John Wesley’s first recorded journey through Coventry took place in June 1742. He first preached there no less than 37 years later. By then a small company of his followers must have existed as an announcement had been published before his arrival. The society remained small and uninfluential, hampered for a time by the presence of James Wheatley. For a time it had no settled place of worship. On his visit in 1786 Wesley refers to ‘a neat convenient room [an auction room in the Women’s Market], only it is far too small’.
The Wesleyan cause in Coventry struggled on for many years, and the Methodists were very much the poor relations of the longer-established and wealthier Independents and Baptists. After finding several temporary buildings for worship, in 1808 the local Wesleyans finally occupied a former Baptist chapel in Gosford Street in the east of the city, and in 1836 moved to a purpose-built chapel in Warwick Lane on the site of the former Greyfriars burial ground.
While these developments were taking place within the city itself, in the mining and weaving districts to the north Methodism became firmly rooted in more promising soil. On 21 July 1779, the day on which Wesley first preached in Coventry, he had ridden in the morning from Leicester where he had preached at 5.00 a.m. His Journal continues: ‘About 8, calling at Hinckley, I was desired to preach, at Foleshill, 10 or 12 miles further on.’ (Wesley writes ‘Forcell’, a probable phonetic rendering of the name as pronounced by the local people.) The inhabitants of these scattered communities proved receptive to the Methodist preaching. In the early years of the 19th century several societies were established – at Alderman’s Green, Bell Green where a chapel was erected in 1813, and Lockhurst Lane, where in 1809 a group of Methodists were meeting in weaver’s cottage in Lime Terrace. In 1825 this little group was able to afford to build its first chapel further along the lane. The V.C.H., vol. VIII p. 395ff states the position of Wesleyanism in the Coventry area very clearly: ‘The sporadic activity in central Coventry and the paucity of permanent chapels founded there are in striking contrast with the progress made by the various Methodist branches, particularly in Foleshill, from the early 19th century onwards.’
There is also evidence for the presence of Wesleyanism to the west of Coventry in the farming communities around the villages of Berkswell and Meriden. By the beginning of the new century Methodist societies had been founded at Balsall Common, Meriden and other small settlements, and figure regularly on the circuit preaching plans. In a Georgian house in Meriden a John Allbutt, gentleman, founded a widely-known and much respected Methodist school known as Meriden Academy that survived for many years.
Coventry was at first a ‘station’ in the Northampton Circuit; in 1791 it was transferred to Birmingham, then to Leicester a year later, and finally to Hinckley in 1800. At last, in 1811, it became a separate circuit. In 1837 the large Coventry Wesleyan Circuit was divided into two and the southern section including societies in Stratford-on-Avon, Warwick, Leamington and surrounding villages, was formed into a new circuit, leaving Coventry and the communities to the north and west as a new circuit which has remained until today. During the 19th century new societies sprang up, in many cases only to survive for a very few years, but towards the end of the century two successful churches were founded – one on the Stoney Stanton Road leading north from the city centre, and the other at Earlsdon, a watch-making suburb that had grown up on the south side the city.
Primitive Methodism arrived in the area following the visit of a 20-year-old Leicestershire evangelist, John Garner, in 1819 to preach in the village of Walsgrave-on-Sowe, where he was violently mistreated by a local mob and barely escaped with his life. Despite this not untypical treatment of the early Methodist preachers, a Primitive Methodist society was established in Coventry and appears on the Plan of the Loughborough Circuit by 1822. This was part of the Warwickshire Mission, and soon the congregation had settled in a chapel in Grove Street from 1837. Two years later Coventry became a separate PM circuit. One of its more distinguished ministers was the Rev. Samuel Peake, the father of the later biblical scholar A.S. Peake, who was educated at the King Henry VIII School in the city and as a teenager was secretary of the Mutual Improvement Society at Grove Street. In 1895 a new chapel was built in Ford Street which remained until the bombing of the Second World War.
In the meantime, as with the Wesleyans, a significant presence of Primitive Methodists was being successfully rooted in the districts to the north of the city, and in 1823 a society began to meet in the (not very accurately named!) Paradise community along the Stoney Stanton Road, Foleshill. A chapel was built in 1828 and rebuilt in 1856. The ‘Prims’ were also to be found at Alderman’s Green where they built a chapel in 1849, very close to that of the Wesleyans and for long nicknamed ‘The Brook’. By 1901 there were two separate PM circuits – one within the city boundary based on Ford Street, and the other in the north centred on the Paradise chapel.
At the time of Methodist Union in 1932 there were therefore three circuits in the Coventry area – the Wesleyan with its main circuit church in Warwick Lane, and the two PM circuits. These two circuits held back from reunion until after World War II; in 1945 they came together and in the following year joined with the Wesleyans to form two Coventry circuits – the Mission Circuit led by the Central Hall that had been built in 1932 with financial support from J. Arthur Rank, replacing the old Warwick Lane chapel, and the other consisting of a widely spread group of churches in the city and surrounding villages and commuter areas. Following the recommendations of a Coventry Commission in 1991 a merger of the two circuits took effect from 1993. In 2012 the congregations of the Central Hall, Cornerstone and Macdonald Road, united to form a single church.
In the post-war years new churches had been established in the large housing estates that had grown up in the inter-war period in the Radford, Coundon and Stoke (MacDonald Road) areas, while other churches founded during the period, such as Green Lane (now Woodside Avenue) began to prosper. However, major demographic changes were taking place in the city, with the arrival of many new communities of immigrants from the Commonwealth, particularly in those northern suburbs that had been the most fruitful soil for the Methodists for over 150 years, and over the last three decades of the 20th century a number of the older churches, including Lockhurst Lane, Edgwick (formerly Paradise) and Wheelwright Lane closed, while others (the chapels at Alderman’s Green and Bell Green) united to form Hall Green (closed in 2009). On the other hand, in the early 1980s a significant and successful experiment in church unity took place when the Anglican and Methodist congregations in Fillongley, about six miles north of the city, united and continue to worship together in the parish church.
The process of combining resources and rationalisation of the Methodist witness in the area reached a new stage in 2008 when the Coventry Circuit united with the Nuneaton and Atherstone Circuit to form the new Coventry and Nuneaton Circuit with 25 churches covering the whole of the northern part of the old county of Warwickshire.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1779: 'When I came to Coventry, I found notice had been given for my preaching in the park; but the heavy rain prevented. I sent to the mayor desiring the use of the town-hall. He refused; but the same day gave the use of it to a dancing-master. I then went to the women's market. Many soon gathered together, and listened with all seriousness. I preached there again the next morning … and again in the evening.'
July 1786: 'The poor little flock at Coventry have at length procured a neat, convenient room; only it is far too small. As many of the people as could get in were all attention. How is the scene changed here also! I know not but now the Corporation, if it had been proposed, would have given the use of the town-hall to me rather than to the dancing-master!'