Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Richmanley
MISSIONERS of our Church first visited Tunbridge Wells in the latter part of the year 1853. They came from Goudhurst, a small town of Kent, some twelve miles distant, where a Circuit had been recently formed under the Superintendency of the Rev. James Waller.
The initial step was taken by a few residents of Tunbridge Wells. Having heard of the evangelism of Primitive Methodism, they approached Mr. Waller, of Goudhurst, explained the reasons why they desired Tunbridge Wells to be missioned, and urged him to visit the town and “search the land” for himself. Mr. Waller received the friends most cordially, and felt that their request was a call from God. In July, 1853, Mr. Waller removed from Goudhurst, and was succeeded by the Rev. John Parnaby, who had the Rev. M. Totten as colleague. Mr. Parnaby immediately gave his attention to Tunbridge Wells and arranged to carry into effect the decision of his predecessor. In the report for 1854, the following record is found:- “Question: What attention has been paid during the year to missioning? Answer: We have opened Tunbridge Wells.”
The Conference of 1854 stationed the Rev. Jesse Ashworth to the Superintendency of the Goudhurst Circuit. The appointment proved to be the epoch of Primitive Methodism in Tunbridge Wells. Until then, nothing in the way of a definite formation of a society had been attempted. Meetings on the Common, and in a hired room were regularly held, but no society was actually formed, no list of members drafted, and no class-tickets issued. Mr. Ashworth soon altered this condition of things. In September, 1854, he drew up a list of the names of those who were willing to be regarded as members, and with this nucleus, he established a society and placed the name upon the Circuit plan.
The accommodation of the hired room soon became too strait for the requirements of the growing society. When the weather was unfavourable to services on the Common, it was quite impossible to get into the space of the room all who were desirous of being present. Moreover, the week-evening meetings suffered seriously through the inconveniences of the place. Consequently Mr. Ashworth was requested to make enquiries about a disused chapel on Mount Zion, and, if possible, to engage it.
This Chapel, known as Mount Zion Meeting-House, is one of the most historic buildings in Tunbridge Wells. It was built by the Presbyterians in 1720, and used by them for many years; then it was used by the Wesleyans until the year 1812, closed in 1814, re-opened by the Congregationalists in 1830, closed again in 1848, re-opened by the Primitive Methodists in 1854, and closed again about 1858. Mr. Ashworth succeeded 111 obtaining the use of the chapel, and there the society continued for three years.
But Mr. Ashworth was not content to remain in a hired building longer than was necessary. He was convinced that Primitive Methodism had a mission in Tunbridge Wells, and that made him the more anxious to obtain a permanent sanctuary. The present site, in what was then called called Quarry Road, was purchased, and upon it was erected the first Primitive Methodist Chapel in Tunbridge Wells in the year 1858. The Rev. John Petty preached the opening sermons, and his thoughtful and earnest discourses made a profound impression. The total cost of the chapel was £500, of which £200 were raised by the opening, and the remaining £300 within the next eight years.
About May, 1857, Mr. Ashworth removed his residence from Goudhurst to Tunbridge Wells. He remained on the Circuit until july, 1858, making a term of four years, and during the whole of which he saw the work of the Lord prosper in his hands. Mr. Ashworth became so attached to Camden Road Church that, during his subsequent ministry of fifty years, he always cherished very kindly feelings for the members and re-visited them repeatedly. He also contributed generously to the funds, giving £100 towards the reduction of the debt which remained for years on the present property.
During the Superintendency of the Rev. Thomas Fitten, and then that of the Rev. John Bendle, the work continued to make encouraging progress. At the Conference of 1861, Tunbridge Wells became the head of a new Circuit, and was placed among the stations of the London District. In 1866, the Rev. W. Freear built a minister’s house on a spare piece of ground to the north side of the chapel. A frontage of 40 feet had been preserved for this purpose from the original plot which was purchased for the chapel. The house cost £360, was well appointed, and, for some years, served as the residence of the minister.
In July, 1873, the Rev. Joseph Sheale succeeded the Rev. B. Dinnick. His settlement in the town was the signal for increased activity at both Camden Road and the other societies on the Circuit. Mr. Sheale had no engagement to come to the Wells. He was expecting to remain on the Spalding Circuit for another year, when Conference, exercising its right of removal, sent him south. Mr. Sheale quickly saw that the work required of him would be difficult, but he applied himself to his new duties with exemplary courage and faith. He reorganised the society at the Lew, and built a chapel there which cost £1,030. He next turned his attention to Crowborough, a hilly district some nine miles away, and built a very neat and attractive little chapel at a cost of £560. Mr. Sheale’s greatest work, however, was done at Camden Road. The chapel built by the Rev. Jesse Ashworth had served its day and generation. But as it provided accommodation for only 200 people, it was generally felt that the neighbourhood and the work now demanded a larger building. A scheme for a new church, schoolrooms, class-rooms, vestry, etc., was decided upon and when this was submitted to some of the leading gentlemen of the town, it received their warm commendation. The church is a beautiful structure. Its frontage, facing Camden Road, is commanding, and quickly arrests attention. The interior is bright and spacious, with a gallery across the end. There is accommodation for 530 people. In the rear of the church, and on the left of the pulpit is the minister’s vestry; on the right is the Institute, and a vestibule which leads to the school, and also has an entrance from the side path. The main room of the school is lofty and very well appointed, and is capable of holding 250 children. Beyond the schoolroom are classrooms, kitchen, storerooms, etc., making in all a most convenient and creditable Church property.
The opening services were held in the spring of 1878. Dr. S. Antliff preached to large congregations and the promise for the future seemed very bright. But the total cost of the undertaking proved too much for the comparatively small community. A debt of over £3,000 was left, and it acted like a dead weight about the church. Its constant demands disheartened the members, and hindered others from joining in fellowship. The Missionary Committee came to the aid of the Trustees by making itself responsible for £1,000. In 1892, the same Committee further incited the Trustees and members to work for the extinction of the debt by renewing its generosity. By December, 1901, the last instalment of the debt was paid, and victory against tremendous difficulties won.
The fifty years at Camden Road Church are full of manifestations of successful service, and enlarged usefulness. Few churches have suffered more by removals. The membership and congregation of Camden Road have been largely formed from the artisan classes, and the compulsory migration of these is notorious, but the membership has displayed a singular consistency, and the congregation has been well maintained. Moreover, the various organisations of the church have continued vigorous. To-day there are classes for fellowship and for Bible study, Christian Endeavours, a Band of Hope, and a Temperance Society, libraries for the scholars and for the local preachers, etc., all of which are well supported and doing service for the people. Given a continuance of the present zeal and devotion of the members, and the future will assuredly prove much more successful than the past.
Christian Messenger 1904/335