Methodism in Belper

From the Mary Smedley Papers donated to the society shortly before her death in 2020..

Methodism came to Belper through the devotion of Thomas Slater, a farmer who was born in 1738 and lived at Shottle. Thomas was a devout Christian who visited the newly built Methodist Chapel at Crich in 1765 and as a result turned to Methodism. He began to preach in 1770. During his years of preaching he travelled throughout Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire and became known as Parson Slater.

By 1791 Belper had a larger membership than any other chapel in the county and also provided more preachers. Thomas Slater gave the land for the building of the first Methodist Chapel in Belper, which it is believed, stood on the site of the Cottage on Chapel Street.

Mr GA Fletcher, a preacher during the late 19th, early 20th century and a local historian, claimed that John Wesley preached in this chapel in 1782, before the roof was on. Certainly John Wesley preached in Belper Market Place under a large tree in 1786.

A portrait of Thomas Slater
Thomas Slater, Belper methodist.

The early chapel proved inadequate and Trinity Chapel (now Central Methodist) was built in 1807. Others soon followed as the town was growing rapidly at this time. Pottery Chapel was built in 1816, Holbrook Road Chapel by 1826. Salem (on what is now Green Lane) was a later design with a schoolroom on the ground floor, built 1856.

The Zion Methodist Chapel was built at the top of Kilbourne Road in 1863, to serve the needs of a growing community in this part of the town; a small chapel was built at Belper Lane End and three chapels at Milford.

Interior of Trinity Methodist Church
The altar of Trinity Methodist Church

There is a report in a newspaper of the 1860s which states over 120 people attended the Wesleyan Reform church (Salem) on Christmas Day for tea to raise funds for “sick and worn out preachers.” And there was a similar gathering at Field Head.

 There was an early breakaway group known as the Methodist Connection (or Connexion), a small chapel was built in Belper opposite the Royal Oak in Mill Street – this was burnt down in 1842 and seems to have signified the end of this movement in Belper.

Exterior of Salem Chapel, Green Lane
Salem Chapel on Green Lane.

The Primitive Methodists were formed as an off shoot of the main body of Methodism, their mode of worship was spontaneous and joyful, and this movement came to Belper about 1814 with the Bourne family who owned the local pottery.

The first Primitive Methodist building was at Field Head, which was built in 1817 on land provided by Hugh Bourne. This chapel had to be rebuilt in 1822 because the congregation had grown so rapidly. They became known as Ranters because of their loud singing of joyful hymns.

Exterior of Primitive Chapel, Field Head
Primitive Chapel at Field Head.

There was a great decline in Methodist membership for both the Wesleyan and the Primitive Methodist churches in Belper between 1849 and 1851. By the end of the 19th century the Methodist movement was moving towards unity and this finally came about in 1932 by Act of Parliament.

1965 saw the amalgamation of the Salem, Field Head and Trinity Methodist churches. These three churches took on the largest of the three premises (on Chapel Street) and the joint church was re-named Central. In December 1983, Milford’s Ebenezer Chapel closed and joined with Shaw Lane Methodist. Zion and Central are the only remaining Methodist churches in Belper.

A Sunday school was added to the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in 1842, which could take 200 children. Pottery Chapel could accommodate 160. Mr Alfred Barnes was Sunday School Superintendent at Salem from 1921 to 1935 and gave a shield which was awarded to the winning local Sunday school for sporting success.

Exterior of Pottery Chapel
Pottery Chapel, Belper

Most of the local churches had football and cricket teams until World War II.

Sunday school anniversary morning processions were the highlight of the year. The procession would be led around the area of the town covered by that particular church. Frequent stops were made for the singing of hymns when people would come out of their houses to watch and listen, while the young men would hurriedly go house to house with collecting boxes. Some of the churches had a banner at the head of the procession; one such banner from Field Head is in the Belper Historical Society archives.

The afternoon would consist of songs and recitations by the Sunday school and a suitable preacher would be invited to preach at this and the evening service. There was a great deal of work went into the rehearsals for this day and everyone made an effort to have new clothes for the occasion.

Singing at Field Head
Singing at Field Head Chapel commemorating the anniversary.