SchooIdays - Memories and History
                     Pre 20th. Century

REMINISCENCES OF SHEFFIELD by R. E. LEADER

CHAPTER 16 - THE OLD METHODISTS and SUNDAY SCHOOLS.

THE story of the early struggles of Methodism in Sheffield throws a vivid light on the morals and manners of the times. In nothing are the advances made in the tone of the town shown more concretely than in a contrast betueen the brutal persecutions of the early Methodists, and the extent to which, at the end of the eighteenth century, the teachings of Wesley had influenced all that was good in the people, and had largely leavened much that was bad. A small band of devoted men had braved the most outrageous violence. They had seen their meeting-houses destroyed. They had heen pelted with mud and offal, and pursued with foulest abuse through the streets. Incited to violence by denunciations from the pulpits of the Establishment, constables and church- wardens had entered their meetings, forced their way to the preacher, and roughly dragged him down. Others, bettering this example, had bludgeoned the minister, torn his clothes, and covered him with filth. Neither sex nor age was any protectiom It was a favourite jest to slash with knives and cut with scissors the cloaks and gowns of the women as they passed through the mob to the meeting-house. A ruffian, dressed as a harlequin, with a tortured cat or a hen under his arm, disturbed the worship, or, climbing to a skylight, loudly mocked the proceedings. But amid all this opprobrium, borne with unfailing patience, the persecuted Methodists held on their way, calm and unmoved. Their faith won the day, and the century which had such tempestuous beginnings, closed upon a Society large in numbers, rich in good works and influence. It is significant of the attitude of the town authorities to the Methodists and their preaching, that there is no trace in the Burgery accounts of expenses incurred in connection w ith the riots in which their chapels were destroyed, or with the prose- cution of the rioters. After one of the many levellings, the ringleaders were. indeed, indicted, and " the magistrates sen- tenced to rebuild the house"‹no doubt out of the county funds. But there is no other trace of help to the Methodists in the way of compensation, or in conducting legal pro- ceedings; there is none of the sending of mounted messengers to Wentworth and elsewhere in hot haste at the town's charges; no swearing in of special constables. All was com- placent lethargy when a Methodist Chapel, and not the Lord's Mill was attacked. Charles Wesley himself said: " As there is no King in Israel‹I mean no magistrate in Sheffield‹ every man doth as seemeth good in his own eyes." The furious anger of an abandoned populace against the new teachers of righteousness was not, of course, confined to Sheffield. It was exhibited in most towns and in some country districts. But the animosity of the Sheffield people exceeded that of almost any other place. and indicated depths of blind prejudice and lawlessness which, together with the unblushing connivance of the authorities, compel humiliating deductions as to the savagery of the one and the partisanship of the other. Charles Wesley was no stranger to scenes of mad outrage; but he declared that the conduct of those whom he had to confront here exceeded in violence anything he had seen before. " Hell from beneath," he said, " was moved to oppose us. Those at Moorfields, Cardiff, and Walsall were lambs to these." It was in 1742 that John Wesley first came to Sheffield. Though he found no organisation, there was a small knot of disciples, gathered largely by the devoted efforts of David Taylor, ready to welcome him. A Society was established, and a meeting-house obtained in Cheney Square, next door to the residence of James Bennet, an early adherent and loyal supporter. This was destroyed by the mob in 1743, aftcr a scene of wild confusion, grapllically described hy Charles Wesley, who, with the congregation, courageously faced imminent peril. The undaunted Methodists forthwith set to work lo build, with the help of Mr. James Bennet, another chapel. This was in Pinstone Lane. Recording his sixth visit to the town (29th May, 1745), John Wesley says he preached on the floor of the late house, which the " good Protestant mob had just pulled down"; and from the dates we might suppose this to refer to the destruction of the second house. But there is a current belief that, although attacked, this was not destroyed. As a matter of fact, some sixty years ago, there were still standing dwelling-houses and shops clearly identified as the structure of the second Society house. Why, in this case, another was required we cannot tell; but it seems pretty evident that the Methodists had to provide themselves with a new meeting place‹the third. This was built for them by Mr. John Wilson, optician, an ancestor of the Wilsons of of Sharrow, and uncle of the late Mr. Thomas Holy, of High- field House and Norton, whose name is indelibly associated with Sheffield Methodism. Its exact location is uncertain, for it stood less than two years. One tradition says it was in Union Street; another fixes Burgess street as its site. It is tolerably clear, from an entry in his journal, October I4, I745, that John Wesley visited this third house. In the following Fehruary, between four and five hundred persons assembled one evening, and began to pull it down. The work was heavy, so they went away and came the next night to renew the task, whereupon "the proclamation to rioters was read by a constable for Sheffield, two constables being present for that purpose‹there being no justice of the peace in town." But the rioters took no heed. They knew that the feeling of the town was against the Methodists, and went on with their work. That they were correct in this belief is shown by the fact that two justices of the peace, when applied to, declined to grant a warrant against the rioters, or to take any action. Accordingly the mob had their way, and by the end of the week the third Methodist preaching room was a heap of ruins Proceedings were instituted against the rioters; the ring- leaders were tried at York Castle, and heavily fined Wesley, recording his tenth visit (I3th April, 1752), says " Preached at Sheffield in the shell of the new house. All is peace now since the trial at York, at which the magistrates were sentenced to rebuild the house which the mob had pulled down" It has been said that this, the fourth house, was in West Street; but this cannot be, for West Street was not made until some half-century later It seems to have been held jointly with the Calvinists; but in the struggle for possession which ensued, the latter prevailed, and the next move of Wesley's adherents was into what had been a factor's warehouse in Mulberry Street (I757).* This proved inadequate to accommodate the congregations Wesley assembled, so in I76I he " preached at the end of the house to thrice as many people as it would have contained." It was enlarged in I763, and in 1765 it was recorded: " The house is twice as large as it was, and so is the congregation." Wesley came again often in the succeeding years. In I779 we find him preaching in Paradise Square to the largest congregation he ever saw on a week-day. The next year, the new house (Norfolk Street Chapel) not being ready, he was again in the Square, and the evening after " in the old house " (Mulberry Street), " but the heat was scarce supportable. I took my leave of it at five in the morning, and in the evening preached at the new house (Norfolk Street) thoroughly filled with rich and poor." It is pleasant to think of the contrast between the state of things found here during the venerable Wesley's later visits and the turmoil of earlier days. In I783 Wesley was able to preach from the text, " Then had the churches rest ;" and in the following year he recorded, " The society is increased some hundred members," and this notwithstanding the secession of many who, adhering to the Calvinism of Whiterleld rather than to the Arminianism of Wesley, had gone off to other communions, or had formed new societies of their own. Wesley, who had been denounced from the Parish Church pulpit, was, during one visit, sent for to visit the Rev. Nathaniel Dodge, curate of St. Paul's, on his death bed; and when, towards the end of his career, he walked, leaning _______ * Mulberry street had only recently (later than 1736) been made through gardens. It is spoken of in a deed of 1786, referring to the gardens between High Street and AIsop Fields (Norfoik street) as " part of the said gardens now used as a street or passage." When the Methodlsts left, it was used as a silver-rolling mill by John Parsons and Co., of High Street (Winter and Parsons); afterwards by C. Motteram then partly as a billiard room and partly as the storehouse of Richard Hoystrop. This was about 1832. In 1837, it became the printing office of the Sheffield Independent; subsequently a paper warehouse, and, in turn the printing office of Mr. Brittlebank. ____________ on his host's arm, from Norfolk street Chapel to Mr. Holy's house on Sheffield Moor, the hooting mobs of former days were exchanged for crowds of people testifying their admi- ration for the venerable apostle. The families of those who were privileged, on the occasion of his various visits, to have him for a guest; the descendants of those who, as children, had his hand laid on their heads, treasure to this day, the remembrance of these things as a cherished heritage. Francis Hawke and James Vickers, of Garden street; a youth named Storey, " connected with a local newspaper, who lived to take a prominent part in the Society's publication department"; and John Thorpe, afterwards Minister of Masbro' Independent Chapel, are typical of many others who, rescued from the dissipated habits of Sheffield workmen by the new teaching, became zealous workers, useful citizens, and the founders of honoured families that, still among us, have been through generations foremost in good works and the backbone of the town. Even men like Mather had their periods of deep impression, and although their habits of dissipation were not wholly cured, yet they bore to the end, and in their saner moments, traces of religious influence, and were restrained by recollections they could not wholly throw off.* But it must not be supposed that the prosperity of Methodism, which, after a great revival in 1794, closed the century, came all at once. Even when persecution abated, the Connexion had to live through a day of small things. Mul- berry Street Preaching House at first held only eighty people, and the Society being too poor to pay a chapel-keeper, the members cleaned the place in turn. There were annoyances from without and troubles within‹some through straitened financial means, and some through doctrinal differences. The Calvinistic opinions which alienated that early convert and helper, James Bennet,+ and sent perhaps him, but certainly _________ * Many interesting details of Early Methodism in Sheffielcl will be found in the Sheffield Independent, June 19, July 8, 15, 20, August 26, 1875; June 30, l880, (the Centenary of Norfolk Street Chapel) June 8, 15, July 6, 1889, and other dates prior to the Wesleyan Conference here in that year. See also Independent, January l9-26, I901. + James Bennet, the staunch upholder of Methodism in its first days, and the friend of the Wesleys and Whitefield, was a grinder His son Edward, who was brought up to the same trade, went to London, and was employed at the Tower, repairing and polishing the armour. While there he married Mrs. Dubois, with whom he lived in Fleet Street engaged profitably in making portable soup for exportation. Somehow he fathomed the mysteries of sugar refining, and, returning to Sheffield established, in spite of many difficulties, a business which became one of the largest in the country, and brought him a considerable fortune. His sugar-house, from a cask in front of which Whitefield has been known to preach, was at the bottom of Coalpit Lane‹the east corner, that is, at the Junction of Union Street. The site is now thrown into the widened street, but the state of the Moorhead in 1737 may be judged from the fact that a smithy and barn near by, also owned by Mr. Bennet, were described as " upon the waste.'' Edward Bennet withdrew, about 1780, from Nether Chapel, and built Coalpit Lane Chapel. There he officiated as pastor, though still carrying on his business as a sugar refiner, until his death in 1788. Aided by a bequest he left for the purpose, Howard Street Chapel was built, and the congregation migrated thlther in 1790. His nephew, Mr. George Bennet, was at one time in partnershlp wlth Mr. Ridgard, as stationers and booksellers, High Street But inheriting the bulk of his uncle's property, he retired from business and devoted his life to benevolent and Christian work. _______________ his son, Edward Bennet, the sugar refiner, to Nether Chapel had made such head that the followers of Whitefield, led by the Rev. Thomas Bryant, one of the three ministers stationed here, endeavoured to get possession of Mulberry Street Chapel. When they failed, they seceded, and built Scotland Street Chapel. Another beneficent legacy handed down from the dying eighteenth century to the nineteenth, and appearing as a ray of light streaming through black clouds, was the establishment of Sunday Schools. In the month of January, I795, a benevolent lady, Mrs. Loftus, who lived in the house in West Street which has now developed into the Royal Hospital, founded the first of these. There are two state- ments as to this. One is that the classes were held in Mrs Loftus's house: the other is that this lady, after a visit to Bath, soon after the establishment of Sunday Schools there by Mr. Raikes, conceived the idea of beginning a similar movement here. " Having conferred with others " (says a prlnted newspaper cutting, the origin of which cannot be traced) " and promised to provide a room, pay the rent provide books, &c, a room was taken at the top of Carver Lane, belonging to a Mr. Ingle. Three friends canvassed the neighbourhood to seek up scholars, and at the opening twenty- five made their appearance." The school was at first con- ducted by paid teachers, but funds failing, Mr. Daniel Hinchliffe, a scissor manufacturer in Nursery Street, under- took the work voluntarily. To him belongs the honour of having been the first gratuitous Sunday school teacher in the town. Shortly after that, two early Methodists, James Vickers and Francis Hawke, seem to have begun Sunday classes. These were so successful as to justify raising, by subscription, the first building erected for this purpose in the town. This adjoined Garden Street (Wesleyan) Chapel.* St. Luke's School now stands on its site; and the tablet inscribed over the original door is preserved. It bears the inscription, "Sunday School, 1789." Here again the paid teacher prin- ciple seems to have been adopted. In I798 the Methodists, ____________ * There is a difference of opinion whether the Garden street School begun by Vickers and Hawke was a private venture or a Society school. In a controversy on the subject in I878, Mr. G. B. Cocking maintained that it was not merged with the Pea Croft School in Red Hill. But in 1894 he seems to have come to the conclusion that it was. The interest of the point lies in its bearing on the question whether the Methodist body is entitled to claim to be the pioneer of denominatlonal Sunday School work in the town. On this an animated discussion was waged in the columns of the independent, from March 28th to May 23rd, 1878 If the Garden Street School was incorporated with Pea Croft in Red Hill. Methodism is perhaps entitled to take credit for the labours of Messrs Vickers and Hawke, and, deriving direct descent from their school. to claim to date from 1789, the earliest of all Sunday Schools except Mrs Loftus's But, on the other hand, if Garden Street retained Its indi- viduality, then the Pea Croft School of 1798 becomes the first dlstinctly Methodist effort, and has to yield priority to a New Connexion School in Sycamore Street The controversialists of 1878 seem to have overlooked the following statement, made in the fourth report of the Sunday School Union (1816)); ~We are informed that the School in Sycamore Street, connected with Scotland Street Chapel (then New Connexion), has been established more than eighteen years, and was probably the first Dis- senting Sunday School opened in Sheffield." That report was made in the name of a committee on which Methodists were largely represented, and was read at an annual meeting where several prominent Methodists spoke. And no one challenged its accuracy As an almost contemporary record, made by and to those who had personal acquaintance with the facts, it is of more value than the speculations of 1878 ___________ distinectly as a Society, built a school at the top of Pea Croft on a site subsequently occupied by the Ragged Schools. By 1811 it had become too small, and the Red Hill School was built. The bulk of the Pea Croft scholars migrated thither in 18I2, but some had been drafted off to branch schools opened in various directions. The historic order, therefore, seems to be: Mrs. Loftus (private, with at first paid teachers), 1785; Garden Street (with paid teachers, but doubtful whether private or denomi- national), 1789; Sycamore Street (New Connexion), prior to i798; Pea Croft (Wesleyan), I798.* There has not been found any precise indication of the date when the first Sunday school of the Established Church was opend. A paragraph published April 30, I790, says: " 750 children enjoy the advantages of regular instruction in the Sunday schools estab- lished in this town and in our Churches. These poor children are proud to display their knowledge, and several hundreds or them last year gave satisfactory proof by repeating Catechism In the introduction to the Directory of I797, the Rev. Edward Goodwin gives the number of children in Sunday schools, in different parts of the town. at about 800. In I808 we find the Town Trustees paying a " town's subscription " of five guineas to Vicar Sutton, " to the Sunday school," and in 18II they gave a donation of £IO " towards the intended Sunday school near Sheffield Moor." By that time these institutlons were regarded as essential adjuncts to places of worship, and they were springing up both in the town and the surrounding villages. The Wesleyans had them in Solly Street, Fountain Street, Holly Street, Queen Street, and other places; and at Wadsley (I802), Thorpe Hesley (I803), Atter- cliffe (I806), Heeley (I807), Darnall (I812). The Indepen- dents were also active. Mr. George Bennet left Howard Street Chapel for Queen Street in 1801, and soon afterwards (the date is not given), he began classes which were the nucleus of a Sunday school in connection with Queen Street _________ * The discipline in these early schools excites a smile now Mr Cocking tells me that the Pea Croft account book contains such entries as these: "1801. For canes, 2s. 6d. For fool's cap and coat 8s " In 1805 there is a payment for shoes for T Lindley ' _________ Chapel. The date of the establishment of this school has been stated as I806, but there is good reason to believe that it was earlier. From it sprang, on the suggestion of Mr. George Bennet, the Sunday School Union. This began (I8I2) with seven Methodist and Independent schools, representing 397 teachers and 3I86 scholars. The second year's report (I8I4) stated that eleven further schools had joined. In I824 there were 48 schools in the Union, with 8854 scholars and 2039 teachers. And from these modest beginnings have sprung the great organisations we see in our midst to-day.* The eighteenLh century closed amid gloomy portents, and with all the distresses caused by ruinous war‹bad trade, no work, no wages, and provisions at famine prices. Professor Thorold Rogers says that " as population grew towards the close of the century, so it sank deeper and deeper into misery. The lot of the workmen was lightened greatly during the first sixty or seventy years of the century . . . but at its end their misery was as marked as their earlier and temporary affluence." Locally, besides unprecedentedly high poor rates, there were two voluntary subscriptions in the course of its last year, with other devices for the relief of the necessitous. But these were not enough to avert the attacks made by the starving, in their desperation, on flour warehouses and meal shops, on butter dealers and potato merchants. Nor were prosecutions of " forestallers" for rigging the market at the expense of the people of much help. The town presented the sad spectacle of landlords seizing goods in lieu of rents, of their stripped tenants clamouring for bread, of manufacturers bereft of orders, and of artisans perishing for lack of work. The local chronicler concludes the century's records with these ominous items: " Two thousand people assembled at night time in a field in the Park, to consider the distress arising from the high price of provisions." " Public meeting i the Town Hall: Resolved, that in consequence of the very high price of provi- ___________ * The above facts are condensed from an article in the Sheffield Independent, February 2, I90I. See also correspondence in the same journal from March 18 to May 23, I878; various publications by Mr. G. B. Cocking; and a controversy he had with the Rev. Dr. Potter, Independent, April, 1882. ___________ sions and other necessaries of life, many persons in this town being in very great distress, a public subscription for their relief be commenced. Put down at the meeting, ,£I200." One of the earliest entries in the new century (180I) is this: " Upwards of ten thousand persons (out of a population of 45,755, including the outlying parishes, that is of 36,676 in Sheffield proper) receive at this time the benefit of the very liberal subscription entered into for the relief of distressed objects in the parish; so unprecedented is the wretchedness arising from the excessive high price of all the necessaries of life" To such a pass had " a spirited foreign policy " abroad, a tyrannous administration at home, and persistence in an unsound economic system, rednced our forefathers in " the good old times." For many a long year yet the people had to suffer and to endure before, through new forces already working, new conditions as yet dimly perceived, new truths waiting for acceptance, our town emerged, painfully and through many a cruel dislocation of conditions, into a pros- perity sometimes belittled by those who, without esamining the facts, dwell with longing admiration on the imaginary advantages of a past that was dark and distressful.
 

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