun,
So much to hope for, we cannot see!
So much to win, so many things to be,”
Christian Messenger 1921/44