18 September 2019
Wade Street Church
in Lichfield: a tradition
dating back to 1672
I was speaking last night [17 September 2019] in Lichfield on the Comberford family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth. The lecture marked the opening of a new season or programme for Lichfield Civic Trust for 2019-2020 and about 60 or 65 people were present in the Wade Street Church Community Hall on Frog Lane.
Wade Street Church represents the continuity of a religious tradition that dates back to 1672, when five houses in Lichfield were licensed for Presbyterian worship. The Congregationalists met in Tunstalls Yard in 1790, grew into the United Reformed Church in Wade Street, which is now both a United Reformed and a Baptist church.
Shortly before last night’s lecture, I had an interesting, personal guided tour of the church.
Despite the evangelical revival in the late 18th century, Lichfield remained a staunchly Anglican city. A storeroom on Sandford Street was fitted for public worship by George Burder of Coventry and John Moody of Warwick in 1790, but by 1796 the congregation had declined and closed.
But the situation changed again in 1802, and the former chapel on Sandford Street reopened in 1802 as an ‘Independent’ or Congregationalist chapel. William Salt from Cannock was one of the first leaders of the new church, and the Christian Society, as it then called itself, was formally set up on 13 June 1808.
However, Salt wrote of how the new congregation faced considerable local opposition, and the numbers attending dwindled to 60. As a consequence of this strong local opposition, 19-year-old Henry Fairbrother, a tailor’s apprentice, poisoned himself. The jury at his inquest agreed his suicide was caused by ‘lunacy due to the effects produced by the doctrines he had heard at the meeting of the persons called “The Methodists”.’
The entry for his burial at Saint Chad’s Church reads: ‘buried Henry Fairbrother, an exemplary young man until driven to despair and suicide by the denunciation of the peopled called “Methodists”.’
Of course, the Congregationalists were not Methodists, but at the time the two groups were often confused by people in Lichfield.
Meanwhile, Salt was attacked in pamphlets circulated throughout Lichfield. In response, he preached a sermon and distributed 1,000 copies to every house in Lichfield. The response was positive, and a fund was set up to build an ‘Independent’ or Congregationalist chapel by subscription.
Salem Chapel on Wade Street was registered for public worship on 17 September 1811, the church was officially opened on Wednesday 18 March 1812, and the Revd William Salt was ordained as its first full-time minister.
The church was designed as a simple ‘preaching box,’ with a central pulpit but with no stained glass or any other decoration. The style of a lecture hall emphasised the centrality of the preaching of the word of God.
To meet the needs of a growing congregation, the rear gallery was opened on Christmas Day 1815, and the side galleries added by 1824. One of these side galleries still has the original numbered box pews that continued to be rented until the early 20th century.
Salt, who was the pastor of the Independent Church in Lichfield for 33 years, died on 1 June 1857.
The church was renovated in the 1870s, when new pews in light wood were installed downstairs and the interior was painted. The Lichfield Mercury reported that the once ‘dingy and uninviting interior now had a cheerful and inviting aspect.’
A celebratory party in the Corn Exchange – now McKenzie’s Restaurant – was attended by 350 people.
A new organ with 566 pipes was bought for £180 in 1884.
The Revd William Francis Dawson was appointed minister in 1895, with an annual stipend of £100. But the stipend was insufficient, and things began to decline in the church. The Sunday school closed in 1900, the trustees closed the chapel in 1902 and Dawson resigned.
The church remained closed for 15 months. But seven members met in 1903 to discuss reopening the chapel. Staffordshire Congregational Union made a grant of £70 towards a minister’s stipend, and in turn was given a voice in running the church and calling its ministers.
The church reopened in June 1903 along with the Sunday School, and things continued to improve. A new pulpit was erected in 1916, and a new hall was built on Frog Lane in 1932. In the decades that followed, the congregation grew and declined, following national trends.
The Congregationalist churches in Britain united with the Presbyterian Church in 1972 to form the United Reformed Church, and Wade Street Church was part of this new union.
An attempt was made to sell the church in 1980s. But Lichfield District Council listed the building, it was refurbished, a new floor was provided, the pews were ‘dipped’ and cleaned, new carpets were laid, and the old tortoise stove was removed.
The congregation grew steadily in the 1990s, and the church became an ecumenical partnership with the Baptists.
The organ was removed in 1997, creating more space, and new seating was installed throughout the building.
A £500,000 project was launched to redevelop the premises, and new multipurpose facilities opened in 2005, ahead of target and under budget.
The Revd Ian Hayter is the minister of Wade Street Church. The church and its halls are used today by a variety of community groups, including Lichfield Civic Trust, who hosted last night’s lectures, as well as the Cathedral Chorus, the Wildlife Folk, Weightwatchers and the Food Bank.