A brief history of St Milburga Chapel

“…we have erected a neat little chapel, twenty-four feet by eighteen, and about twelve feet from the floor to the ceiling.  The building, which is of brick, stands in a large yard, encircled with iron palisades.  It is much admired for its beautiful front and its general neatness, and is, in fact, an ornament to the village.  It was opened for divine worship on May 15th, 1842.”  Primitive Methodist Magazine, May 1843.

Origins of the Primitive Methodists

The Primitive Methodists were a branch of the Methodist Church. The origins of the Methodist Church in the UK can be traced back to the early 18th century, rooted in the revival movement within the Church of England. It was spearheaded by two Oxford University brothers, John and Charles Wesley, whose profound spiritual awakenings and zealous approach to faith and scripture led them to challenge the prevailing religious complacency of their time. Initially derogatorily dubbed as “Methodists” for their methodical way of living and studying the Bible, the Wesley brothers embraced the term as they began to preach a message of personal salvation and social justice.

John Wesley

John Wesley’s open-air preaching, broke the conventional boundaries of normal worship, reaching out to the marginalized working classes of England, many of whom felt neglected by the established church. His message emphasized salvation by faith and the importance of sanctification, a life lived in holiness. Despite facing opposition and persecution, Wesley’s charismatic preaching and widespread connections helped to establish a network of societies and meeting houses across the UK, which laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Methodist Church.

The Methodist movement was notable for its early adoption of lay preachers (including women), which allowed for rapid expansion and engagement with communities across the UK. After John Wesley’s death in 1791, the movement officially separated from the Church of England, becoming its own denomination. The Methodist Church quickly became a major force in British Christianity, known for its vigorous missionary work, social activism, and emphasis on personal piety and community service.

A Growing Movement for Change

The 19th century working class movement known as Primitive Methodism, originated in the Potteries, where an open air ‘camp’ meeting was held at Mow Cop in 1807. Hugh Bourne and William Clowes are credited as the founders, but it was a people’s movement, with a network of local societies and travelling preachers.  Some were great characters, such as Eleazor Hathorn, a one legged veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and John Oxtoby, known as ‘Praying Johnny’. Women had an important role, like Sarah Kirkland, who at the age of 21 went to Nottingham and preached to a huge crowd in a disused factory in Broad Marsh.

The movement broke away from the Methodist Church, placing an emphasis on a more austere, simplistic form of worship and living, harking back to what was viewed as the original values of Methodism. This separation, which occurred around 1810, was initiated by Bourne and Clowes, among others, who felt that the mainstream Methodist Church was becoming too institutionalised and drifting away from the evangelical passion that characterized the early days of Methodism under John Wesley. The Primitive Methodists placed a strong emphasis on lay preaching, outdoor revival meetings, and a democratic church governance. They were known for their passionate evangelism, especially among the working classes in rural areas and industrial towns as well as their commitment to social justice issues of the day, including the abolition of slavery and the promotion of the temperance movement.

The movement quickly spread across the Midlands. By the end of the century there were over 200,000 members. In the context of the growing democratisation and sense of dislocation caused by the Industrial Revolution, it appealed primarily to miners and mill hands, farm labourers, and workers in developing factory towns. In rural areas, Primitive Methodists often came into conflict with the Squire and Anglican clergy, who saw them as a threat to the established order. Primitive Methodism gave people a sense of self-worth and a desire for self-improvement. Chapels provided education and an opportunity to develop skills in public speaking and leadership. It also provided an alternative way of life, based on moral values, and tried to help raise families out of poverty.

Political Activists

Many Primitive Methodists became involved in politics, as trade unionist leaders, Chartists, and later as Labour MPs. George Edwards, who championed the cause of farm labourers in Norfolk, is typical of the early trade union leaders who developed their passion and leadership skills through the Primitive Methodist Chapels.  Starting his working life at the age of six, he was illiterate until he joined the Primitive Methodists, found faith and embarked on a journey of self-education, as he recounts in From Crow Scaring to Parliament.

Thomas Russell, known as ‘the Apostle of Berkshire’, was even imprisoned for his faith.  Sent to Berkshire in 1829, he faced violent opposition, and burst a blood vessel preaching in the open air, trying to be heard above the noise. People were afraid to invite him to hold services in their homes because they faced threats of loss of work and eviction! His perseverance eventually paid off, and Berkshire became one of the strongholds of Primitive Methodism.

What’s in a name?

Also known as ‘Ranters’, for their enthusiastic preaching, ‘Primitive’ Methodists were so called because they wanted a return to an earlier, purer form of Methodism, as founded by John Wesley, based on the early church. In 1932 Primitive Methodists joined with the Wesleyan and United Methodist branches to form the modern Methodist Church, which continues to promote faith and justice in contemporary society to this day. The movement has left a lasting legacy across the landscape of the UK with the erection of thousands of chapels, many of which, including St Milburga Chapel, survive to this day.

Primitive Methodist Chapel Design

Characterised by their simplicity, Primitive Methodist chapels, reflected the movement’s emphasis on humility and accessibility and were typically modest in their architectural design and decoration. These chapels were built to serve the spiritual needs of working-class communities, often in rural areas and burgeoning industrial towns, where the movement found its most receptive audience. As such, the chapels were practical and unpretentious, eschewing the ornate stylings of more established religious buildings in favour of straightforward, functional structures. Many featured plain, whitewashed walls, simple wooden pews, and minimal adornment, aimed to focus the congregation’s attention on worship and the preaching of the Gospel. Despite their modesty, these chapels often became hubs of community activity, hosting not only religious services but also meetings, educational classes, and social events.

St Milburga Chapel is a typical example of a Primitive Methodist Chapel. There had been a growing Methodist movement in the village of Stoke St Milborough for many years but this was hindered by the lack of a space to worship. A parcel of land was purchased in the centre of the village in the Spring of 1842, and by May of 1842 St Milburga Chapel had been built and was ready for worship. It’s doors opened for the first time on 15th May 1842 by Joseph Grieves and J. Tharm.  St Milburga embodied the emphasis on simplicity and a no-frills approach to worship. The chapel was not large; it was built as big as time and money allowed. The Methodist movement was clearly flourishing within the area as there is a description of services being held in the open-air, the chapel being too small to hold all the congregation.  At the time, it would have been an open-plan space with white, unadorned walls and plain wooden pews facing the preacher. Outside, it was built in the typical red bricks commonly used in Victorian times with stone plinths and lintels and an iron palisade enclosing the front. A stone tablet was placed at the pediment, presumably with the intention of carving the date of opening. However, there is no evidence that anything was ever carved into it; perhaps they simply ran out of money after building the chapel. The outside is classed as “of historical importance” and the red brick frontage, front door, windows, yard and iron palisade are Grade 2 listed. There is some discussion as to whether the large, wooden front door is original as it is quite a lightweight door for its size; it has been examined by a specialist who thought it possibly was, perhaps in keeping with the fact that the chapel was built quickly and cheaply.

Modern Times

St Milburga Chapel was continued to be used for worship until 1972. After it closed it’s doors on the local congregation in Stoke St Milborough for the last time, St Milburga Chapel had many lives. It first served as the village shop for many years and many of the villagers can still remember going there to buy their groceries. After this, it was purchased by a local businessman, Claude Bodenham who used it as storage and an office for his thriving agricultural machinery business. In the early 2000s Claude and his wife decided to convert it into a holiday let. This attracted the attentions of the media and the chapel’s conversion was filmed for the programme “Property Ladder” with Sarah Beeny offering her valuable advice on fixtures and fittings to Claude and his wife. However, as the conversion neither “ran into difficulties” nor went substantially over budget, the episode was never shown on TV! After 20 successful years as a holiday home, the property changed hands once more to its current owners who after a lick of paint and a bit of modernisation opened its doors to guests once more in the Spring of 2023.

Suggested further reading

Jill Barber www.myprimitivemethodists.org.uk