In 1773 Jonathan Crowle, junior preacher in the Salisbury Circuit, accompanied by William Kent, a London stationer, was the first Methodist known to have preached in Swanage. ‘Not obtaining any dwelling to preach in, he gave out a hymn in the open air, and preached with much freedom, without any annoyance from the multitude, who listened with attention to the word of life.’
John Wesley paid the first of two visits the following year. Local tradition tells how Mary Burt, with a baby in her arms and accompanied by two neighbours, walked to Salisbury to persuade him to visit Purbeck. (A plaque in the present church commemorates Mary Burt and her husband Robert.) Wesley did so, preaching at several places in the area. He found the local inhabitants ‘plain, artless, good-mannered, and well-behaved’, but was critical of the Salisbury preachers as ‘more studious to please than to awaken’; adding, ‘If the labourers are zealous and active, they will surely have a plentiful harvest.’ The cottage, where Wesley is said to have spent the night, was later known as 'Wesley's Cottage'; but was destroyed by a bomb in 1942.
Wesley's second visit, thirteen years later on his way to Guernsey, was unintended. He stayed just long enough to preach in the Presbyterian meeting-house. The Methodists were worshiping in a first-floor room in Purbeck Place, measuring a mere 14 by 12 ft., which later became a builder’s storeroom.. This belonged to one of the members, Joseph Collins, and was registered as a place of worship at the time of Wesley’s first visit (rather misleadingly as ‘Presbyterian’).
The establishment of a Methodist cause seems to have been at the expense of the existing Presbyterian meeting. By 1785 the society had 15 members. In 1833, when John Marsh, society steward for many years, died , it numbered 60 members, plus a Sunday School..
The first purpose-built chapel was opened in 1807 , with seating for 250. Enlarged by the addition of galleries in 1832, its seating capacity at the time of the Religious Census in 1851 was recorded as 382, including 160 ‘free’ seats. It was replaced by the present Wesley Memorial church in High Street, opened in 1886. The spire was a gift from George Burt in memory of his grandparents. Centenary Hall and new Sunday School premises were added in 1907. Swanage had become the head of a separate circuit in 1871.
In World War II Swanage found itself in the front line. Damaged by bombing in 1941 and 1942, the church was repaired and reopened in 1948, with services being held in the meantime in Centenary Hall. A further major refurbishment was completed in 1997. The Wesley Guild holiday home, Highcliffe Hotel, opened in 1949, with guests adding to the Sunday congregations. The Ecumenical Christian Centre was launched in 1949 on Methodist premises, and when it moved to a shop near the Library and then to the Old Stable in Commercial Lane, it was replaced by the Crosslink Centre.
From 1797 Swanage was in the Poole Circuit,, but became the head of a separate circuit in 1871, which included a number of other Purbeck societies, notably Corfe Castle and Langton Matravers. Several earlier proposals to reunite the two circuits came to nothing, until 1996, when Swanage Circuit was reabsorbed in its larger neighbour. In response to new challenges, the first Lay Worker for Youth and Families was appointed in 2009.
A Primitive Methodist Poole Circuit was formed in 1839. It included societies at Corfe Castle (until at least 1876) and at Herston, where a chapel was built in 1867.
John Wesley’s Journal:
October 1774: ‘In the evening I preached in a meadow near Swanage, to a still larger congregation [than at Langton Matravers] . And here at length I found three or four persons, and all of one family, who seemed really to enjoy the faith of the gospel. Few others of the society (between thirty and forty in number) appeared to be convinced of sin. I fear the preachers have been more studious to please than to awaken, or there would have been a deeper work.’
August 1787: ‘We set out from Yarmouth [for Guernsey] with a fair wind, but it soon turned against us, and blew so hard that in the afternoon we were glad to put in at Swanage. I found we had still a little society here. I had not seen them for thirteen years, and had no thought of seeing them now; but God does all things well. In the evening I preached in the Presbyterian meeting-house - not often, I believe, so well filled; and afterwards passed half an hour very agreeably with the minister in the parsonage house... Thence we adjourned to the house of our old brother Collins, and between eight and nine went on board.’
• Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, 1833 p.603
• T.E. Brigden, in WHS Proceedings, xiii. 52-54