THE importance of Methodism, and other nonconformist churches, to the history of the Black Country cannot be overstated. Hundreds of churches and chapels of various denominations were once familiar landmarks in every town and village in our region and their influence spread far and wide.
Arguably, they were the warp and weft of our social fabric, a key element in the developing Black Country character, and while they may have declined their role in shaping the Black Country still resonates today.
These pictures are taken from a book kindly loaned to the Bugle by Alan Richards of Castlecroft, Wolverhampton.
It is a history of Bilston Wesleyan Methodist Church, perhaps better known to Bilstonians as Swan Bank Methodist Church, that was written by John Freeman in 1924 to mark the church’s centenary of the previous year.
While the church dated to 1823, the roots of Wesleyan Methodism in Bilston went back further.
John Wesley (1703-91) first visited the town in November 1745, when he passed through en route to Wednesbury. It is not known if Wesley preached at that time but shortly afterwards several houses were opened for Methodist meetings. He subsequently visited Bilston many times, particularly 1767-68, and was often rough handled by Bilston mobs.
The first Methodist chapel was built in 1794, on land in Temple Street given by a Miss Loxdale, re-using bricks from a nearby demolished engine house. The congregation quickly grew and in 1812 side galleries were installed but just ten years later it was clear that the building was no longer big enough. The building of a new chapel in Brook Street began but as the walls were going up the landlord changed his mind and reneged on his agreement with the Methodists.
However, land became available at Swan Bank and the Methodists attempted to buy it — but they faced competition from the Church of England, which also wanted to build there a new church for its expanding congregation in Bilston. The Methodists succeeded and bought the property, consisting of the Crown and Anchor hotel, also known as “Jokey Perry’s Hall”, its bowling green and shrubbery, stables, outbuildings, 7,674 square yards of copyhold land, and all the mines within an area of 660 square yards.
A new chapel was built at a cost of £1,200 and dedicated on 3rd November, 1823, with the site of the old Temple Street chapel converted to cottages.
In 1824 the Swan Bank chapel became the first building in Bilston to be gas-lit, after the installation of its own gasworks.
The graveyard was laid out in the early 1830s and was guarded from grave-robbers by a gun-toting caretaker named Andrew Allen. The minister’s house was built in 1831 and in 1840 the chapel was enlarged to accommodate the still growing congregation.
The church was extensively renovated in 1890 at a cost of £3,301. In 1892 fire broke out in the church, destroying the vestries but the rest of the building was saved; a new church parlour was built the following year. In 1923 services were held to mark the church’s centenary.
After more than a century of expansion the fortunes of Methodism, like other churches, began to decline in the 20th century.
In 1955 the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist circuits combined and in January 1963 the Swan Bank Methodist Church and the High Street Methodist Church amalgamated into a single congregation, meeting at Swan Bank as Bilston Methodist Church. It was decided that a new building was needed and the Swan Bank church was demolished in 1969. The new church opened on the site in July 1970.