Researching the history of a chapel

Methodist chapels have been a feature of the British landscape for over two hundred years. They exist in many different sizes and architectural styles and offer a rich field of study for the local historian. During the last twenty years a great many chapels have been converted to other uses and, in those cases where former chapels are now private houses, the owners are often keen to find out more about the building's past.

This guide aims to introduce researchers to relevant material deposited in the Methodist Connexional Archive at the University of Manchester Library. The records contained in the Archive were typically created by the Church on a national level. Surviving local material such as chapel minute books are kept at record offices or are still in the possession of the local Methodist Church.

The story of the chapel

Methodism originated in the 1730s as a movement within the Church of England. The early Methodists attended the local Anglican Church for formal worship and held meetings of their own in private houses for prayer and fellowship. Within a few years in the larger towns and cities, buildings were being acquired for dedicated use as a chapel or `Preaching House'. The first was opened at the New Room in Bristol in 1739.

The building of chapels during the eighteenth century did not keep pace with the increase in membership. The money to build a chapel or convert an existing building had to come from the local Methodist society and in many places private houses and other buildings were still being used until well into the twentieth century. The uncertain legal status of Methodism and fluctuations in local membership also impeded chapel development.

In the nineteenth century Methodism split into several bodies, all independent of each other, with separate records. All these bodies operated the circuit system, where chapels and preaching places were grouped for ministerial oversight, with a minister being responsible for several chapels. Many records are based on the circuit, rather than the individual chapel.

The nineteenth century was the golden age of chapel building. The several Methodist denominations witnessed annual increases in membership and this created a spirit of optimism which led to the construction or enlargement of chapels across the country. The size and style of the buildings vary enormously from those with seating for several thousand to small converted private dwellings. Often several different branches of Methodism would be represented in the same town or village, each with its own chapel.

Decreases in membership during the twentieth century and the union of the major Methodist denominations in 1907 and 1932 combined with demographic change to produce a large number of redundant chapels. Such buildings have often been demolished or converted to other uses.