Sunday, 12 June 2016

A walk to explore the myth that Tamworth
once had more churches than pubs

The former Wesleyan Temple, later Victoria Street Methodist Church, has been converted into apartments as Victoria Mews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

In my architectural traipse around Tamworth last week, I was fascinated by the variety of church buildings that were be found on the streets of Victorian Tamworth. For almost 50 years, I have been familiar with the parish church, Saint Editha’s, which dates back to Saxon times, and which I first came to know because of the Comberford Chapel and the Comberford monuments and memorials.

It is said locally, with humour that one time Tamworth once had as many churches as it had pubs. Having come across the Christadelphians in Lichfield a few weeks ago, I decided last Sunday [5 June 2016] to go in search of a Victorian tradition in Tamworth that has faded in more recent years, and to find its architectural legacy.

John Wesley (1703-1791) was the first Methodist to visit Tamworth. Following disturbances in the Black Country in 1743, Wesley rode over to Tamworth to take legal advice from a Counsellor Littleton who lived there. However, the first visit of Methodist preachers to the town is not recorded until 1771.

The early Methodists in Tamworth first met in the home of Samuel and Ann Watton and later in a room in Bolebridge Street. In 1787 John Wesley met the first Sir Robert Peel, who gave the Methodists a site for a permanent chapel in Bolebridge Street. He told them: “My lads, do not build your chapel too large. People would like to go to a little chapel well filled better than a large one half full.”

The chapel was opened on 15 July 1794. But the chapel was clearly not built “too large,” for by 1815 it was proving to be too small. In 1816, a new and larger chapel that could seat a congregation of 300 was built at a cost of £1,000.

But just as the first Wesleyan chapel in Bolebridge Street had proved too small, the second one also became inadequate, and in the 1870s it was decided to build a new one.

In 1877, Thomas Argyle, a Methodist solicitor, donated a plot of land for a new chapel on the corner of Victoria Road and Back Lane, now Mill Lane.

The foundation stones for what would become the Wesleyan Temple were laid on 21 May 1877 and ‘topping out ceremony was held on 28 November 1877. The Wesleyan Temple, was built at a cost of £4307 2s 6d and opened on 9 April 1878. The Wesleyan Temple had an inspiring façade, and could seat a congregation of 650 people.

The Sunday School continued to use Bolebridge Street Chapel until new schoolrooms were built in 1898. The old chapel was sold to Woodcocks’ Printers, who used it for many years. Later, in the 1960s the congregation at Victoria Road was joined by families from the Bolebridge Street Mission when it closed.

However, serious defects were detected at Victoria Road Methodist Church, as it had become known, and the costs of remedying them were beyond the resources of the church. In early 1972, a decision was taken to close the church on Victoria Road and to amalgamate with a Methodist Church in Aldergate.

The magnificent Victorian edifice of the church was preserved and at first accommodated squash courts. However, the inside was stripped out in 1974 to accommodate a squash club. The old Wesleyan Temple has since been converted into residential apartments, but the façade remains part of the architectural legacy of Tamworth’s church history.

The Central Methodist Church on Aldergate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Methodist Church in Aldergate dates to a split that divided Tamworth’s Methodists in the mid-19th century. A new group was formed calling itself the Wesleyan Reformers and later the Free Methodists. When they left the Bolebridge Street Chapel, they met in a room nearby before acquiring a room in Aldergate that was known as ‘The Hut.’

In the late 19th century, the Free Methodists found that the Hut did not meet the needs of a growing congregation. They bought a plot of land in Aldergate for £250. The memorial stones were laid at Easter 1886, and the building was completed late that summer, with a fine spire. The fine, Gothic-style building cost £2,250 and opened for worship on 29 September 1886.

In 1907, the Free Methodists became United Methodists. In 1933, the United, Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist Churches became one Methodist Church, but it was many years before this became a reality in Tamworth. Meanwhile, the original spire was removed in the 1950s.

When they were joined by the Victoria Street Methodists in 1972, the new congregation in Aldergate became known as the Central Methodist Church.

But the premises in Aldergate were inadequate for the needs of the new congregation. It was impossible to extend laterally so it was decided to extend vertically, and a large part of the cost was met by grants from the Joseph Rank Benevolent Trust.

The church reopened on 16 September 1978. In 2005, a further upgrade was undertaken to improve access, toilet facilities and the kitchen. The Aldergate church is now known as the Central Methodist Church.

Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth … the Congregationalists, Unitarians and Baptists in Tamworth can be traced to the Puritans in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The story of the Congregationalists, Unitarians and Baptists in Tamworth dates back to the presence of the Puritans in the early 17th century. While the Revd Samuel Hodgkinson was Vicar of Tamworth (1610-1629), the Revd Thomas Blake (ca 1597-1657) first arrived in Tamworth. Blake was a native of Staffordshire and graduated BA in Oxford in 1620. On Christmas Eve 1620, he was ordained priest by Thomas Morton, Bishop of Lichfield, at Eccleshall.

Bishop Morton was sympathetic to the Puritans, and in 1627 he licensed Blake as preacher in Tamworth. In 1629, he succeeded Hodgkinson as the Vicar of Tamworth and master of the Grammar School.

As Vicar of Tamworth, Blake preached his brand of Presbyterian Puritanism with its dislike of bishops and catholic doctrines

However, William Comberford of Comberford Hall and the Moat House claimed the right of patronage in the parish, and between 1639 and 1642, he pursued legal actions to secure his claim to the patronage of Saint Editha’s and the college house. Comberford was unsuccessful in his action, and he and Blake soon also found themselves on opposite sides in the First English Civil War.

Blake was a strong supporter of Parliament and probably did not remain in Tamworth during the royalist occupation. His parish work was disrupted and it was in these years that he first earned a reputation for being controversial. His publications focussed on questions about infant baptism, and he debated publicly with other Puritans, including Presbyterians and Baptists, publishing pamphlets and sermons. One of the children he baptised was John Rawlett (1642-1686), later an Anglican cleric, preacher and writer with close sympathy with the Presbyterians.

Despite Comberford’s failure to eject him in 1642, Blake appears to have left the parish immediately after the case. There is a blank of two years in the Parish Registers during the Civil War from 1642 to 1644, for which Theophilus Lord wrote in 1644: “For some short time service there was not any.”

In 1643, Tamworth Castle was was captured by a detachment of Parliamentarian forces under the regicide Colonel William Purefoy. William Comberford, who was High Sheriff of Staffordshire escaped to Lichfield, and in his absence the Comberford home at the Moat House was ransacked by Cromwell’s forces, who mutilated the Comberford monument in Saint Editha’s Church, the Comberford Chapel was defaced, and sacked Comberford Hall.

However, Blake did not return to Tamworth, and in 1644 Cromwell’s Committee of Safety appointed Theophilus Lord as the Minister of Tamworth. Blake had moved from Tamworth to Shrewsbury, and there he became a Puritan minister in 1645. A year later he was replaced as Vicar of Tamworth by Revd Ralph Hodges, who was appointed Vicar of Tamworth with Glascote and Hopwas in 1646. He was also appointed Rector of Birmingham, a position he held until the end of 1661.

Meanwhile, Blake was back in Tamworth by 1651, when he was writing and publishing Puritan tracts and pamphlets once again, and where he remained until his death. He was nominated by Cromwell to be an assistant to the commissioners of Staffordshire for ejecting ignorant and scandalous ministers and schoolmasters.

In later publications, Blake advocated a more open and inclusive approach to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, This position brought him into conflict with one of the leading Puritans of the day, Richard Baxter, and the controversy continued until Blake’s death.

Blake made his will in 1656, and one of the witnesses was Thomas Fox, a Puritan and Parliamentarian officer who would soon move into the Moat House, the former Comberford family townhouse on Lichfield Street. When Blake died in 1657, he was buried in Saint Editha’s Church.

The Unitarian Chapel on Colehill, now Victoria Road, was built in 1724, but was rooted in the story of the 17th century Puritans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

What happened to the Puritan circle around Blake and their successors in Tamworth after the civil war, the Restoration and the ejection of Puritan ministers?

Samuel Shaw, who gave the oration at Blake’s funeral, was ordained by the Wirksworth Classis or Presbyterian assembly in Derbyshire on 12 January 1658 and became the Schoolmaster or Puritan minister in Tamworth. He was one of the Puritan ministers who were ejected from their parishes at the Restoration and he later became Master of the grammar school in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire.

Anthony Burgess, who preached Blake’s funeral sermon, had been the Vicar of Sutton Coldfield from 1635 until he was forced to take refuge in Coventry in 1642, and was replaced by the royalist Revd James Fleetwood. Burgess was a member of the Westminster Assembly in 1643, and returned to Sutton Coldfield. After the after the Great Ejection in 1662, he moved to Tamworth.

The parish of Tamworth remained vacant until 1662 when the Revd Samuel Langley was appointed Vicar of Tamworth.

The Puritans’ successors in Tamworth were the Presbyterians, who built their own meeting house. They had become Unitarians by 1690, and the former Presbyterian meeting house was replaced in 1724 by the Unitarian Chapel built on Colehill, now Victoria Road.

With its Georgian windows, the Unitarian Chapel is still a well-maintained building. But the Unitarians in Tamworth dwindled in numbers in the 20th century, and their chapel was later used by the Royal Naval Association.

The former Baptist Church beside the Old Stone Cross on Church Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The former Baptist Church beside the Old Stone Cross on Church Street, on the corner of Lower Gungate, was built as a theatre around 1770. Llong before the Victorian Assembly Rooms were built on Corporation Street, this building was Tamworth’s main theatre, with actors taking to the stage lit by reflected candles, playing to a pit as well as a gallery.

Outside, it looks like many other Georgian theatres of its time, particularly with its tall pitched roof, and it has been compared with similar theatres in Ashby, Loughborough and Wisbech. The exterior windows and the entrance date from the time when this was a Baptist chapel. But, after many changes during its life, little if anything remain of the original interior aside from the raised plaster ceiling over the stage with an elaborate plaster rose.

The celebrated actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) is said to have performed here in 1770s. The eldest of 12 children, Sarah Kemble was still in her early teens when she became infatuated with William Siddons (1744-1808), a handsome 22-year-old actor. When she was 18, Sarah and William were married in Trinity Church, Coventry, in 1773.

She returned to the stage as Mrs Siddons, and the theatrical producer David Garrick (1717-1779), who spent his childhood in Lichfield, brought her to Drury Lane in London in 1775, when she appeared as Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

She failed on the London stage, and in 1777 she went on the provincial circuit for six years. It was during this period that she came to Tamworth and Lichfield. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) brought her back to Drury Lane in 1782, and her most famous role became that of Lady Macbeth.

Her other acclaimed roles included Desdemona, Rosalind, Ophelia and Volumnia, and she once told Samuel Johnson that Catherine was her favourite role was as Queen Catherine in Henry VIII.

She mixed with the literary and social elite of London society, and her acquaintances included Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale Piozzi, and William Windham. Her portrait was painted by Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. and Queen Catherine in Henry VIII.

With the decline of the great families in the Tamworth area, the theatre went into decline too, and eventually it was turned into a four-storeyed malt house by the Peel family in the early 19th century. In 1869, Sir Robert Peel gave the building to the Baptists, and in 1870, the new Tabernacle was solemnly dedicated for public worship. The preacher on that occasion was the Revd JA Spurgeon, a brother of the famous Charles Spurgeon.

The church was enlarged in 1908 with the addition of an imposing porch, and an organ was installed at the same time.

This building, which has changed hands and been altered much over the past two and a half centuries, was bought by Tamworth Borough Council in 1972 for a and a new Baptist church opened in Belgrave in 1973.

However, the road widening plan was abandoned, and the chapel was converted back to a theatre with the opening of Tamworth Arts Centre in 1975. However, spending cuts forced the arts centre to close in 2001. The building was sold, was renovated by Staffordshire County Council, and since 1999 it has been used as a registry office.

The Old Stone Cross public house next door to the former Baptist Tabernacle was built in the early 18th century, but it may have been a public house for much longer for the cellars date from at least the early 16th century. The façade was rebuilt in 1974 in brick with timber framing and concrete dressings.

The former Congregationalist Church on Aldergate, now Jalali Indian restaurant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A Congregational Church on the corner of Aldergate and Saint John Street was built in 1827. Some Congregationalists preferred to be called Independents, but they lost their independence and numbers. When the church closed, the pulpit was moved to the neighbouring Methodist Church, and the former Congregational Church is the Jalali Indian restaurant.

The Roman Catholic Church of Saint John the Baptist was built in 1830 in the street that was named after it. In 1956, the church was completely renovated and enlarged to serve a congregation that, unlike many other churches in Tamworth, experienced growth.

What looks like a former Victorian chapel at 17 Lichfield Street was built as a school in 1837 for Sir Robert Peel. No 17, which is now a furniture shop, is whitewashed and has a large Gothic window in the gable, flanked by lower Tudor-headed window and door.

Many other traditions are part of Tamworth’s church history, including the Quakers, the Bolebridge Street Mission and the Salvation Army. The presence of the Society of Friends or Quakers in Tamworth dates from the mid-17th century, and the early Quakers in Tamworth included Francis Comberford of Comberford Hall and his family. From the 1750s, a Quaker Meeting House stood for almost a century behind No 101 Lichfield Street, and about 20 Quakers were buried in the burial ground there.

In addition, there have been Spiritualists and the Mormons or Church of Latter Day Saints. They are interwoven with the heritage of Tamworth and although many are now forgotten they have influenced the welfare of the town.

The school built at No 17 Lichfield Street in 1837 for Sir Robert Peel looks like a Victorian chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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