Chester le Street Circuit, Co Durham
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. J.J. Alderson
CHESTER-LE-STREET is very pleasantly situated on a quiet stretch of the river Wear, and is within easy distance of the busy centres of Newcastle-on-Tyne and Sunderland, and is but six miles north of the famous cathedral city of Durham.
Its history takes us back to the time of the old civilisations. Remains of Roman altars, coins and pottery have been found here from time to time, indicating the existence of a Roman military station. Chester-le-Street was the ecclesiastical centre of Northern England from the latter part of the ninth to the end of the tenth century. King Alfred and King Athelstan visited the town and left valuable gifts – robes, crowns and vessels of gold, relics of which are now in the Cathedral Library at Durham.
In spite of many modern changes, Chester-le-Street still retains several attractive aspects of a small old country town. The influence of two historic castles is in the social atmosphere of the place. Lambton Castle owned by the Earl of Durham, and Lumley, which belongs to the Earl of Scarborough, lie on the border of the town. While Chester-le-Street is surrounded by many mining villages, agricultural interests have a prominent place in the business life of the community.
Methodism has established itself very firmly in the religious life of the people. We have reason to be proud of the magnificent work put in by the pioneers who missioned this and neighbouring areas. Only messengers endowed with a rare heroic spirit and a gospel which had its roots deep in personal experience dared face the situation which then prevailed.
Into the moral and social darkness came the Methodist evangelist with a message rich with grace and hope. And though the seed at first fell upon hard ground; in subsequent years the ingathering was truly miraculous. Strong men who had been the slaves of brute passion, passed through a profound spiritual change. Fellowships were organised and chapels were erected in village and hamlet to the glory of God and for the culture of the redeemed life.
Chester-le-Street Circuit is a conspicuous example of the wonderful influence exercised by Methodism. In the year 1823 Thomas Nelson missioned this town, and a Primitive Methodist Society was formed. In the following year a preaching room was engaged.
The membership was linked up with the South Shields Circuit. Later it was transferred to Durham, then to Sunderland, and subsequently became a branch of Hetton. In 1871 Chrester-le-Street became the head of an independent circuit with seven chapels and the Rev. Thos. Parsons was appointed its first minister. The value of the property was £1,483. We have now twelve chapels and two manses valued at £23,535 and only £1,000 debt on the whole of the property.
The station reports a sound membership of eight hundred, and nearly two thousand scholars. The young people’s institutions are in a flourishing condition. The development has been mainly due to the generous support of a most loyal and efficient staff of officials. As indicating the admirable constancy of the leaders, we may mention the remarkable fact that Nos. 3, 4, and 5 on the preachers’ plan of forty-six names are still engaged in Sunday school, C.E. and Temperance work. John Simpson, Joseph Hutchinson and Frank Knox are not mere “hangers on.” They have the young heart.
This station has been extremely fortunate in the appointment of circuit stewards. Since 1871 onIy four brethren have served in this responsible office. A. Harkness served for five years. Thos. Armstrong filled the position most worthily till his death in 1887. Then Thos. Telford entered upon the work and had the joy during his long term of thirty-five years’ service of seeing the circuit grow into its present influential condition. He deeply appreciated the confidence of his brethren and in return gladly gave his whole strength to promote the interests of the Church. Mr. Thos. Storey now holds the position, and is a leader of singularly fine character. He is ably assisted by Mr. William Smith who rejoices in a splendid religious heritage.
The circuit has had a succession of very capable ministers. The older members speak in appreciative terms of the service of the Revs. John Hallam, M.A. Drummond, John Taylor, James Young and John Buck. During Mr. Taylor’s ministry of seven years he witnessed a remarkable response to his sane evangelistic appeal. In the Rev. A.J. Campbell’s term the fine properties at Birtley, Central Church and Durham Road were opened for worship. The Rev. R. Fletcher was succeeded by the Rev. J.S. Nightingale, whose ministry extended through the critical war period. He had the record term of nine years’ service. The Rev. Geo. Armstrong, one of the great men of the Sunderland and Newcastle District followed, and with characteristic insight concentrated on the most difficult problem of the circuit, viz. Durham Road. His tactful methods brought the circuit to its assistance. This greatly encouraged the members, and after three years’ very strenuous labours they had the utmost joy of liquidating the debt of £1,100.
In 1899 a second minister was engaged to reside at Birtley. The Revs. Geo. Fawcett, T.A. Young, J.G. Soulsby and W.E. Farndale had very successful terms, and contributed substantially to the prosperity of the churches.
In the course of its history the circuit has sent into the ministry C. Ritson, R. Thirlaway, John Jopling, G.W. King (who is at present doing excellent work on the station), J.G. Binney, R. Shields, J. Harryman Taylor, M.A., J. Fitzpatrick, A. Watson, J.W. Richardson, W.H. Campbell, Wm. Dixon, and W. Charlton.
It has also enriched the lay ministry with many names which are still fragrant and whose work abides.
One of the outstanding features of recent years has been the growth of women’s guilds and sisterhoods. In every place but one the women gather weekly in their own meeting. This movement has met with a striking degree of success. In money-raising efforts they get, of course, much more than their portion of responsibility. But in spiritual functions they are doing admirably. The annual rallies are centres of inspiration.
In Chester-le-Street our cause is well represented by two imposing churches. The Central Church and Schools at once attract the eye of the visitor as he comes into the town from the north road. This excellent property is a splendid monument to the sacrificial gifts of brave-hearted men and women. In the last few years the membership has suffered heavy personal losses by the passing of stalwarts of the evangelical type of John Smith, Henry Pringle, John Clark, Thos. Telford, and Frank McLane – men who loved every stone of the sacred edifice.
The loss of these giants created not a little anxiety as to whether their positions would be filled by younger men. But Nature has own way of creating individuals, and we are looking for disappointment if we expect that young men who are putting on the armour will be exactly like those who have put it off. God raises up new men for new days. The Central Church has a staff of able young fellows who are determined to maintain the best traditions of its history.
The Durham Road Church was built in 1907, the total cost being £2,800. It involved a big burden upon the few original members, and after years of hard struggle the building is now entirely free from debt, thanks to the wonderful devotion and energy of a few genuinely consecrated souls. Last year, through the generosity of the late Mr. John Wilkinson, a fine organ was installed. The neighbourhood offers abundant opportunity for the ministry of our Church, and the amount of young life now associated with the society inspires the hope that future years will see here a strong and aggressive membership.
Waldridge Fell is beautiful for situation, the joy of all who have eyes to see. The bracken and the heather, the glens and the woods, what a delight they are! Those are the words of my old Superintendent Geo. Armstrong. He used to enjoy immensely the walk up the hill. The people here are given to hospitality. There is a fine sense of fellowship between age and youth. John Simpson and William Holmes have vivid recollections of the stirring days when rough wicked men were completely changed by the grace of God. But they are wise enough to see that the tiny children who toddle to the Sunday morning school are precious, too, in the sight of God. In 1867 the Rev. Wm. Gelley conducted one of his great missions. Nine local preachers and two ministers were one result of this revival.
At Harraton we have never been able to boast many members, but the fact that since 1836 we have been able to report a cause at all speaks volumes for the loyalty of the men who have kept the door of the sanctuary open. The Rev. Ralph Shields was sent into the ministry from this society. The jubilee of the present building is to be celebrated in the month of September. We pray that Geo. Hepple, who has given such valuable service, may be spared to join the jubilee thanksgiving. He is in his eighty-fourth year, and until recently was rarely absent from the Sunday school. The missionary cause is well supported at Harraton, the Sunday school and family boxes contributing year by year a substantial amount averaging over fifteen shillings per member.
From the beginning of its history Ouston Society has been blest by the association of good men and women. Revivals in the early days produced tremendous moral effects. In 1859 one hundred and twenty converts were registered. Among the converts were R. Thirlaway and C. Ritson, who became ministers, and W. Winter, R. Fenwick, L. Fenwick, C. Bell, R. Harrison, W. Allison and T. Bruce, who became local preachers. Again in 1867 the Rev. Wm. Gelley conducted a mission which stirred the whole locality. It was the common topic in the pits and it is said that worldly-minded men were so impressed that they could neither eat nor sleep – an unusual interference with the habits of a miner’s existence. Mr. Geo. Urwin, who has served as society steward for forty years, was spiritually born in that revival. His wife – Bessie – is truly a mother in Israel. Their children were dedicated to God from infancy. The grandchildren reveal every promise of maintaining the fine traditions of the family. Wm. Charlton, grandson, is a student in our Hartley College.
In 1921 the society lost one of its saintly characters in the person of Mr. John Hall. For fifty-four years at least he was a faithful member and most devoted worker. He had a gracious heart and an honest countenance. Nothing was too little for him to do. At any time he would be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, if thereby he could help the kingdom of God. He loved little folk, and was usually found in their midst. Such men are the salt of the earth. One daughter is the wife of the Rev. Geo. Fawcett. Mrs. Suggett and her husband maintain as far as possible the good work of the father at Ouston. Splendid temperance work is being done in this village. All the institutions report prosperity.
Last year we experienced a great spiritual uplift at Fatfield. Over one hundred souls professed conversion. Mr. John Donkin, a local preacher of fifty years’ service, affirms that it was one of the most wonderful things he had seen in his long experience. For over eighteen months the members prepared the ground by regular and earnest prayer meetings. The missioner, Mr. Stangroom, was met by a band of enthusiastic workers. It is now an inspiration to any preacher to conduct a Sunday or week-night service. The spiritual glow of the meetings is most heartening. One of the most gratifying features of the awakening is the large number of young people who have become active members of the Church.
Pelton Fell Church has been recognised for many years as the spiritual home of strong men and saintly women. The earliest days were full of romance. Worship was conducted for twenty-five years in miners’ cottages, empty rooms and the open air, when as sometimes happened, no place was available. The officials say that the present building is built upon a piece of rock, and nothing can possibly shift it. There is no doubt about the security of the spiritual foundations. The best human material was put in. The present leaders refer to the fathers who served the cause many years ago with the utmost reverence. But one may believe that if the fathers could communicate their opinion about the children who now uphold the cause it would be one of commendation. We have here some large and staunch families whose deepest interests are intertwined with the history of the place. A healthy sign of life is the desire to extend and improve things. In the not distant future important developments may be looked for in this locality. The population is rapidly increasing and new communities are springing up.
It is a general opinion that Birtley Church is one of the best in the district. The interior of the building is well designed for the purpose of worship. It is not a commodious sanctuary but, usually filled with a reverent congregation, it is an inspiration to the soul of the preacher. The real and permanent strength of membership is in the number of influential families which have been associated with the Church for two generations. In 1880 A marvellous revival took place under the instrumentality of Miss Sims. Several local preachers were the direct fruit of it – Jos. English, Thos. Bolam, Bert Bolam, Robert Ryle, E.R. Davison, T. Atkinson – while others have rendered no less distinguished services in other departments – Thos. Hudson (who has been steward for thirty years, J. Atkinson, R. Stobbs, Wm. Stobbs and T. Banks. Wm. Allison and John Smith, who entered into rest a few years ago, are greatly missed in the counsels of the society. Both brethren were richly endowed with a noble Christian spirit,. During the last few months several of the young people trained in the Sabbath school and C.E. openly declared their allegiance to Jesus Christ. In 1921 a big financial enterprise was carried through successfully, which enabled the trustees to clear of the debt of £950.
An excellent freehold site has just been secured at the north end of Birtley to meet the future needs of a new residential district which is opening up.
Chester Moor had a strong and vigorous membership over thirty years ago, but there appears to have been an exodus of the chief and reliable officials about that time. The chapel was very well attended in those days, and the interests were wisely guided by Wm. Hindmarch, John Smith and others, who had a high moral standing in the village. John Jopling came under their formative influence, and was accepted as a candidate for the ministry. He became one of the outstanding preachers of our Church. He was always grateful for the help he received from the leaders of Chester Moor. J. Newton, the present steward, has the cheeriest reminiscences of those great days. During the last two years death has removed three respected workers – Tom Walton, Alec. Gibbons and ]os. Wheatcroft – a heavy blow to a struggling fraternity.
We are the only Nonconformist body in the village of Pelton, but having two strong causes – Ouston and Pelton Fell – near at hand has somewhat militated against Pelton developing a robust membership. The present building was erected in 1877, and its cost was raised by the members adopting all sorts of ingenious appeals. Joseph Hutchinson, Matthew Glenwright, and Jas. Wood often instruct the youth of to-day with the story of daring and sacrifice which marked their own early days.
Kimblesworth provides a convincing argument in favour of Methodist union. In this small village there are three Methodist societies of feeble membership. Under our foolish system of divisions, these separate places are compelled to struggle on and record very little at the end of their day’s work. Our members are wise in concentrating on one service during the week, and that enables us to report an active C.E. meeting. Mr. Geo. Stead has filled the office of steward for thirty-five years and his home has always been open for preachers. Mr. S. Haddon is the only local preacher, and renders most useful service.
Portobello has entered into a new era of its history. Some places have their golden days in the past. This society was never so vigorous as it is to-day. As a result of special services held in the autumn of last year, the C.E. and Choir report an influx of young hopeful life. Remarkable conversions were seen among the women of the locality, and a women’s own meeting has been organised to provide a cheerful religious centre for them.
We owe much to the fidelity of two or three families who in the darkest days believed that the light would eventually break.
It is the writer’s conviction that great and glorious as the past has been there is a larger and more pressing opportunity In this thriving district for new enterprises which will make Methodism a more powerful instrument for social righteousness.
Christian Messenger 1923/236