Methodist chapels and the community
From a 2007 Jersey Heritage document
Methodism was brought to Jersey in 1774 by two Jersey traders returning from work in the Newfoundland cod fishing trade. Early societies met in a variety of buildings. It was not until 1809 that the Island’s first Methodist chapel was built, on land donated to the St Ouen society – some time after the French Independents had built their first chapel at King Street in St Helier in 1790 – and there were chapels in all of the island’s parishes by 1838.
By the time of the Religious Census of 1851 it had become a major element of the Island’s social and religious life. It has been estimated, taking regulars rather than the larger body of 'hearers' as a benchmark, that Methodism accounted for ten per cent of the rural population in Jersey.
In 1887 there were 36 dissenting places of worship (including 23 Methodist, 17 of which were outside St Helier). There were 17 Wesleyan Methodist chapels in 1864, increasing to 18 in the following year with the completion of Bethesda chapel.
There were in addition other Methodist chapels representing movements that had split from the main root of Wesleyan Methodism after John Wesley’s death in 1791.
A division between English and French-speaking circuits had become established by 1383. In Jersey the most significant offshoot were the Bible Christians, founded in 1815 by William O’Bryan, a Cornishman, which became strongest in Devon and Cornwall. They arrived in the Channel Islands in 1832 and their commitment to the poor ensured a strong following among the working and artisan classes - although in Jersey they were best known for the magnificent chapel in the Royal Crescent, hardly a poor area of town.
The other was the Primitive Methodist branch, founded by Hugh Bourne and William Clowes in Staffordshire in 1809, which became a major denomination in parts of the industrial north of England. They arrived in Jersey in 1823, making their principal base at Aquila Road in St Helier.
The number of Wesleyan and other Methodist chapels in the British Isles did not begin to decline until the 20th century, an initial reason being restructuring further to reunification of its various branches. Thus the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians and the United Free Methodists (formed in 1857 by a merger of the Wesleyan Reformers and the Wesleyan Association) were reunited in 1907 as the United Methodist Church, and this union was combined with the Wesleyans and Primitive Methodists to form the Methodist Church in 1932.
Since then the total of 14,500 Methodist churches declined to 8,500 in 1970 and just under 6000 in 2007.
These changes did not really affect Jersey until the 1950s. In 1956, the Leeds Conference was advised that the pre-Union (1932) circuits were to be reduced from three to two and that churches and chapels in St Helier would have to close and amalgamate. The three churches in the Great Union Road circuit, with seating for 1,672, were being maintained by only 250 members.
One consequence was the closure of the Wesley Chapel in 1956, and the movement of its community to Wesley Grove, retained because its ‘commanding position at the end of Halkett Place is...of great strategic importance’. For some, this was ‘an admission of defeat’ from the glory days of old. In 1975, however, there were still 18 Methodist chapels in the island, whose membership had fluctuated since the 1930s but shown no sign of any serious decline up to that date.
Only ten years later, in 1984-5, the returns reported a decline in membership from 1458 to 1281. Since then, there has been more of a noticeable decline, marked by the closure of Aquila Road and Galaad chapels, the demolition of Great Union Road Methodist Church and the recent closure of Gorey Methodist Church in January 2006.
Some chapels have been successfully converted to domestic use – such as Galaad, St Lawrence and Salem Chapel, Gorey – whilst the character of others – such as Bethel Chapel – has been effectively lost. Others in religious or alternative use have lost their interior fittings but retained their external elevations.
Part of culture
Jersey’s Methodist chapels are an integral part of Jersey’s environmental, social and economic character and development, and their associated infrastructure of Sunday Schools and walled settings (including burial grounds), are an important aspect of Jersey culture.
Methodism is a significant ideological and spiritual movement that made a major contribution to the development of modern Britain, and became a major force within the English-speaking world. It has left a remarkably varied legacy of chapels and other buildings, examples ranging from the most unpretentious vernacular building through successive levels of aspiration and prosperity.
Jersey Methodism was very strong by national standards. Jersey’s landscape and dispersed settlement, comprising isolated farms and hamlets set in fields that had been largely enclosed by the 18th century, provided fertile ground for Methodism to prosper among its independently-minded farming and fishing population and in the 19th century settlements that expanded as a result of oyster fishing, shipbuilding and commerce. Of particular interest is its strength in the Jèrriais-speaking community, which persisted as a major aspect of Jersey culture into the 20th century.
Individual chapels were frequently enlarged, altered externally and internally or converted for use as schools when new chapels were built (St Aubin; Les Frères, St John). They thus tell the story of individual chapel communities, in turn linked to the distinctive character of Jersey’s landscape and culture.
The high rate of rebuilding, refurbishing and reordering is an important theme in chapel-building history. This can make the correct dating of interiors and even exteriors very difficult, but it is clear that:
- Eight chapels have survived from the period 1809 (St Ouen) to 1840, of which one is barely recognisable (the Sir Francis Cook Gallery) and the remainder have all lost their internal fittings.The majority are gabled or hipped boxes, and the retention of domestic detail such as sash windows and panelled doors with fanlights is important.
- The Methodist chapels and other buildings that have survived predominantly date from the period after 1840.
- Internal fixtures and fittings generally date from after 1870.
Taken as a whole, Jersey’s chapels cover an enormous span of architectural types which in turn represent a broad range of community wealth and aspiration from the most modest vernacular through various levels of sophistication in Gothic and classical styles, to imposing classical temples (St Ouen and Sion) which still dominate their surrounding landscapes. This variation is far broader than for Anglican churches.
Plan form, notably the internal form of the worship area of the chapel (including the gallery) and the subdivided spaces of meeting rooms and offices, has generally survived.
- Ten chapels retain interior features in varying combinations and degrees of elaboration and completeness.They all date from the 1870s and later.
- There are only two surviving examples of painted text boards (Philadelphie and St Martin), the use of French being of particular and obvious cultural significance.
- The most common survival is of internal plasterwork, notably ceiling cornices and roses.These are characteristic and distinctive features.
- Clear glazing set within domestic-style panes (whether sashes or casements) distinguished Methodist and other Nonconformist chapels from Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. This domestic treatment continued into the inter-war period, as early20th century leaded windows with stylised Art Nouveau stained glass panels are commonly found.
The original settings of chapels has been subject to later development to differing degrees.
Jersey has many chapel groups particularly in rural areas, distinguished by Sunday Schools (an important element in sustaining Jersey French culture), manses, chapel keeper’s cottages, boundary walls and railings and more rarely burial grounds.