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Stratford-upon-Avon

John Wesley passed through Stratford in January 1743 on his way to Evesham, encountered what seemed a case of devil-possession at Shottery and preached with a mixed response back in the town. On the basis of a survey of the town in 1758 the Rev. Joseph Greene, headmaster of the Grammar School, concluded that Stratford was ‘vitually free of non-conformity’, but mentions ‘a few illiterate Mechanical Methodists’. But the earliest record of a society is not until well into the 19th century. In 1810 the Superintendent of the newly-formed Redditch Circuit, Michael Cousin, attempted to preach in Rother Street, was arrested by the borough constable, dismissed by the magistrates with no more than a caution and escorted out of town.

Ten years later a small society began to meet at the home of Matthew Pearce, a shopkeeper, and his wife Sarah in Wood Street. They had come from Bidford-on-Avon to live in Stratford in 1819. On one occasion the Wood Street congregation welcomed a distinguished visitor, the widow of R.C. Brackenbury and her travelling companions, returning home from Cheltenham. After the deaths of the Woods (in 1849 and 1851 respectively) a plaque in the former Birmingham Road church recorded their significant role, and that of Sarah Pearce in particular, in the early days of Stratford Methodism.

Outgrowing the room in Wood Street by 1821, the society adapted an old cart-shelter in Meer Street as a place of worship. It accommodating about 80, including about 30 society members, ‘all poor, but pious, and anxious to do good’. This in turn was succeeded by the lower room of a former baker’s shop next to the White Swan in Rother Market, and then by the first purpose-built Birmingham Road chapel, opened in January 1835, by Dr. Robert Newton. A schoolroom was added in 1858 to meet the needs of the growing Sunday School. The spirit of rivalry at that time between the established church and Methodism was exemplified by the building and consecration of St. James’s district church in close proximity to the Birmingham Road church.

Both Stratford and Warwick were missioned by the Primitive Methodists in 1832, but the work was described as ‘low’ and the first chapel in an alleyway, opened some time before 1851 off Guild Street, was not replaced by the Great William Street chapel until 1866. Meanwhile the Primitive Methodists continued to struggle in the face of widespread poverty to maintain a foothold in the villages, and played a significant part in the rise of agricultural trade unionism, notably though the leadership of Joseph Arch. The Great William Street chapel was sold following Methodist Union, in the 1930s and is now used by the Freemasons.

Renovated in 1877, Birmingham Road church was given a new portico copied from that of the Carr’s Lane Congregational church in Birmingham. In 1903 additional premises known as Wesley Hall were built alongside the church in place of the manse.

Replacement of the Birmingham Road church was delayed, partly by World War II, until the 1960s, when the trustees were encouraged by the connexional Chapel Committee to prepare a ‘bold and imaginative scheme’ to replace it. The former site of a medieval house for chantry priests in Old Town became available opposite Holy Trinity, the church in which Shakespeare is buried, was acquired. The laying of the foundation stone took place in June 1962; the last service at Birmingham Road took place on Sunday 12 April 1964 and the dedication of the new church followed on Saturday the 18th. The architect was William H. Cripps of Oxford. Considerable support for the cost came in the form of grants from the War Damage Commission, American Methodism and the Joseph RankBenevolent Trust.

Early in the 21st Century proposals to join forces with Rother Street United Reformed Church came to nothing and by 2009 an alternative scheme to improve the Old Town premises was under discussion. This began in May 2013 with the construction of a new ‘Activity Room’, completed by the following November. Soon afterwards an appeal was launched for phase two, including a refurbished church providing a more flexible space for worship and a new entrance foyer which has proved a popular and well used addition to the premises. Rededication took place in September 2014. A variety of environmentally friendly features were incorporated in the premises to reduce its carbon footprint.'

Sources

  • J.S.M. Hooper, The Story of Methodism in Stratford-upn-Avon (1962)

Entry written by: DD
Category: Place

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