Blackburn’s origins lie in a pre-Conquest settlement, perhaps dating back to Roman times. The South Lancashire market town was known for textile manufacture by the late Middle Ages and it experienced rapid expansion from the latter decades of the eighteenth century, with the population increasing from around 5000 in 1770 to more than 76000 a century later. Blackburn’s growth and prosperity were closely linked to the cotton industry – by 1887 more than 140 mills were in operation in the town – and twentieth-century trade fluctuations, followed by steady decline after 1945, devastated the local economy. In its nineteenth-century heyday Blackburn became a parliamentary constituency in 1832 and received its charter of incorporation in 1851. It was transferred from the diocese of Chester to the new diocese of Manchester in 1847, and in 1926, when William Temple carried through a further diocesan reorganisation, Blackburn became the centre of a new see, with St Mary’s church as the cathedral. In the mid-eighteenth-century Blackburn formed part of Grimshaw, William’s ‘Haworth round’, and the beginnings of Methodism in the town have been dated variously to 1747 and 1758: in the latter year Nelson, John formed a class in Blackburn. John Wesley preached at Lower Darwen in May 1759 and again in April 1761. He visited Blackburn in 1780, shortly after the Old Calendar House had been obtained as a place for Methodist preaching, returning in 1786, when a new chapel had been opened in Clayton Street. Blackburn became the head of a circuit in 1787.
Through the nineteenth century many strands of Methodism appeared in the town. Batty, Thomas introduced Primitive Methodism in 1821 and the original circuit of 1824, based on the Montague Street chapel, produced a second circuit in 1878 and a third in 1893. The New Connexion schism affected the town; the Paradise chapel, opened by the Wesleyan Methodist Association in 1836, became part of the United Methodist Free Churches, while the Bible Christians launched a ‘forward movement’ in Blackburn in the late 1880s. There were two United Methodist circuits in Blackburn in 1907, representing the UMFC and Bible Christian traditions. John Ward, Superintendent from 1868-71, lamented the ‘inferior’ position of Wesleyan Methodism in Blackburn in his 1871 history: Clayton Street, rebuilt in 1816, was overcrowded and there were only three other small school-chapels to serve the town. With an upturn in trade, the Wesleyans were able to carry forward a scheme of expansion during the next decade, developing their Sunday schools and preaching places into new chapels in Harwood Street (1874), Altom Street (1874) and Preston New Road (Trinity) (1879), and rebuilding Clayton Street for a second time (1881). A Central Mission was launched in September 1906, pioneered by J.W. Allcock, with Sunday evening services in the Palace Theatre. Under Hulbert, Charles H., Superintendent from 1921-25, the Mission moved to the purpose-built 1700-seat Queen’s Hall in Darwen Street, designed by the Manchester Methodist partnership of Brocklehurst and Hornabrook, and opened in 1924. Blackburn’s seven circuits in 1932 – three ex-Primitive, two ex-United Methodist and two ex-Wesleyan – had been reorganised into three by 1940. The post-war years saw rationalisation and closure: Paradise merged with a rebuilt Trinity in the mid-1960s, and this evolved into Wesley Hall (1972), becoming the home of the Central Mission after the closure of the Queen’s Hall in 1971. Other chapels were closed or rebuilt, and in 2012 Blackburn became part of the reconfigured West Pennine Moors Circuit.
‘Methodism in a Great Cotton Town’, Methodist Recorder, 12 September 1907. ‘Brighter Blackburn. Opening of the Queen’s Hall’, Methodist Recorder, 10 January 1924. Walter Shephard, Tamar Walker and Others. Jubilee Volume of Altom Street Wesleyan Church and Sunday School (Blackburn, 1918).