Engraving of Bloxwich Wesleyan Chapel, 1847 (WLHC)
Wesleyan Methodism, founded in 1739 by clergyman and preacher John Wesley, gained an early foothold in Bloxwich and flourished there from the late eighteenth century. The Short Heath (now Bloxwich Park and the surrounding area, and not to be confused with Short Heath, Willenhall) was the traditional working place of the locksmiths and light metalworkers (the ‘bitties’ and ‘tackies’) of Bloxwich, and in 1795, the Bloxwich Wesleyans decided to make a nearby flax oven, which had been built to deal with the flax grown under the subsidy schemes of 1781, their official chapel.
The first trustees, John Cadman, William Smith, John Griffin, Matthew Wilkes the younger, Thomas Towe, Ralph Babbington and Robert Smith, itinerant preacher, signed a deed of agreement to rent the place at thirty-nine shillings per half year on a ninety-nine year lease. The deed conveyancing the property makes reference to the separation of the Wesleyan Methodist church from the Church of England in 1784.
Pearce in his Directory of Walsall, 1813, describes the 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.
There is no evidence that John Wesley visited the chapel although he certainly toured the area (notorious for his rough reception at Walsall!) and is known to have stayed with Squire Vernon at Hilton Park on 25th May 1783, on 28th March 1785, and again on 28th March 1787, and normally visited local Societies.
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. The flax oven chapel, at the rear of the new building, continued in use, as a Sunday School.
One story about the 1832 chapel is particularly interesting. The 1837 licence had been issued to one Benjamin Welch. At the time all Bloxwich dead were buried in the churchyard of St. Thomas of Canterbury (now All Saints). Mr. Welch lost two children and could not agree with Rev. John Baylie about the form of burial service. He therefore applied for permission from the Home Secretary to have his children buried in a special vault beneath the entrance porch to the chapel. The faculty was granted and a simple but impressive tomb was constructed of Staffordshire blue bricks.
This 1832 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. During the nineteenth century the Wesleyan Church continued to flourish, and over the years a Manse was added (1875), Sunday School (1910) and Institute (1921). The 1864 church closed in its turn in 1963, and in 1966 was replaced by a fine modern building, St. John’s Methodist Church, still in use today in Victoria Avenue.
The empty chapel in 2001 (SW)
When the 1832 chapel was finally abandoned as a place of worship, it became a storage facility and workshop, and passed through a succession of owners. In 1913 the redundant building was bought by the Bloxwich Picture Company for use as a cinema or ‘picture palace’. The building was extended, demolishing the flax oven Sunday School at the rear, and became known as The Central Picture Palace. The windows and doors were, sadly, heavily modified, and a raked floor was put in, accommodating five hundred patrons, plus a small stage.
During 1915 and 1916 the building was leased to Tom Wood, and is remembered by some as Wood’s Palace. By the end of the First World War the original company had taken over again. In 1921, Pat Collins showed films here 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. On the advice of a local resident who told him their story, Mr. Brittain arranged for the entombed children of Benjamin Welch 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 cemetery, and there laid to rest for the second time.
Later, the old chapel was used as a factory unit by Bert Brittain’s company Mid Air Equipment. In recent years, it has had various uses and until late 2001 was occupied by Bloxwich Bed Shed; now it is a second-hand furniture store.
The old 1832 Wesleyan Chapel at Bloxwich has had a chequered but fascinating past. Despite the changes and modifications it has suffered over the years, it still deserves to be better known as one of the most interesting and historic buildings in Bloxwich.
The Old Chapel today, 2009 (SW)