Stafford Circuit, Staffordshire
Transcription of an Article in the Christian Messenger by ‘Asaph’
ABOUT the middle of the century Charles Dickens honoured Stafford with a passing visit, and was not favourably impressed with his reception. In a somewhat extravagant style, the eminent novelist caricatured the ancient borough and its inhabitants. ‘Putting up for the night,’ he says, ‘in one of the chief towns in Staffordshire, I find it to be by no means a lively town. In fact, it is as dull and dead a town as anyone could desire not to see. It seems as if its whole population might be imprisoned in its railway station.’ Since the memorable visit of Dickens the town in many respects has changed for the better, and the inhabitants have awoke from their lethargy. At the present it bears evidence of many improvements and increased vigour. The county and corporate buildings and the numerous public institutions compare favourably with those of other towns. It has a population of over twenty thousand people, besides the residential inhabitants who dwell in the fashionable suburbs on the outskirts of the borough. It is an important railway centre, and has large engineering works. The town is principally connected with the boot and shoe industry, and has the reputation of making a variety of leather goods of the highest quality.
Some three centuries, at least, before the Norman Conquest, the town was called Bethnei, after St. Bertelline, who was a Royal Prince and a scholar of St. Guthlac. The present name is derived from a shallow ford on the river Sow that could easily be crossed with the aid of a stout staff. At the Domesday Survey Stafford had become a place of some importance, for the ancient chronicler speaks of it as a city. In former times the town was encircled with a wall and moat. In March, 1643, the town walls were entirely destroyed by the soldiers of Sir William Brereton, General of the Parliamentary Army, who defeated Prince Rupert and his brave Cavaliers on the adjoining battlefield of Hopton Heath.
From the year 1295 until the redistribution of seats in 1885, Stafford returned two members to Parliament, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who gained the distinction of being one of the most brilliant orators of the House of Commons, represented the borough from 1780 to 1806. Sheridan was the author of the famous saying, which has a significant reference to the staple industry of the borough – ‘May the trade of Stafford be trod under foot by all the world.” Lord Chief Justice Campbell, and David Urquhart, the famous Oriental traveller and author, are also included in the long list of distinguished parliamentary representatives. It is said that in the old electioneering days the town was noted for it’s corrupt practices. The buying of votes usually took place in Diglake, a public thoroughfare near the Borough Hall, and which from the old system of bribery is now called ‘Tipping’ street.
The inhabitants are well supplied with religious and educational institutions. The Presbyterian is the oldest Free Church in the town, and dates from the year 1668. The Rev. Jonathan Scott, or, as he was better known – Captain Scott, was one of the principal founders of the Independent Church. Wesley preached several times in the old Methodist Chapel, which has been superseded by larger and more modern premises. The Baptists, the Methodist New Connexion, the Friends, the Salvation Army, the Brethren; the Christadelphians, and others, have places of Worship within the Borough. The Free Church Council is doing good work in out-door evangelistic effort, and promoting temperance principles. Religious services are held under the auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Association, which also has its lending library and public reading room.
Primitive Methodism, which is Staffordshire born, took a firm hold of the surrounding towns and villages before the Connexional pioneers ventured to mission the county town. As early as the year 1811, and in the days of written plans, the founders and lay preachers of the infant community wended their silent way through the streets of Stafford to preach at Cannock and at Cannock Wood, which are located some twelve miles south of the county capital. In those bygone times the Staffordians were characterised as being churchy in their ecclesiastical notions, and somewhat intolerant in their conduct towards Nonconformists. As discretion is the better part of valour it may possibly be that the earlier preachers were overawed by the grey tower of the stately Anglican Church, or they were intimidated by the frowning walls of the noted county gaol. However, they quietly neglected the thousands of the parliamentary borough and preached to a score of rustics in a Staffordshire hamlet.
At the October county sessions of 1820, the Rev. James Bonser appeared on bail before the magistrates at Stafford for having in the previous July preached in the streets at Wolverhampton. He was found guilty, and fined four shillings. When he inquired for what offence he was to pay the sum, the Stipendary replied, ‘For recognizances and hail.’ Bonser good-humouredly stated ‘that he thought he ought rather to have something given him for his trouble, when he was told that if he did not choose to pay the amount, he must take his departure without.’ He was liberated and the same evening preached at Cannock.
In 1812, William Clowes missioned the small towns of Penkridge and Rugeley, and the adjoining villages. During the superintendency of the Rev. Paul Sugden, at Wrockwardine Wood, and in the year 1828, a small chapel was erected in the Staffordshire village of Whiston, which was transferred to Stafford when it became a circuit. For some years this chapel, unfortunately, has been closed. In the early ‘twenties’ the village of Gnosall and the outlying hamlets were successfully missioned, and the churches ultimately became an integral part of the Stafford Circuit, and still continue to the present time.
After several fruitless attempts to establish Primitive Methodism in the county capital, the Rev. Thomas Russell, who was stationed at the Conference of 1835 to Longton, which is situated on the extreme edge of the Staffordshire potteries re-missioned the town. For a brief period in the spring of 1836 he was assisted by the Rev. John Wedgwood, of saintly memory and heroic record. Mr. Russell says: ‘At the first lovefeast that I held at Stafford I could only rely on one believer, who had to come several miles, but I knew there were several seeking mercy. After giving an account of my own conversion, I desired any one to speak, so the distant comer spoke. Then the thought struck me, ‘Shall all be at a standstill and must I preach?’ But I waited a few minutes, when a seeking penitent spoke and found liberty while she was speaking. Then another obtained peace. I then called on the sinners to speak, and a very strong man said: ‘I came through that door a vile rebel, and came to oppose and persecute, but I mean to turn to the Lord.’ These things strengthened my hands and we closed the meeting with joy.’
In the earlier days of Primitive Methodism, the ‘travelling’ preachers were neither afraid of working nor walking. A journey of a score of miles to some of them appears to have been a luxury. On the Sabbath before the Sheffield Conference of 1837, Thomas Russell and his young colleague, the Rev. Benjamin Brown, held a largely-attended camp-meeting at Stafford. ‘The processioning,’ says Russell, ‘was very powerful. The meeting was well-attended, and generally the people behaved well.’ As Mr. Russell had to be in Manchester early on the Monday morning, he left Mr. Brown holding a lovefeast. He says: ‘I set out and walked seven miles, when I overtook an old travelling waggon, and for a penny a mile at the rate of three miles an hour got to Newcastle, where the man stopped to rest, but I went forward on foot to Manchester, and the next day to Sheffield.’ After his heavy camp meeting services, this intrepid and hard-working pioneer minister walked forty-five miles at a stretch between Stafford and Manchester.
On the Sabbath following the Conference he preached farewell sermons at Stafford, and felt keenly the separation from his weeping friends. In reviewing his labours, Mr. Russell records: ‘It is now sixteen months since I first opened this part of the country, and we have had powerful times on it and many have been saved. Stafford and its neighbourhood had been tried by all the surrounding circuits, but as often it had been given up, but now I trust a foundation is laid for perpetuity.‘
In the early months of 1838, Stafford and a few of the adjoining villages were detached from Longton, and made into a separate circuit under the superintendency of the Rev. J. Moss. At the time of its formation the Stafford Church had a roll of only ten members, which contributed £1 1s. 5½d. to the Quarterly Meeting funds. There were no chapels at any of the places in the circuit, and the congregations assembled in cottages and by the roadside. At Stafford the society worshipped in an obscure room for which the Quarterly Meeting paid a rental of one shilling per week.
Our first chapel in Stafford was built in the year 1839. It was situated in a court in one of the back streets of the town. It cost £500 and provided a seatage accommodation for two hundred persons. At the time of opening the chapel, the society of thirty-six members could only raise £30 towards the building fund, and a consolidated debt of £470 was left on the property. In this out-of-the-way sanctuary a great amount of lasting good was accomplished. At the following Conference, Stafford, which had been a circuit, was made a branch of the Wrockwardine Wood Circuit. Over a dozen places in Shropshire were transferred to the original seven which had been given by the Longton Circuit. The Rev. James Prosser, father of the Rev. David S. Prosser, was appointed superintendent, and the Rev. Reuben Brown was the junior minister. At the end of twelve months, for some reason or other, the extra places which had been transferred from the home Circuit were given back along with one minister to Wrockwardine Wood, and Stafford remained a branch. Revs. Thomas Parr and Richard Ward succeeded in turn to the superintendency of the Circuit, and they by their untiring efforts were successful in laying the foundation for future prosperity.
During the ministry of the Rev. Samuel Morris, Stafford again became an independent circuit. In the year 1849 a more central site on Snow Hill was secured, and the present chapel and house property were erected thereon. The entire cost of the undertaking amounted to £2,511 10s. 10d., and for many years the trustees and congregation were burdened with a heavy debt. As the result of earnest prayer and hard work a better day dawned upon the struggling church. To meet the increasing necessities of the congregation and Sabbath school, the chapel has had to be twice enlarged, galleried, and also new schoolrooms added at a cost of £1,126. Amid much spiritual rejoicing the jubilee services were held in October, 1899, the Revs. Thomas Richards, Albert A. Birchenough, Miss Edith Snape and W. Peach, Esq., J.P., taking part. A Jubilee Fund of £500 payable in two years has been inaugurated, to be devoted to the purposes of the future extension of the premises at Stafford.
From very small beginnings the enterprising Stafford Church has developed to its present proportions. Its religious life is a recognised moral force in the improvement of the home-life and the industrial pursuits of the factories and workshops of the Borough. It has a church membership of one hundred and forty persons, who are devotedly attached to class and prayer meetings. In point of attendance, the ordinary Sabbath and week-night services are second to none of the Free Church congregations of the town. The Sabbath school premises are too small for their usual purposes, and require enlargement. The spiritual, social, and educational needs of the young people are specially provided for. Connected with the church and school are a flourishing Catechumen Class, a young People’s Society Class, a Christian Endeavour Society, a Band of Hope, a Young People’s Reading Room, a Clothing Club, a Lending Library, and a Brass and String Bands which assist at the open-air and indoor services.
Stafford Church has been exceptionally favoured with the varied services of a number of godly, intelligent and devoted workers. At the present time there are families still connected with the church whose fathers bore ‘the heat and burden’ of their day, and by their liberal gifts and spiritual influence helped to make Primitive Methodism a power in the town. Without being invidious, special mention should be made of the Newmans, the Banks, the Parrs, the Peakes, the Lloyds, the Coates, the Tooths, the Owens, along with Messrs. F. Hough, J. Walters, E. Horton, E. Mitchell. A. Roxburgh, Councillor Bedford, and others whose record is on high.
During the last two decades, Mr. Charles Banks has been first and foremost in all good works. He is a local preacher, a class leader, the Sunday school superintendent and treasurer of the church funds. In the most unassuming manner he manifests the deepest interest in all departments of the church’s welfare, and circuit administration. Without stint or reward he has freely devoted time and talent that some would have concentrated on a commercial career. Mr. Thomas Owen during a residence of over a quarter of a century has been a devoted worker in connection with the Stafford church and circuit. He is rapidly approaching his ‘eighties’ and about seventy years of his life have been spent in the Master’s service. As a preacher his voice has been frequently heard in the streets and lanes; and as a class leader he has spoken words of encouragement to the weary. He has a marvellous gift in prayer and has seen many added to the Lord.
In addition to the ministers already named, the circuit has been manned with a number of ministers who were prominently connected with the old Tunstall Distrlct, including the late Henry Wheeler, Joseph Timmins, John Porter, William Peaceful, William Wood, William Evans (1), Henry Leech, Elijah Cooper and Robert Bowen, who after faithfully serving their generation have all passed to their eternal reward. Their pulpit and pastoral influences are regarded as a precious legacy, and their memories still live in the affection of their survivors. In the flower of his early manhood the Rev. John Grainger died during his superintendency of the circuit. The more recent appointments include the Revs. Robert Pattison, the late James B. Knapp, who for five years was steward of the Connexional Book Depot, London; James Davies, Joseph Shenton, an author of no mean repute, Thomas Bramall, William Turner, who spent three terms of service, extending over nine years, John Tristram, John W. Normandale and Abel Taylor. The Rev. Albert A. Birchenough entered upon the duties of the superintendency at the last Conference, and is anxious to extend the influences of the circuit.
From a geographical standpoint the circuit is considered wide, and somewhat unwieldy. Although the extremes are twenty-two miles apart, yet the more distant places are easily reached by railway, trap and other modes of modern locomotion, which promote a saving of time, and lessen the physical exhaustion. Wheaton Aston has a galleried chapel and a healthy society, which has been prayerfully fostered by the Wheate family, and by Mr. William Taylor. Gnosall is a large and progressive village with a rapidly increasing residential population. A larger chapel is in contemplation to meet the demands of the growing Sabbath school and congregation, which have been carefully tended by Mr. John Liversage. Rugeley is a town with a population of several thousand inhabitants. It is extremely churchy, and the Roman Catholics are strong in numbers. The location of our chapel is an exception to the general rule. Instead of being in the midst of the working-class population, it is situated in a fashionable part of the town, and at some distance from those who need our services the most. At great odds, the church is being pioneered in aggressive work by Mr. Benjamin Hughes, who is a life-long Primitive Methodist, and who for his faithfulness to convictions has more than once been boycotted in business. Mr. Hughes is the energetic circuit secretary, and also a lay preacher and temperance advocate of great acceptability. High Offley has a superior chapel and growing Sabbath school under the godly superintendency of Mr. W. Haydock. Handsacre Temple and the spacious Sabbath school premises adjoining, occupy a commanding site, and overlook the neighbourhood. Mr. Thomas Morecroft, the circuit steward, has been connected with the church from its commencement. By his consecrated life and general usefulness he along with his family have contributed largely to the success of the church. His efforts have been supplemented by those of Mr. J. Ward, who is a Primitive Methodist of long standing. Recently the trustees have introduced a pipe organ, and they also have reduced their debt. Bishop’s Offley has a neat village chapel with pipe organ, and a large congregation, who are led in Christian activities by Mr. R. Brandon. The late Mr. and Mrs. Roe rendered valuable help in securing the site and in the erection of the chapel. Pye Green chapel is somewhat detached from the circuit, and borders on the West Midland District. It is surrounded by a section of the mining population of the Cannock Chase.
The congregation has suffered from many reverses, but under the hopeful leadership of Messrs. A. Payne and C. Hughes, the Church and Sabbath school are being led forward. Coton Clanford chapel has been erected within recent years, and principally through the efforts of Mr. C. Kirby it has extinguished its trust debt.
Stafford Circuit has had the honour of sending a number of godly men into the active work of the Christian ministry, including the Rev. George Peake, the Rev. Samuel Peake, father of Professor Peake, M.A., of Manchester College, the Rev. E. Cooke Pritchard, who spent a number of years in Australia, the Rev. Edward Lloyd who is a minister in the Australian Colonies, the Rev. John Bedford of the United Methodist Church of Canada, and the Revs. George Newman and Henry Newman. The late wife of the Rev. Richard Wycherley and mother of the Rev. R. Newman Wycherley, was a native of Stafford and a daughter of one of the oldest of the Primitive Methodist families. The widow of the late Rev. Thos. Parr, and mother of the Revs. Theophilus Parr, M.A. and J. Tolefree Parr of Surrey Chapel, is spending the eventide of life in her native village of Wheaton Aston. The three brothers – the Revs. David Roe, Harvey Roe, and the late Bryan Roe, are from the old homestead at Bishop’s Offley.
Five of the circuit chapels are debtless, and the rest are in comparatively healthy financial circumstances. The congregations generally are large and influential. A valuable theological library has been secured for the further equipment of the local preachers, and to help them in meeting the increased intellectual and spiritual demands of their congregations. The circuit is paying increased attention to the large number of young people entrusted to its care, and is trying to equip them for Christian usefulness and citizenship. Although the circuit has had its ‘good times’ and its numerous ‘showers of refreshing,’ it believes that there is still ‘a good time coming.’ By a fuller consecration the circuit officials and members are preparing themselves for greater activities, enlarged usefulness, and the grander spiritual conquests of the twentieth century.
Christian Messenger 1900/53