John Wesley first preached at Beccles whilst on his journey round the Methodist societies along the east coastal area of south Norfolk and north Suffolk in the autumn of 1776. He dismissed it and its people as very dull. Returning ten years later, he was far more pleased with what he found, preaching to a 'serious and attentive' congregation At this time six members were listed in the Circuit Book, although there would have been far more attending services. Three years later he again visited the town, held a prayer meeting and then left three-quarters of an hour later for Loddon.
Local tradition believes that at this time the Methodist congregation met in the Old Cockpit adjoining the Falcon Inn in the New Market and in consequence in 1890 the Wesleyan church commissioned a painting of the cockfighting venue, but there is no contemporary evidence that the congregation ever met there. Indeed it was the Baptists who registered the Cockpit as a preaching place and later built a chapel on the site. However, Wesley's reference to a 'preaching house' in 1786 suggests the possibility that there may have been a much earlier chapel, though not necessarily a purpose-built one.
Later on a Wesleyan meeting place was registered on 6 April 1830 and a chapel was built in 1833 in Northgate. It seated about 200. A school room was added at the front of the building. At this time Beccles was listed as part of the Lowestoft Circuit. The anonymous author of a History of Wesleyan Methodism in Lowestoft (1843) wrote that although Beccles was almost as populous as Lowestoft, there were relatively few Methodists there. Indeed there were still only 57 members of society in 1897. Certainly in Suffolk there was strong competition from Old Dissent with strong Congregational and Baptist churches as well as active Anglican hostility to Methodism in many places although there is no direct evidence of this at Beccles.
The Religious Census in 1851 recorded 20 people present at the morning service as well as 28 scholars. In the afternoon there were 55 at worship together with 30 scholars and in the evening 63 attended the service. At this time the disruptions of the Reform dispute were disturbing the congregation and for a time the Wesleyans lost their chapel, but then managed to recover it and continue the cause.
A special service was held in November 1876 to mark the centenary of John Wesley's first visit to the town.
At this time numbers in the circuit were steadily falling - from 332 in 1880 to 271 in 1889. Thereafter numbers began to increase. From 1855 Beccles had been part of the Bungay Circuit. In 1890 it was renamed the Beccles Circuit. Then in 1906 the circuit boundaries in the area were reorganised with the new circuit named the Lowestoft and Beccles Circuit.
There is no evidence as to when Beccles was first missioned by the Primitive Methodists. However it was listed in the Great Yarmouth Primitive Methodist Circuit by 1830 when a chapel was registered on 6 April in Bridge Street. By 1835 it had been transferred to the Wangford Circuit, but it moved to and fro between the two circuits during 1836 and 1837 until finally taking its place in the Wangford Circuit as a Branch of that circuit.
The congregation then met in a chapel in Northgate, but that was relinquished when it became difficult to find the rent. A preaching room was hired in the autumn of 1841 with 36 members, but when it was sold by the owner the congregation was forced to worship in the open air. A pipe shop was then rented in an obscure corner of the town. By that time there were no members meeting in class and no lodging for the preachers.
In 1847 a piece of ground in Peddars Lane was secured and Ebenezer Chapel was built and opened on 5 September 1847. It had seats for 150 people and measured 35 feet by 20 feet and was 16 feet high. Its cost was about £150. The return for the Religious Census in March 1851 recorded that 20 attended the morning service, 100 in the afternoon and 80 in the evening. There were 36 members in society at this time. In 1863 permission was given for the congregation to organise a Sunday School and build a schoolroom and two years later a gallery was added to the chapel to cope with growing congregations. But still it proved too small.
The new Beccles and Bungay Primitive Methodist Circuit was formed in 1892. In 1908 the circuit boundaries were again changed and Beccles became part of the Lowestoft and Beccles Circuit.
At Methodist Union in 1932 the new circuit was named the Beccles, Bungay and Loddon Circuit. Both chapels continued in use as before until December 1958 when the Smallgate church was closed and sold to an electrical company. In 1977 the former Wesleyan chapel at Beccles was closed and the congregation combined with that of the URC to form the Methodist and United Reformed Hungate Church. It then became part of the United Bungay Circuit. The Station Road church was sold for £7,500 and later demolished to be replaced by two houses.
John Wesley's Journal:
November 1776: 'I preached at Beccles. A duller place I have seldom seen. The people of the town were neither pleased nor vexed, as "caring for none of these things". Yet fifty or sixty came into the house, either to hear or see.'
December 1786: 'I preachedf … about eleven at Beccles, to more than the preaching-house could contain; and all of them appeared as serious and attentive as the congregation at Yarmouth.'
Entry written by: NV
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