John Wesley’s first recorded visit to Skipton in his Journal was in June 1764, by which time according to the local historian W.H. Dawson there were already Methodists in the town. However, perhaps because they met with hostility, their numbers dwindled, and despite further visit by Wesley in 1766 and 1782 the Methodist society was not firmly established there until 1787. One of the first members,the miller Francis Watson, a convert of John Pawson, was credited in his obituary with having introduced Methodism into the town. He was a local preacher for nearly half a century until his death in 1822. Skipton was at first in the Colne Circuit until it became the head of a separate circuit in 1801.
Another leading figure in those early days was Peter Garforth, a paper maker and corn miller who came from Leeds and with his brother-in-law set up the town’s first mechanised cotton textile factory and others elsewhere in the Yorkshire Dales. His practical support until his death in 1811 included hospitality for visiting preachers, support for poorer members of the society, funding for the building of a chapel in 1791, and the formation of a Sunday School some time between 1796 and 1798.
By 1811 the congregation had outgrown the original chapel and it was replaced on the same site in Chapel Hill in the wake of a spontaneous revival experienced throughout the Craven District. It was opened by Jabez Bunting, one of the more controversial figures of early 19th century Methodism. By 1827 the circuit included societies in fourteen surrounding villages. The town society’s involvement in secular education began in the context of the Sunday School, with a day school opening in 1845, in the wake of the 1844 Factories Act and the decision of the 1845 Wesleyan Conference to provide elementary education. Housed at first in a former wool warehouse, in 1865 the school moved to the recently vacated 1811 chapel. Purpose-built premises were provided in 1891 and these were taken over by the West Riding County Council under the Education Act of 1902.
The Wesleyans were influential in the town in many other respects and were also well supported in terms of church attendance. In the Ecclesiastical Census of 1851 they accounted for about a third of all attendances, slightly behind the parish church and significantly ahead of all other places of worship. Accordingly, in 1865 and in spite of a serious trade depression arising from the cotton famine, a new chapel in classical style was opened in Water Street. The architects were Lockwood & Mawson, whose previous work had included the Wool Exchange in Bradford and the model village of Saltaire. In 1889 a mission chapel, known as Trinity, was opened in the rapidly growing Middleton district.
Primitive Methodism was introduced by John Parkinson, a member of the Skipton Wesleyan Church and a local preacher. Holding outdoor meetings brought him into conflict with the circuit officials. In 1821 he met with John Flesher of Silsden and they became convinced of their calling as evangelists. Resigning from the Wesleyan society, they asked the PM Hull Circuit to send a preacher to Skipton. This was done and by the following year the Skipton Mission reported no fewer than eight preachers. However, their success seems to have been mainly in the villages and, perhaps because of the persecution they experienced, by 1830 the cause at Skipton was defunct. It was re-established by the Silsden Primitive Methodist Circuit during the 1830s as part of the revival that coincided with the cholera epidemic. Services were held at first in a hired room. In 1835 a chapel was opened in the Millfields district to accommodate the rapidly increasing congregations, and by 1836 there were 108 members. The cost was £740 and the debt was not cleared until 1861. Until a local circuit was formed in 1879, Skipton remained part of the Silsden Circuit. In 1880 a much larger chapel designed by Thomas Howdill of Leeds, Italianate in style and seating 600, was opened in Gargrave Road.
During the trade depression of 1880-82 a further spontaneous revival resulted in significant increases of membership across all the denominations throughout Craven. This and the continuing growth of the town led to the erection in 1905 of a prefabricated iron church in Broughton Road, to serve the rapidly expanding housing development following the opening of a large weaving mill in 1897.
In 1873 the Bradford District of the United Methodist Free Churches decided to open a Skipton Mission. The first meeting was held in the Temperance Hall and was organised by by the well-established churches in Cross Hills and Cowling, mill villages to the south. An open-air mission was held in the High Street the next day. Progress over the next five years was sufficient to warrant the opening in 1878 of a small chapel, in a modestly classical style and known as Mount Hermon, in Castle Street in the rapidly developing Middletown district. This survived until 1936, when its members were dispersed to other Methodist churches, notably Trinity (formerly Wesleyan) elsewhere in Middletown. In 1954 its assets were used to build a new Sunday School.
Following Methodist Union in 1932, other attempts to rationalise competing resources were slow to achieve results. Water Street WM and Gargrave Road PM congregations were eventually united in 1952, in the Gargrave Road premises, but with only 100 out of the 140 Wesleyans transferring. On Whit Sunday 1975 a Local Ecumenical Project consisting of Gargrave Road, Broughton Road and the Skipton United Reformed Church was instituted in the URC premises in Newmarket Street and renamed St. Andrew’s. Trinity, which had originally been part of the scheme, withdrew and survives in its own premises, extensively refurbished in 2012.
John Wesley’s Journal:
26 June 1764: ‘I rode [from Long Preston] to Skipton, where, some time since, no Methodist preacher could appear. I preached in the evening near the bridge, without the least interruption. Nor did Ifind any weariness, after preaching four times, and riding fifty miles.’
25 July 1766: ‘I designed to preach in the market-place; but the rain prevented. So I stood near Mr. Garforth’s house, where many were under shelter; but many remained without, seeming not to think whether it rained or not. Will all these be barren and unfruitful?’
Description of the 1811 Wesleyan Chapel:
‘The chapel was too small and the pews and aisles narrow and inconvenient. The only vestry connected with the old chapel was a portion of the chapel boarded off for the purpose. Of class rooms there were none. The Sunday School being in Wesley-place, the scholars had to be conducted through the principal streets of the town to reach the chapel, an arrangement which, especially in winter, was found to be detrimental to the health of the children.’
Craven Pioneer, 30 September 1865