The former Methodist Meeting house in Rattan Raw (now Court Lane), as it might have appeared when John Wesley preached there in the 1790s
A History of the Methodist Church Buildings in the Elvet Area of Durham
There has been almost 238 years of formal Methodism in the Elvet area of Durham centred on:
- the Meeting House in Rattan Raw,
- the Wesleyan Chapel (that existed in the grounds of the present Royal County Hotel)
- the present Methodist Church in Old Elvet
John Wesley’s first visit to Durham was made in 1742 and was followed by some 20 further visits until his death in 1799. During this time a local Methodist Society was formed but it was not until 1770 that the Methodist Meeting House in Rattan Raw (now Court Lane) was opened as a place of worship. It stood at the corner of Court Lane and New Elvet until the 1940’s when it was demolished to make way for the Fowler and Armstrong garage that, in turn, made way for the present Orchard House. Photographs of the dilapidated building exist. More interestingly there is a sketch plan of it (with dimensions) in the Woodieville Survey of cathedral owned property in the 1790s. Membership was about 25-30 and it continued at this level until about 1780 when Thomas Parker, a local barrister from Shincliffe, became heavily involved in the Meeting House. Membership doubled during his association so that when John Wesley preached there in 1788 he recorded in his diary ‘I preached at Durham at about eleven, to more than the house could contain. Even in this polite and elegant city we now want a large chapel’.
The Wesleyan Chapel in Chapel Passage
This large Wesleyan Chapel (seating several hundred) was built in 1807/8 behind the present Royal County Hotel on ground bought from the local Catholic Salvin family. A certificate to allow preaching there was issued by the cathedral authorities in October 1808 and the chapel was opened in early November 1808 by Dr Jabez Bunting. The request for the certificate was in the names of some dozen members of the Meeting House. The first of these was John Ward junior, a local property solicitor, and a prominent member of both the Meeting House (as his father and mother were), the Wesleyan Chapel and later of the higher reaches of Methodism. He was particularly prominent in raising north-eastern resistance to the Sidmouth proposals to limit the movement of itinerant preachers at a time of national concern that the ideas behind the revolution in France might be spreading.
During the early 1800s divisions in Wesleyan Methodism began to appear. In particular a demand for more lay influence in Methodism rather than the dominant ministerial authority led to the formation of the New Connexion. One of its converts was John Ward who, in 1830, took some 30 members of the Wesleyan Chapel with him into a new branch of the New Connexion. Initially they met in a school room, belonging to John Ward in Chapel Passage quite close to the Wesleyan Chapel. This proved to be inadequate and for some years they met in the old school rooms in Old Elvet of St Cuthbert’s Catholic Church (the Catholic Chaplaincy now lies on the site of these school rooms). Finally they met in 15 Old Elvet, now part of the University Office, from about 1845 to 1854 when the New Connexion Bethel Chapel (North Road Methodist Church) was built. At the Wesleyan Chapel it took some years to recover from this loss but under the Rev Thomas Collins membership again increased.
Elvet Methodist Church shortly after its opening in 1903
During the later part of the 19th century the Minute Books show that plans were afoot to build a new church with a more prominent position in Old Elvet. An unspecified site was discussed and discreet inquiries made about its availability that was followed by a decision to purchase when possible. This was well before the critical national report in the late 1890s on the ‘presence’ of Methodist chapels in cities, including Durham. The siting of the Wesleyan Chapel, by then hidden by the Royal County Hotel and only accessible by Chapel Passage, was quite severely criticised.
When the preferred site in Old Elvet did become available the present Old Elvet Methodist Church was built in 1902/3. The Wesleyan Chapel was sold to become the Citadel of the Salvation Army and later as a bakery. It was largely demolished to make way for the expansion of the Royal County Hotel. Some stone remains of it can still be seen in the car-park of the hotel as part of the wall which separates the car-park from the houses next to Territorial Lane. (The middle house, wrongly numbered 53, is really number 54 where John Ward lived until his death in 1856). Photographs of the old Chapel exist but they could only be taken, rather tangentially, down the narrow Chapel Passage. A more charming picture of the Chapel can be seen at the Heritage Centre in St Mary le Bow. There it features in an 1829 lithograph of Durham from across the river by Joseph (Nicholas) Bouet and is recognizable by the roundel in its gable end. Fortuitously it is also to be seen, from almost the same viewpoint, in a photograph of the 1926 regatta on the river in one of Michael Richardson’s compilations of old photographs of Durham.
The current front of the church after the 1995 re-ordering
The present Old Elvet Methodist Church was opened in November 1903 followed by a week of celebration. Built with an initial capacity of about 600 the Church has remained with good membership (now about 200) for over a 100 years. It is the largest Church in the local Durham and Deerness Valley Methodist Circuit of some 15 churches and over 700 members. Externally it has changed little. However in the 1980s discussions (sometimes rather heated!) to consider changes to meet the anticipated demands of the new millennium were begun and led to the New Era (Elvet Renewal Action) that was launched formally in 1991. The interior of the church was substantially changed at the entrance, chancel and transepts. This was completed in 1995 together with important changes in the rear premises. These have opened up the uses of both church and premises so that on most days of the week there is activity of some kind. Besides the expected services and prayer meetings (and being a Methodist Church, the long round of committee meetings!) there is a large variety of other activities, some based on church membership, others organized by outside bodies. In total these, the refurbished buildings and new activities, provide Elvet Methodist Church with an optimism for meeting the challenges of the future.