The Old Chapel and the Preacher’s Children

The Park Road Wesleyan Chapel, about 1847 (WLHC)

In 1832 a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was built in what is now Park Road, Bloxwich.  I’ve always had a passing interest in this chapel, which has had a strange and varied career over the decades, being used as a fairground workshop, a cinema and a factory amongst others.  My grandfather was a Bloxwich Methodist and he and my grandmother were married at the successor to this chapel, which was built in 1864 on the corner of High Street and Victoria Avenue.

Anyway, back in 2002 I visited the chapel, which was then in use as a furniture store, ‘Bloxwich Bed Shed’, to take photographs for a talk.  And while I was wandering around the outside with my camera, I was approached by a young mechanic from the ATS  Euromaster tyre service business next door.  He asked why I was taking photos, and if I knew anything about the history of the building.

Wondering what this was leading up to, I asked why he wanted to know, and he said that he and others had heard strange noises coming from the old chapel when it was closed.  They thought it might be haunted…

Well, although a natural sceptic, I keep an open mind on such things but, thinking back on what I knew about the history of the place, I told him about the children who had been buried und the doorstep…  By the time I was finished, his face was white as a sheet and I was able to get on with my photography!

Clearly he had drawn his own conclusions from what I had to say, as you may draw yours when I now tell you about the history of the old chapel in Park Road. Myself, I believe the evidence of my own eyes and ears, and I have never seen any spooks in Park Road, or heard any banging, but on a dark winter’s night, with the wind howling around the eaves, who knows?

Back in the 18th century, Wesleyan Methodism flourished in Bloxwich, and indeed the church is still active today, albeit in its modern incarnation, St. John’s in Victoria Avenue.

Bloxwich Park and the surrounding area was then known as the Short Heath or Bloxwich Green,  and was the traditional working place of the locksmiths and light metalworkers (the ‘bitties’ and ‘tackies’) of Bloxwich.  In 1795, the Bloxwich Wesleyans decided to make a nearby flax oven their official chapel.

In 1813 Pearce, in his Directory of Walsall, described that chapel as ‘situate near Short Heath, on the right hand side leading from Walsall to Stafford and erected in the year of our Lord 1781. It is eighteen feet three inches by twenty-nine feet three inches inside and will contain about one hundred persons.’ The flax oven was on Bullock’s Fold in Chapel Field.

As the members of the Society grew, a larger chapel became necessary and the first building became a Sunday School where members’ children were taught to read, write and to sing. In 1832 a new structure was begun, on what is now Park Road, and was registered for worship in 1837.

One story about the 1832 chapel is particularly interesting, especially when you consider what I was told by the lad from ATS…

It seems that the 1837 church licence had been issued to one Benjamin Welch. Now at the time, there was no municipal cemetery, and all the dead of Bloxwich were buried in the churchyard of St. Thomas of Canterbury (now All Saints). Mr. Welch had sadly lost two children who had died, but because of differences between the Wesleyans and the Anglican church, he had gotten into an argument with the local vicar Rev. John Baylie and they were unable to agree on the form of burial service.

Mr. Welch decided that this was too important a matter to compromise on and went his own way, applying for formal permission from the Home Secretary to have his children buried in a special vault beneath the entrance porch to the chapel. The faculty was eventually granted and a simple but impressive tomb was constructed of Staffordshire blue bricks, the children being interred there according to Wesleyan tradition.

This chapel served local people well for many years until 1864, when it was replaced by an impressive new building with a bell tower, located on the corner of High Street and Victoria Avenue. This was not the end of the story for the 1832 chapel, however over the years the preacher’s children were quietly forgotten, and when the old chapel was sold off it seems no thought was given to them.

In 1913 the redundant chapel was bought by the Bloxwich Picture Company for use as a cinema, ‘The Central Picture Palace’, the building being extended to accommodate five hundred patrons plus a small stage. The extension destroyed the original ‘flax oven chapel’ which was also no longer in use, at the rear.

During 1915 and 1916 the cinema was leased to Tom Wood, and was remembered by some as Woods Palace. By the end of the First World War the original company had taken over again. Then in 1921, Pat Collins the fairground and early cinema mogul showed films there while The Grosvenor in High Street was being built. When the Grosvenor opened in December 1922, Collins used the old Chapel as a store and a place where his fairground rides could be repaired.

In 1937 the building was sold to Bert Brittain who converted it into a garage and later a factory. But before he set to work, it is said, an elderly local resident told him all about the entombed children of Benjamin Welch, and warned Bert in all seriousness that his business would never do well with the preacher’s children buried beneath the door…

And so it was that Mr. Brittain arranged for Benjamin Welch’s children to be exhumed, and, long before dawn on a cold, stormy January day in 1938, the vault was opened, the dust of the children’s bodies was reverently collected, transferred to a modern coffin, carried up the hill to the Filed Road cemetery, and there laid to rest for the second time.  But did their disturbed spirits rest with their remains, or did they stay to watch over their father’s place of worship?  Less sceptical folk than I might perhaps dare to venture an opinion…

Bert Brittain’s business flourished over many years, and the building was eventually used as a factory unit by Mid Air Equipment. In recent years, it has had various uses and until late 2001 was occupied by Bloxwich Bed Shed.

Today, Bloxwich’s old 1832 Wesleyan Chapel is currently in use as a discount furniture store.  Certainly, it deserves to be better known as one of the most interesting and historic buildings in Bloxwich. But perhaps, if what I heard from the ATS lad in 2002 is any evidence, there is also more to the old place than meets the eye.

I hope that you will remember the story of the old chapel and the preacher’s children when waiting for the bus opposite, or queuing for your chips in the Windsor fish bar nearby, especially on dark winter’s nights…

Stuart Williams

The Old Chapel today (SW)

News, heritage and information for Bloxwich and district

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