The scarecrow

John Wesley visited Alnwick more than thirty times, preaching from the Town Hall, the Court House, and the Market Cross. A small Methodist Chapel was built in 1752, but thirty years later plans were developed for a new preaching house, in what we now call Chapel Lane. The foundation stone was laid by John Wesley on 2nd June 1786.

Wesley didn’t return to Alnwick until two years later. On 24th May 1788, he finally saw what they had built, and he didn’t like it.

“I was a little surprised at the new preaching-house. Had they no eyes ? Or had they never seen any English house? But the scarecrow must now stand without remedy.”

What did John Wesley dislike? Was the gallery set too high? Were the windows too small? Perhaps there’s a clue in his earlier writings:

1761: I preached at Rotherham in the shell of the new house, which is an octagon. Pity our houses, where the ground will admit of it, should be built in any other form.

At the time, followers of Methodism would still worship in their parish church. The preaching house was used for sermons and prayer meetings. Some said “there are no corners for the Devil to hide in“, but Wesley seems to have favoured the octagonal shape because it offered good acoustics for preaching, and was clearly different from traditional church architecture. His recommendation was later formalised, and the Methodists went on to build fourteen octagonal preaching houses. Rotherham was the first, in 1761. But tastes must have changed by the time Alnwick was built. The last octagonal preaching house was constructed at Taunton in 1776.

Despite his reservations, Wesley did contribute to the costs of the original building. He died in 1791, only a few months after his final visit to Alnwick. He couldn’t know that gallery would be floored over in 1822, to create an upstairs chapel, and he would never see the alterations that were carried out by F. R. Wilson a century after the chapel was built. So we don’t know whether Wesley would have approved of the Chapel that we see today.

Some links: <Heptonstall>, <Octagon Chapels>

More on Alnwick: <here>, <here>, <here>.

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