The Chapels Society would like to wish all our visitors a Happy New Year.
And for our first Chapel of the Month of 2017 we have a contribution from Dr Jennifer Freeman OBE:
Bethesda Methodist Chapel, Albion Street, Stoke-on-Trent – often referred to as the ‘Cathedral of the Potteries’ – is the largest and grandest of the great C19 Methodist chapels and arguably the most famous of the Methodist New Connexion chapels. Not only was it important as a place of worship but also for the pivotal roles played by members of its congregation in Stoke’s burgeoning industrial and political life. It was these families who met the very considerable cost of constructing and embellishing the Chapel.
From early beginnings on its site in 1798 Bethesda was vastly enlarged in 1819 by local schoolmaster and architect, J H Perkins. He created a huge auditorium, some 33 metres long and 21 metres in width. His chequered ‘apse’ is a noteworthy feature, built of patterned cream and red brickwork to overlook the former burial ground (now a park). Inside he introduced a magnificent tiered oval gallery carried on 24 cast-iron columns.
In 1856 the impressive octagonal mahogany pulpit with its double flight of stairs and round communion rail was introduced. This was designed by the distinguished local architect, Robert Scrivener (1812-78), who was a longstanding Sunday school teacher and worshipper at Bethesda. Among his other buildings were Hanley’s Town Hall and the Mechanics Institute.
In 1859 Scrivener remodelled the frontage in a grandly fashionable Italianate manner with a full width Corinthian stone portico, rendered facade and central Diocletian window above. There was room for an enclosed paved space in front that set off the chapel. To mark its growing importance the Methodist New Connexion Conference was held at Bethesda in 1860. A large and elaborate ceiling pendant and light fittings added splendour at this time.
In 1864 a fine new organ, built by Kirtland and Jardine, was erected in the gallery high above the pulpit. Choral singing at Bethesda became famous in a Chapel that could attract up to three thousand worshippers.
Movingly elegant stained glass arrived from 1887, including a panel featuring William Holman Hunt’s famous painting ‘The Light of the World’ (now in St Paul’s Cathedral) and ‘Bethesda,Our Boys’ commemorating service in World War I.
Following the dispersal of local residents in the 1960s and 1970s through large scale redevelopment which caused a decline in worshippers, Bethesda gradually fell out of use and endured years of disrepair until it came into the care of the Historic Chapels Trust in 2003. Together with Bethesda Friends the Trust has thus far invested over £1.5m in repairs and restoration and in bringing new activities to this distinguished Chapel.
Those who recall the BBC’s ‘Restoration’ series will remember that the project at Bethesda came fourth nationally in the competition. Close relations have been established with the nearby Potteries Museum which held an exhibition about the proposals. HRH the Prince of Wales visited the Chapel with HRH the Duchess of Cornwall in 2010, having offered generous support through his Regeneration Trust.