Bradford: the growth of Primitive Methodism

Description by By the Rev. Ernest Lucas in the Handbook of the 111th Annual Primitive Methodist Conference held in Bradford in 1930

Handbook cover for the 111th Annual Primitive Methodist Conference held in Bradford in 1930
Englesea Brook Museum of Primitive Methodism

PRIMITIVE METHODISM was introduced into Bradford in the year 1821, fourteen years after the famous camp meeting on Mow Cop, to which the origin of our church may be ultimately traced. The Bradford of the early nineteenth century was a very different place from the great city of to-day. It was a small industrial town of 13,000 inhabitants, with lanes rather than streets, scanty pavements, and less drainage. It is now a city of nearly 300,000 inhabitants; noted for its progressive and enterprising spirit, not only in the field of industry which it has made peculiarly its own, but in many forms of social development in which it has led the way as pioneer.

The first Primitive Methodists to appear in Bradford were Thomas Holliday and a colleague named Revel. They were engaged as agents of the Barnsley circuit in missioning Halifax, where they were charged with disturbance of the peace by street preaching, and committed for trial at the Bradford Quarter Sessions. They were acquitted with a friendly warning from the magistrates “not to do it again.” They made use of their liberty by preaching the following evening in the streets of Bradford.

Thomas Holiday sought to make Bradford part of the Halifax Branch, but John Coulson, Superintendent of the Leeds circuit, had already formed a class at Dudley Hill, and conducted open-air services at Great Horton, which were then separate villages. Thus Leeds circuit claimed Bradford as belonging to its sphere of operation.

Mr. Coulson’s account of his early labours in Bradford throws a vivid light on the methods of the pioneers, the conditions under which their work was done, and the spirit of zeal and self-sacrificing endurance which gave hem such striking success. He commenced in the open air. “At first we seemed to make little headway. We next preached in the house of a woolcomber, but still made little advancement.  I went to the house but found no congregation, so resolved to preach in the street by lamplight. The woolcomber’s light was therefore hung up in the street, and I took my stand under it. The people began to gather, and l soon had a good congregation. I afterwards received a letter from a young man of another community, who informed me that many persons had been brought to God by our labours, but that his own denomination had reaped the fruits, as we had no suitable place of worship. Inquiry was therefore made for a room, and a magistrate agreed to let us have one in the street, which, on account of the wickedness of its inhabitants, was known as Devil Street. The room was soon opened for worship. It became thronged with hearers, mostly poor weavers, and we were very successful among them.” The character of the neigh­bourhood was completely changed—as Hugh Bourne would have said, “moralised,” and Devil Street became known as Reform Street. It is the present Godwin Street, one of the city’s central thoroughfares, running between its two great markets.

Bradford appeared on the Leeds circuit plan of June, 1821, being bracketed with Dudley Hill as “Dudley Hill and Bradford.” On the following plan it was the head of a group of nine places, under the name of the Bradford Mission. Of these nine places, six are now represented by heads of circuits. In March, 1822, the Mission became the Bradford Branch, and a year after it was recognized as an independent circuit, with three ministers and considerably over 300 members. The new circuit made such rapid progress that it was able to entertain the conference in 1832, and again in 1839. This success was achieved in face of great difficulties. Those who were enlisted as members had but scanty resources. They belonged to the poorest class of the community. They had to contend with what is described in the 1840 report as “The almost overwhelming force of infidel socialism, the unprecedented depression in trade, and the great distress of the working-class in this neighbourhood.”

They matched and mastered the difficulties of their task by the unflagging heroism of their spirit. In 1824 land had been secured in Kent Street, Manchester Road, and a
chapel erected at a cost (.)1 £3,500, to accommodate 750 persons. In course of time a Sunday School was erected and in these buildings they continued their work until 1861. This building had one very unique feature in its upper floor, in its arrangements. The girls occupied the upper floor while the  boys were on the lower level. In order that .the superintendent might survey all the scholars at one time, a space was cut out in the floor, and here he was so placed that his head appeared among the girls in the upper room, while his legs made an impressive show among the boys below,

In 1861 the chapel was burnt down, and the society was faced with crushing financial difficulties. No insurance had been effected, there was a mortgage of £2,500, and there were no funds in hand. But if there was a lack of funds there was no lack of faith or courage. The brave band of workers faced the difficulties of the situation, and in 1862 Providence Chapel -most fittingly so called – was re-opened.

This was the precursor of the splendid premises in which the Conference of this year meets, known as the Central Hall, opened by the then Mayor of Bradford on August 31st, 1893. Its assembly hail, one of the largest in the city, accommodates 1,000 persons. There is a good lecture room with sixteen class-rooms, while the suite of handsome shops which forms the basement provides a useful revenue. The debt, which was £9,200 at the opening, has been reduced under the wise guidance of a succession of able ministers to about £2,000. The work carried on at this centre has the sympathy and support of the whole city, and its incessant manifold activities are indispensable in the life of Bradford. The truly epic story of Primitive Methodism’s central church in Bradford may be taken as typical of one aspect of the development of our church in this great industrial! city.

The story of Rehoboth, for instance, told in all the detail in which it deserves to be told, beginning in the upper room over the tobacco warehouse in Gate Street, down to the erection of the present spacious chapel in 1878, at a cost £6,000, and on to the vigour and prosperity of today would reveal the same tenacity and courage, and would tell of what seemed insuperable difficulties overcome by the same spirit of faith, sacrifice, and loyalty. Or again, much might be said of Manningham, where a small band of working-men commenced a cause in a purely working-class area, and at last built a stately House of Prayer, endured for years a staggering financial burden, and at the same time carried on their great work with undaunted determination.

One story, connected with one of Dudley Hill’s missions, deserves to be remembered. In Sun Street there was a building originally a Primitive Methodist chapel, disused through the transference of the cause to Tennyson Place, widely known as Philadelphia Chapel. “At this time two courageous young men, looking at the character of the neighbourhood, and struck with its need for Christian work on new lines, determined to undertake a fresh method of Christian service. Almost unsupported, they got per­mission to make what use they could of the place. They lived in dire poverty among the people, frequently suffering cold and hunger, but making the old chapel a bright and useful centre for people as poor and helpless as themselves. Here they organized soup kitchens in the winter, begged and distributed coals and necessaries among the needy people, and provided concerts in the chapel for them during the evenings. On Sundays they preached their simple Gospel, and often were themselves hunger-bitten when dealing the bread of life to the people. With scarcely any salary but just the wages of going on, these unnoted heroes carried forward their social evangelistic work for nearly two years. Living a life of austere simplicity and privation, they made the old chapel bright with memories of human service, and wrought as noble a piece of heroism as ever was recorded in the history of the city.”

In connection with all these enterprises, what an array of names might be mentioned. What splendid constellations they would make. It would be like another eleventh chapter of Hebrews. And like the author of that Epistle, we should have to finish: “And what shall I say more, for time would fail me to tell.”

Another aspect of our development in Bradford would be shown. in the history of churches like Great Horton and Dudley Hill, that of less dramatic but steady and unfaltering progress. We should again be carried back to the beginnings of our church life in the city, the day of small things, for these two churches dispute primacy in point of time with the Central Church. We should see small bands of devoted men and women building their very lives into the fabric of Christian communities that were to become great power-houses of spiritual force generating the energies that were to sustain an ever-growing number and increasing variety of religious, educational, humanitarian, and social activities.  They would be for the most part poor in this world’s foods, but rich in faith; but in course of time we should (find among them also men destined to be captains of industry and honoured municipal leaders.

Bradford remained one circuit until the year 1867, when Great Horton was made the head of a separate circuit, the Second, which included Great Horton, Low Moor, Woodlands Street, Horton Bank, Brownroyd, and Dirkhill. The Society at Shelf was taken over from Halifax in 1919. One of the most successful enterprises of this circuit in recent years has been the building of the beautiful new church at Horton Bank in 1926 at a cost of nearly £7,000, the greater part of that amount being raised. It is the home of a vigorous church, with far-seeing and devoted leaders.

The third circuit was formed in 1890 by detaching Laisterdyke, Drighlington, and Tyersal from the first circuit. It has many able and faithful workers, and is enjoying considerable prosperity.

In 1895 Manningham and Daisy Hill were separated from Shipley to form Bradford Fourth circuit. At both these places we have handsome church buildings, Heaton Road, Manningham, being one of the finest in the city. The total cost was £5,184, representing a heavy financial strain on a working-class congregation. The difficulties have been bravely met and mastered, and these churches are served by many loyal workers.

Dudley Hill is the, head of the Fifth circuit. The present chapel was erected in 1886, the older building being now used as an institute. Magnificent Sunday School premises have been built, There are fine congregations and every department of the work pulses with energy.  The church has been blessed with able leaders and faithful workers. The circuit also includes New Hey Road and Tennyson Place. New school premises are to be built at New Hey Road at a cost of £2,500.

Rehoboth was separated from Bradford second in 1899 to form “The Jubilee Memorial Mission,” and in 1903 became entirely independent as the Bradford Sixth circuit.

Bradford Seventh circuit was constituted in 1889 by the separation of Idle and Greengates from Shipley, and of Calverley from Otlev. It had a membership of 198. Idle is mentioned among the places forming the Bradford fission in 1861, and its history is continuous from that time. The present chapel was built in 1861, and the hand some school premises in 1892.. At Calverley we have a fine chapel, and at Greengates a good school-chapel to which an institute has recently been added, as a result of a generous gift of £500 by an old scholar. Though Eccleshill is mentioned as one of the places forming- the Bradford group in 1821, no permanent cause was established there until 1911, when a mission chapel was built in the midst of a large and constantly growing population.

For the purposes of the conference, Shipley is included in the Bradford area, and shares in the honour of entertaining the delegates. Shipley was missioned in 1821 by John Parkinson, a native of Skipton. Its first known appearance in an official document was on the Silsden plan for the second quarter of 1823, but by the end of the year it had been transferred to Bradford. It is one of the mother circuits of the area. It was made independent in 1860, and both Bradford Fourth and Seventh have been formed by separation from it. It includes Saltaire Road, Windhill, Baildon, and Crag Road.

The first chapel in Shipley was built in 1840. It served the society for thirty-three years. The present magnificent structure, built on a site given by Sir Titus Salt, was opened for worship in 1873. A cause was established at Windhill in .1828. The present chapel was built in 1868, at a cost of £4,250. It provides accommodation for 600 persons. There was a society at Baildon in 1822.  The first chapel in the Bradford area was built there in 1824.  The present chapel was erected in 1865, and cost £2,000.  Crag Road, the most recent erection in the Shipley Circuit, dates from 1886.

In the area covered by this hasty survey we have now eight circuits, made up of twenty-five churches with twelve ministers, 86 local preachers, and 2,632 members. The Sunday School teachers number 621, and the scholars 3,926.

Conference has met in Bradford on four previous occasions, in 1832, when the founders of our church, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, were both present, and took a principal part in the proceedings; in 1839; then after an interval of fifty years, in 1889; and lastly in 1911.

At the Conference of 1832 an increase in membership of 11 per cent. was reported. An increase on such a scale in 1930 would give us this year 24,629 additional members. The Conference Sunday was a day of mighty toil. If to be in labours more abundant be one of the marks of a true Apostle, our fathers were surely in the Apostolic succession. They commenced with preaching in the morning at five o’clock, and praying, and preaching went on almost without intermission until late at night. “In the latter part of the noon hour we had worship with a number of children.” Did they find time to eat? Probably, but to such matters Bourne was almost as indifferent as St. Anthony of the Desert or Francis of Assisi. From ten to fifteen thousand were computed to be present at the camp meeting, which, Bourne says, was one of the largest ever held. He sums up the effect of the religious services by saying “That the Bradford Conference is likely to be remembered as long as the present generation lasts, and we trust it will prove an eminent blessing to the Connexion in general—which God in His infinite mercy grant—for the alone sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The records of 1839 are scanty. The increase was 4 per cent. At Hugh Bourne’s suggestion an important constitutional change was made. Hitherto he had acted as general committee delegate for all the districts. At this conference other brethren were appointed to share this important work.

The Bradford Conference of 1889 held its sessions in the Technical College, and was remarkable for the amount of legislation sanctioned, occupying no fewer than twenty four pages of the minutes, and including the launching of the  Chapel Aid Association, which has rendered us as a the church such unique and splendid service.

The outstanding feature of the Bradford Conference of 191I was the completion of the great Centenary fund. The Rev. George Armstrong, whose untiring energy had contributed not a little to its success, was able to announce that while the aim had been to raise £250,000 for various Connexional objects, the amount actually raised was not less than £330,000.

Changing times have brought changed conditions. New problems have emerged, and we are confronted by the challenge of new difficulties. But those who went before us had their great difficulties too and we can catch inspiration from the example of their faith and devotion. We believe that the unchanging Gospel, more deeply under stood, more loyally accepted, and more consistently applied, has in it the secret of the salvation needed by this and every age. The Conference of 1930 seems likely to be the last Primitive Methodist Conference to be held in Bradford, for we are moving swiftly to the consummation of Methodist Union. To that union, loyal to the traditions of our great past, we shall bring our own characteristic and valuable contribution. Whatever may be the special features of this Conference we pray that the most marked of all may be the presence of that spiritual power without which the most elaborate organization is but little worth, and which has been always, from the day of Pentecost to this hour, the sure secret of victory for the Church of Jesus Christ. 


Description by By the Rev. Ernest Lucas in the Handbook of the 111th Annual Primitive Methodist Conference held in Bradford in 1930

Comments about this page

  • Bradford, West Yorkshire Archive Service.

    ref. DB70/C5/2. Primitive Methodist Preachers Plans for the……. Bradford Circuit, 1856, 1858, 1867.

    By Raymond E. O. Ella (19/09/2021)
  • My grandparents were married in the Primitive Methodist School Chapel, All Saints Road, Bradford in 1920.

    These servants of the Lord had sterling qualities:

    ‘They were engaged as agents of the Barnsley circuit in missioning Halifax, where they were charged with disturbance of the peace by street preaching, and committed for trial at the Bradford Quarter Sessions. They were acquitted with a friendly warning from the magistrates “not to do it again.” They made use of their liberty by preaching the following evening in the streets of Bradford.’
    thus following in the tradition of the apostles – Acts 4:3, 4:19, 5:18, 5:21, 5:29 – Peter: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’

    NB: this comment also appears in the text of the All Saints Road chapel.

    By Andrew Chapman (31/08/2020)

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