Beginning in 1765, several houses were registered for Methodist meetings, but with little lasting effect. John Wesley passed through in 1753, but did not preach until 1767 and then did not return until October 1783. By 1787 a small society had been formed with the encouragement of the Fay family of Above Bar Independent Chapel (dating from 1662), until it began to meet at the same time as services at the chapel. The first members were mostly poor and the town was in economic decline. Their various meeting places included a disused auction room and then a scaffold loft in Hanover Buildings. A turning point was reached in 1791 when they won the support of the Independent minister, William Kingsbury.
Southampton became a separate circuit in 1798. Their first chapel, in Canal Walk, was opened in 1799, built the previous year, apparently as a speculation, by a local bricklayer, Thomas Bartlett. It was enlarged in 1823 and sold to the Unitarians when it was replaced by the larger gothic East Street chapel in 1850.
At the time of the Religious Census in 1851, East Street chapel reported seating for1,100, 500 of them free. Attendances were recorded as 500 plus 135 scholars in the morning; 100 in the afternoon; and 600 in the evening.
In 1925 a Central Hall was opened in St Mary Street (sold 1965). Meanwhile, suburban chapels opened as the town expanded and its fortunes revived later in the nineteenth century. In 1928 the St James Road Church replaced the chapels at Church Street, Shirley (1843) and Howard Road, Freemantle (1907).
An attempt by the Bible Christians to mission the town from the Isle of Wight in 1825 was unsuccessful, but in the 1840s a Botley Mission was in existence and by 1851 a new start had been made in St Mary's parish. The Traveller's Lodging House in Simnel Street was taken in 1852 and Jubilee Chapel, Princess Street, Northam opened in 1863, replaced in 1874 by St Mary's Road (formerly Baptist?; closed 1934).
Following a visit by William Clowes, in 1833 a PM mission was launched by the Hull Circuit, with support from James Crabb, formerly a Wesleyan preacher but now independent. This became an independent circuit in 1852. Their first chapel, St Mary Street (1837), was in the working class area, relacing a room over a public house in Northam Road, and was replaced by one in South Front by 1887.
A meeting in January 1851 to consider the 'tyranny of the Conference' led to the expulsion of three local preachers and a schism in the Wesleyan society. A large room was rented in Hanover Buildings and a Wesleyan Reform chapel was built in 1858 in Bevois Valley on a site provided by William Betts,the contractor who built the Royal Pier.
John Wesley's Journal:
October 1767: 'The wind being so high that I could not well preach abroad, I sent a line to the mayor, requesting leave to preach in the town hall. In an hour he sent me word I might, but in an hour more he retracted. Poor mayor of Southampton! So I preached in a small room, and did not repent my labour.'
'At seven in the evening I preached in Mr. Fay's school-room, to a small but deeply serious congregation… I believe some of these will not be forgetful hearers, but will bring forth fruit with patience.'
'The Primitive Methodists held what they call "camp meeting" on Southampton Common on Sunday last. They marched up in the morning in procession, and continued there till about five o'clock, employed chiefly in preaching, praying and singing. In the afternoon great numbers were attracted to the spot by the novelty of the scene; some of whom, however, broke through the rules of good order, and interrupted the good people in their devotions. In the evening they re-assembled at their chapel in Bridge-street, where they held a "love-feast".
Hampshire Telegraph, 5 June 1837