06 June 2024

Bishop Street Methodist
Church in Leicester is
part of the heritage
of Town Hall Square

Bishop Street Methodist Church in Leicester dates from 1815 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Bishop Street Methodist Church in Leicester dates from 1815 and is an important part of Leicester’s church history and architectural and religious heritage. The church has been adapted and extended over the years, with each generation that has worshipped there leaving its mark. The building and fittings have changed to meet their needs and those of the city. This is a process continues to this day.

The chapel now faces onto Town Hall Square, with its cherry trees and central fountain. Handsome buildings dating from the later 19th and early 20th century surround the square: the Reference Library (1904), the former Central Post Office, and the Town Hall (1873).

The chapel is one of the oldest surviving building in that part of Leicester. When it was built, however, it looked out onto a cattle market, the only place in Leicester where the early Methodists could afford a site.

The front of the chapel has altered little since it was built. The design is symmetrical, with ordered rows of round-arched windows and a classical style and elegant simplicity that was popular at that time in nonconformist places of worship.

Inside Bishop Street Methodist Church, Leicester, designed by the Revd William Jenkins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The architect of the chapel, the Revd William Jenkins, was a Methodist minister. He knew what was important in a chapel building and designed many chapels. The best preserved is Walcot Chapel near Bath; the closest in appearance to Bishop Street is the chapel he designed in Carver Street, Sheffield.

Originally the chapel was entered by the large doors on the left and right, one for men and one for women. The central door is a later addition, one of many alterations in 1883. The foyer was created in the late 1960s and refurbished in 1994.

The original chapel building was practically square with a high flat ceiling. This ‘box-like’ design was designed to allow the congregation to hear the preacher clearly. and churches such as this were known as ‘auditory’ churches.

Looking out onto the world … Bishop Street Methodist Churches faces onto Town Hall Square in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The interior has been extended and altered through the years. In 1847, the church was extended southwards, and the choir and organ area created above the vestry. The interior was remodelled in 1883. The present pulpit and communion area dates mostly from 1894, although the Communion rail may be older.

The interior was altered again after World War I, the roof was renewed, and the present arched ceiling added. The ceiling closely resembles early cinema designs and may have been intended to make the interior look more ‘up-to-date’.

The gallery tip-up seats were also a feature more at home in a cinema. Each seat has a wire hat rack, so a bowler hat or top hat could be stowed under the seat.

The pews downstairs were installed in the late 19th century, replacing the previous box pews. The new pews were numbered, so they could be rented individually. Fold-down bench seats fixed to the walls provided extra seating.

Almost all the elements in the pulpit and Communion area date from the remodelling of the chapel in 1894. The ‘rostrum’, which many consider resembles a wedding cake, is in an elaborate Italian Renaissance Style. The ornate wrought iron panels may have been made by blacksmiths in Narborough.

The arrangement of this part of the church and the emphasis given to each element are typical of Methodist Church designs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the fittings are elaborate, there are no figurative images. The gilded cross is empty as a reminder of both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

In central place, encircled by a wooden rail, is the Communion table. The rail allows those taking part to kneel. The small regular holes pierced in the wooden ledge behind the rail were designed to hold individual glasses typically used at Methodist celebrations of Holy Communion. By the late 19th century, most Methodist churches stopped using alcoholic wine at Communion. The individual glasses, an innovation from America, prevented the spread of disease once alcoholic wine was abandoned.

Above the table is a broad pulpit. Its elevation expresses the centrality of preaching in Methodism, and allows the preacher to be seen and heard by people in the gallery. Beyond this are the choir stalls and boards for displaying hymn numbers.

Music for worship was originally provided by a small orchestra, and it was not until the mid-19th century that an organ was acceptable. The organ installed in 1858 is the oldest object in the chapel, and may date back to the 1680s or 1690s.

The case is said to have been built by the famous organ builder Father Smith of Bremen. It has delicate carved panels, including two cherub heads. The casework was previously in Saint Margaret’s Church, Leicester. The organ was extensively remodelled in 1936 and it is likely that none of Father Smith’s original pipes remain.

Recent changes and the removal of the side pews have opened up areas under the galleries for exhibitions, stands and displays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

On either side are World War I memorials from the chapel and from other Methodist congregations that were in other places in Leicester.

Arthur Wakerley (1862-1931), a prominent member of the congregation, was Mayor of Leicester in 1897. He was also a renowned architect in Leicester, and the buildings he designed include the former Turkey Café on Granby Street and the synagogue of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation on Highfield Street.

The chapel complex includes rooms developed for meeting, education and charitable work. In the 19th century, the Methodist minister lived in a building now occupied by the Zinthiya Trust. A large Sunday School, designed by Burton and Willoughby, was built in 1873 at the east side of the chapel. After time as a carpet warehouse and a magistrates court, it was refurbished in the 1990s and now houses the Zinthiya Trust Community Shop, Community Cycles and the Leicester Council of Faiths Office.

Within the main church building, the church rooms and lower hall provide a range of meeting and activity spaces used by community and self-help groups.

With recent changes, the removal of the side pews opened up areas under the galleries for exhibitions, stands and displays. More recent changes include a ramped entrance, a more open layout for the worship area and the Chapel Café, which is open throughout the week.

The front of Bishop Street Methodist Church in Leicester has altered little since it was built in 1815 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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