Diss, Norfolk

The Wesleyan itinerant Thomas Lee missioned the town in 1770 and met with a violent and hostile reception. George Taylor, a native of Diss, was greatly impressed by the powerful preaching of Captain Webb when at Bath and later returned to Diss and attempted to start a Methodist society there. He encountered fierce opposition from mob attacks, yet persisted in his efforts. With the help of George and Sarah Hey, Master and Mistress of the Workhouse (who had previously attended Cherry Lane Chapel in Norwich and been an irritant there to Thomas Wride), a small chapel was built in 1789 in what later became known as Victoria Road.

John Wesley visited the town in October 1790 during part of his last victorious tour of the Eastern Counties. He preached in the parish church with the express approval of the Bishop of Norwich,George Horne, who was staying nearby. The two men had met at Norwich Cathedral the previous week and had greatly admired each other. Wesley had asked Sarah Mallet to meet him at Diss and this she did. Elizabeth Reeve of Redgrave was another woman who preached at Diss.

A Sunday School was organised in 1807 and attracted such large numbers of children that in July 1816 a new Sunday school was built next to the chapel.

The Wesleyan society in Diss was severely disrupted by the Reform dispute in the mid-nineteenth century and several men from the circuit played a major part in the county's hostility to the actions of Conference. Large numbers were expelled and many more chose to leave. The Wesleyan society was left impoverished financially and numerically, although it began to attract members once more in the 1860s.

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A major rebuilding of the Wesleyan chapel took place in 1879 with a new façade, two wings on either side of a pillared entrance, an organ loft and ancillary halls. Robert Skipper of East Dereham undertook the building work. A new organ was installed in May 1932. At Methodist Union, the Wesleyan church became the main Methodist church in the town, and with the sale of the former Primitive Methodist building in 1954 it became the only Methodist church there. A site was bought near the former Wesleyan church in 1962 for £4000 and the old building was demolished. Beneath the floor a stone was found with the words 'John Cousins [i.e.Jonathan Coussins] who died October 31st 1805 aged 49 having been 20 years a preacher of the Gospel.' Four feet lower down was a wooden coffin containing a skeleton. The remains were reinterred with Home Office permission in the graveyard of North Lopham Methodist chapel in April 1963.

The foundation stone of the new church was laid by Mr E. Hunter Rowe of Wisbech. The building was opened on 17 October 1964 at a cost of £20,460. The architect was Clifford Dann of Norwich. A new manse was built in 1970. Large scale extensions to the church were made in 2003.

A Primitive Methodist society in Diss appeared for the first time in the Circuit Book of 1824 when it was included in the huge Norwich Circuit. It then became part of the Brandon Circuit and when that circuit divided in 1833, Diss was transferred to the new Rockland Circuit. Subsequently it became head of the Diss Mission attached to the Rockland Circuit.

It is unclear where the first congregations met, but by 1843 worship was being conducted in a barn. A chapel was rented in Mount Street from 1847, but given up in the autumn of 1851. It was once again rented in 1853. When the owner of the chapel and adjoining cottages put the buildings up for auction in June 1857, they were bought by the Mission. The chapel was immediately demolished. A new chapel was built and was opened on 14 and 15 November 1858 by the evangelist Robert Key.

The Primitive Methodist society was never a flourishing one in Diss. Long-term agricultural depression, low wages and a consequent migration to other parts of the country and abroad were all a constant drain on numbers whilst unfortunate conduct by members and occasionally by ministers did not help the cause. Men from the three Methodist denominations joined theAgricultural Trade Union in the 1870s and 1880s and were very active in its affairs in the area. In the mid 1880s the Mission was officially made a Branch of the Rockland Circuit and in May 1887 it became a circuit in its own right. The former Primitive Methodist chapel and cottages were eventually sold in 1954. The chapel was converted to a house.

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The Reform dispute convulsed the Wesleyans in Diss. James Everett spoke in the town on two occasions. The Reformers quickly set up a separate congregation and built a chapel in Parkfield Place, later known as Park Road, in March 1850. The leader was Robert Aldrich, brush manufacturer, formerly prominent in the Diss Wesleyan chapel and circuit. So many of the Aldrich family attended the new chapel that although it had been officially named 'Ebenezer' it was locally known as 'Aldrichs' Chapel'. Many of the employees of the Aldrich family businesses in the town also attended the new chapel.

In 1897 the Sunday School building was vastly extended at a cost of £987. The architect was Arthur Priest of Acton in Cheshire. All materials were designated by Priest to be 'the best of their kind'. The final service was held on 27 August 1933. The buildings were sold in March 1935 and then used as a 'British Restaurant' during the Second World War.

In 1941 Rev. Robert Talbot Watkins went from Diss to serve in the Forces. He was known as the 'Paratroop Padre' and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery at Arnheim.


John Wesley's Journal:

'I had appointed to preach at Diss,… but the difficulty was where I could preach. The minister was willing I should preach in the church, but feared offending the Bishop, who, going up to London,was within a few miles of the town. But a gentleman asking the Bishop whether he had any objection to it, was answered, "None at all." I think this church is one of the largest in this county. I suppose it has not been so filled these hundred years.'

  • Norma Virgoe, The Ever Circling Years: the story of Methodism in Diss (2015)