Great Yarmouth

Thomas Olivers visited the town in 1754, sent there by Chares Wesley. His attempts to preach were met with noisy and violent hostility and he was forced to escape back to Norwich. A further effort was made in 1760, by Howell Harris, whose regiment, the Welsh Fencibles, was stationed in the town. By a clever trick, he gained a peaceable hearing, guarded by his fellow soldiers.

The first chapel was rented from the Baptists. John Wesley preached there on 18 and 19 February 1765 and described it as 'one of the most elegant buildings I have seen'. A pulpit from which he preached survives. In spite of his 28 visits to the town, describing it as 'eminent for wickedness and ignorance', the society was split, first in 1765 by Benjamin Worship, who became a Calvinist, and then in 1774 by John Simpson, who became an Antinomian. The society did not survive this discord. It was re-established through the efforts of Samuel King, a member of the original society, who conducted services in his own and other houses, with the support of James Wood, the itinerant from Norwich. Later, quarrels between King's supporters and those of the itinerant James Hindmarsh, who settled in the town, led to further rents in the congregation.

In September 1782 R.C. Brackenbury preached in the open air, attracting a hostile mob; he was taken to the mayor by the constables for his own safety. He was kindly received, but declined to promise that he would not preach there in future. A chapel for 500 people was built in 1783 in Ferry Boat Road and opened by John Wesley, who raised £100 towards its cost. Again the society fragmented, but eventually increased, and in 1792 a large building at the top of Regent Street facing King Street, was purchased for a new town-centre chapel. It cost £1,300 and seated 1,000. This was enlarged in 1802-3 and again in 1813. For a brief period during 1814, the WMs hired the MNC chapel as an extra meeting place for their large congregations.

Yarmouth separated from Norwich Circuit in 1792 and became the head of a new circuit. In 1837 the WM church was replaced by one in Dene Side, near the 1792 chapel, costing more than £4,000 and seating 1,400. An organ was installed in 1848 amidst considerable controversy. Sometimes referred to as 'the Cathedral Church of East Anglian Methodism', Attendances on Census Sunday in 1851 were reported as 500 in the morning, 120 in the afternoon and 600 in the evening. It was completely renovated in 1885-86, the vestry rebuilt and pulpit and entrances altered. A WM day school was established on Dene Side in 1867. It later became the Sunday School of the Methodist Central Hall.The 1837 church closed in 1937, when a large chapel was bought from the Congregationalists, built of grey brick. Pevsner discribes it as 'starved of invention' and its two towers flanking the entrance as 'poor'. Renamed 'Dene Side Methodist Central Hall', it was opened on 7 April 1938 and is now called 'Christchurch'. It maintained a ministry both to holiday makers and to visiting trawlermen, and more recently to the families of those working on the oil rigs. A large WM mission hall and Sunday School, previously a dance hall in the Victoria Pleasure Gardens, were opened in Tower Street in 1883. It was still in use in 1935.

The MNC had a large building in the centre of the town, near the WM chapel, in 1805. This was replaced by Brunswick Chapel, King Street, in 1835, with average attendances reported as 250, 100 and 350.

Two Primitive Methodists from Norwich, the itinerant John Brame and J. Turnpenny, missioned the town in 1821, preaching in the open air. A house in Row 60 was licensed for worship in 1823 and a Yarmouth Circuit was formed in 1824. Meetings were also held in a hayloft above a stable adjoining the town wall, until the building of the Tabernacle in 1829. Enlarged 1849-50, at the time of thr 1851 Religious Census it was reported as seating 700 plus 300 free, with attendances of 500 in the morning, 600 in the afternoon and 900 in the evening. The PM Conference met there in 1851 and 1872. Robert Key, the pioneer of Methodism in central Norfolk, was converted at the Hayloft. Queen's Road PM chapel (1867) was bombed and demolished in the 1950s. The vast Italianate 'Temple' on Priory Plain, built in 1875 at the enormous cost of £7,000, was dismissed by Pevsner as 'a gross design'. It closed in 1963 and was demolished in 1972. Beccles Road, Southtown, closed in 1996 and was converted into houses. Cobholm chapel, bought from the Congregationalists in 1912, was a tin tabernacle; it was replaced by a chapel in 1923 which closed and was sold c.1990.

Reform sympathies, already strong, were given great impetus when Thomas Rowland (1792-1858; e.m.1813) was disciplined by the WM Conference for refusing to condemn two men for discussing Reform issues. He was demoted and forced to leave. Anger at this harsh treatment resulted in large numbers being attracted to the Reformers. When Charles Barber and other members were expelled in December 1850, a WR meeting was first established in a former infants' school in George Street, with 400 reported in the morning on Census Sunday, and 450 in the evening. It was replaced by a chapel in Regent Road in 1856 (enlarged in 1877; closed 1937). It came to boast of an excellent choir and the chapel doors were usually left open, so that those without a seat might still hear the music. It later joined the UMFC. Caister Road, New Town UM chapel was erected in 1891 and replaced in 1907. Henry Blyth, a successful local businessman, financed the building of a new UMFC hospital in Wenchow, China in 1906, replacing the smaller hospital of 1897.

At the time of the 1851 Reliigious Census, the figures reported for the various Methodist denominations were; Wesleyans; 300 free sittings and 900 others.

                 Attendance: Morning 500 plus 120 scholars; Afternoon120;              Evening: 600

Methodist New Connexion: 250 free sittings and 500 others

                Attendance: Morning 200 plus 147 scholars; Afternoon 186 plus 163 scholars; Evening 260 plus 73 scolars

Primitive Methodists: 300 free sittings and 700 others

               Attendance: Morning 500; Afternoon 600; Evening 900

Wesleyan Reformers: 150 free sittings and 250 others

              Attendance: Morning 400; Afternoon 103 scholars; Evening 450

Since Methodist Union, the church on Magdalen Estate was opened in September 1957. With the arrival of the Scottish herring fleet each autumn, all the Methodist chapels were packed with fishermen and fishergirls.


John Wesley's Journal:

January 1761: 'I inquired concerning Yarmouth, a large and populous town and as eminent, both for wickedness and ignorance, as even any seaport in England. Some had endeavoured to call them to repentance; but it was at the hazard of their lives. What could be done more? Why, last summer God sent thither the regiment in which Howell Harris was an officer. He preached every night, none daring to oppose him; and hereby a good seed was sown. Many were stirred up to seek God; and some of them now earnestly invited me to come over [from Norwich]. I went this afternoon, and preached in the evening. The house was presently more than filled, and instead of the tumult which was expected, all were as quiet as at London. Indeed, the word of God was quick and powerful among them, as it was again at six in the morning. At eleven I preached my farewell sermon. I saw none that was not deeply affected. Oh fair blossoms! But how many of these will "bring forth fruit unto perfection"? '

October 1763: 'I found at Yarmouth a little, loving, earnest company. In the evening both the house and the yard were pretty well filled with attentive hearers.'

February 1765: 'I preached at seven in a preaching-house built for the General Anabaptists - one of the most elegant buildings I have seen; which was well filled both this and the following evening with serious and attentive hearers. There now seems to be a general call to this town; surely some will hear the voice that raises the dead.'

January 1766: 'The work of God was increasing here, when poor B[enjamin] W[orshio] was converted to Calvinism. Immediately he declared open war, tore the society in pieces, took all he could to himself, wholly quitted the Church, and raised such a scandal as will not soon be removed. Yet doubtless he who turned the young man's head thinks he has done God service.'

March 1767: 'I rode to Yarmouth and found the society, after the example of Mr. Worship, had entirely left the Church. I judged it needful to speak largely upon that head. They stood reproved, and resolved, one and all, to go to it again.'

December 1767: 'I went to Yarmouth, and found confusion worse confounded. Not only B[enjamin] W[orship]'s society was come to nothing, but ours seemed to be swiftly following. They had almost all left the Church again, being full of prejudice against the clergy, and against one another. However, as two or three retained their humble, simple love, I doubted not that there would be a blessing in the remnant. My first business was to reconcile them to each other; and this was effectually done by hearing the contending parties, first separately, and afterwards face to face. It remained to reconcile them to the Church; and this was done partly by arguments, partly by persuasion.'

February 1769: 'The congregation was the largest I ever saw at Yarmouth; and I spoke far more plainly (if not roughly) than I ever did before. But I doubt if, after all the stumbling -blocks laid in their way, anything will sink into their hearts.'

November 1769: 'We went to Yarmouth, a cold, dead, uncomfortable place. [Next day] 'I laboured to gather up the fragments of the poor society, shattered to pieces by Presbyterians, Anabaptists, and disputers of all kinds;especially by one unhappy man, who had arisen among ourselves. In the evening I strongly exhorted them to "repent and do the first works." '

November 1770: 'I rode to Yarmouth - a dull, cold place. Yet this evening we had a remarkable blessing, also the next evening. Lord, Thy thoughts are not as our thoughts! Thou wilt work, and who shall hinder?'

November 1773: 'I preached … in the evening to the cold [congregation] at Yarmouth. I know there is nothing too hard for God; else I should go thither no more.'

November 1774: 'Division after division has torn the once flourishing society all in pieces. In order to heal the breach in some measure, I enforced those deep words, "Though I have all knowledge and all faith, so as to remove mountains, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing." One of our former leaders, being asked what he thought of this, frankly answered, "It is damnable doctrine." '

November 1776: 'Here I knew not where to preach, the mayor refusing me the use of the town-hall. But the chamberlain gave me the use of a larger building, formerly a church. In this a numerous congregation soon assembled, to whom I described the "sect which is everywhere spoken against." I believe all that were attentive will be a little more candid for the time to come.'

October 1781: 'There is a prospect of good here also, the two grand hinderers having taken themselves away.'

October 1782: 'I … went to Yarmouth, where were the largest congregations I had seen for many years.'

October 1783: 'Often this poor society had been wellnigh shattered to pieces; first by Benjamin Worship, then a furious Calvinist, tearing away near half of them; next by John Simpson turning Antinomian, and scattering most that were left. It has pleased God, contrary to all human probability, to raise a new society out of the dust; nay, and to give them courage to build a new preaching-house, which is well finished, and contains about five hundred persons. I opened it this evening; and as many as could get in seemed to be deeply affected. Who knows but God is about to repair the waste places, and to gather a people that shall be scattered no more?'

November 1786: 'The house at Yarmouth was thoroughly filled in the evening, and many attended in the morning likewise. Once more the combatants here have laid down their arms, and solemnly promise to continue in peace and love.'

October 1790: 'I went to Yarmouth; and at length found a society in peace, and much united together. In the evening the congregation was too large to get into the preaching-house; yet they were far less noisy than usual. After supper a little company went to prayer, and the power of God fell upon us; especially when a young woman broke out into prayer, to the surprise and comfort of us all.'

  • A. Watmough, A History of Methodism in the Town and Neighbourhood of Great Yarmouth (1826)
  • A.H. Patterson, From Hayloft to Temple: the story of Primitive Methodism in Yarmouth (1903)
  • R.G. Berry, 'The Wesleyan Methodists of Great Yarmouth' in Norfolk Fair, April and May 1973
  • J.C. Nattrass, in WHS Proceedings, 3 pp.73-77
  • George Sails, At the Centre: the story of Methodism's Central Missions (1970), pp.66-7
  • Norma Virgoe, 'The Yarmouth Circuit Booklist 1806,' in WHS Proceedings, 53 pp.127-36
  • Ben Milner, A History of Methodism in East Norfolk (2009)