St Mary's Street and Marsh End Wesleyan Chapels and the Tabernacle of the Revivalists

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

“When shall we three meet again?” We can’t tell – don’t care about knowing; you have met now; and keep quiet, if possible, whilst being vivisected. There are worse companions, so shake hands, and sigh for universal bliss. We shall use the dissecting knife with a kindly sharpness. The first of the places named is situated in St. Mary’s-street, opposite a very high wall, which we believe is intended to prevent men from scaling it, and is closely associated with the arrangements of the House of Correction. One hundred yards off, it looks like a high, modernised, seaside hotel; fifty yards off, it seems like a well-arranged gentleman’s residence, in the wrong place; two yards off, it indicates its own mission, and clearly shows that something embracing both education and religion is carried on within it. It is a large, well-built, quadrangular building, with two round-headed ranges of windows in front, and a good roof above, surmounted with an iron rail, put up apparently for imaginary purposes. Nobody has yet got over that rail so far as we have heard; and if the job is ever attempted, nothing will be found on the other side worth carrying home.

The foundation stone of this building – it is really a school chapel – was laid on Good Friday, 1866, and the place was opened in the same year. The place cost £2,500, and it is nearly out of debt. Internally, it is full of rooms. On the ground floor there are nine apartments – all well disposed, appropriately fit up, and set apart for general scholastic and class purposes. On week days, some of them are used as school-rooms, the average attendance of pupils, who are carefully looked after, being about 120; and on Sundays they are devoted to “class” business. In a large room above, children are also taught on Sundays: the general attendance on those days throughout the place being about 450. This school-chapel owes its existence to the cotton famine. During that trying period, when people had nothing else to do but think, live on 2s. a week, and grow good, Messrs. Wilding and Strachan generously opened a room connected with their mill in New Hall-lane, for secular and religious instruction. It was attended mainly by those belonging the Wesleyan persuasion; in time it became too little; and the result was the erection of a school-chapel in St. Mary’s-street. We have never seen a better arranged nor a more commodious place of its kind than this. Its class, and ordinary scholastic departments we have alluded to.

Let us now proceed above – into the room used for worship. You can reach it from either the northern or the southern side, but from neither can you make headway without ascending a strong, winding series of steps, which must be trying and troublesome to heavy and asthmatic subjects, if any of that sort ever show themselves at the building. The room is large, lofty, clean, and airy, and will hold about 400 persons. Just within each doorway there is a box, intended for contributions on behalf of “sick and needy scholars.” But both have been put too near the side; they often catch people’s clothes, on entering, and as everybody is not disposed to stop and exercise the organ of benevolence, whilst the remainder wish to be judicious about the business and save their dresses, it has been decided to shift them inwards a little. From the centre of the ceiling, gas burners, in star-shaped clusters, are suspended, and when the taps are on they give good lights.

The congregation, which is generally constituted of working-class people, numbers about 350. The people attending this place are a quiet, devoted lot, with patches of pride and self-glorification here and there about them, but, on the whole, kindly-looking and sincere. Some of them are close-minded and intensely orthodox; but the majority are wide-awake, and won’t pray for fair weather until it has given over raining. The members of the choir sit on the eastern side, and if not so refined and punctillious in their musical performances, they are at least pretty strong-lunged and earnest. They are located near the wall. The harmonium-player enjoys a closer proximity to it. He manipulates with fair skill, has a clock right above him, and ought, therefore, to keep “good time.” If he doesn’t, then let the clock be condemned as a deceiver and incumberer of the wall. The pulpit is a broad, neatly-arranged affair – fixed upon a platform at the southern end, and environed with rails of blue and gold colour. Just within, and on its immediate left, there is a small paper nailed up with four nails, and containing, is written English, these words, as a reminder for each preacher during his “supplications” – “Pray for God’s ancient people of Israel.” “Does this mean the Jews?” said we to an elderly man near us, whilst we were scrutinizing with a plaintive eye, the pulpit, and he replied, “Bleeve it does.” That, we thought, was a bad speculation for a chapel containing two subscription boxes for “sick and needy scholars.” The man who wrote out that exhortation in the interests of Petticoat-lane men and their kindred, and the patriot who drove with a fierce virtue the four nails into it didn’t, we are afraid, know clearly how much it costs to convert a genuine Jew, else more caution would have been exercised by each of them. A Jew’s eye is a costly thing; but a Jew’s conversion is much more expensive; you can’t get at the thing fairly for less than £10,000; and as five good Wesleyan Chapels could be built, in ordinary districts, for that sum, we advise Wesleyans to go in for chapels and not for Jews.

If the pulpit had not been a broad and accommodating one, in St. Mary’s-street Chapel, we should have been inclined to think that the parson might have had a “walk round.” There is just space enough in front of the pulpit for a medium-sized gentleman to pass between it and the front rails. In a moment of high dudgeon, a thin preacher with a passion for “action” might easily flank off and traverse it frontally; but an easy-minded individual would find plenty of room in the pulpit, and if he did not, presuming he were stout, he would have to “crush” considerably in order to accomplish a full circular route. Beyond and in the immediate front of the pulpit rails there is a circular seat. This we fancied, during our inspection, was the “penitent form” – it seemed close and handy during a season of stern excitement and warm eruption; but in a moment we were told it was for “sacrament people,” who patronise it in turns, on particular Sundays.

Two services are conducted on Sundays here by regular and itinerent preachers; the former coming from Lune-street Chapel, and the latter being furnished out of the general lay body. Nearly every night throughout the week, class meetings, &c., are held in the building, and they are conducted with much rapture and peacefulness. How the Jew-converting business gets on we cannot tell – badly, we imagine; but in respect to the ordinary operations of the place they are successful and promise to be still more so. A chapel whose members branched off from this place has been established at Walton. About 12 months ago it was opened. A cottage situated on the road side leading to the church constitutes the walhallah of Methodism there, and the support accorded to it is increasing. We have no more to say as to the St. Mary’s-street mission. We hope it will go on and agreeably grapple with the people in its own district whatever may become of the Jews.

A mile and a half distant, on the other side of the town, and quietly resting amongst the desolate premises once occupied by the Preston Ship Building Company, at the Marsh End, there is a small preaching place, wherein the Scriptures are expounded and the doctrines of John Wesley duly inculcated. About two and a half years ago a couple of cottages in this locality were “thrown into one,” and arranged so as to moderately accommodate those caring about religion, and willing to have it in a “good old Methodist” style. There was considerable briskness of trade hereabouts at that time, ships were made in the adjoining yards, the bubble of speculation was being strongly blown, large numbers of strong-armed men, caring more for ale in gallon jugs than either virtue in tracts or piety in sermons, resided in the district, the population was rapidly increasing, a new section of the town’s suburbs was being strongly developed, and there being drinking houses, skittle grounds, and other accompaniments of a progressive age visible, it was considered prudent to mix up a small Wesleyan preaching room and school with the general confraternity of institutions in the locality. At the beginning of this year, owing to the insufficient accommodation of the premises, a portion of the pattern room of the Ship Building Company, which in the meantime had resolved its organisation into thin air and evaporated, was secured, and arranged in a homely fashion for the required business.

After passing through a small door in the centre of a large one, leading to the shipyard, then turning to the right, then mounting 18 steep awkward steps, and then turning again to the right, you arrive at the place. The moment we saw it we knew it. It was in this very room where grand champagne luncheons used to be given after ship launches, and where dancing and genteel carousing followed. The last time we had business at this place we saw twenty-three gentlemen alcoholically merry in it, six Town Councillors helpless yet boisterous in it, thirty couples of ladies and gentlemen dancing in it, four waiters smuggling half-used bottles of champagne rapidly down their throats in it, an ex-Mayor with his hat, thrown right back, looking awfully jolly, and superintending the proceedings, in it, and in an adjoining room, now used for vestry purposes, three ladies in silk velvet, wine-freighted, and just able to see, blowing up everybody because their bonnets were lost. The place where all this “fou and unco happy” work was transacted is now the school chapel of the Wesleyans.

The room wherein the congregation meet is bare, plain, and primitive-looking, with an open roof, whitewashed all round, and boarded off from a workshop at the southern end. Its “furniture” consists of eleven forms, three stoves, a pulpit with no back, and a chair. A strip of wood is placed across a window at the rear of the chair, which is used by the officiating parson, and this wood prevents him from breaking the glass if he should happen to throw his head back sharply. On one side of the room there are 19 hat hooks, and on the other 24. There are seats in the place for about 100. The members number about 20, and the average congregation, entirely working people, and of homely, orderly character, will range from 80 to 100. The room is connected with the Wesley circuit; every Sunday there are two services in it; a meeting for religious purposes is held each Thursday night; and the preaching is done by “locals” and “regulars.” The singing is neither good, nor bad, nor indifferent; but a mixture of the whole three qualities. It is accompanied by a small harmonium, played by a young lady in moderately tasteful style. The services are simple and hearty, and whilst there may be a little plaintive noisiness now and then in them – a few penitent flutterings – they are generally, and remembering the complexion of the congregation, respectably conducted.

“It’s a regular bird nest, and you’ll never get to it, unless you ask the neighbouring folk,” said a friend to us whilst talking about the Revivalists’ tabernacle. To the bottom of Pitt-street we then went, and seeing two or three females and a man dart out of a dim-looking passage beneath one of the side arches of the railway bridge there, we concluded that we were near the “nest.” Having sauntered about for a few moments, and assured ourselves that this was really the place we were in search of, we went to the arch, walked six or seven yards forward, looked up a dark, tortuous, narrow passage on the right, and entered it. In the centre of the passage there was a hole, through which you could see telegraph wires and the sky, on one side a grim crevice running narrowly to the top of the railway bridge, and ahead a shadowy opening like the front of an underground store, with a wooden partition, in the centre of which was a small square of glass. Theseus, who got through the Labyrinth, would have been puzzled with this mystic passage. We never saw such a time-worn and dumfounding road to any place, and if those who patronise it regularly had done their best to discover the essence of dinginess and intractibility, they could not have hit upon a better spot than this. A warm air wave, similar to that you expect on entering a bakehouse, met us just when we had passed the wooden partition. In the centre of the room there was a stove, almost red-hot. This apartment, which was filled with small forms, was, we ascertained, a Sunday-school.

At the bottom end there were some narrow steps, leading through a large hole into a room above – the “chapel.” A fat man could never get up these steps, and a tall one would injure his head if he did not stoop very considerably in ascending them. The chapel is about five yards wide, 15 yards long, very low on one side, and moderately high on the other. It is plain, ricketty, and whitewashed. The side wall of the railway bridge forms one end of it. On the northern side, there is a door fastened up with a piece of wood in the form of a large loadstone. This door leads to the top of a pig-stye. The “chapel” will hold about 70. When we visited it, the congregation consisted of 35 children of a very uneasy sort, 11 men, and five women. Every now and then railway goods trains kept passing, and what with the whistling of the engines, the shaking caused by the waggons, the barking of a dog in a yard behind, the grunting of a pig in a stye three yards off, and the noise of the 35 children before us, we had a very refreshing time of it. The congregation – a poor one – consists of a remnant of the Revivalists who were in Preston last year, and it has a kind of nominal connection with the Orchard United Methodists. The building we have described was formerly a weaving shop or rubbish store. Its present tenants have occupied it about twelve months.

They are an earnest body, seem obliging to strangers, are not as fiery and wild as some of their class, and might do better in the town if they had a better room. They have no fixed minister. The preacher we heard was a stranger. He pulled off his coat just before beginning his discourse. After a few introductory remarks, in the course of which he said he had been troubled with stomach ache for six hours on the previous day, and that just before his last visit to Preston he had an attack of illness in the very same place, a lengthy allusion was made to his past history. He said that he had been “a villain, a gambler, a drunkard, and a Sabbath breaker” – we expected hearing him say, as many of his class do, that he had often abused his mother, thrashed his wife, and punished his children, but he did not utter a word on the subject. The remainder of his discourse was less personal and more orthodox. At the close we descended the steps carefully, groped our way out quietly, and left, wondering how ever we had got to such a place at all, and how those worshipping in it could afford to Sabbatically pen themselves up in such a mysterious, ramshackle shanty.