In 1752 John Wesley, travelling from Barnard Castle to Whitehaven, preached at Clifton, two miles south of Penrith, but gave no indication of going into the town, which was notorious at the time for bull-baiting, cock-fighting and drunkenness. Subsequently he visited Penrith on three occasions, in 1766, 1780 and 1786. Joseph Benson, 'one of the most excellent men that ever laboured amongst the Methodists', was born at Melmerby, 9 miles from the town.
In 1776 William Varty,a skinner by trade and a churchwarden at the parish church, heard Mary Bosanquet preach while on business in Yorkshire and was converted. The handful of Methodists had no regular preaching place, so he renovated a property of his in Crown Terrace, off King Street, providing a chapel, a meeting room and acommodation for travelling preachers. Thomas Coke preached here when conducting a five-day mission in 1803 and, on his departure, left £5 for internal plastering. On Varty's death his two sons, although not themselves Methodists,gave a piece of his land and £200 towards building a new chapel at Sandgate Head. It opened in 1815 and with a gallery added two years later was one of the most prestigious Methodist chapels in the county, accommodating nearly 700 worshippers. However, it proved a financial burden and was not fully paid for until the 1860s.
Originally part of the Dales Circuit from 1779, Penrith was placed in the newly formed Brough Circuit in 1803. It became a separate circuit in 1806, but with its financial difficulties returned to Brough in 1818, until regaining its independence in 1824.
In 1873 the Wesleyans built a new chapel in Wordsworth Street, replacing Sandgate Head. For a number of years some of the village chapels felt that too much time and attention was being spent on the work in the town, to the detriment of the rural areas. Consequently they formed the separate Kirkoswald Circuit in 1871.
A Wesleyan day school, open to children of all denominations, was started in 1844 in Meeting House Lane, adjacent to the Quakers' premises. It accommodated over 300 pupils, boys and girls, and an Infants section. Following the 1902 Education Act, Cumberland Education Committee took over the management of the school, renting the premises until its closure in 1915.
Primitive Methodism faced many difficulties from the beginning and continually struggled over the years. William Clowes preached here on a number of occasions from 1822, and Hugh Bourne in 1831. Preaching in 1829, Clowes was unimpressed with their room above a bakehouse, claiming it was dirty, with parts of the roof open to the sky. A barn was acquired in Fell Lane and made into a chapel, but with a stable below it. Eventually, a chapel with a manse attached was built at the bottom of Arthur Street in 1857; but when the Wesleyans moved out of Sandgate Head the Primitive Methodists took over that more spacious building.
Initially part of the Carlisle PM Circuit from 1823, which found it difficult to support, Penrith was placed under the care of Kendal, then of Westgate in Weardale, then of the Alston Circuit, before becoming a separate circuit in 1872. Always struggling to maintain their presence in the town, the former Primitive Methodists were pleased to merge with Wordsworth Street in 1967.
Over the years the Wordsworth Street building has seen many improvements, the latest being a major renovation in 1996, with the old organ going to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Nemencen, Lithuania. In 2002 a small hotel opposite the church was purchased and adapted to support their flourishing youth work.
The Wesleyan Methodist Association, whilst active in some parts of the county in the 1830s, left Penrith largely untouched. With 16 members in 1836, these fell to 2 in 1841 and the work petered out. The Reform Movement of the 1850s met with no success locally.
John Wesley's Journal:
May 1780: 'In the evening a large upper room, designed for an assembly, was procured for me at Penrith, but several of the poor people were struck with a panic for fear the room should fall. Finding there was no remedy, I went down into the court below, and preached there in great peace to a multitude of well-behaved people. The rain was suspended while I preached, but afterwards returned, and continued most of the night.'