Downham Circuit, Norfolk
Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. W.H. Curtis
We cannot write of the early history of Primitive Methodism in Downham and neighbourhood without restoring to its former glory the name of Upwell, which now stands second on the Downham plan. It was in the year 1856, after a great struggle at the Quarterly Meeting of the Upwell Circuit held at Downham, that Robert Key carried his resolution: “That Downham shall be constituted the Circuit town, and that the Superintendent Minister shall reside there, the second Minister to live at Upwell.” We can imagine what it cost the stalwarts of the Upwell end to surrender a name and position which meant so much to them; but then, had not a railway been opened at Downham? and had not the circuit so altered that both geography and legology dictated the wisdom of the change? and, moreover was not Robert Key its prime mover, and what Quarterly Meeting could conquer the indomitable will of this giant of progress? And so it came to pass that Downham was made the Circuit town. Nevertheless, the historian must do justice to Upwell, and so a brief account of the old Upwell Circuit must be given.
Primitive Methodism entered East Anglia by way of Lynn in about the year 1820, and, although we cannot trace just when and by whom Upwell was missioned, we know that this village was the head of an important circuit by the year 1825, for in that year the Norwich District was formed, as Hugh Bourne said of “Six Shattered Circuits from the Nottingham District.” These six circuits were Fakenham, Lynn, Upwell, Cambridge, Norwich, and Yarmouth. However “shattered” they may have been at the time, they evidently pulled themselves together again for they became a mighty force for good in East Anglia.
Upwell may look with pride upon her offspring, for Wisbech, now the head of a very large and important station, was once a place on the Upwell plan, becoming a separate circuit in 1833. Ely was missioned from Upwell and appears in the circuit accounts in June, 1847. Manea Circuit, though not separated till 1884, was part of the original Upwell Circuit.
In the year 1838, the daring officials sent out Brothers Redhead and Jackson on a mission to open up new ground somewhere – anywhere in fact! The result of this venture was that Saffron Walden in Essex – some forty miles away – was missioned, and appeared in the circuit accounts in June, 1839, and for several years remained as part of the circuit. Upwell was the scene of mighty District Meetings, and on at least one occasion was visited by Hugh Bourne himself.
Turning now to Downham, it appears that it had at one time been missioned by Lynn Circuit, but subsequently abandoned. And so it came to pass that the following rather quaintly-worded resolution appeared in the Upwell Minutes of June, 1833: “That a place for preaching be seen after at Downham and attended to with preaching.” This second attempt on Downham was made during the superintendency of the Rev. Samuel Atterby, and proved more successful than the first, for a cottage was secured, and afterwards, in 1834, a barn was used as a preaching-place. In 1855, the first chapel was built, and in 1856, as already stated, Downham became the head of the circuit. Soon after this the circuit was the scene of a great Revival, as is shown from the following record from the pen of the Rev. George Bell: “In the years 1858-9, a very powerful revival was realised in Downham Market Circuit . . . and nearly every place was more or less under its holy spell. In some eighteen months nearly six hundred persons professed conversion. The circuit reported two hundred increase in one year. Among the effects of that revival were these: a great increase in the income of the circuit, nearly £20 of which was sent to ministers who had left the circuit short of their salary, which was then nineteen shillings per week; an additional preacher was called out in the person of the Rev. G. Seaman; a hired local preacher was also employed. The ministers – the Rev. W. H. Meadows and the writer (Rev. G. Bell) with a band of men and women whose hearts God had touched, threw themselves into this work, and on week-day as well as on Sunday, seldom returned from their appointments without rejoicing over men and women having surrendered to Christ….”
The circuit has been blessed with a fine succession of godly labourers. Its roll of ministers includes such notable names as Richard Houchin, Samuel Atterby, Jonathan Scott, William Hammond, Robert Key, W.H. Meadows, James Jackson, George Bell, and James Kemish; the last-named spending nine years on the circuit and doing lasting work. Amongst the laymen who have helped to make the station what it is to-day must be mentioned Bensley Redhead, of Ten Mile Bank, Walter Goddard, of Outwell, and W.S. Proctor, of Downham, all strong men of great influence. The circuit has also had the joy of sending some successful men into our ministry. The Rev. W.H. Meadows was born at Downham, taken as a lonely boy from the streets by a godly local preacher, who taught him his trade, and in many ways influenced him for his life’s work. The Rev. J. C. Wenn, still with us at Derby, was born at Outwell. Last, but not least, the town has the distinction of being the birthplace of the present President of Conference, Rev. W. A. Hammond.
A search into the old books and documents of the circuit is a very interesting occupation, and the searcher is rewarded with many a revelation of what life was like in those far-off days, and incidentally with many a laugh at the quaint entries he finds recorded. It is significant that the first entry in the oldest book discoverable (1827) is a resolution that a certain brother be seen about neglecting his appointments! and that resolution is but the forerunner of a large number dealing with the same subject. Perhaps, for pure sarcasm, the following note which appeared on the Upwell plan in 1842, would be hard to beat – “P.S. – Will all those preachers who have no desire to exhort sinners to ?ee from the wrath to come, and who can neglect appointments without any pangs of conscience, send in their names to the next Quarterly Meeting in order that they may be left without appointments or else have their names removed from the plan?” Oh, these neglecters – ancient and modern! What endless anxiety they have caused, and how varied have been the methods of dealing with them! Words of eulogy concerning the departed were not wasted in those stern days. Surely the briefest memoir of a deceased local preacher that ever found its way into a Connexional Minute Book is the following “That Bro. S——— come off the plan, being dead.” That is all. The reason for removing the name is certainly indisputable, but why no word of appreciation of services? Here again are one or two interesting entries: “That Bro. —— be admonished by Bro. Appleby on the subject of keeping company with a girl, not approved.” They evidently objected to moonlight flitting, for we read: “That Bro. Houchin admonish Sister ——, for leaving the neighbourhood of Elm in a clandestine manner.” Here is a resolution passed at Quarterly Meeting held at Ten Mile Bank, and shows our fathers had a keener scent for Sabbath-breakers than for Sunday dinners: “That a letter be written to Bro. M——, of March, informing him that this meeting disapproves of his baking dinners on the Lord’s Day, and that unless he discontinues the practice he will in future be removed from his official capacity with us.” We all say : “Hear, hear” to that. Such are some of the sayings and doings of early Primitives in the neighbourhood of Downham, but, whilst we smile at the quaintness of these records, let us ever remember that their children have entered into a great heritage of heroic service and strenuous labours. .
It is about thirty years ago since the circuit assumed its present form. There are now thirteen preaching-places. two of which (Stow Bridge and Three Holes) are private property. The Connexional Property consists of eleven Chapels, seven Schools, one Cottage, and one Manse, the total value of which is estimated at about £6,000, and on this there is not a penny debt! The story of our Debt Extinction efforts proves that the present officials and members are worthy successors of their daring fathers. The June Quarterly Meeting, 1917, led by Bro. E.P. Kisby, resolved to make a great effort to free the entire property from debt before the District Meeting of 1918, which was to be held at Downham. This was heartily taken up by minister, officials and people, with the result that within six months, the sum of £610 was raised. This enabled the Committee to pay off the whole of the debt before December 31st of that year, and also to renovate the exterior of Downham Chapel. On March 22nd, 1918, the President of Conference, Rev. J. Tolefree Parr, formally declared, whilst notes of hand were consuming away into smoke, that every debt had been extinguished and that Downham was one of the few circuits in the Connexion that could claim such an honour. There are thirteen ‘Sunday-schools with about eight hundred scholars; also eight C.E. Societies and seven Bands of Hope.
The Downham Chapel, built in 1871, is a fine building, seating about three hundred persons. There is a very useful Schoolroom, built in 1876, two Classrooms, and a Minister’s Vestry. lts congregation is growing, and in the blessed absence of debt a great effort is being made to raise funds for a Pipe Organ. Upwell, though the oldest society for miles around, still retains its youth and with Class Meeting, Christian Endeavour, and Band of Hope, still does a good work in this busy and important village. Outwell is joyously concerned about its growing school, and has resolved to rise up and build as soon as war conditions will permit. In the meantime the society is accumulating cash with a view to extension, and close on £100 is invested. About our Hilgay building the only thing to be proud of is its age! But the Trustees have their eyes on the future and have already invested £60 towards a new church.
At Ten Mile Bank we have a village cause known far and wide for its prosperity. The chapel seats two-hundred-and-fifty. A large congregation in the morning and a chapel full at night is the usual order of things. It has a nice Pipe Organ, and in other respects is a well-furnished church. Mr. W.H. Rose, though an invalid, is still greatly interested in our work, whilst Mrs. Rose is one of the Connexions notable missionary collectors, having for many years handed about £5 to the deputation as a result of her persistent labours. Other places are Stow Bridge, Salter’s Lode, Wretton, Marshland Fen, a wayside chapel in a region almost bereft of houses, and yet with a vigorous little church which, in spite of the war, recently spent £50 in re-seating and renovating the property; Three Holes where a new organ costing about £40 was recently purchased in a month; Bardolph Fen, a village cause with great possibilities. Here William Lewis, the patriarch of the circuit, ninety-four years of age, regularly worships, sometimes preaches, and always gives out the notices on Sunday afternoons, followed by a few minutes‘ exhortation. Miss Lewis is another notable missionary collector, securing, year by year, £4 and £5 in her box. The remaining places are West Dereham and Wimbotsham, both good properties with living societies.
The District Meeting of 1918, was a great success and will be long remembered chiefly for its mighty lovefeast on the Sunday evening, when a number of young people decided for Christ. The impetus to evangelism then given is still with us, and the circuit is now engaged in a great evangelistic campaign. The Circuit Stewards are Bros. T. Trower and W.H. Rose, with Edwin Rose as Secretary. There are several young men growing up and taking official position who are promising to become leaders in the days ahead.
The prospects are bright, and, with continued unity and devotion, and under the blessing of God, it is possible to believe that “the best is yet to be! ” The circuit has great traditions, and there is the will in the hearts of old and young to be worthy of them.
Christian Messenger 1919/43