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Forgotten Methodist Halls ‘thrived in every city’

03 Oct 2012

A University of Manchester historian has discovered how the Methodist Church built some of Britain’s most important and successful community buildings in the early twentieth century - now mostly forgotten.

Kings Hall in Bolton
Kings Hall in Bolton

Dr Angela Connelly says that 99 ‘Methodist Central Halls’ were built costing an equivalent of £90 million in today’s terms.

Today, the Methodist Church owns only 18 of the original buildings, many of which have been substantially altered. Twenty seven have been completely demolished or bombed in the war.

Nineteen are protected as listed buildings and all, she says, were large buildings designed not to look like a church.

Dr Connelly, who is based at Manchester Architecture Research Centre, said: “Nearly everyone in the UK will have seen a Methodist Central Hall: Pavarotti performed at Kingsway Hall and the UN Declaration was signed in Westminster Central Hall.

“But few of us know what they are, how they are used or what has happened to them.

“Because they do not look like churches or cathedrals, the public aren’t aware of those that remain at all – especially those which have been converted into other uses such as bars and pubs.

“But in their hey day they attracted big crowds: the Manchester and Salford mission headquarters once boasted 2000 volunteers.”

The decline, she will say in a Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester paper next month, is down to a long period of drops in Methodist congregations nationally, as well as even steeper losses through inner-city demographic and economic changes.

Her Arts and Humanities Research Council funded study shows how the Missions promoted cultural activity to make their religion relevant to everyday lives and tempt people away from the lure of alcohol.

These included popular entertainment such as film shows, concerts and variety performances.

Joseph Rank – of Rank Hovis – provided much of the capital to build the Central Halls.

His son, J Arthur Rank, the film producer, was also a prominent Methodist who became interested in the movie industry after seeing the pioneering use of religious films at the Methodist Missions in the 1920s.

The wife of the Methodist Times founder and reformer  Hugh Price Hughes, also established the nation’s first ever crèche for working girls at the West London mission in the 1880s.

She said: “As numbers dropped and maintenance costs spiralled, rooms were let out to other organisations and the Halls were used for a wide variety of events.

“Through the twentieth century, more space was rented out to other organisations for theatres, libraries, social services and even school exams.

She added: “Grimsby and Southampton are now theatres, Liverpool’s Central Hall on Renshaw Street now hosts a collection of independent traders. At Bristol and Bradford, the Central Halls are converted into flats.

“These halls were, and in several cases still are, the best venue in town.

“But it’s sad how many of these important buildings are no longer standing - quite moving when you read of the read of the struggles the Methodists had to keep them going.

“But I would rather these buildings are used by the public - even as a bar - rather than lose them altogether as they are such an important part of Britain’s urban history.”
 

Notes for editors

'A pool of Bethesda': Manchester's First Wesleyan Methodist Central Hall will be published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 89:1, 2012-13 in October. The issue is themed issue under the title: Architecture and Environment: Manchester in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Published by the library since 1903, The Rylands Bulletin publishes articles in any subject area from the arts and social studies and on the historical or philosophical aspects of the natural and physical sciences. It concentrates on inter-disciplinary analyses which incorporate the results of research on the extensive collections of The John Rylands University Library.

Images are available

Dr Connelly is available for interview

A complete list of location and status of each Methodist Hall is available

Cities where at least one Methodist Hall was built included (in alphabetical order):
Ashington, Bargoed, Barking, Barrow-in-Furness, Birmingham, Bolton, Blackburn, Bradford, Brighton, Bristol, Carlisle, Chester, Coventry, Edinburgh, Gateshead, Glasgow, Great Yarmouth, Grimsby, Hartlepool, Hull, Ipswich, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Paisley, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Rochdale, Salford, Scarborough, Southampton, Sheffield, Slough, Stoke-on-Trent, Stockton-Upon-Tees, Swindon, Tonypandy, Walsall, Wigan, Wednesbury.

Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567
Michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk