Sussex was a county hardly touched by John Wesley’s itinerant ministry, apart from the easternmost area adjoining the Kent border, where he had friends and supporters especially in Rye. But Winchelsea, one of the Cinque Ports, had the distinction of being the place in which he preached his last open-air sermon. Until an official clampdown in the 19th century, smuggling was rife there. From being the centre of an agricultural area, the town was eventually transformed by a process of gentrification, attracting writers and artists.
On 30 October 1771 Wesley came from Rye and preached in the Square to ‘a considerable number of serious people’. He did not return until January 1789, by which time a small preaching house had been built in 1785, known as Evens’ Chapel, probably after the donor of the site. His third and last visit was on 7 October 1790, when he preached under an ash tree close to St Thomas’ churchyard, sitting on a chair borrowed from the house opposite. (The chair, having been treasured in the manse at Rye until 1931, is now at the New Room, Bristol.) The tree was blown down during a storm in 1927, but replaced by a sapling which survives and is the setting for an annual open-air service.
The small society dwindled after Wesley’s death, though reinforced by soldiers encamped in the vicinity during the Napoleonic wars. This was followed by a period of renewed growth and the building of a more central chapel in 1867. Its predecessor was used as a Sunday School. After World War II further decline set in. The second chapel eventually closed and was sold, enabling the old chapel to be restored and reopened in 1969. By the 1980s a dwindling congregation was holding only monthly services and it too closed, becoming the responsibility of the Circuit and the ‘Friends of Winchelsea Methodist Chapel’. Monthly services and circuit events are still held there.
John Wesley's Journal:
October 1771: 'I walked over to Winchelsea [from Rye]… I preached at eleven in the new Square to a considerable number of serious people.'
January 1789: 'The new preaching-house was weel filled with decent, serious hearers, who seemed to receive the truth in the love of it.'
7 October 1790: 'I went over to that poor skeleton of ancient Wincelsea. It is beautifully situated on the top of a steep hill, and was regularly built in broad streets, crossing each other, and encompassing a very large square, in the midst of which was a large church, now in ruins. I stood under a large tree, on the side of it, and called to most of the inhabitants of the town, "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospel." It seemed as if all that heard were, for the present, almost persuaded to be Christians.'