Chester le Street Circuit, Co. Durham
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by A.J.C. (A.J. Campbell)
The town of Chester-le-Street is a fine illustration of the combination of ‘Ancient and Modern’ in building construction. The daily ring of the mason’s trowel is the modern music; the quaint old buildings in the heart of the town are typical representatives of the town’s antiquity. Just across the river Wear stands Lumley Castle (residence of the Countess of Scarborough), one of the oldest castles in Great Britain, while within two miles at Lumley is one of the newest and latest of Britain’s Baronial Halls, viz., Lambton Castle, the seat of the Earl of Durham.
If Chester-le-Street did not come over with the renowned Conqueror, as many things and institutions are said to have done, it was here when that famous William landed on our Island shores. As far back as 217, in the reign of Severus, Roman cavalry were stationed at Cuneacestre (the ancient name for Chester-le-Street). Ancient records inform us that in 883 there was a Wooden Church here, and during the Danish invasion the monks of Lindisfarne bore the bones of St. Cuthbert in that year (883) to Chester-le-Street for safety, and here they rested for 113, years when pious hands removed them to Durham, where they now lie. Eglric was the Bishop of this Church in 1042, so that our town can boast an antiquity that might satisfy the most fastidious antiquary.
Being in close proximity to the Cathedral City of Durham, Chester-le-Street has taken on the complexion peculiar to Cathedral Cities, sleepy, unprogressive, uneventful. Centuries without history passed away under the dominance of Religious orders of varied types. Even the magnificent stirrings of the Evangelical Revival of the 18th Century under Wesley did not sweep Chester-le-Street into its magnetic circle of influence.
Primitive Methodism was a late arrival here: its advent was heralded by one of the most conspicuous figures in our denominational history. The late Rev. Thomas Southron (a native of Durham city) came to Chester-le-Street about 1841; ‘he came, he saw, he conquered.’ With the Ram’s horn of warning Mr. Southron woke the sleepy citizens from their spiritual lethargy and succeeded in establishing a small but vital, germinal society.
For some years Chester-le-Street was a preaching place on the Hetton Circuit; but its real history began, when in 1869 it was made into a separate station, with 6 places and one minister and a membership of 296. The first chapel was built at Chester-le-Street in 1860 at a cost of £300, the society having then only 25 members. The story of these early days forms one of the most vivid chapters in our circuit history, they were days of struggle against adverse circumstances, of heroic endeavour to keep alive the flame of Primitive Methodism in the town. If ‘persistence is the sign of reality’ these early pioneers of Primitive Methodism in our town were real for they persisted with all the splendid daring and stedfast courage so characteristic of our founders. The struggle went on for 20 years, for in 1882 Rev. M.A. Drummond, in issuing a circular, stated that ‘our chapel stands far back from the main street, with a bad road to it. The surroundings of the chapel are objectionable, and are getting worse. It is usually said ‘that nobody can find the Primitive Methodist Chapel in this town.’ This reproach has fortunately been forever wiped away. It was in this year (1882) that our people secured one of the finest sites in the town, and on this site a school-chapel was built in 1886 under the superintendency of Rev. John Taylor, at a cost of £2,200. This new structure, with its commanding aspect, its easy approach, and excellent accommodation, materially helped in the rapid growth of the church, until in 1898 the place was too small for the growing congregations, and a new cause was started at the opposite end of the town, and in 1899 this new interest had so far justified its existence as to warrant the Quarterly Meeting in sanctioning the erection of an iron chapel at a cost of £500. This society has a membership of 62 and a Sabbath school with over 100 scholars.
Meanwhile the parent society still continued to advance, so much so, that if any more people were to be accommodated we would need, as the Yankee said, ‘to take the paper off the walls.’ The school-chapel is mostly full, and often uncomfortably crowded. The trustees have decided to complete the original scheme by the erection of a handsome and commodious church adjoining the school-chapel, the foundation stones of which were laid on Wednesday, September 18th, 1901, and is to cost £3,000. The value of the whole property will then be over £5,000, a property worthy of the earnest, enterprising, and devoted 200 members who compose the church.
Besides the two town chapels, we have ten other chapels in the circuit, mostly free from debt, and at some of the places we have exceedingly vital and vigorous societies. Our churches at Ouston and Pelton Fell will compare favourably with any churches in the mining villages of Northern Primitive Methodism. Both of the last-named chapels have pipe-organs, that at Pelton Fell having been added during the past 12 months.
One striking feature of the circuit’s success is seen in the Birtley Society, where an old chapel has been replaced by a church and school (with separate class-rooms), costing £3,500. The structure is an ornament to the village, and since its opening in October, 1899, the congregation has doubled. In 1899 the circuit called out an additional minister, Rev. G. Fawcett, who resides at Birtley, and has largely the oversight of that congregation. The calling out of the second minister has amply justi?ed the circuit’s action, for in two years the station’s success has been unprecedented in its history. Instead of the pessimistic prophecies being fulfilled, which spoke of deficiencies, we have had large and constantly-increasing balances in hand, not-withstanding the fact (or in consequence of the fact) that this station holds a position of distinction for its large Missionary and Orphanage revenue. An object-lesson, surely to timid circuits.
We have yet another chapel building scheme on hand, the plans being already prepared for a new chapel at Fatfield, to cost £450. An interesting feature of our circuit’s life is that at almost every place we have prosperous C.E. Societies, where the youths are being trained for the service of Christ and His Church.
One of the honoured workers of the circuit is Mr. Thos. Telford, the genial circuit steward, who had so much to do in the early years in piloting the far-famed Annual Circuit Demonstrations, which were looked forward to year by year by hundreds of ardent Primitive Methodists in this North country, and which spiritually brought blessing to scores of people, and which financially paid the entire cost of the minister’s house (£600). This circuit is looked upon to-day as one of the most progressive and hopeful in the Sunderland and Newcastle-on-Tyne District. It is an epitome of the best traditions of Primitive Methodism.
Geologists tell us that the Ieaves of the great earth book are the various stratified rocks placed one above another, and which represent the element of time by their differing thickness. So the careful student of our circuit’s history can trace the structure of the circuit from its beginning upward. The changing ministries have, during their longer or shorter service on the station, each contributed something to the circuit’s strength. From Southron, the intrepid pioneer, right on to Yates, Waite, Foggon, Parsons, James Dawson, Hallam, Drummond, Taylor, Young, Buck, Campbell, each in his own order toiling with his hands, teaching with his lips and life, planning with his brain, impressing with his soul, and moulding with his heart, And we, the later born, gratefully acknowledge our debt to the splendid achievements of those who have gone before. ‘Other men laboured;’ we are gathering the fruits of their holy toil.
Rev. A.J. Campbell came to the circuit in July, 1899, having previously laboured at the Motherwell, Blyth, Bishop Auckland, Shotley Bridge, and Whitby Circuits. Rev. Joseph Ritson, Vice-Editor, writing of Mr. Campbell’s work at the close of his Motherwell ministry,‘ says: ‘Mr. Campbell’s six years’ ministry in Motherwell has been a conspicuous success. He is greatly beloved by his people, and is recognised as perhaps the ablest and most effective preacher in the town, with the qualities of style so conspicuous in his magazine articles – poetic imagination, spiritual insight, and felicitous phraseology.’ Mr. Campbell came to Chester-le-Street with a good record, and the circuit’s anticipations have been more than realised.
In Rev. G. Fawcett the circuit has a young man of considerable promise, who has already shown himself a capable organiser, a willing worker, a good preacher, a genial colleague, and a man beloved of the people.
P.S. – The photographs accompanying this article were taken by Mr. John Wilkinson, of Chester-le-Street, to whom the writer expresses his obligation.
Christian Messenger 1901/305