History of Methodism at Rayleigh

John Wesley visited the old town of Leigh several times between 1748 and 1756 to set up a Methodist Society.
On one of these occasions (27th November 1755) his chaise got stuck in the ruts 2 miles from Rayleigh and he and his companions “thought it best to walk to the town though the road was both wet and dirty. Leaving them at Rayleigh I took horse again”.
It was undoubtedly from this Society at Leigh that “apostolic fishermen robed in blue jerseys” started to hold meetings in a house in Eastwood Road in about 1837.

During the following, years the responsibility for the Methodist cause in Rayleigh seems to have been in the hands of two gentlemen, both local preachers. Richard Frost (and his wife Sarah) came to Rayleigh from Bury St. Edmunds in 1842, taking over a shop in the High Street (where Boots now is) as straw hat and glove makers.

The following year William Blomfield from Ipswich arrived and took over a shop (where Card Factory now is) as an Insurance Agent, Linen and Woollen Draper and Tailor.

Richard Frost offered the Methodists a room over his shop and it is said that a local preacher from Leigh recorded how he found only a handful of people and on another occasion a veteran preacher who had intended giving a discourse to “saints and sinners alike” found only a select few and felt it best to devote his time to the saints and leave the sinners out of it. Mr. Frost insisted that the preacher should deliver-both parts. Messrs. Frost and Blomfields’ names are recorded as Society, Chapel and Circuit Stewards in the following years and their hard work and enthusiasm kept the Methodists going.

A Methodist Society was mentioned as part of the Maldon Circuit in 1847 in some notes I found at Trinity Church at Chelmsford and according to Whites Directory for 1848 “Wesleyans had a small place of Worship”.

On the plan for January to April 1849′, Rayleigh is included having three services, 2.30 and 6.30 on Sundays and 7 on Thursdays and from then on Rayleigh is included in plans and mentioned in Quarterly and Local Preachers Meeting, minutes.

The religious Census of 30th March 1851 describes the place of worship as “House used for religious purposes only”. Numbers given are 20 in the afternoon and 25 in the evening. It was signed by W. Blomfield.

In September 1854 the new Leigh Circuit was formed from the Maldon one because, I’m told, one of the young men complained that it was too far to walk from Maldon to Leigh. Rayleigh is mentioned regularly until December 1866

When the Local Preachers minutes state “Rayleigh to be left off” and the schedule showing places of worship given up dated 29th December 1873 states that “it was not worth continuing”. The accommodation was described as a room lent (not rented). I believe that from then the Methodists attached themselves as a class to Hadleigh, in order to keep their membership current, under the leadership of Richard Frost who is listed as a class leader at the time. Where they worshipped is not known.

Newspaper reports state that a Baptist Sunday School had started meeting in 1807 in the Girls School (next to the Baptist Church). This Sunday School was interdenominational, staffed by people from all churches in Rayleigh including Josiah Blomfield (son of William). He left in December 1884 to help start a Sunday School in the Wesleyan Preaching Room. In a report on Methodist Sunday Schools for the year ending 31st December 1884 it states that a Sunday School had been started.

Mr. Samuel Gilson came to Rayleigh in 1863 from Colchester where he and his family had been active in the Methodist Society. He took a grocers shop in the High Street (where Dorothy Perkins now is.)

At the June Quarterly Meeting of 1884 he “spoke of the desire of the people that a cause should be opened at once” at Rayleigh and the Meeting agreed.

Early in 1885 circulars were issued making an appeal for funds to erect a new Wesleyan Chapel in Rayleigh. The Southend Observer states that “an admirable site for the Chapel was secured in the front street nearly opposite the Girls School at a cost of £100. An estimate of £700 was submitted by Mr. J. Steward, a builder of Southend and accepted. On Wednesday 22nd April, the Stone laying Ceremony took place and a luncheon was held at the Golden Lion, then a service conducted by Rev. J.C. Harrup at which the stones were laid by Mrs. Baxter, Mrs. Braithwaite, Mrs. Ogglesby and Mr. W.L. Blomfield who was 90 the following week. A public tea and meeting followed in the Girls School.

The opening of the new Chapel took place on Tuesday 7th July. A tea was served in a marquee in Mr. Lukers meadow followed by a public meeting in the new Chapel. The total cost of the Chapel was just over £1,000 and at the opening only £175 remained to be raised.
Sadly Richard Frost had died in October 1882 and had not therefore lived to see the Chapel opened. Under the stone laid by Mrs. Baxter is a cavity in which is deposited an account of the stone laying, a circuit plan, the Sussex Weekly News of April 17th, the Southend Standard of April 17th, the Southend Observer of April 18th, the Wesleyan Methodist Recorder of April 17th, a list of the Trustees and Coins; a florin, shilling, sixpence, threepence and a farthing all of that year.

The Methodist Society thrived and at the quarterly Meeting in June 1901 a scheme was sanctioned for the erection of a Sunday School (on the corner of Love Lane) at an estimated cost of £500. Various fund raising events were held and the stone laying took place on Wednesday 9th July 1902 and the opening was in November of that year. Mr. Smee of Leigh as the architect and Mr. J. Byford the builder at a cost of £600.

In 1904 Rev. Nehamiah Curnock moved to Rayleigh from Southend and while he was here worked on and published his translation of Wesleys Diaries and was active in the work of the church. His daughter, Ruth, was even more active in the suffragette movement and in 1911 threw a brick through the window of the Rayleigh Post Office I’m told.

Various activities are mentioned including Wesley Guild, Boys Brigade, Penny Bank and Coal Club. Every year there was an Egg Service at which eggs were collected and taken to the East End of London presumably to our Mission. In December 1904 the Local Preachers minutes state “It was reported that one Sunday morning the GER had put on a train up to Wickford starting at a time enabling such to reach Rayleigh a few minutes after 11.00 a.m. and it being understood that the train was on as a trial the Secretary was instructed to write to Mr. R.P. Ellis the newly appointed GER Manager at Liverpool Street also a member of the 1st London District Local Preachers Committee asking him in event of such being continuously run to use his influence in having such start a few minutes earlier thereby assisting the Brethren for Rayleigh appointments”.

The following meeting in March records “Correspondence from Mr. R.P. Ellis re train from GER station on Sunday mornings. Information was given to the effect that the train now started 5 minutes earlier”.

An interesting item in the Circuit Magazine in January 1911 states “In the midst of the intricasies and crooked ways of the General Election we found time by greater intricasies and crooked ways to raise a very creditable sum of money for umbrella stands”. They had their priorities right in those days!

In 1905 Rayleigh was granted its first active minister Rev. Henri R. Tourtel with responsibility for Rayleigh, Rochford and Hockley. We had previously had the services of supernumary ministers, Rev. Lamb and Rev. John Gibson who died in April 1910 as a result of a. tramcar accident in Southend. Mr. Tourtel was taken ill and went to South Africa “as the only means of saving his life”. He was followed at Rayleigh by Rev. N.E. Dando who was training and left to go back to college in 1910 and from then on we had a fully qualified minister appointed.

Somewhere prior to 1916 several gentlemen began holding services at a barn and called the Rayleigh Mission and at the Quarterly Meeting of March 1917 a commission of enquiry was set up to look into the purchase of a site for a building to house this work. A Mr. T.T. Robinson was willing to give the freehold land. The work was under the jurisdiction of the Rayleigh Leaders Meeting. At a meeting held in November 1920 Mr. Robinson said that he did not propose to ask for any financial undertaking from either the Rayleigh Church or the Quarterly Meeting and was prepared to give the foundations for the Mission Building.

In 1921, a Trust was set up and the land conveyed to the Trustees. The contract for the new Chapel was placed with Messrs. Harrison of London for £445 and arrangements for Opening Services were reported in March 1922. At the Quarterly Meeting of December 1924 it was reported that Mr. Robinson had died and in December the following year that the Mission was now free of debt.

I have been unable to trace any records of the activities for the following years but during the 1960’s the work declined and the decision was taken to close the Mission;, the final services taking place in November 1964. I remember the Mission as a corrugated iron building which stood in Eastwood Road where the houses numbered 335 and 335a now stand. The money from the sale of the land was divided between Rayleigh and Hockley Churches.

In 1926 the Quarterly Meeting minutes record a decision to split what had now become the Southend and Leigh Circuit. No specific reason was given but it covered a vast area (from the Crouch in the north to the Thames in the south and from Wickford in the west to Shoeburyness in the east) with numerous Chapels and proposals for many more.

In November 1927, discussions began on the subject of a Manse at Rayleigh. From the estimates received J.T. Byford’s was accepted (and I believe it was built in 1928) at a cost of £1,342.16.115 (cost of site being £265).

The 1930 Conference agreed that the “Chapel in the High Street be sold and a new Chapel built”. The reasons given by the Trustees were various including the fact that they considered that end of the town “downtown”. In fact the Chapel was inadequate.
In 1923 three Methodist gentlemen (Messrs. Bowles W.F. Gilson, son of Samuel and Crowle Smith) had bought a piece of land in Eastwood Road. It was decided in 1930 to buy this land from them to build the new Church but there was a restrictive covenant which meant that the land could be used only for residential purposes. The removal of this covenant proved complicated and in July 1931 the Trustees decided not to proceed.

They considered a site owned by Mr. Finch but turned it down because of the “close proximity of the Fried Fish Shop not desirable”. A site at the top of London Hill was considered but was not proceeded with. Mr. Finch offered another site next to the Peculiar Peoples Chapel (now Evangelical) and the Trustees started negotiations but “decided that the Trustees regret that owing to the grave objections that have come to their notice from the members of the Church, they consider it advisable to suspend procedure with the site”. The Peculiar People were very noisy at worship.

By July 1932, the Trustees were desperate and called the Church to prayer over this matter and stated that the first site considered “would meet with the general approval…..provided the restrictive covenant be satisfactorily removed”. In February 1933, the Solicitors were still trying to remove the covenant. The minutes report an anonymous gift of £2,000 at this stage. On October 6th 1933, the Solicitors were authorised to complete the purchase. The cost of the new Church (including the site, heating and lighting) was £6,168. A tender by Mr. Green of Leigh of £4,500 was accepted at the April meeting. (In September it was agreed to build a house for the Caretaker at a cost of £450). The Stone Laying of the new Church took place on 20th June 1934, at which 50 stones were laid. It was preceded with a sale of work and followed by a tea and public meeting all held at the Clissold Hall opposite. On 7th November at 4.00 p.m. the new Church was opened.

The old Chapel in the High Street was sold to the Salvation Army for £2,000 on condition that the Trustees did not have to pay the legal costs. Our Trustees charged the Salvation Army £9- interest because there was a delay in the conveyancing due to a problem over a right of way. The debt on the Church gave rise to considerable worry especially because of the difficulties and problems due to the Second World War but was finally paid off in 1941. I believe that the Church had some damage due to enemy action but no details are given in the minutes. In 1953 the Trustees decided to buy the copse to prevent a builder putting two houses on it and the following year sold the land at the back of the Church where part of Nursery Close is now.

In 1958 a Wives Club started, Sisterhood and Wesley Guild having been mentioned from the time of the old Chapel. Scouts started in 1960 and Guides in 1961. In 1962 a 20 Plus Group was formed. In September 1964 the Sunday School Committee agreed to change to the morning. Because of this change additional accommodation was required and after a lot of fund raising, the result of a legacy and half the proceeds from the sale of the Mission, two new rooms were built at the back of the existing halls and opened on 19th December 1971.

In 1977 as a result of wear and tear and dry weather the organ was found to be in need of repairs and modernisation and the work was carried out in 1980. This is the organ that was originally in the old Chapel and moved to the new one in 1934.
It seemed to me as I listened to the Christmas story being read this year that Rayleigh has indeed benefited from “3 wise men” in two instances. Firstly, the efforts of Richard Frost, William Blomfield and Samuel Gilson undoubtedly kept the Methodist cause alive before a Chapel was built and secondly from the wisdom of the 3 gentlemen (Bowles, W.F. Gilson and Crowle Smith) who saw the need of a move from the old Chapel long before any decision was reached and bought the land on which our Church now stands.
When the debt of the Church was finally paid off in 1941 the minutes state “The debt has been removed and we trust the Church will press on with the great work and become a blessing to all around”. AMEN!