Tunbridge Wells
www.valeroyalmethodist.org.uk

Like Bath, in the 18th century Tunbridge Wells became a fashionable spa. From 1768 on the Countess of Huntingdon had a house on Mount Ephraim. But although John Wesley had preached as early as 1762 in Southborough, in a private house called Little Bounds, he did not visit Tunbridge Wells itself until January 1778. He preached for the first of several times in the Presbyterian meeting-house on Little Mount Sion, close to the High Street, to ‘a numerous congregation’. The earliest clear reference to a Methodist society in the town is in 1808. This was in the Lewes Circuit until it was transferred to the Sevenoaks Circuit in 1810.

The first chapel was built on Vale Royal, the present site, in 1812 and the society welcomed its first resident minister in 1819. A Sunday School and other extensions to the premises were made in 1821 and 1839, with the chapel itself enlarged to accommodate growing congregations in 1840 and 1847. In that same year, the town became the head of a separate circuit.

The old chapel was replaced on the same site by the present Vale Royal church in 1872, opened on 2 June 1873. There were improvements and extensions to the premises in 1930 and 1982.

Primitive Methodism was brought to the town from Goudhurst in 1853, when a camp meeting was held on the Common during the autumn. As a result an embrio society was formed, meeting at first in the home of Charles Gillingham and then in a hired room in Goods Station Road. The Rev. Jesse Ashworth who arrived in the circuit in 1854 followed up these early moves by renting the old Presbyterian meeting until their first chapel was opened in Camden Road (then known as Calverley Quarry Road) in 1857, with the Rev. John Petty as preacher at the opening services. Tunbridge Wells became the head of a separate Circuit in 1861. A second chapel was opened in 1874 in Down Lane and in 1877 Camden Road chapel was replaced by a larger chapel, opened in the spring of 1878 by the Rev. Samuel Antliff.

At the time of Methodist Union in 1932, the Vale Royal and Camden Road churches were brought together in one circuit and a second Wesleyan chapel in Hill Street closed, with its members joining the Camden Road society. In 1981 Camden Road closed and joined the Vale Royal society, with improvements to its premises following in 1982. Since Easter Day 2015 the local Methodist and URC congregations have been worshipping together in the latter’s Mount Ephraim church.

Quotations

John Wesley's Journal:

January 1778: 'I went over to Tunbridge Wells and preached in the large dissenting meeting to a numerous congregation; and deep attention sat on every face.'

Octobr 1780: 'I preached to a serious congregation on Rev. XX.12.'

November 1781: 'I preached at Tunbridge Wells, in the large Presbyterian meeting-house, to a well-dressed audience, and yet deeply serious.'

November 1783: 'I preached … at Mount Ephraim, near Tunbridge Wells.'

December 1784: 'I went to Tunbridge Wells [from London], but not without difficulty, part of the road being made scarce passable, through the abundance of rain. I preached in the large Presbyterian meeting-house, but the violent rain thinned the congregation.'

Sources
  • F.F. Bretherton, in The Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol. 10, pp.197-9
  • R.Newman Wycherley, The Story of Fifty Years of Primitive Methodism in Tunbridge Wells (1903)