Wokingham, Berks

A Methodist society was established in 1817, probably by William Emmott, a corporal in the Royal Horse Guards, stationed at that time in the town. The following March a room was registered for worship by the Rev.John Waterhouse, an enthusiastic young itinerant during whose three-year superintendency the Reading Circuit saw its rapid expansion. A year later, in 1819 he arranged for the purchase of a site in Rose Street, on which stood a barn suitable for conversion into the first chapel. The area was occupied by poor families and the chapel was well placed for a ministry among them.

On 15 March 1824, a young woman, Caroline Bird, the daughter of a middle-class family, was converted by a sermon in the Rose Street chapel and threw in her lot with the despised Methodists. In 1835 she married into the prosperous Heelas family. William Heelas jr.was a Baptist, but a generous supporter of the Methodists. Before her death in child-birth early in 1841 his wife had proved herself a tower of strength both financially and spiritually to the Methodist society, as did her successor, Mrs. Rebecca Heelas, who also was a Methodist.

The first Rose Street Trust was appointed in 1820 and was not renewed until 1864. One of the new trustees was J.J. Beecroft of Reading. At the time of the Religious Census in1851 the chapel reported a morning congregation of 36 with a Sunday School of 24, and 45 in the evening. The Primitive Methodist chapel built in 1850 in Down Street reported 40 in the morning and 150 in the evening.

In 1869 the new Rose Street Trust bought adjoining land, making possible a new, larger chapel to be built and opened in 1870, with generous support from the second Mrs. Heelas. Sir Francis Lycett laid the foundation stone. A Sunday School was added in 1872 and the following year the society was served by the first of a number of Supernumeraries living locally, instead of by one of the Reading ministers. Isaiah Gadd, who died in 1913 had been the most prominent layman for over fifty years, so that the chapel was sometimes referred to as' Gadd's Chapel'.

The closing years of the century nevertheless were marked by spiritual and numerical decline, dropping to as few as 22 members in 1898. Meanwhile the arrival of the railway transformed the town's relationship with London. New denominations established themselves, including the Primitive Methodists, a Gospel Hall and a weekly Roman Catholic Mass. During the Great War a 'Women's Own' was started, with Mrs. M. Tucker as its secretary and then its leader until 1957. The financial needs of the church were addressed by the introduction of the envelope scheme in 1922.

The inadequacy of the Rose Street premises was recognised over the years, but only in the postwar years was the problem addressed.. The 1960s saw a rapid increase in population in Wokingham and the surrounding districts, due to the designation of Bracknell as a new town. The population rose from 12,000 at the beginning of the 1960s to 18,000 in the next five years and continued to grow. Methodist Church membership rose from 153 in 1964 to 314 by 1990.

In 1970 a major rebuild of the premises saw the sanctuary of the 1870 building turned through 90 degrees, with an extension added to the eastern side and a new hall on the western side. A new housing estate was developed to the south-west of the town centre and an Anglican/Methodist LEP was established there, attracting the younger families and thereby stabilizing the membership of the town church and increasing its average age. With population continuing to increase to the east of Bracknell, in 1991 a new South East Berkshire circuit was formed to include that area, and Wokingham found itself in a different circuit and District from Reading.

  • E. Ralph Bates, Methodism in Wokingham 1817-1967 (1967)
  • Bill Watson, Wokingham Methodist Church 1967-2000 and beyond (2003)