Methodism was first introduced into Luton, then still a village, in 1750, the infant society meeting in the upper room of a harness maker named Cardwell and initially facing considerable opposition. Two itinerants, William Berridge and Alexander McNab, made a significant contribution to the cause in these early years. Thus when John Wesley first visited the town in 1766 Methodism was already well established. The first chapel, in Church Street, fitted up by his friend and host Joseph Cole of Sundon Park, was opened in 1778. A new chapel was opened in Hog Lane in (later Chapel Lane and then Chapel Street) in 1814, subsequently extended. With the opening of the new Chapel, a Sunday school, previously meeting in the Black Swan club room, moved into these new premises. Subsequently further land was acquired and in 1852 a larger chapel was opened to the designs of W.W.Pocock. A day school was opened in the following year and this continued until 1877, when it succumbed to competition from the Board schools. New Sunday school premises replaced the 1814 chapel in 1880. By the time of William Gowland’s arrival in 1954 the cause was in serious decline and in 1957 Chapel Street became the centre for the Luton Industrial College.
Land for Waller Street WM chapel was purchased in 1861 and it was opened in 1864; sold in 1955, it was subsequently demolished. A WM society had existed at Round Green since 1864 and this led to the building of a chapel in 1865; replaced in 1911, to which a new church was added in 1959. Closed in 1997, along with the sale of Cockenhoe, the Wigmore Church and Community Centre was established jointly with the Methodists and United Reformed Church in its place.
Until 1808 Luton was in the Bedford Circuit, but in that year, it became the head of a circuit. The growth of Wesleyan Methodism in the town resulted in the circuit being divided in 1880 into Luton (Chapel Street) and Luton (Waller Street) Circuits.
In April 1839, Primitive Methodist preachers from the Aylesbury Circuit first preached at Houghton Regis, then in Dunstable and continuing onwards to Luton. Seven months after their first open-air meeting in the town a chapel was opened in Midland Road, High Town. Soon outgrown, this was replaced on a new site in High Town Road in 1852; this would, with later alterations, serve as a Sunday School. Luton gained circuit status in 1843 and this was followed by a period of chapel building, including Park Road (1864) which became the head of the Luton II Circuit in 1879) . The present High Town church was opened in 1898, the architects being J.D & S.D Mould; it is now a listed building, its cupola serving as a navigation aid for Luton Airport.
Methodist Union led to a number of new chapels being built, especially stimulated post-1945 by developments in the town’s motor-manufacturing industry and a rapid population growth. In 1925 the Wesleyans took the first steps to establish a society in the Biscott Mill district and this led to the opening of the Art Deco St. Margaret’s, Montrose Avenue in 1937. New churches were built at Farley Hill and St. John’s, Warden Hill (both 1962) and Fellowship House, Lewsey (1966). The latter was an experiment in ministry by placing a minister in a manse on a council estate in the hope a society could be built up; it was only short-lived. Then Mount Tabor, Park Town, originally built by the Primitive Methodists in 1897, with a hall added in 1905 to the designs of Mould & Porriitt, was sold to the Pentecostalists in 1968 and this led to the opening of Strathmore Avenue Methodist in 1972.
John Wesley's Journal:
January 1772: 'I was offered the use of the church. The frost was exceeding sharp, and the glass was taken out of the windows. However, for the sake of the people, I accepted the offer, though I might just as well have preached in the open air. I suppose four times as many people were present as would have been in the room; and about a hundred in the morning. So I did not repent of my journey through the snow.'
October 1778: 'We had a miserable preaching-house here, but Mr. Cole has now fittted up a very neat and commodious room, which was throroughly filled with well-behaved and deeply attentive hearers. How long did we seem to be ploughing upon the sand here! But it seems there will be some fruit at last.'
November 1785: 'For many years I had lodged at Mr. Cole's in Luton; but he was now gone to his long home. The room prepared for me now was very large and very cold, and had no fireplace in it. After dinner I called upon Mr. Hampson, the lawyer who had made Mr. Cole's will. He gave me, with the utmost courtesy, all the information I wanted; and afterwards invited me to lodge at his house, which I willingly did. In the evening the preaching-house was thoroughly filled, and we had a blessed season, both now and in the morning.'
Schools, Luton (1885)