New Room, Bristol

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The 'New Room' was the first preaching house built by John Wesley. In 1739, soon after he had begun preaching in the open air in Bristol, he found himself ministering to religious societies which met in private houses in Baldwin Street and Nicholas Street. Their numbers soon outgrew their domestic settings and on 9 May 1739 he bought land in the Horsefair to provide them with a home. They thereby became the first of the 'united societies' in association with Wesley. On 3 June Wesley recorded in his Journal that 'not being permitted to meet in Baldwin Street, we met in the shell of our new society-room'. It was intended for preaching and expounding the Scriptures, but also housed a school for poor children and a dispensary with free medicines for the poor. It was enlarged in 1748 and thereafter has been little altered. Above the preaching room were living quarters - a common room, library, studies and bedrooms for the itinerants stationed in the Bristol circuit and sometimes for visiting preachers. John Wesley had his own rooms here, where he spent nearly 1,500 nights in the course of his ministry. Charles Wesley also lived here for a time, before his marriage in 1749. In 1742, in response to the need to pay off the debt on the building, Captain Foy's suggestion of 'a penny per member' each week eventually led to the introduction of the class meeting. The second Conference met at the New Room in 1745, the first of 18 to meet there in John Wesley's lifetime, including 1790, the last before his death.

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After Wesley's death, divisions within Bristol Methodism came to a head in 1794-95 and led to a rift in the New Room society. The building was sold in 1808 to the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, who owned it until 1929. It was bought back for WM that year through the generosity of Edmund S. Lamplough and was restored by Sir George Oatley. As the oldest Methodist building in the world it has become a centre of international pilgrimage. Two associations in particular link it with American Methodism. At the Conference of 1771, Francis Asbury offered for the work in America, where he was to become the leading Methodist figure. In 1972 the remains of Capt. Thomas Webb, known as 'American Methodism's no. 1 Layman', were reinterred in the Broadmead forecourt.

In 2015 the New Room was successful in its application for substantial grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Bristol Methodist District, enabling its ambitious plans for improving and extending its facilities as a major Heritage site to go ahead adjacent to The Horsefair.. These were completed in 2017 and in 2019 a stained-glass window in the form of a triptych depicting the life of John Wesley was installed in the new premises.

Wardens in recent years have included Maldwyn L. Edwards (1972-74),Rupert E. Davies (1976-82) and A. Raymond George (1982-95). In its worship and witness it is linked to both the Bristol (Centre) Circuit and to the Charles Wesley Heritage Centre, based on the family home of Charles and Sarah Wesley at 4 Charles Street.


John Wesley's Journal:

May 1739: 'We took possession of a piece of ground, near St. James's churchyard, in the Horsefair, where it was designed to build a room large enough to contain both the societies of Nicholas and Baldwin Street and such of their acquaintance as might desire to be present with them at such times as the Scripture was expounded. And on Saturday 12 the first stone was laid with the voice of praise and thanksgiving..

'I had not at first the least apprehension or design of being personally engaged, either in the expense of this work or in the direction of it, having appointed eleven feoffees [i.e. trustees], on whom I supposed these burdens would fall of course. But I quickly found out my mistake, first with regard to the expense. For the whole undertaking must have stood still had not I immediately taken upon myself the payment of all the workmen; so that before I knew where I was I had contracted a debt of more than a hundred and fifty pounds. And this I was to discharge how I could, the subscriptions of both societies not amounting to one quarter of the sum… I accordingly yielded to … advice [from London] and, calling all the feoffees together, … took the whole management into my own hands. Money, it is true, I had not, nor any human prospect or probability of procuring it. But I knew, "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof," and in his name set out, nothing doubting.'

February 1748: 'I met about sixty of the society in Bristol, to consult about enlarging the Room, and indeed securing it, for there was no small danger of its falling upon our heads. In two or three days two hundred and thirty pounds were subscribed. We immediately procured experienced builders to make an estimate of the expense. And I appointed five stewards (besides those of the society) to superintend the work.'

13 September 1748: 'I preached in the new-built room at Bristol.'

  • WHS Proceedings, 17 pp.101-5
  • C.F. Stell, Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in Central England (1986) pp.68-69
  • E. Ralph Bates, The Family at the New Room (Bristol, 1986)
  • Kenneth Morgan, John Wesley in Bristol (1990)
  • Maldwyn L. Edwards, The New Room (Peterborough, 1995)
  • Donald H. Ryan, John Wesley's Chapel. The New Room, Bristol: Collection of Wesleyana and Artefacts [a handlist] (2012)
  • Methodist Recorder, 23 May 2014, 20 February 2015
  • G.M. Best, The Cradle of Methodism (2017)

Entry written by: JAN
Category: Place
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