Thetford

Although John Wesley journeyed through Thetford on his first visit to Norfolk in 1754, there is no mention that he stayed in the town. Thetford was mentioned only twice in his journal and diary - in 1757 when a man asked him to preach at Lakenheath and in October 1790 on his last visit to East Anglia when he stopped in the town for just half an hour.

A licence for religious worship was obtained for a Wesleyan society in 1786. One of the applicants was John Hinson, the father of the preacher William Hinson who entered the ministry in 1806. Sarah Mallet, who had been encouraged by John Wesley, preached there.

The society was in the Bury St Edmunds Circuit and in 1797 was promoted to joint head, which lasted until 1813 when Thetford became head of its own circuit. A chapel was built in 1803-4 in Raymond Street and opened by Martin Vaughan. The town council had not wanted the chapel to occupy the prominent site originally chosen and insisted the Methodists relinquish it for a cheaper, less prominent position. In 1807 a Sunday school was begun, the first in the town. One of the scholars was Francis West who became the President of Conference in 1857.

Another young member of the society was Robert Newstead who entered the ministry in 1815. He set sail for Ceylon as a missionary the following year. James Hall Cummings, born in the town and accepted for the ministry in 1855, worked as a missionary in India for many years. Elizabeth Pollard, daughter of the Rev. William Pollard, and a Sunday school teacher, left to work in India under the auspices of the Wesleyan Missionary Committee in 1864.

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A new chapel was opened in the town centre in October 1830 at a cost of £1,488. It was constructed of gault bricks with a slate roof and its three bays were defined by four giant pilasters. A burial ground was attached. The old chapel was retained as a Sunday school and was not sold until 1930.

The 1851 Religious Census recorded 198 present at morning worship with 81 in the afternoon and 247 in the evening. There were 133 Sunday school children in the morning and 20 in the evening.

In the Wesleyan Reform crisis in the mid nineteenth century, the ministers Theophilus Pugh and Joseph Portrey took a conservative stance and both wrote a series of bellicose letters to the local newspapers criticising the opponents of Conference’s actions. In contrast to every other Norfolk circuit, Thetford’s membership remained at a high level.

The first small congregation of Primitive Methodists met in a cottage in Magdalen Street. Then George Wharton of North Lopham, who had received communion from John Wesley, bought a property in Guildhall Street and opened it for worship in November 1829. It seated 90 people. It was enlarged by incorporating two adjoining cottages, but the cause failed. The town was again missioned in 1838 and was included in the Saham and Watton Circuit. A small chapel was built in a garden behind a cottage on Melford Bridge Road. It was registered for worship on 25 March 1839 and had 57 members.

Thetford was made head of a branch of the Brandon Circuit in 1851. The chapel was enlarged in 1859 with additional seating and a larger gallery, but with numbers increasing, a new building was needed and this was opened in September 1863 in Guildhall Street/Cage Lane. The old chapel was sold and converted to a house.

A large number of chapel members were involved in the Agricultural Trade Union.

A great District camp meeting was held in Thetford in 1904 with religious gatherings, public meetings, concerts and tours of the town. A vast number of people attended.

At Methodist Union the Primitive Methodists joined the Wesleyans at their church. The Primitive Methodist church was retained as a Central Hall until 1957 when it was sold.

In 1958 the President of Conference, Rev. Dr Norman Snaith, whose family had come from Thetford, visited the town. The circuit raised £33 towards his presidential gown. As a supernumerary, he and his wife came to live in the town.

With the main industry closing in 1928 the resulting economic distress led to many leaving the area to work elsewhere. The population fell drastically and this greatly affected numbers in the church. However in the late 1950s arrangements were made to accept people from London and several industries moved to the town. This led to a slow recovery of church membership. An adjoining warehouse was bought as a church hall in 1960. Another hall was added in 1982.

In the reorganisation of circuits in 2007, the Thetford, Diss and Mildenhall Circuits were combined to make a geographically very wide circuit.

Sources

Norma Virgoe, The Length of Days: A history of Methodism in Thetford, 2018.