Methodist Chapel

The earliest reference I have found to non-conformity at Norton comes from 1810 when in the Gloucester Diocesan Records (Vol 383) I found the following entry relating to Norton; “Dissenting places of worship.  A Methodist School chiefly attended from other parishes”.  Unfortunately it provides no clues as to where this would have been located unless it was in one of the houses used as places for Methodist and/or non-conformist worship.

Extracts from Gloucester Diocesan Records clearly show that Protestant Dissenters were present in the village of Norton from the early nineteenth century.  On 9th June 1813 we find, “House of John Sadler was registered in the Bishops Court as a place of religious worship by Protestant Dissenters.  Certificate signed by John Cullen of Gloucester, minister”.  Again in 1815; “Certificate to the Bishop of Gloucester by John Cullen of Gloucester, minister, that the house of John Sadler in the parish of Norton is to be used as a place of worship by Protestant Dissenters.  Which certificate he requests may be registered in the Bishops Court persuant to statute”.  On 22nd June 1816, “...the house of Robert Mann in the parish of Norton is to be used as a place of religious worship by Protestant Dissenters...”.  On 6th March 1824, “Certificate to Bishop of Gloucester by Francis Collier of Gloucester, Minister of the Gospel, that a dwelling house now in the occupation of Thomas Curtis in the parish of Norton is to be used as a place of religious worship by Protestant Dissenters which Certificate he requests be registered in the Bishop’s Court pursuant to statute”.  On  11th August 1838, “.... the house and premises in the holding and occupation of George Courtice in the parish of Norton is to be used as a place of religious worship by Protestant Dissenters....”. 

Finally a building was erected specifically for this purpose and on 10th July 1841 it was recorded in Diocesan records that “...a Chapel recently erected near The Green, in the parish of Norton is to be used as a place of religious worship by Protestant Dissenters...”. 

Pencil sketch made by Jeff Powell in 1980.

The Gloucester Journal newspaper of 7 July 1841 reported on the opening of the ‘New Wesleyan Chapel at Norton’; “The opening services of this place of worship were held on Wednesday, the 7th, and Sunday, the 11th instant, when excellent and impressive sermons were preached by the Rev P C Turner, of Birmingham, and the Rev George Robinson, of Cheltenham.  Twenty-six pounds were collected at these services, which, with previous subscriptions, will make the liberal sum of one hundred pounds raised towards the expenses incurred by its building.  The chapel will comfortably seat 130 persons; it has a Sunday School connected with it, and it is neat in its structure, eligibly situated in the most populous part of the parish, and about one mile distant from the church.  The Wesleyans for many years have been obliged to conduct their religious services, and hold their Sunday School, in private houses in this parish, and they gratefully attribute the erection of this chapel, to the valuable and munificent gift of the land on which it was built, to the Wesleyan connection, by Miss Webb, the lady of the manor, and daughter of the late much respected Col Webb, formerly MP for this city.  This estimable lady is a member of the Establishment, and an indefatigable and munificent supporter of the Sunday School attached to the parish church”.

In 1971, Canon Evans Prosser, for long time vicar of both Norton and The Leigh was persuaded to write a booklet recording his memories of his time in our villages which was sold in aid of funds for building the ‘new’ village hall at Norton.  Entitled ‘How It All Happened’, the booklet includes the note that he would finish writing about the Wesleyan Chapel by “… mentioning the tradition current in the village that when the chapel was first built, Miss Webb who had succeeded her father Colonel Edward Webb MP at Norton Court, was unwilling ever to pass the chapel on her way to church.  To avoid having to do this she had a new drive made across the meadows so that she could go direct from court to church”.  This may or may not have been a fact but it does seem a little strange seeing as it was her who gave the land for the construction of the chapel in the first place.  To further support this possibility, however, there does seem to have been discussion about a new carriage road to link Norton Court with the main Gloucester to Tewkesbury Road.  One William Rees, a surveyor, made his assessment of this road on 5 June 1847; “The cost of the new carriage road leading to Norton House from the entrance at the Tewkesbury Road to the drive in front of the house being in length 1376 yards, in width 13 feet, in thickness at the centre 9ins, and at the sides 7ins.  The drains to be made with broken stones and draining pipes.  Culverts to be made at the several ditches being 11 in number where the road crosses (the Contractor to have the privilege of raising the stones from the quarries on the Estate) will cost the sum of £384.2.  This sum does not include the gravel on the surface of the road”.  Perhaps it was never constructed as it doesnt seem to appear on any Ordnance Survey maps ?

The decennial Civil Census that had begun in 1841 was extended in 1851 to include a Religious and an Educational Census.  Ostensibly intended to discover whether or not there were enough places of worship to satisfy the demand the Census has left us with an interesting record of a day in the life of all religious persuasions in the UK.  The day in question was Sunday, 30 March, 1851, or the previous day for Jewish attendances.  For the parish of Norton it was recorded that there were 103 inhabited houses with a population of 467.  The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, at The Green, was also included by the census.  The census records that chapel was a separate and entire building used exclusively as a place of worship and had been erected in 1841.  At the time of the census the chapel was under the stewardship of Richard Green, farmer of 200 acres at Green Farm. In 1851 the chapel was said to have had about 60 free seats, about 35 other seats and standing room for an additional 20 persons.  On 30th March 25 adults and 27 Sunday scholars attended the morning service, 22 Sunday scholars attended the chapel in the afternoon and in the evening 42 adults were present.  It has been suggested that numbers of persons attending non-conformist places of worship had been exaggerated but for Norton’s chapel average attendance figures are also given; morning 12 adults, 33 Sunday scholars, no afternoon services, and in the evening an average of 50 adults and 22 Sunday scholars. The total for the day of the census seem acceptably similar to the average figures quoted.

Richard Taylor, who seems to have been the driving force behind the chapel, farmed Green Farm, Bishops Norton, from at least 1838.  The Bristol Mercury of 2 August 1852 reported happy times for Richard senior – not a Methodist chapel but …; “Married – At St Michaels Church, Penkridge, Mr Walter H C Taylor, only son of Richard Taylor Esq, of Norton, Gloucestershire, to Jane, the youngest daughter of the late Mr John Crickley, of Levedale”.  Richard was obviously dedicated to Methodism and had sent his son to a Methodist College to study where unfortunately he was to die a young man, his death being reported in the Gloucester Journal of 13th November 1852; “November 6th at the Wesleyan College, Richmond, Surrey, aged 27, Richard, the eldest and much beloved son of Mr Richard Taylor of Norton near this city.  He was justly endeared to all who knew him, universally respected and esteemed, and his loss to his family is irreparable”.

The chapel continued to hold services for many years.

A tea party was held each year to commemorate the opening of the chapel and in 1897 a rummage sale took place afterwards in Mr James’ orchard with all proceeds going towards a renovation fund; see below for later information.

On 10 April 1912 a ‘free tea and sacred concert’ was staged at the chapel for 180 adults and children.  This was claimed to be the record attendance for the small building and makes one wonder how they all got in.

The Gloucester Journal newspaper of 13 June 1925 reported; “The Norton Wesleyan Chapel, which has been closed for three weeks to undergo general repairs and redecorations, was re-opened on Thursday. … Tea was afterwards provided in Mr Walter James’ orchard, a company of upward of 70 being present. … Mr C Morris presented the financial statement, showing that the total cost amounted to £70 and that £15 more was needed to meet the expense incurred. … Special thanks were given to Messrs Oakley Bros for gratuitous repairs to the chapel wall, to Mr Victor Jones for gift of a Communion Table. …”.

On 12 May 1929 the chapel was the scene for the celebration of the 88th anniversary of Norton Sunday School.  1914 saw the 100th anniversary of the Northgate Street, Gloucester, Wesleyan Sunday School.  An article in the Gloucester Journal newspaper from 7 March 1914 reports on the occasion and also states that; “In 1815 a Sunday School was started at Hartpury, and the next few years saw schools springing up at Norton …”.  If 1929 was being celebrated as the 88th anniversary then the Norton Sunday School wouldn’t have started before 1839 suggesting that one or other dates are incorrect.  Whilst Wesleyan Methodist meetings were held in private houses in Norton certified for worship in 1815, 1824, 1836 and 1838, the chapel was not opened until 1841.  This may perhaps explain the different dates for the founding of the Sunday School with it starting in a private house and 1929 being the 88th anniversary of the Sunday School at the chapel itself.Hartpury

In 1958 the Chapel was sold to Canon Evans-Prosser who personally purchased and renovated it for the benefit of the village.  It was also to stand as a memorial to his aunt, Bertha Stimpson, who had died in June 1958, and later of another aunt, Caroline Price, who died in 1964, both of whom lived at Norton, are buried at St Mary’s and have memorials in the churchyard at St Mary’s. 

In his booklet entitled ‘How It All Happened’, Canon Evans-Prosser wrote; ‘Why and how did we acquire the church on The Green ?’;

“For a long time Norton people had been saying what a pity it was that the church was so far from the village.  In those days the centre of population in Norton was the village green and cars were not numerous.  There were very few houses near the parish church.  This was also true of Cold Elm which the Post Office now calls Old Tewkesbury Road.  Many were those who told me that the church was too far away for them to attend it especially those who lived in the Wainlode area.  This was sad but there did not seem to be anything we could do about it.

What we did attempt for some time was to hold occasional services, about once a month, at the Reading Room.  This Evensong used to be quite well attended but it had to be rather a makeshift affair.  There was no organ or piano to assist the singing and naturally there was no altar.  So what we used to do was to rig up an imitation altar made up of card tables covered over with some candlesticks put upon it.  It also meant that hymnbooks and pslaters and prayer books had to be brought to it from the church.  All rather inconvenient, but it was better than nothing.

Then one morning in 1958, July, my telephone rang.  It turned out to be the Superintendent Minister of the Gloucester Methodist Circuit, the Rev Cyril Thomas who at that time I hardly knew.  He said that the appropriate Methodist committee had come to the conclusion that they could no longer keep their chapel on Norton Green going.  Their architect had told them that it needed a lot of money to be spent on it and such expenditure could not be justified when so few went to it, and nearly all of those came from outside Norton.  On the other hand, they were most anxious that the chapel should remain a place of worship if at all possible and not be put to some use unworthy of its history.  The Methodists would be delighted if it could be used by the Church of England.  Would I be interested in buying it from them ?  I had to do some rapid thinking and made a decision then and there.  So I said forthwith “Yes, certainly, I should be very pleased to buy it myself for the use of the parish”.

Having gone so far, I next had to think out the details.  I came to the conclusion that I would fit it up and give it to the parish in memory of the many years that I and my two aunts had been connected with Norton.  It should be furnished with the very best that could be obtained of everything down to the last hymnbook.  Not a penny would it cost the parish.  You would have thought that the diocese would have been very pleased about this arrangement, since it would be getting another church for absolutely nothing.  Not a bit of it.  I met with nothing but discouragement.  I had to report the scheme to the Diocesan Secretary and all I got in reply was “you know you are putting an additional burden upon the shoulders of the parish”.  At the same time I had to write to the then Bishop about it.  All the welcome it got from Bishop Askwith was that he hoped enough was going to be done to the chapel to make it look like a church.  In neither case was there the slightest suggestion that I should have any thanks for doing this out of my own pocket.  To do Bishop Askwith justice, when he saw the finished article afterwards he never ceased to praise its appearance.

The first thing to do would be to re-arrange the interior and to decorate it.  As there was no vestry one would have to be constructed.  It would be necessary to move the pulpit to one side and to paint all the woodwork.  I asked Mr J Stubbs, who lived in Norton as a boy, to do all this and the splendid way in which he carried out the work can be seen today.

With the new layout there would be too many pews to be used and so the surplus ones were sent to Quedgeley Methodist Church.

In consultation with my aunt, Mrs C E Price, I decided on a colour scheme; the walls cream the woodwork white and the carpet deep rose.  The carpet was supplied and fitted by Cavendish House of Cheltenham.  Then there would have to be an altar.  This was specially made and is of enormous weight.  The frontal, the crucifix and four gilded candlesticks &c were also specially made for this church; hand made.  No flower vases were brought as it was felt to be too difficult for the village to supply two churches with flowers every week.  Also, in view of the fact that there would be no room for storing things we should have to make do with one frontal only that would do for all seasons of the church year.  The only way this could be done suitably was to get one made of the right kind of tapestry.  This was done.  However, there was no reason why we should not have a full set of vestments, burses and veils in the appropriate colours so these were obtained.  It would further be necessary to get a solid silver chalice and paten, with the chalice gilded on the inside.  It may be worth recording here that the white chalice veil, which again was specially made, has a wide edging of valuable French lace.  This part of the story must not end without mentioning the fact that much of the alteration to the woodwork that was needed and the making of new things in wood was carried out by Mr W H Poulton of The Leigh.  It was he, for example, who made the new noticeboard with interchangeable plates to inform anyone interested what would be the services each succeeding Sunday.  The altar and candlesticks and crucifix were made by SPCK; the other things by Vippells”.

Thus the Chapel began a new existence as St John the Evangelist when the building was dedicated and its altar consecrated by Bishop Askwith, Bishop of Gloucester, on 7 November 1958.

It was a difficult transition period with much care being taken not to offend anyone.  In the Parish Magazine of November 1971 Canon Evans Prosser wrote; “To continue the story of St John’s, it must be put on record that Mr W H Poulton of The Leigh did most of the large amount of alteration that was necessary to the woodwork including the making of a noticeboard with interchangeable plates to inform the parish what services would be held each Sunday.  The two memorial tablets on the walls were not interfered with.  It was only right that they should be left to testify to future generations what men of the past had done in connection with the former chapel.  Neither was it ever contemplated to remove the tablet outside proclaiming that it was originally a Wesleyan Chapel.  I was most anxious that St John’s should never be regarded as in any sense a rival to the Parish Church and that is why no font was ever put in it, and by agreement with the Bishop, it was never licensed by him for marriages.  Furthermore, it was discussed with the Parochial Church Council what was the best way to divide the various services between the two churches.  We all of us came to the conclusion that the proper way to arrange things would be to have an exact alternation of services e.g. if the Parish Communion were held in the Parish Church one Sunday, it was to be at St John’s the next.  All was now ready for the Bishop to come and he did so on November 7th 1958.  He consecrated the altar with the traditional five crosses upon it, but the church itself was dedicated, not consecrated.  The vestments, ornaments and all the other fittings were also dedicated.  The special service for all this was printed in a leaflet, together with the hymns used, and a copy of this remains in the drawer in the vestry.  It turned out to be a very wet night and a consequence of this is that we have always had a dark patch on the carpet by the door ever since”.

Through a period of neglect the chapel suffered greatly from damp and reached the stage where it was unsafe and needed much expenditure to make it usable again.

The two memorial tablets that Canon Evans Prosser referred to were presumably those for Richard Taylor and Ernest Austin.

Richard Taylor senior and remaining family had left the village by 1863 but upon his death the following memorial tablet was erected in the chapel at Norton Green to his memory; “In memory of Richard Taylor, late of Norton, who died at Dursley, January 20th 1881 aged 93 years.  This tablet is placed here by his two surviving daughters in loving memory of their father and mother through whose Christian zeal to do good this chapel was erected”.  At the bottom of the tablet is a reference to a biblical verse; “Prov X chap 7 verse”.  This reads as, “the memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot”.  I wonder if the verse was aimed at anyone in particular for any persecution the Methodists may have received in their early years ?  

The other memorial tablet reads; “To the glory of God and in memory of Ernest Austin who for over fifty years journeyed from Gloucester to serve this church and Sunday School and was called to higher service 22nd March 1934.  Well done good and faithful servant”.  

Apparently the tablet was originally unveiled at a special ceremony on 9 July 1936 and hung in the Methodist Chapel at The Green of which Mr Austin was a great supporter and where he held weekly Sunday Schools for many years.  Mr W Jordan, of Cheltenham, who had previously been one of Mr Austin’s Sunday Scholars and personally unveiled the tablet, spoke of how Mr Austin’s attendance was always guaranteed regardless of the weather and how he had had such a positive influence on the young people at the chapel.  Walter James had worked alongside Mr Austin for many of the years and carried on the good work in his place.

Canon Evans Prosser concluded his piece in the Parish Magazine of November 1971 with;

“The following February, [1959] Mr Walter James, who had run the Chapel for so many years, died at the age of 96.  It was thought very appropriate that his body should be taken into it for the first part of the funeral service and that the Methodist Minister should have the principal part in conducting it. This was done.  It was only right that it should be so.

The property that for many years was the chapel went into decline again and needed much work to bring it back into any use.

The building was sold, has now been restored and converted to a private residence retaining much of the external appearance of the old chapel.  

The two tablets referred to above were moved to the room at the foot of the tower at St Mary’s when the chapel was closed and converted to a private residence.

I believe this is now a Grade II Listed Building with the following description; “Wesleyan Chapel. Dated 1841 on square limestone datestone over porch. Brick, slate roof. Rectangular plan with projecting porch at right gable-end. Single storey. Tall round-headed blind arches on all sides. Side walls lit by 2 round-headed sashes within partly blind archways, narrower blind archways either side. Gabled porch with C19 six-panel door with upper 2 lights glazed, limestone lintel. Hipped roof”.

For a long time now I have been trying to track down any photos of the old chapel but without any luck.  More recently, I placed a request in the August 2019 issue of the Norton News for any information.  Thanks go to Roger Stubbs, who lives opposite the ‘chapel’, for getting in touch with me and sharing the images that he has and that have been included in this article.