It is possible that John Wesley passed through Cockermouth on his way from Allendale to Whitehaven on 21 September 1749. If so, this was the first of at least twenty visits, during most of which he preached in the town. On 17 April 1751, he did so from the steps of the Market House on ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’; on Whit Sunday 29 May 1757 the text of his address to ‘a listening multitude’ was ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink’.
Cockermouth’s first Methodist Society, with 19 members, was established in 1763 under the leadership of a shopkeeper, William Wilson. It formed part of the extensive Haworth Round, of which William Grimshaw was the first superintendent, but it is unlikely that Grimshaw visited the society as he died on 7 April 1763. Cockermouth became part of the newly formed Whitehaven Circuit in 1769. During a visit in 1781, Wesley was offered the use of the Independent Chapel, off Main Street, from its minister, Mr. Lothian. He writes: ‘I willingly accepted his offer; by this means I had a much more numerous audience, most of whom behaved well.’
In 1796, George Robinson, a local cooper and Methodist bought some old malt kilns in High Sand Lane. The following year he demolished them and built a meeting house which he sold to the Methodists for £70. This served the Society until 1841, when a new Wesleyan chapel was opened in Market Street. The 1797 building, now the Victoria Hall, still stands and houses a plaque which states that 'John Wesley, Founder of the Wesleyan Movement, was reputed to have preached here.' (Wesley had died in 1791!). The Cockermouth and Keswick Wesleyan Circuits joined forces in 1854.
In 1914, the Market Street Wesleyans purchased a site in Lorton Street for a new chapel, but it was many years before their plans could be turned to reality. The new Lorton Street church and Sunday school premises were opened on 26 April 1932, just a few months before Methodist Union. In 1934 the former Market Street chapel was converted for use as the Town Hall and in the first decade of the 21st century it was extensively renovated by the local Town Council, having been purchased from Allerdale Borough Council in 2003.
The Cockermouth Primitive Methodist Society was founded following large camp meetings in 1834. The members first met in a room in St Helen’s Street, moving to Vinegar Hill in 1840. Two years later they rented the High Sand Lane chapel from the Wesleyans, then in 1851 bought it outright for £95. In 1885, they bought the former National School in New Street, and converted it into a chapel, which was to serve as their home for the next 68 years. The Cockermouth PM Circuit was formed in 1893, its first Superintendent Minister being the Rev. John George Bowran, who became President of the Primitive Methodist Conference in 1928. One of the Societies was Little Broughton, where, in 1852, a young man named John Snaith was converted. He became a PM minister, as did three of his sons and his grandson, the Old Testament Scholar Dr Norman Snaith, who became President of the Methodist Conference in 1958.
Following Methodist Union in 1932, the former PM and WM circuits amalgamated in September 1937 and the New Street and Lorton Street societies merged at Lorton Street in 1953. The premises were substantially extended in 1960 and further alterations and extensions, including a major refurbishment in 1999, have since been undertaken.
John Wesley's Journal:
April 1751: 'Several of the poor people [from Clifton] came after me to Cockermouth, where I stood at the end of the market-house, ten or twelve steps above the bulk of the congregation, and proclaimed "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ". A large and serious congregation attended again at five on Thursday morning.'
May 1752: 'I preached at noon to a very different congregation [than the "large and serious" one at Lorton] in the Castleyard at Cockermouth. However, they behaved with decency, none interrupting or making any noise.'
April 1753: 'I preached in the afternoon at Cockermouth, to wellnigh all the inhabitants of the town.'
May 1757: 'I began without delay, and cried to a listening multitude, "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink." The word had free course. Even the gentry seemed desirous to drink of the "living water".'
April 1761: 'I preached … on the steps of the market-house. Even the genteel hearers were decent; many of the rest seemed deeply affected. The people of the town have never been uncivil. Surely they will not always be unfruitful.'
April 1768: 'We set out [from Keswick] in a fair day; but on the mountains the storm met us again, which beat on us so impetuously that our horses could scarce turn their faces against it. However, we made shift to reach Cockermouth; but there was no room for preaching, the town being in an uproar through the electionfor members of Parliament; so, after drying ourselves, we thought it best to go on to Whitehaven.'
May 1774: 'At eight I preached in the Castle-yard at Cockermouth to abundance of careless people, on "Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched".'
June 1777: 'I … found a large congregation waiting in the Castle-yard.'
May 1780: 'At eight I preached in the town-hall, but to the poor only; the rich could not rise so soon.'
June 1781: 'I had designed to preach at noon in the town-hall at Cockermouth; but Mr Lothian offering me his meeting-house, which was far more convenient, I willingly accepted his offer. By this means I had a much more numerous audience, most of whom behaved well.'
April 1784: 'I preached in the market-house at Cockermouth.'