One of the many highlights of Warrington History Society’s 2016/17 season was the opportunity to learn about our meeting place – Friars Green Independent Methodist Chapel in Cairo Street. Here Ken McDermott, a minister at the Church, tells us more about the history of the Chapel and the Independent Methodist movement in general.
To set the scene, the fellowship at Friars Green can trace its roots back to 1796 when the world was a different place. We think we have our problems now but just across the channel the French Revolution was in full swing. There were fears that a peoples’ revolution could be contagious and break out on this side of the channel too.
At the same time Britain was facing rapid change and becoming an industrial powerhouse with large numbers of working class people making the transition from working in an agricultural economy to migrating in vast numbers to the growing towns and cities to work in mills and factories; this was a change particularly felt in the north.
Dissenters, or non-conformists as they were to become termed, were often looked upon with suspicion. Indeed the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 prevented dissenters from taking up Public or Military Office – seeking to ensure that any such office was filled by communicants of the Church of England only. Even after the Act of Toleration of 1689 it would not be until the repeal of the Test Acts, nearly 140 years later in 1828, that non-conformists would be allowed to take such offices.
Some may be surprised to hear that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, remained an Anglican clergyman to his dying day but he was an extraordinary character. Following a spiritual awakening in 1738, when he “felt his heart strangely warmed”, he commenced a new and radical phase in his ministry. He preached in the open air and travelled tremendous distances, setting up small societies wherever he went.
In these societies he would encourage intensive personal accountability, discipleship and bible teaching and would appoint un-ordained itinerant evangelists to areas to teach under his direction. Wesley had never seen his groups as separate to the Church of England but others did. They looked at the methodology that he used and labelled them “Methodists”.
Following Wesley’s death in 1791 it became clear that Methodism was separating from the Established Church, and, over time, it became more hierarchical and less dynamic. Small groups that had enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, came under increasing control. This would lead to difficult times that saw many groups leave, including the Primitive Methodists, Quaker Methodists, Band Room Methodists and Free Gospel Methodists.It was this heady mix that gave rise to the fellowship here in Warrington.
The history at Friars Green Independent Methodist Church is tied closely to the history of the Independent Methodist Denomination as a whole. Not because it was the earliest church, though it was amongst the earliest, but because its early leaders would be influential in forging a loose connexion of independent churches which had sprung into being from similar backgrounds.
Independent Methodism is the story of multiple groups, bearing numerous names, breaking away from Wesleyan Methodism typically for similar reasons.
In 1796, a group of members left Warrington’s Bank Street Methodist Church as a result of an attempt to curtail the cottage meetings which many of them attended. They started to hold meetings in a room over a grocers shop in Rose and Crown Street, just to the side of the old Rose and Crown pub on Bridge Street, and over the next few years they were joined by a number of Quakers.
This may have been influenced by the fact that, one of their number, a young man of 19, Peter Phillips, had close contacts with Quakers.
Peter was born in 1778, one of 12 children, whose father was the town crier of Warrington and was often drunk and violent.
Early in his life, his mother placed him in the home of Thomas and Mary Watt, Quakers and tallow chandlers (candlemakers and merchants in oil) who lived at Friars Gate. His brother John took him to Bank Street Methodist Church where he became a regular member and, on at least one occasion, he heard John Wesley preach there. Peter was a gifted and intelligent young man, becoming a chairmaker in his adult life.
By 1802 they were able to build their first chapel. It was to be on the site of the green of the former 13 Century Augustinian Friary – hence the name ‘Friars Green.’
Founding members included William Maginnis (glass cutter), George Brimelow (weaver), Peter Phillips and his brother Joshua (chairmakers), these would be followed by shoe makers, farmers, a hat manufacturer, a spade maker, schoolmaster and Excise Officer.
Partly because of recent history and partly because of the Quaker influence, the church held the view that ministry should be unpaid and that no member should have a higher rank than any other. Hence its leaders were all voluntary workers, most of them tradesmen. Their determination commitment was shown in how they lived their lives…After gaining the packet of land they undertook the building work themselves at the end of each day’s work. The new chapel faced St Austin’s Lane with the land in front and behind used for burial purposes.
In 1806, Friars Green formed links with other churches of similar character. In due course they agreed upon the name ‘Independent Methodist’ which continues to the present day.
The church was vigorous in its evangelistic work and was always looking for ways to expand. Over the years, some of its meetings in outlying communities became churches themselves – Stockton Heath, Lymm, Lowton, Risley and Culcheth, for example.
Peter Phillips, the young chair maker, went on to lead the church for over fifty years and was an influential character in knitting together the patchwork of churches that would eventually become the “Independent Methodist Connexion. Here the distinctives would be developed… Priesthood of all believers… A free Gospel a free Ministry… No distinctive dress for ministers…. Typically churches ran by working class people for working class people…Churches where women had equality right from the beginning.
Peter himself was an extraordinary character. In his 50 year ministry he travelled more than 30,000 miles, much on foot, and preached in excess of 6000 times. A further example of this is seen in an excerpt from John Dolan’s book “Peter’s People”: “Both Peter and (his wife} Hannah Phillips were practical philanthropists. This was vividly demonstrated during the 1832 cholera epidemic. The triangle of land bordered by Bridge Street, Buttermarket Street and Mersey Street became known as “sewer island”. In July, the hottest month of 1832, out of 116 people who died of cholera in the town, 90 lived in this area. Many fled to the countryside, but Peter and Hannah Phillips remained and exercised a personal ministry of care to the sick and the dying. Theirs was a philanthropy rooted in Christian belief and the comfort was spiritual as well as practical.”
In the early nineteenth century, few people had educational opportunities. Peter Phillips and others wanted to tackle this problem in Warrington, so they established Sunday Schools where reading and writing could be taught. The first one that he established was at our Stockton Heath Church in 1807, the Friars Green’s school began here in 1810 and Peter began a further school at Brick Street, in the Cockhedge area, in 1823 which continued until 1985. By 1821 the Stockton Heath Sunday School had over 300 attending. Peter died on May 11th 1853 having seen the work of God grow in Warrington and beyond.
In 1859, the chapel was demolished and the present building (pictured at the top of this page) replaced it. The church and Sunday School continued to thrive and, in time, prominent townsmen came from their ranks. Two members, James Evans and Robert Henshall, became mayors of Warrington in the 1920s. The present Worship Space was built as a schoolroom in 1911 on the site of the chapel’s former burial ground, providing much needed facilities for the number of children who attended.
Over the years, Friars Green has produced numerous able preachers who took the Christian message out to churches over a wide area. Many of their names are commemorated on a tablet in the chapel. Some went on to fulfil leadership roles in other churches.
The scale of the church’s activities during the past 200 years is so great it can only be hinted at in this article. Groups included the choir, Women’s Auxiliary, Christian Endeavour and Band of Hope, together with recreational activities such as football, cricket and amateur dramatics. Friars Green, therefore, has a great heritage. Members of the Church hope that by God’s grace it will go on to successfully meet the new challenges it faces in its third century.
The Independent Methodist movement currently comprises 74 churches. Most of these are based in the North of England (for example there are 8 churches in the Warrington ‘circuit’, 10 in Wigan, 8 in Leigh, etc) with other churches in small groups elsewhere in the country. Further information on Friars Green Church and the wider Independent Methodist movement can be found at www.imcgb.org.uk. Many thanks to Ken for allowing us to publish his article.
Warrington History Society
Warrington History Society was formed in 1964 to encourage an interest in all aspects of Warrington’s history and archaeology. Our 2017/18 lecture programme will be published in July 2017 with lectures commencing in September. All lectures will take place at Friars Green Chapel.