DARBY HAND Providence Church has the unusual distinction of having been a well-known landmark in two completely different locations. But despite the name on the sign, the bricks of the building are actually those of another lost Dudley church.
Marie Willetts of Dudley recently brought to our attention a slim volume entitled Alpha to Omega – The Story of Providence Church, which was written by Horace G Smith and his son John Greaves Smith in 1978, shortly after the church, which Marie remembers well from her childhood years, was demolished.
Since then it has become one of the Black Country's best known churches, thanks to its being rebuilt at the Black Country Living Museum. But the 1978 book reveals that all is not quite as it appears with the relocated church ...
Writing in his introduction to the book, the Reverend B.L, Thompson, superintendent of the Netherton Methodist Circuit, harked back to the Providence Church's beginnings, when its job was to cater for the physical as well as the spiritual needs of the locals. The Darby Hand Doctors Club was one of its early achievements, allowing contributors access to medical care in the days when the National Health Service hadn't been thought of.
How times had changed. "It fell to my sad lot to arrange the closure of the Chapel, and to conduct the last service on August 25th, 1974," the reverend wrote. "It was a moving, though unhappy occasion, forced upon us by a deteriorating building and a declining membership. None of us will ever forget the final handshake as we left the Chapel for the last time.In the wisdom of God, however, it was not to be the last time. We heard to our immense joy that the Black Country Museum was interested in obtaining the building for re-erection on its site in Dudley. This was to be part of a larger complex commemorating the history of the Black Country. So another chapter remains to be written in the history of Providence Chapel."
Its demise had been triggered by a fire back in May 1971, which gutted the Sunday School. The insurance payout would be nowhere near enough to rebuild, and while the trustees cast about for ideas, the congregation, and therefore the money coming into the church, began to fall away drastically. Within two years the place was broke, and the trustees had no choice but to close its doors and sell the site to their neighbours, Swindell's the toolmakers.
In a desperate bid to salvage at least something of the place for posterity, they approached the recently established Black Country Museum to see if they were interested in taking any of the pews. To their astonishment, the men from the museum, having had a look around, said that they would like to take the entire building and all its contents.
The fixtures and fittings were removed and put into storage, but the building itself, having suffered all sorts of damage thanks to the industry which had grown up around it, would prove more of a problem.
"For most of its life the building was threatened by subsidence and changes of level as the Sunday School gradually sank and the Chapel leaned southwards towards the neighbouring shafts of Saltwells Colliery Pit No.27, only 25 yards away," wrote John Greaves Smith. The water surface of the nearby Birmingham Canal was well above the floor level of the chapel and the canal arm serving the spade and shovel works brought the water to within 110 ft of the Vestry. The smoke from the foundry hearths, literally backing on to the Chapel, blackened and attacked the brickwork and stone, and the roof space was inches deep in a black sooty deposit blown in under the slates. The mid-week noise, smoke and vibration and the distraction of the view through the north side windows straight into a factory yard can be imagine. Yet the building was maintained by simple repair and reinforcement with little change to the original form."
The walls were so far out of whack after decades of sinking into the pits that they were five inches out of the vertical in places. There were tie rods, plates and corner brackets holding the place together, but more worryingly in terms of rebuilding, the original bricks were now invisible beneath a coat of hard cement render which had been slathered over the outer walls in 1940, presumably to cover up the blackened original frontage.
Starting with the roof, the reclamation team managed to salvage virtually every one of the roof slates, and all the roof timbers were good enough to re-use. Not so the bricks.
"After initial success ... it was a great setback to find that the cement was impossible to separate from the facing bricks," wrote Smith. "Also that the bricks had been very thoroughly an deeply hacked all over to provide a good key for the render. The greatest disappointment though was that the red moulded brick arches were also deeply hacked and not one of the bricks could be saved.
"In order to ensure a perfect match, therefore, pieces of the rendering were saved which showed a clear reverse imprint of the moulded arch brick. Finally it became clear that the Black Country clay or 'tocky' common bricks had bonded so thoroughly with the lime mortar that only a very small proportion of bricks and none of the stuccoed portico to the entrance, could be saved."
There was some good news. As well as the roof, the galleries were sound and could be re-used, the cast iron window frames and iron columns were removed without a hitch, and the central ceiling moulding was removed in one piece. Many other smaller interior pieces were placed in storage awaiting the rebuild.
But before that could happen, suitable bricks – an entire chapel's worth – had to be found. Incredibly, the precise amount required, and fitting the bill in terms of size, colour and gauge, were found in 1977. Perhaps it was providence at work.
Wolverhampton Street Methodist Church just up the road in Dudley was due for immediate demolition, to be replaced by a modern replacement on the same site. The reclamation team were relieved to find that the lime mortar came off these bricks without a struggle, and when they included the ones that made up the churchyard wall, the total was eerily close to the exact number required to recreate the Netherton chapel.
The foundations were laid in the summer of 1977, and bricks from Wolverhampton Street began to arrive on site as original components underwent repair and specialist replacements were ordered – such as the moulded arch bricks which were unusable from the Darby Hand building.
After trial runs and some experiments with lime mortar mixes, bricklaying began in January the following year.
Cold weather hampered progress in the first weeks, but it soon began to take shape. The first original items to be installed were the front doors, followed by the Gornal stone window sills, and then the iron window frames.
By the time the Alpha to Omega booklet was published in summer 1978, the job was almost done, and writer John Greaves Smith, whose family had had such a long association with the old place, closed his account as follows:
"The building has reached its apex and the trusses and roof timbers are in place. The building has truly re-appeared; it never seemed to be completely gone to many of us and once the walls were correctly remembered in three dimensions the rest has simply wanted to go back into its place.
"We now hope that the finished work will be recognised by those who knew it at Darby Hand, and that the Chapel will enrich the Museum atmosphere and justify the efforts of that so many have made to preserve the experience of a way of life."
Do you have memories or photographs from the old Darby Hand or Wolverhampton Street churches? Write in, call us, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org