Taunton, Som.

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Methodism reached Taunton early, as it was usually John Wesley's first stop on his way from Bristol to Cornwall. On his first visit, in August 1743, accompanied by John Nelson and John Downes, he preached at Taunton Cross (which stood at the junction of North, East and Corporation Streets). As a result a society began to meet at the Three Cups Inn (later the County Hotel and now the site of Marks and Spencer). Meetings were in members' homes until in 1776 Wesley opened a preaching house in Middle Street, the last of his 14 octagons. This was designed on Wesley's instructions by the London architect James Perrett. It has survived in secular use and its bicentenary was celebrated in 2016.

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When the congregation outgrew it in 1809, the Octagon became a Sunday School and later was used by the Bible Christians and the Plymouth Brethren. From 1964 it was a night club, but in 1988 became the focal point of a preservation scheme. Its successor was built in Upper High Street by James Lackington and named The Temple after his business enterprise. In dispute with its owner, who stipulated that the preachers should be gowned, they soon moved back to the Octagon; it was then rented to the MNC, with whom Lackington also fell out. The WMs then bought it for £1,050 - half of what it had cost to build. Schoolrooms were added in 1866 and the interior redesigned on a new axis in 1869. It remains the circuit church, with Victoria Street chapel (1843), Rowbarton (1892) and Liseaux Way (1995) as part of its outreach. Queen's College was founded in 1843 as the West of England Proprietary Grammar School.

The BCs reached Taunton when William Mason preached at the Cross in 1823 and a society belonging to the Kingsbrompton Circuit was started. It met in William Natcott's house in Canon Street, which was eventually bought and converted into a chapel. A purpose-built church, Ebenezer, replaced it on the same site in 1864. A single circuit was formed after Methodist Union in 1932. But Ebenezer, hampered by debt, was sold in 1935 to the local council and was used as a fire station before being demolished in 1979 for residential development.


John Wesley's Journal:

August 1743: 'I set out for Cornwall. In the evening I preached at the Cross in Taunton, on "The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost." A poor man had posted himself behind, in order to make some disturbance; but the time was not come - the zealous wretches who "deny the Lord that bought them" had not yet stirred up the people. Many cried out, "Throw down that rascal there! Knock him down! Beat out his brains!" So that I was obliged to entreat for him more than once, or he would have been but roughly handled.'

September 1743: 'I had designed to preach in the yard of our inn; but before I had named my text, having uttered only two words, "Jesus Christ", a tradesman of the town (who, it seems, was mayor-elect) made so much noise and uproar that we thought it best to give him the ground. But many of the people followed me up into a large room, where I preached unto them Jesus.'

July 1747: 'Much opposition was expected, and several young gentlemen came, as it seemed, with that design, but they did not put it in execution.'

August 1768: 'I saw a serious congregation at Taunton! And shall we have fruit here also?'

August 1775: 'Preached in the great Presbyterian meeting-house in Taunton; and indeed with such freedom and openness of spirit as I did not expect in so brilliant a congregation.'

September 1775: 'I preached again in the new meeting at Taunton, to such a congregation as, I suppose, was never there before.'

March 1776: 'At three in the afternoon [I] opened the new preaching-house. The people showed great eagerness to hear…'

August 1785: '… I expected little good. But I was agreeably disappointed; the house was thoroughly filled. A solemn awe sat upon the whole congregation, and God spoke to their hearts. The house was nearly filled at five in the morning - a sight never seen here before.'

September 1789: 'In the evening we had such a congregation as, I suppose, was never in that house before. Surely the ancient work will some time revive, and the prayers of that blessed man, Joseph Alleine, be answered.'

'Rev. Mr. Westley, the famous Methodist, came lately to Taunton, dressed in a Master's gown and cassock, and at the Three Cups Inn he began to preach to a very numerous auditory in the Court, but he had scarcely named his text when the Mayor of the Town came in Formality and ordered the proclamaion to be read, which immediately silenced the preacher, and they have not been troubled with any of those impertinents since.'

Letter to Aris's Birmingham Gazette 30th January1744,

'The Temple chapel is all new, and so is the congregation, with few exceptions. The old chapel was a dreary place, and badly lit; the preachers were no doubt honest and truthful men, as a body, but neither learned nor eloquent. The females of the congregation wore large coal-scuttle bonnets,drab dresses and modest caps, and they had a quiet,demure and simple look. The men wore broad-brimmed hats and long coats, in imitation of the founder of their denomination.'

Edward Goldsworthy, 'Recollections of Old Taunton' (1883)

  • Herbert W. White. Wesley's Taunton (1988)
  • Herbert W. White, 'Wesley's Taunton Octagon', in WHS Proceedings, 48 pp.113-18
  • Herbert W. White, 'Early Methodism in Taunton' in WHS(B) Bulletin 79 (1999)