Ulverston has close associations with early dissent. Judge Thomas Fell (1598-1658), of Swarthmoor Hall, a prominent local landowner and Member of Parliament, married Margaret Askew (1614-1703), who was from a Dissenting family. The visit of George Fox to Swarthmoor, in 1652, led to Margaret joining the Quaker movement. Though Thomas did not become a Quaker, he and Margaret provided protection and hospitality for the early Quakers and Swarthmoor became an important centre for the developing organisation. Eleven years after Thomas’s death, Margaret married George Fox.
Both George Fox and John Wesley (on his way south from Whitehaven a century later) were unsuccessful in making favourable impressions on the people of Ulverston. However, George Whitefield, in a letter to the Countess of Huntington on 26 June 1750 stated of his recent visit to Ulverston, two years before Wesley: “Satan made some small resistance ... but I believe good was done in the town.” In 1780, the area was visited by preachers from the Dales circuit, and by the end of the 18th century a Methodist Society was meeting in the cottage of Nancy Moister. As the society grew in numbers, a larger room was obtained in Neville Street. In 1806, Ulverston was attached to the Kendal Circuit as a mission station, with Edward Wilson as a lay missionary, followed a year later by William Stones.
In 1810, Ulverston became an independent circuit, John Bedford being its first minister. During the second decade of the century, the town’s first chapel was built and a Sunday school was started. Though the cause prospered considerably between 1810 and 1823, it experienced some decline between 1824 and 1828. The appointment of William Henry Huddleston in 1828 led to a revival and to the establishment of several Wesleyan societies in the area over the next twenty years. Unlike many Northern towns, and mainly because of its relative geographical remoteness, Ulverston was little affected by the various schisms within Methodism during the first half of the 19th century and a second minister was appointed in 1850.
The need to enlarge the town chapel and to build premises for both Sunday- and day-school work became urgent. A scheme was launched for the lengthening of the chapel and the erection of side galleries, and a schoolroom was built in the garden of the adjoining manse. The chapel was re-opened on 21 November 1851 with special services conducted by Dr. James Dixon, and the schoolroom was opened four weeks later by John Lomas. The church membership in 1856 was recorded as 112 and by 1860 Sunday School attendance had reached 290, with over twenty teachers. To fill a gap in the local provision of education, a Wesleyan Methodist Day School was opened on 12 January 1857. The chief instigator was John Brogden, Junior, who laid the foundation stone in April 1851, but died at the age of 31 before the school opened. Its pupils included Norman Birkett (later Lord Birkett), who enrolled in 1889, and for many years its headmaster was Edwin F. Hibbert. The Day school closed in 1914 on the opening of Lightburn Council School, the first headmaster of which was the same “Daddy Hibbert”. Thus some of the Methodist ethos was carried into the new school.
Further expansion of the work led to a third minister being added to the circuit in 1866. By 1869 it comprised 24 chapels and in 1871 it was divided into two with the forming of a separate Barrow-in-Furness circuit. Nevertheless, after a decline in the late 1870s, partly attributable to depressions in both agriculture and industry, the Ulverston circuit began to expand again; a circuit plan for 1886-87 lists 21 chapels. In 1892, a further division took place with the formation of Millom Circuit. Even after each of these divisions, the remaining Ulverston circuit continued to have three ministers.
A scheme for the replacement of the town centre chapel in Neville Street was initiated when Isaac Pollitt was superintendent (1891-94). The foundation stones of the new church were laid when Ralph Hunter was superintendent (1897-99) and the new building was opened in 1901. Major improvements to the Sunday School were completed in 1925. The whole building was substantially re-furbished in 1992 and adapted for 21st century worship and service. Led by Anthony P. Wells, Superintendent Minister, the use of brass instruments in worship has been encouraged and an annual “Praise on the Lake” circuit service takes place each June on one of the Windermere steamers. On 1 September 2013, the Ulverston Circuit merged with the Ambleside & Windermere Circuit to form the South Lakes Circuit, which extends from Grasmere to Swarthmoor.
Prior to Methodist Union in 1932, the only other non-Wesleyan denomination to have made a significant impact on the area was Primitive Methodism. The first PM preachers to mission Ulverston were Francis Jersey and Peter Ludlam, travelling preachers in the enormous Hull PM circuit, who worked their way from Kendal to Ulverston in 1822. Jersey in particular was heavily persecuted, but claimed 189 members spread between the two towns; however, their 'successes' in the area were short-lived. Swarthmoor Methodist Church is one of the few surviving ex-PM chapels in the Furness and Cartmel peninsulas.
Though Ulverston is perhaps best known as the birthplace of Stan Laurel, of 'Laurel and Hardy' fame, Methodism can claim at least two literary associations for the town. The Ulverston manse was the birthplace of Amelia Edith Huddleston, daughter of William Henry Huddleston. Amelia (1831-1919), who moved to the USA with her husband, Robert Barr, in 1853, was author (under her married name) of over 60 novels, including Remember the Alamo, considered to be the inspiration for the epic film The Alamo. Joseph Kipling, Superintendent Minister 1855-57, was the father of John Lockwood Kipling and grandfather of Rudyard Kipling, both of whose grandfathers were Methodist ministers. (See Macdonald Family).
'I went on with Mr. [John] Milner [vicar of Chipping, Lancs] to Ulverston. Here a very convenient place for preaching was offered; but few people had any desire to hear, so I went quietly back to my inn.'
John Wesley's Journal, 5 June 1752