Madeley was an area of major industrial development 1760-1815, symbolized by the first cast-iron bridge erected in 1779 by Abraham Derby III at Coalbrookdale, where coke had been first used to smelt iron. Through the patronage of Sir Thomas Hill of Tern Hall John Fletcher became first a curate (in the late 1750s), then vicar of Madeley in 1760. His congregations grew. He founded religious societies in 1762 in the parish and beyond (e.g. Broseley, Trench and Coalpit Bank by 1765). In 1777 he built a large preaching house at Madeley Wood and before his death in 1785 another was built at Coalbrookdale. In 1781 he married Mary Bosanquet. His widow, aided by his non-resident successor and by curates (including Melvill Horne) whom she helped to choose, remained in control until her own death in 1815, living in the vicarage and using the nearby tythe barn for religious meetings.
The Methodists continued to attend the parish church. With Coalport and Coalford these Madeley societies formed a kind of sub-circuit in which the vicarage ladies led classes and preached. Through Mrs Fletcher and her adopted daughter Mary Tooth, Madeley remained a centre of Evangelical pilgrimage as late as the 1840s. They encouraged other women preachers such as Mary Taft and Diana Thomas. Gradually, after 1815, the Anglican/Methodist co-operation broke down. Miss Tooth moved from the vicarage, but was allowed to continue meeting in the barn until its demolition in 1831, as a result of which a Methodist chapel was built near the parish church in 1833 (replaced by Fletcher Memorial, larger and further away, in 1841).
Because of the Fletchers' ministry, Methodism became the 'established church' of the Shropshire coalfield, with 3,500 members and over half the church attendances in the 1851 Religious Census. Revivals were common in the nineteenth century and every mining community had one or more chapels. A MNC chapel (1860) stood in Park Street, Madeley until 1901 and a PM chapel (1881) in High Street until 1977. Among notable Methodists who came from the area were Valentine Ward, George T. Perks, S. Parkes Cadman and A. Stanley Leyland.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1764: 'We rode to Madeley, an exceeding pleasant village, encompassed with trees and hills. It was a great comfort to me to converse once more with a Methodist of the old stamp, denying himself, taking up his cross, and resolved to be "altogether a Christian".
[Sunday] 'At ten Mr. Fletcher read prayers, and I preached on those words in the Gospel, "I am the good Shepherd…" The church would nothing near contain the congregation; but, a window near the pulpit being taken down, those who could not come in stood in the open churchyard, and I believe all could hear. The congregation, they said, used to be much smaller in the afternoon than in the morning; but I could not discern the least difference, either in number or seriousness.
'I found employment enough for the intermediate hours in praying with various companies who hung about the house, insatiably hungering and thirsting after the good word… There are many adversaries indeed, but yet they cannot shut the open and effectual door.
[Monday] 'The church was pretty well filled even at five, and many stood in the churchyard.'
July 1771: 'I preached at Madeley, moring and afternoon. The church could not near contain the congregation; but, the window near the pulpit being open, those without couild hear as well as those within.'
July 1773: [After describing 'the effects of the late earthquake']: 'In the evening I preached under a spreading oak in Madeley Wood; Sunday the 11th, morning and afternoon, in the church'.
July 1774: 'In the evening [I] preached under a sycamore-tree, in Madeley Wood, to a large congregation, good part of them colliers, who drank in every word. Surely never were places more alike than Madeley Wood, Gateshead Fell, and Kingswood.
[Sunday] 'The Church could not contain the congregation, either morning or afternoon.'
March 1779: 'I preached in the new house which Mr. Fletcher has built in Madeley Wood. The people here exactly resemble those at Kingswood; only they are more simple and teachable. But, for want of discipline, the immemse pains which we have taken with them has not done the good which might have been expected.'
March 1782: 'Both Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher complained that, after all the pains which they have taken, they could not prevail upon the people to join the society… Resolved to try, I preached to a crowded audience, on "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ". I followed the blow in the afternoon by strongly applying those words, "Awake, thou that sleepest"; and then enforcing the necessity of Christian fellowship on all who desired either to awake or keep awake. I then desired those that were willing to join together for this purpose to call upon Mr. Fletcher and me after Service. Ninety-four or ninety-five persons did so; about as many men as women.'
March 1784: 'Notwithstanding the severe weather, the church was more than filled.'
March 1786: 'Madeley church was thoroughly filled… God… poured the dew of His blessing on many souls, and caused many mourners to rejoice with joy unspeakable.'
March 1788: 'The congregation was surprisingly large in the evening… [Sunday] 'We were distressed by the large concourse of people. It was too cold to stand abroad; and the church could in no wise contain the congregation. But we could not help it: so as many as could got in; the rest stood without, or went away. '
March 1789: 'I found Mrs. Fletcher better than she had been for many years… I preached in the evening, after Mr. Horne had read prayers, to a deeply serious congregation; and again at nine in the morning … in the preaching-house she has lately fitted up.'
March 1790: 'We rode to Madeley through a pleasant rain, which did not hinder the church from being thoroughly filled; and I believe all who had spiritual discernment perceived that it was filled with the presence of God.'
'I preached in the tythe barn adjoining the vicarage, which was furnished with benches and a desk, with a gallery at one end, by Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher. Hundreds of people were stowed together, insomuch that I could scarcely squeeze through them to the desk. The barn seems to have been built two hundred years; it is open to the roof, thatched with straw, and all the windows, except one, are made of oiled paper.'
Joseph Entwisle, quoted in L.F.Church, More about the Early Methodist People, (1949), pp.145-6 from Abel Stevens, Women of Methodism (1876)