John Wesley paid the first of nineteen visits to the town in January 1764, preaching in an open space near the market place for want of another venue. A society had been formed by 1770, despite the existence of a strong Congregationalist cause, and in 1772 Wesley himself opened the first preaching house on a site in West Street, now marked by a plaque. He was at first complimentary about his congregations, but on the occasion of his last visit wrote about trying to awaken ‘a harmless, drowsy people who for many years have seemed to stand stark still, neither increasing nor decreasing’.
In the following decades the society was in decline, and may even have died out, until in 1833 a Mr. Beves arrived from Brighton. His leadership brought about a fresh start. Meetings were held in the kitchen of his cottage on Heath Hill until a hired room off High Street was registered for worship in 1842, and the Rev. Samuel Beard became the first resident minister. Dorking was at that time in the Guildford Circuit, but in 1844 became the head of a separate circuit.
A new church was opened in Back Lane (now Church Street) in 1851, just before the Religious Census. Much of the cost was provided by two of its more affluent members, Gurney and Corderoy. The census return reported 190 sittings with adult attendances of 56 in the morning, 36 in the afternoon and 107 in the evening. Corderoy’s niece (of the same name) was a leading member of the society later in the century, when the chapel was enlarged and schoolrooms added underneath. It was described at the time as ‘a substantial and neat building of red-brick, with a stone front ornamented by a circular doorway, and two small corner towers.’
In 1899 a site in South Street was obtained for a new chapel. This was in the Decorate style, complete with tower and spire, but the interior layout was typical of a nonconformist chapel. This was opened in January 1901 and in 1902 John Telford moved from Redhill to be its first minister. The impact of World War I was a severe setback from which the church never fully recovered before the outbreak of World War II
In 1973 the Methodist congregation under the leadership of the Revd Ronald Rawlings vacated the South Street premises which were subsequently sold and demolished. Under the relevant legislation of the time, Sharing Agreements were entered into on both St Martin’s Parish Church and its halls. The two congregations held their worship in the church and, with the proceeds of the South Street sale, the Methodist Church took ownership of the halls for development into a Christian Centre as a base for outreach in the town centre for both the Shared Church and ecumenical use.
Work and worship (both separately and shared) continued thus into the early years of the 21st century when changes in personnel and an urgent need to refurbish and upgrade the Centre brought about developments both in relationships and in the fabric and management of the Centre – with generous support and assistance from the Circuit.
Dorking Methodist Church remains a part of the Dorking & Horsham Circuit. The Superintendency was moved elsewhere in the Circuit in 2003, and the pastoral charge of the Church currently rests with a part-time Minister. A Covenant between the Methodist and Anglican Churches was signed at Pentecost 2009.
John Wesley's Journal:
January 1764: 'In the afternoon [I] rode to Dorking; but the gentleman to whose house I was invited seemed to have no desire I should preach. So that evening I had nothing to do. Friday the 13th I went at noon into the street, and in a broad place, not far from the market-place proclaimed "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ". At first two or three little children were the whole of my congregation; but it quickly increased, though the air was sharp, and the ground exceeding wet; and all behaved well but three or four grumbling men, who stood so far off that they disturbed none but themselves.'
December 1771: 'I rode to Dorking, where were many people, but none were cut to the heart.'
November 1787: 'The congregation was, as usual, large and serious. But there is no increse in the society. So that we have profited nothing by having our services in the church-hours, which some imagined would have done wonders. I do not know that it has done much good anywhere in England; in Scotland I believe it has.'
January 1790: 'I went to Dorking, and laboured to awaken a harmless, honest, drowsy people; who for many years have seemed to stand stock-still, neither increasing nor decreasing.'