Portsmouth only came into its own with the development of the Navy in Tudor times. Even then it had to wait till the years of war with France in the second half of the 18th century before it began to develop as Britain’s major naval base. By the 19th century the town we know as Old Portsmouth had ‘burst its banks’, so that by the end of that century the urban sprawl covered most of Portsea Island.
The town visited by John Wesley was, in effect, little more than an adjunct to the naval dockyard. This helps to explain why his first visit was not until 1753, when it was no more than a port of call on his way to the Isle of Wight. He preached on the Common, but did not return until 1758 and 1767. A society had been formed in 1746 by John Cennick and a Whitefieldite Tabernacle in Orange Street, Portsea opened in 1758. That year Wesley found the society torn by what he called 'that accursed itch of disputing'. The infrequency of his visits may have been connected with the strength of local Dissent and the prevalent Calvinism among the Methodists. From 1767 on, when his followers began meeting in a room in Warblington Street and then built a chapel in Bishop Street, Portsea, he was there almost annually. At one time there was a plaque at Hilsea marking the place where Wesley is said to have preached under a 'massive elm'.
In Portsmouth, Oyster Street chapel (c.1786) was replaced by Green Row (later renamed Pembroke Street) in 1811, but was hampered by debts. Meanwhile, in Portsea, St. Peter's Chapel in Daniel Street, built in 1787 by a break-away Anglican group, was bought in 1800 and enlarged in 1810. It was replaced by Queen Street Hall in 1913. The building survived until well within living memory as part of Whitbread's Brewery. In 1832 theCircuit was described by Jonathan Edmondson as 'one of the easiest circuits we have'.
Peter Ballard, a Wesleyan local preacher in the Portsmouth Circuit, was the grandfather of the actress Ellen Terry.
Until 1790 the Portsmouth society was part of the far-flung Salisbury Circuit; it then became the head of a new circuit. In 1832 it was described by Jonathan Edmundson as 'one of the easiest circuits we have'.
Mary Billing launched a BC mission from the Isle of Wight in 1825. Their earliest chapels were Emmanuel in York Place, Landport (replaced by Stamford Street, 1861, with school premises added in 1864) and Bethesda, Little Southsea Street (replaced by Grosvenor Street and taken over by WM in 1847). The first BC Conference outside Devon was held at Grosvenor Street in 1852.
Following a visit to the area by William Clowes, the Hull PM Circuit set up missions in Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight in 1833 and placed under the General Misionary Committee in 1843. They had a Green Row chapel in Landport (unconnected with the WM chapel of that name), but in 1851 were the weakest of the three Methodist denominations locally.
In the Religious Census that year, despite its chapel building efforts (most recently, Wesley Chapel, Arundel Street (1845)), Portsmouth Methodism could accommodate only 5 % of the rapidly growing population, the lowest percentage anywhere in southern England outside London. New churches continued to be built as Portsea Island became steadily more urban, notably the WM Victoria Road (1878) and Trinity, Albert Road (1901), both in Southsea; while the WM Central Hall, Fratton (1889; with new buildings in 1900, 1928 and 1992), the PM Central Hall in Albert Road, Southsea (1901) and Eastney Central Hall (WM 1928, on the site of the Victoria Soldiers' and Sailors' Home and successor to an 1867 chapel in Highland Street) belonged to the era of the Forward Movement.
The Fratton Central Hall, though rebuilt in 1992, closed in the early 21st century , leaving Trinity (Southsea) and Eastney (rebuilt 2003) as the only survivors in the downtown area with others, including Copner, in the conurbation to the north. In 2013 the circuit joined with the Gosport and Fareham Circuit and the Petersfield, Liphook and Haslemere Circuit to form the new East Solent and Downs Circuit.
N 2018 the three remaining churches on Portsea Island, Trinity, Copnor and Eastney, joined forces to become three mission centres of a single Portsmouth Methodist Church.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1753: 'I was surprised to find so little fruit here, after so much preaching. That accursed itch of disputing had wellnight destroyed all the seed which had been sown. And this "vain jangling" they call "contending for the faith". I doubt the whole faith of these poor wretches is but an opinion.'
October 1753: 'I found … people who had disputed themselves out of the power, and well-nigh the form, of religion. However, I laboured (and not altogether in vain) to soften and compose their jarring spirits, both this evening and the next day.'
October 1767: 'I sent to desire the use of the Tabernacle, but was answered, Not unless I preached the Perseverance of the Saints.'
August 1788: 'I preached in the new house… and guarded them against that deadly Antinomianism which has so often checked the good seed here.'
Bible Christians, Portsmouth Mission:
'We have but two places at which we preach in his Mission. At Bethesda chapel the good work is very dull; but of Enmmanuel chapel I have a better report to make. Seven have lately joined the church,two of whom are reclaimed drunkards, who have been brought out of the lowest dregs of society… The attendance at the publc services is good, thirteen additional sittings are let… The mission is however expensive at present, and I see but little view of its being otherwise.'
Bible Christian Magazine,1842, p.22
Grosvenor Street chapel, Somers Town, Southsea:' Since it opened it has been well attended; many sittings are let; and several have joined the society.' [At the second chapel anniversary] 'The Chapel is well attended, the greater part of the Sittings let.'
Ibid, 1847 p.74; 1849, p.472