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  • The rise of Methodism in nineteenth century Castleford and its role in the spiritual, educational and social life of the town and neighbouring villages.

This article is based on a talk entitled “A short history of Methodism in Castleford 1782–1908” which was given to mark the centenary of Cutsyke Methodist Chapel in May 2008. Its premise was that the opening of the then Cutsyke Wesleyan Chapel in May 1908 marked the ‘final piece in the jigsaw’ of Methodism in the town, for it was the last of the many chapels which were established in response to the growth in population which had taken place in the previous fifty years. Furthermore, it can now be seen that the first decade of the twentieth century represented very much the high point of Methodism in Castleford in terms of numbers, activities and the place of the chapel in people’s lives.

The beginnings

Methodism in its widest sense began with John Wesley, who broke away from his Church of England background in 1725, followed by the establishment of the first Methodist chapel, in Bristol, in 1739. However, in the days before mass communication news was slow to travel and ideas took time to spread, and thus it was that Wesley in person was the direct catalyst for the formation of many of the earliest local Methodist societies as he travelled the country preaching and inspiring people to take up this new religion. He is known to have preached at Pontefract, Ledston and Kippax in March 1748, and again at Pontefract on 29 July 1772, this second time to open a meeting room established by his followers in the town.

During that first visit to this area he may well have passed through Castleford to cross the River Aire, though he would have hardly noticed the place for at that time it was little more than a village of around six or seven hundred people ranged along what are now Aire Street, Bridge Street and Church Street, plus a pottery in Whitwood Mere and a few businesses alongside the canal, on what is now Lock Lane, connected with water transport. It had a medieval parish church, half-a-dozen almshouses (converted from a farmhouse) standing opposite, flour mills on both sides of the weir, the old Ship Inn and the village lock-up by the bridge, and that was more-or-less the extent of what was still essentially an agricultural community.

Once there was a Methodist society firmly established in Pontefract, its members began travelling to surrounding villages to preach – including, from the middle years of the 1770s, Castleford – while the village became the site of regularly-planned open-air Methodist services from 1777 onwards. The leading light in the spread of Methodism from Pontefract into Castleford was one John Garlick, born in Pontefract but who moved the three miles down the road at some time during the period in which these missionary efforts were taking place. He was certainly resident in Castleford by no later than 1781, for on 1 January the following year, 1782, four residents of the village sent a letter to the Church of England diocesan offices at York. It read: “We whose names are underwritten, being Protestant Dissenters, intend to make the dwelling house of John Garlic [sic] near the bridge in Castleford in the County of York for the public worship of Almighty God. John Prince, George Moreland, Richard Backhouse, John Wood”.

And so it was that the first Methodist society and meeting house in Castleford came into being and the open-air services were replaced by regular meetings in a proper place of worship, albeit not as yet a purpose-built chapel. Garlick’s house remained the centre of Methodism in the village for more than thirty years, hosting services and class meetings for study and bible reading. In 1799 it was noted there were twenty-one members of classes led by him – interestingly with women outnumbering men by two to one.

How many people were attending services on Sundays at this point is not recorded, but by the second decade of the nineteenth century the congregations had either outgrown Garlick’s house or the point had been reached where the Castleford Wesleyans wanted somewhere of their own to worship. They began raising funds, bought an orchard just to the south-west of what became the junction of Aire Street and Sagar Street – in present day terms the site of the car park at the bottom of Wesley Street behind the Lion public house – where on 30 August 1814 John Garlick laid the foundation stone for a chapel. It opened on 21 May 1815, when the preacher was president of the Methodist Conference, Dr Robert Newton. It was a two-storey stone building with the entrance facing toward Sagar Street, it cost £868 and was capable of accommodating 268 worshippers. Although replaced as a chapel in the late 1850s, it remained in use as a Sunday School and day school until at least the 1920s: more on that later.

The three-way split

Nineteenth century religion being an often fractious beast, it was never likely to be too long before Methodism suffered its first split. This duly occurred in 1808 when a group in Staffordshire and Cheshire who, among other things, believed Wesleyanism had lost much of its early zeal and simple appeal, broke away to form the Primitive Methodists. They became known as the ‘ranters’ owing to the fervour of their worship and preaching, but despite – or perhaps because of – this enthusiasm, it was to be nearly thirty years before many Wesleyans in this area threw in their lot with them. As was the case in the 1770s, it was laymen from Pontefract who made the first efforts to introduce the new religion to Castleford, starting with a number of open-air services in 1836. These made little impression but the ‘ranters’ persisted until, in September 1839, the village was added to the Pontefract circuit plan for regular mission meetings. Two years later there were finally enough Primitive Methodists in Castleford to start meeting in an old cottage on Leeds Road (now Wood Street) and to seek bigger premises, which they found in the shape of an old stone barn at the junction of what became Albion Street, Church Street and Carlton Street – where the Junction public house now stands, much to the dismay of many fiercely teetotal Methodists at the time the pub was built. By the time the barn opened as a chapel in 1843, it had cost £150 to buy and convert.

According to a brochure printed to mark the Primitive Methodists’ centenary in 1908, the 1850s were a time of religious revival in Castleford when, in the words of the brochure’s author, Sidney Sterne, “some of the worst characters of the district were soundly converted”. That and the fact that the combined population of Castleford, Whitwood Mere (then two separate administrative townships but, in effect, one town) had more than doubled between the 1851 and 1861 censuses, from 2,965 to 6,088, meant the old barn was bursting at the seams by 1860. After having an offer for a piece of land on Welbeck Street rejected, the Primitive Methodists paid 3s 3d per square yard for a plot on Bradley Street, where a purpose-built chapel and Sunday School opened in 1863, having cost them £1,390. Here they were to stay – albeit not in the same building, as will be recounted later – until the three strands of Methodism were re-united in the 1930s.

Note the reference to “three strands of Methodism” in the previous sentence, for by the time Bradley Street chapel opened there had been another split in the Methodist ranks. It began as the Wesleyan Reform movement in 1849, followed by a complete breakaway in 1850 to form the inappropriately-named United Methodist Church, sometimes referred to as the Free Methodists. This time the new religion came quickly to Castleford – perhaps because by the 1850s it was no longer an inward-looking village cut off from wider events – and in the same year as United Methodism was born, a group of ten men local broke ranks with the Wesleyans, among them four members of pottery-owning families: two Hartleys, William Gill and Thomas Robinson. They met for the first time on 3 October 1850, at the home of Thomas Robinson, and by 1852 had sixty-six members in the town. A year later they opened their church – Providence Chapel – on Powell Street, now the site of Trinity Methodist Church.

Founding of the circuits

Before looking further at events in Castleford proper, it is as well to remember that for most of the nineteenth century Glasshoughton was a separate village with an economic, social and religious life of its own. It had glassworks before Castleford and it supplied most of the coal for Castleford’s industries until the big, modern pits opened at Wheldale, Fryston and Glasshoughton itself from the late 1860s. There was a Wesleyan chapel in the village from not much later than 1837, this being the year a plot of land on what is now School Lane was sold for “a Methodist Chapel and Sunday School”, while it had been joined by a Primitive Methodist rival on Front Street by the time the first large-scale Ordnance Survey map of the area was published in 1854. These were among the oldest chapels incorporated into the respective Castleford circuits: the Wesleyan circuit which was founded in 1868 and the Primitive Methodist circuit which was established in 1877. The first Castleford circuit was actually that of the United Methodists: theirs was constituted in 1863, when there were 114 members, though it never had more than five chapels – at Powell Street, Methley Road (on the corner of Pottery Street), Smawthorne Lane, Scholey Hill and Methley, this latter being the building which stands back from the road near the current Methley Methodist Church.

Town and village growth

Back to the 1850s and, for the time being, one chapel per denomination was sufficient because most of Castleford’s booming population was still living in or close to the town centre, mainly in cramped and unhygienic cottages cheaply thrown up in narrow yards and courts off Aire Street, Bridge Street and Church Street, or in back-to-back properties built next to the glassworks and potteries which were opening all the time. However, the 1815 Wesleyan chapel was proving inadequate by this time, so in March 1858 the trustees passed a resolution that they should build a new chapel and transfer the existing building to an educational trust. This new chapel was to become Carlton Street, which opened on 3 August 1859, with the following weeks seeing a succession of special services from which the collections raised a total of £283 – a fortune in those days and not much less than the land for the church had cost. It appears that by this time the Castleford Wesleyans were a wealthy organisation, so much so that by the end of the nineteenth century the whole area between the 1815 and 1859 chapels on the east side of Wesley Street was covered by their property including the original minister’s manse dating from 1841; vestries and lecture rooms behind Carlton Street chapel built in 1871; two newer ministers’ houses dating from 1876; and a purpose-built Sunday School opened in 1894. The chapels may have long since gone, but all three manses and the Sunday School are still there – in fact the 1841 minister’s house, on Sagar Street, must now be one of the oldest buildings in Castleford.

The founding of the various Castleford Methodist circuits has already been mentioned, and in two of the three cases was mainly due to the rapid spread of Methodism into surrounding villages rather than any multiplication of chapels in the town itself. The inaugural Wesleyan circuit meeting of 1868 could have been attended by representatives from Allerton Bywater (then most likely meeting in temporary premises, since a proper chapel was not built there until 1870), Altofts, Burton Salmon, Fairburn, Glasshoughton, Methley, Newton and Whitwood, while the Primitive Methodist circuit comprised chapels at Glasshoughton, Half Acres, Hillam, Hopetown, the Potteries and Whitwood as well as Bradley Street when it got off the ground in 1877. These developments reflect how Castleford was in every way a fully-fledged, self-governing town by then, no longer in the shadow of Pontefract as had been the case when Methodism arrived there a century earlier. In terms of numbers, there were 390 members at the nine Wesleyan circuit chapels in 1868, while the inaugural Primitive Methodist circuit could muster 401; add in the United Methodists and the number of confirmed Methodists in and around Castleford had probably passed the 1,000 mark by 1874. Twenty years later, in 1894, the Wesleyans alone could boast of 812 members at thirteen chapels, while by the turn of the twentieth century the Wesleyans and Primitive Methodists together could count 1,258 members on their books. These figures may actually understate the number of Sunday worshippers, for statistical returns from the Primitive Methodist circuit in the 1870s and 1880s routinely claimed chapel congregation figures well in excess of their membership numbers.

Capturing the imagination

It is abundantly clear from these figures that Methodism was succeeding in capturing the public’s imagination, nowhere more so than in those new communities which were springing up from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards following the opening of collieries, which drew in workers and their families from the surrounding countryside and further afield. Anywhere a cluster of miners’ cottages was built, it was seldom long before a Wesleyan or Primitive Methodist meeting room followed, this being an advantage the Methodists held over the Church of England, for there was no need for a purpose-built church and a trained priest, just someone willing to lend a room where local lay preachers and class leaders could do their thing – though it was usually the case that fundraising soon began to build a proper chapel. Thus communities which did not even exist before coal was struck – and which in many cases disappeared almost as quickly once their pits were worked out – became hotbeds of Methodism: Newton, Scholey Hill, Hopetown, Losoce, Upper Altofts, Methley Junction. Some of these villages and their chapels grew up, thrived and were then wiped off the map as communities in the space of less than a century, but while they were there, the impact of their Methodist chapels upon people’s lives was no less profound than it was in the longer-established and better-equipped town churches.

Perhaps the classic pit village in the Castleford circuit was Fryston, which although it was one of the last such places to be established, from 1879 onwards, very quickly followed the pattern of outdoor mission services held by Wesleyans from Castleford, household meetings by local converts, a permanent Wesleyan chapel opening in 1891 and a Primitive Methodist rival church following ten years later. However, it would be wrong to imagine that village Methodism was all about mining communities, for some of the names among the two main Castleford circuits, for example Burton Salmon, Hillam and Fairburn, show that it also seized the imagination of agricultural labourers in long-established villages, too. In this respect it is interesting to note that neither Ledston nor Ledsham ever possessed a Methodist chapel, possibly because the village squires, the Wheler family of Ledston Hall, disapproved of nonconformism – although John Wesley is said to have stayed at Ledston Hall on that first foray into the area in 1748.

More and bigger chapels

The trend of Methodism becoming the religion of new communities was also evident in Castleford itself as it expanded beyond its overcrowded centre from the 1860s onwards. The sinking of Wheldale Colliery in 1868 prompted the building of what was effectively a self-contained community in streets to the north of Wheldon Lane between 1869 and 1878: there was never much of Church of England presence there, but by 1878 the Wesleyans were hiring a room on Wellington Street followed by a purpose-built chapel on Duke Street from 1882, at a cost of £700, while a Primitive Methodist chapel on the same street followed a couple of years later.

The make-do-and-mend spirit was perfectly typified by the Primitive Methodists of Half Acres, who held their first meetings in members’ houses before buying a former joiners shop and stables on Herbert Street, off Temple Street, for the princely sum of £200 in 1870, this sufficing while they got together the funds for a new chapel on the opposite side of Temple Street, which opened in February 1878. The old joiners shop had provided a home for a Sunday School of 150 pupils and fifteen teachers, as well as an adult church membership of forty-eight by the time its replacement was ready. The long-forgotten Primitive Methodist chapel on Cemetery Road (later renamed Healdfield Road) looks to have been established in an old windowless industrial or agricultural building if a surviving photograph is any guide, while by the time Cutsyke opened in 1908, services and another thriving Sunday School had been held in the village school for ten years. Other chapels which were established to serve new parts of the growing town were Oxford Street Wesleyan, where a chapel and Sunday School were opened in 1871 and had to be supplemented by a bigger separate chapel just eighteen years later; Pontefract Road Primitive Methodist, which opened in 1902 and also replaced the rudimentary building at Cemetery Road; Smawthorne Lane United Methodist in 1903; and, finally, Cutsyke. More often, however, growing demand was met by extending or replacing longer-established buildings: Glasshoughton Wesleyan in 1877; Bradley Street and Lower Altofts in 1879; Methley Wesleyan in 1888; Methley Road United Methodist in 1894 and so on. Bradley Street was completely rebuilt again in 1908, although that was after a fire broke out at a bazaar and gutted the 1863 building. It was not all uninterrupted expansion, however, for the Potteries Primitive Methodist chapel seems to have disappeared from the records after 1888, while an attempt by the Primitive Methodists to establish regular services in a mission room in Lock Lane was abandoned after a couple of years in 1906.

The Sunday School phenomenon

So much for the chapels themselves, but it would be impossible to talk about the impact of Methodism on Castleford – or, for that matter, any number of nineteenth century industrial boom towns – without considering the role of Sunday Schools. One professor of nineteenth century social history described the hold they exerted on young people in the mining and textile towns of the Victorian West Riding as “a true phenomenon” and estimated that in some towns more than 70% of children between the ages of five and twenty were members. He based this statistic on a study of Sunday Schools in Halifax and Keighley, but sufficient records survive to suggest that the figures for Castleford were just as striking. Annoyingly, the only time the available statistics for the rival circuits coincide is 1877–78, when there were just over 2,300 children on the combined registers of the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist Sunday Schools – not to mention a remarkable total of 324 teachers – but Wesleyan Sunday School membership alone peaked at 2,242 in 1902. Working on the basis that Primitive Methodist Sunday School numbers followed a similar trend, and adding in the United Methodist chapels, a conservative estimate might be 3,500 Methodist Sunday scholars in the early years of the twentieth century. Assume that 2,500 of these were in Castleford proper, with the other 1,000 or so accounted for by the outlying villages, then consider that there were approximately 4,000 children between the ages of five and fourteen in the town at the time of the 1901 census, and it means that more than 60% of school age children in Castleford were members of a Methodist Sunday School at the turn of the twentieth century. Add in the other denominations’ churches in the town and the figure could easily be approaching 75%: ‘phenomenon’ is surely putting it mildly.

For the sake of completeness it may be noted that the Wesleyan Sunday School was the first to commence, meeting for the first time on 8 May 1842 – in fact the list of teachers from that day is preserved in the West Yorkshire Archives at Wakefield – that the Primitive Methodists got in on the act in 1845 and that the United Methodist Sunday School began on 20 June 1858. Both Bradley Street and Carlton Street chapels eventually had to erect separate buildings to cope with the numbers, at Bradley Street in 1870 and at Carlton Street (albeit actually on Wesley Street) in 1894, when the 1815 chapel was deemed unsuitable.

Methodism and education

It is important to point out that nineteenth century Sunday Schools taught much more than scripture, especially in the years prior to the 1870 Education Act which introduced local authority-funded schools and made attendance compulsory. It was at Sunday School that many children who otherwise received no formal education learned the first rudiments of reading and, occasionally, writing – John Wesley himself had said that “reading Christians will be knowing Christians” – and also where some of the earliest libraries open to the working classes were established. By the time the present Castleford library opened in 1905, there were already three Wesleyan and two Primitive Methodist Sunday Schools with collections of books to lend both to children and adults.

The Wesleyans’ involvement in education went even further, for they were enthusiastic promoters of weekday – more commonly known as day – schools. Before 1870, elementary education was left to voluntary organisations and individuals, with many of them provided by the Church of England. From the 1830s onward, the Wesleyans set out to counter the Anglicans’ influence by setting up their own day schools: they opened one at Castleford, in the 1815 chapel, in January 1848. After 1859 this became the main purpose of the building, which was converted from the church at a cost of £796, and continued as a Wesleyan-run school until it was transferred to the West Riding County Council in 1906. At its peak in 1889 it had 406 pupils on the register, but it struggled to compete with the better-funded schools opened by Castleford School Board, which was able to levy rates, between 1877 and 1903, attracting regular criticism from inspectors for the poor state of the building. The inspector who visited in 1896 was particularly scathing, noting that while the day school building was literally falling to pieces, “a large Sunday School has been erected nearby, these premises evidently being considered unsuitable for a Sunday School”. As for educational standards, the Wesleyans’ own inspector of schools was far from impressed when he reported in 1862, noting that:

The ages vary from four to thirteen years, the large majority being more fit for an infant school than otherwise: the parents of these children work in the glass and pot manufactories, and take them to assist as soon as possible to secure remuneration for their labour. A different organisation must be adopted if any prospect of success is to be realised. Some children have made progress, but the great majority are left unimpressed.

The quest for improvement

When it came to adult education, Methodist chapels were at the forefront of one of one of the most successful working class movements of the nineteenth century: what was known as mutual improvement. It was a response to the prevalent idea that elementary education was as much as anything a means of keeping the labouring classes in their place, a view which was well expressed by Castleford glassworks magnate William Breffitt who, in 1878, wrote that “to spread among our workers, and the boys and girls of our workers a knowledge of the true principles of political economy [was] the surest method of preventing strikes and their numerous attendant evils [and of] securing to them those blessings which attend provident habits and an economical expenditure of wages” – in other words, that the purpose of educating the working classes was to make them compliant employees at work, upright citizens at home and to instil in them a passive acceptance of the economic and social order. In response to these kind of opinions, an opposing view of what might be achieved through education gained wide currency, one which saw it as a route to personal betterment at work and in wider society, and which encouraged individuals and groups to question the status quo. It was perhaps most strongly held among what were often termed the ‘respectable’ working classes, who as well as wishing to increase their prospects of economic advancement were also keen to differentiate themselves from those of their neighbours – the drunkards, Saturday night brawlers and petty criminals – whom they perceived as falling into a life of moral and intellectual deprivation. These, of course, were just the kind of people who overwhelmingly gravitated towards the Methodist chapels, where many mutual improvement societies consequently sprung into being.

Their typical mode of operation was that one member would read an essay on either a religious or secular subject, after which each of the others was expected to speak on it for a set length of time. A Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society was first recorded in 1869 – for some reason, it met at the Mechanics Institute on Sagar Street at this time – while the Primitive Methodists were running a Young Men’s Improvement Society at Bradley Street by 1876. By 1890 there were active mutuals at the United Methodist Church on Powell Street, and at Carlton Street and Oxford Street Wesleyan chapels. Some of the topics their members were asked to grapple with must have been challenging to say the least, with complex scientific, moral and literary subjects often up for discussion, but regardless of how thoroughly they got to grips with these, the big achievement of mutual improvement was that it taught its members to think, to debate and to develop their self-confidence – no wonder that many early trade unionists and Labour politicians credited mutual improvement societies with setting them on the road to a career in politics.

(For a more comprehensive examination of mutual improvement in Castleford, see the article “The working class quest for self-improvement”)

The secrets of success

So why was Methodism in all its facets such a success in working class communities such as Castleford and the surrounding villages during the time under consideration? There are probably two main reasons: one spiritual; one social. Spiritually, like all religions, it offered people whose lives were, in many cases, often unpleasant affairs the promise of something better to come once their three score years and ten – or, all too often, two score years and not many more – of toil and poverty were over. However, unlike Anglicanism and Catholicism, it pitched this offering in terms more easily understood by people who in the main had little or no education – and, furthermore, they often heard this message of hope delivered by one their own: working class lay preachers and class leaders with whom they could identify, as opposed to a university-educated parish priest living in a rectory full of servants (if he actually lived in his parish at all) and appointed to his post by the local landowner.

The other distinguishing factor of nineteenth century Methodism is that it was a very sociable religion. Without taking anything away from the dedication and devotion of its leaders, nor the genuinely-held religious feelings of their congregations, in many working class communities – especially the pit villages – it provided the only communal leisure time and source of entertainment available to people who did not want to socialise in public houses. Going to chapel was almost an act of escapism, a means to get out of the house, more so when that house was cramped, uncomfortable and contained no books, newspapers or any other means of recreation or entertainment. It was a place to meet friends and kindred spirits, to forget the daily grind, to discuss, argue, learn, entertain and be entertained. A chapel social evening, with its music, singing and the proverbial meat supper to follow must have been a feast for the senses of people who, having spent their working hours in the blackness of the pit, the heat of the glasshouse or the drudgery of housework, would otherwise be left to contemplate the four walls of a small and overcrowded room on a long winter evening. Likewise, a choir practice, bible study or mutual improvement class provided mental stimulation otherwise lacking in so many households.

Never before, never again?

If the 120-plus years which elapsed between those four pioneer dissenters applying for a licence to worship and the opening of the chapel at Cutsyke were a time of success for Methodism in Castleford – and despite the occasional doubts expressed at the time, hindsight suggests they certainly were – then hindsight also suggests that 1908 was close to as good as it got. The population growth which had provided ever-increasing congregations for the previous seventy years had more-or-less ended for a time and the chapel’s unchallenged position as the focus of many people’s social lives was about to be eroded by an ever-increasing range of alternative entertainments and leisure activities. As well as compulsory schooling for children, increased further educational opportunities – Castleford School Board had introduced adult education classes in 1894 and the town’s first secondary school opened in 1906 – sounded the death knell for the mutual improvement societies, too. As a historical rather than theological study, this is not the place to speculate on the spiritual reasons for the decline in church attendance throughout the twentieth century, but even without any pressure from this direction, the number of chapels and range of activities they sustained would still, inevitably, have fallen, if perhaps a little more slowly.

Taking the longer historical view, both before and after the event, every aspect of the rise of Methodism in nineteenth century British working class communities such as Castleford deserves that epithet ‘phenomenal’. In terms of both numbers and influence nothing like it had been seen before and, most likely, will not be seen again, for it was a unique response to the unprecedented social and spiritual conditions of its time.



Much of the information for this article comes from three sources. Castleford Library local studies section has a small but informative collection of Methodist papers, notably booklets produced for the centenary of ther 1815 Wesleyan chapel and the opening of the rebuilt Bradley Street chapel, the latter coinciding with the Primitive Methodists’ centenary. West Yorkshire Archives, in Wakefield, has a comprehensive collection of Castleford circuit, chapel and Sunday School records for all three branches of Methodism dating back to the 1850s, catalogued under heading C11. Copies of the Pontefract & Castleford Express, Castleford Gazette and Castleford Star, held on microfilm at Castleford Library, also contain much informtion on events and activities at the town’s chapels.