Methodism In Elmswell, 1799-1999

John Fenton

Much use has been made of the research material and the publication of such material by the Rev. D.A. Bullen in 1959, and we put on record our thanks to him.


A Mr. White in 1790 wrote that Elmswell was linked to Bury St. Edmunds and Stowmarket by good roads, and it was later observed that Elmswell was a thriving community with five pubs, three tailors, two boot makers, two bakers, two grocers, two butchers, two smiths, a wheelwright, a carpenter, a cutler and a woodman. There were timber yards and saw mills and in 1847 a foundry called the ‘Blackbourne’ Iron Works opened. Then in 1849 the Railway came, and with it a population explosion from approximately 450 to 864 in the 1930’s to over 2,800 today.

The beginning of Methodism in West Suffolk has an ancestry and owes its origins to the several visits ofJohnWesley to EastAnglia. Bury St. Edmunds was on the route to Norwich and so provided a natural stopping place on his journeys. In his Journal we find records of seventeen visits made between July 4th 1755 and 20th/21st October, 1790, and this is a greater number of recorded visits than any other place in Suffolk.

It was about the time ofWesley’s last visit that the Bury Circuit was formed. The first known appointment to Bury was that ofThomas Broadbent who wasWesley’s “Assistant” there from 1790 to 1791 with a Joseph Jerom as second preacher. At that time membership stood at 160 but progress was made. Wesley wrote to Broadbent stating that he had reasons to praise God for the blessings of his labours, and at the same time warning him against getting involved with the affairs of the world. However this warning went unheeded for after a spell as a supernumerary he retired from work and became a merchant in Kings Lynn. After this Bury ceased to operate as a Circuit and incorporated in the Thetford Circuit for several years but in 1813 again became a separate Circuit and has remained so to the present time.

Methodism in Elmswell began during this early period, although the exact origins are now lost in the mists of time. We may presume that this village like others was missioned from the town, with either the Minister or local Methodist coming out and finding a hearing, and it is in this way that our local Society came into being.

Our earliest record is a certificate authorising religious worship to take place, this is dated November 1799 and it is certified by one HerbertWarren, Tailor of Bury St. Edmunds, “That the dwelling house of Wm. Mulley, situated in Elmswell be used etc. etc…” So in a private house the meetings and services began to be held.

With Bury still in the Thetford Circuit, plans were being made for the erection of a definitive Chapel in Elmswell. As far as we can tell the actual building was not opened until 1818, but we are sure that the “Trust for Methodists” was formed in Elmswell in 1807, possibly upon the transfer of a piece of land byWm. Mulley for the erection of a Chapel.

2. THE OLD CHAPEL 1818-1898

Like many village chapels it was simply a building for worship without any additional rooms or vestries. It contained the older type high-backed pews and a high pulpit, in line with the gallery. (We have an original picture of the Chapel on page 6). We do however have a puzzle for we have another certificate dated 1819 for “Rooms attached to the Chapel” in Elmswell, but there is no record that these rooms ever existed.

Glimpses of these early days can be obtained from old Circuit Plans, which were collected over many years by the Nunn family starting with Wm. Nunn in the 1820’s continuing with his son and grandson, and then with Miss Lucy Nunn up to the 1950’s. (These are all now in the archives.)

They tell us that in 1820 (two years after opening) Elmswell is in second place in the Bury Circuit which now consists of 15 preaching places, most of these would still be at the Cottage stage. An indication of the strength of Elmswell can be obtained from the fact that one of the two Bury Ministers would come out once a fortnight for the Sunday afternoon and evenings services (in those days we had three services every Sunday). It is also of interest to note that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was planned every six weeks or so, and the Love Feast was celebrated once every six months.

During the course of this period the disruptive movements were working within Methodism out of which emerged the different branches of the Methodist Movement, these being the Primitive Methodists and the Wesleyan Methodists. Primitive Methodism was late coming to Bury, the town being missioned from Brandon. However we do find some reflection of this upheaval for when the Elmswell Trust Deed was renewed in 1836 it took the form of a “Wesleyan Trust Deed”. Similarly up to 1820 the plans had been for Methodist Preachers, but from now on were Wesleyan Preachers.

It was still to be a while before there was a Minister resident in Elmswell, but a distinct pattern was emerging, as already mentioned one or other of the Bury Ministers would come out for the Sunday Services, they would then go on toWalsham staying for a further meeting on the Monday evening, returning for aTuesday evening meeting at Elmswell, and then going on to such places as Badwell Ash, Langham, Ixworth, and Newton, before returning to Bury, sometimes as late as Friday. All this in the days before the Motorcar.

In the late 1850’s the morning service lapsed, and then in 1870 the Circuit’s second Minister lived in Elmswell.The first of these was a Rev. S. Simpson, resident form 1870 till 1872. (A full list of Ministers appears in the appendix), in point of fact these Ministers although living in Elmswell were taking more services in Bury so their travelling time must have been enormous. In 1874 Elmswell was registered for the Solemnisation of Marriage, before then only Bury was registered, and for a long time only these two places were able to be used in this way.

The period of a Minister living in Elmswell did not last for long, the Rev. Thos. Sanderson being appointed in 1874 stayed for only one year before returning to Bury, where he stayed for a further period.

In March 1898, the old Chapel having served Elmswell’s Methodists for 80 years was pulled down but the foundations were used for the new Chapel to be erected during the course of that year. During the months of March to November religious services were held in an office building situated next to the Railway Station. While the demolition and construction was underway, a Mr. Matthews who was at that time, a society steward, and in general the leader of the Methodists in Elmswell died. He had been born in the year the original Chapel was being built, and his death at this particular time was seen by many as end of an era. He was buried from the half completed Chapel but his sad loss did not dim the enthusiasm of the others and the new Chapel was completed.

In tracing the history of the old building, and of its people, we do wrong to think that all thought and interest was centred solely on the one community. There was an undoubted evangelistic and missionary spirit that led to the establishment of new Methodist Churches in neighbouring villages.

As Elmswell was the result of missionary work from Bury, we saw a circle of a new societies spring out of our work, Drinkstone, Tostock and Great Ashfield owe their origins to Elmswell.

There is still in existence the diary of a Mr. Nunn of Drinkstone (1805 to 1884), and this is in many ways most illuminating, and in particular shows how much influence Methodist preaching had in those days. The first section 1835/6 gives a glimpse of a man attending his Parish Church, finding its sermons and services helpful, but not giving him the spiritual satisfaction he desired. The second section 1838/9 he finds himself drawn more and more to Elmswell and his comments on the sermons are most revealing. He also makes specific reference to a Love Feast held in 1838, and from this point onwards there develops a struggle between loyalty to Rattlesden Church and the Methodists at Elmswell.

Mr. Nunn now travelled to Elmswell every Sunday for worship, and, in the course of time became a local preacher, (as did his son and grandson). After this we find meetings being held in his home and in time this evolved into Drinkstone Methodist Church. Other causes that grew out of Elmswell no doubt have similar histories.

3. THE NEW CHAPEL – 1898 to DATE

With the coming of the present building, material is much more ready to hand. Newspaper cuttings, old plans and Trust records all contribute to the story. Our own Minute Book states that the cost of the building was £589.5. Od. This does not sound a lot by todays standards but then must have seemed a fortune, weekly collections were less than one pound a week.

The Chapel was officially opened on the 24th November 1898, all summer while the building was being done the weather was fine and dry, but on the day in question it dawned wet and the roads were covered in mud. The actual opening was reported in the Bury Free Press of the 26th November, and the Methodist Recorder of December 8th. The sadness of the recent loss of Mr. Matthews was now dispelled and the opening conducted by a Rev. W. Foster who had come from Kings Cross, London, was very well attended with the Chapel being full to overflowing. The Tea that followed was well supported with several sittings of forty a time. The day concluded with an evening service which contained a number of speakers and closed at 9.30 pm.

Despite the joy of the opening, congregations fell, and the Chapel did not thrive as it had in the best days of the Old Chapel. But things were again about to change for in 1906 a Mr. Hutchins, a Lay Pastor and Evangelist was stationed in the village, and this Stationing continued until 1934.

When Mr. Hutchins was appointed the Membership was 16 adults and 9 junior members, but rapidly rose to a high of 47 but usually averaged 35 to 38.

During the 1930’s, when a Mr. Braithwaite was the Evangelist, electricity was installed in the Chapel for the first time at a cost of £21.19.0d. Apparently this was bought about when, during a Missionary Meeting a short time earlier two of the old oil lamps fell to the floor, causing much confusion with the burning oil. Fortunately the people were not in the pews at the time and the trouble was soon cleared up. It is interesting to think that our history may have ended there in an abrupt and spectacular manner.

At this time however the Stewards had their minds very much set on expansion of the premises and minutes confirm that the Secretary was asked to approach theWoolpit Brick Co. about buying a piece of land they owned to the left of the Church.

He reported back on the 22nd February 1930 that theWoolpit Brick Co. had offered us a plot of land 108′ 6″ deep with a 30′ road frontage for £30.0.0d. plus their legal charges (now the car park). At this same meeting the Secretary reported that Greene King, the owners of the public house had offered us a small piece of the back garden of the Pub as a gift with free conveyancing. The Minute Book tells us that the offer of the Brick Co. was accepted but the offer of the Brewery was rejected, the Secretary was told to write back explaining our reasons, but these reasons are not included in the Minutes.

Also at this time 1932, the two branches of Methodism were united but no mention of this is made in the Minutes of the time, but its effects were felt in the Circuit. For a couple of years theWesleyan Circuit continued as the Bury St. Edmunds (Trinity) Circuit and the Primitive Methodist Circuit continued as the Bury St. Edmunds (Northgate Street) Circuit. In 1933 the Sudbury section of the Wesleyan Circuit was removed (together with the second minister) and together with certain other Churches formed the Sudbury Circuit. This left the one Minister in Bury and the Lay Pastor at Elmswell. In 1934 the two Bury St. Edmunds Circuits were amalgamated, the ex Primitive Methodist Churches in Bury and Ixworth being united with the ex-Wesleyan Churches with Troston added from the Thetford Circuit.The net result was that the Lay Pastor was withdrawn from Elmswell and two Ministers were stationed in Bury. This arrangement continued until 1939, by which time it was found difficult to maintain two ordained men, and application was made for the Circuit to have one ordained and one probationer Minister.

This was granted and as a consequence the second man was again stationed at Elmswell, although in fact a number have actually lived inWoolpit.

Once the additional land was acquired plans were made for new buildings for Sunday School and Youth Work, but these were to wait until after the 1939/45 war, but they did manage a new bike shed in 1933.

The war had only a limited effect on Elmswell Church or its membership. Throughout hostilities letters were sent annually to a Mr.W.G. Fox, who was on active service, expressing our good wishes, but according to the minute book the only death was of a son-in-law of a member, Mr. I. Custerson, a Sgt. Allenby-Ford (RAF) killed on active service.

In the meeting of 29th January 1946, an advisory committee was formed to consider the type of building needed on the newly acquired land. So at long last the hoped for expansion was under way, in 1948 the Secretary of the Sunday School asked that the work be ‘speeded up’ as the rapid development of the Sunday School with the large number of pupils was causing considerable frustration. It was decided to look into the possibility of erecting a temporary wooden hut, but as the monies already raised were on trust for the new permanent building additional funds needed to be raised. Mr. F.J. Nunn came to the rescue and offered to advance whatever was necessary. However the shortages of building materials meant that this stop gap measure never came into being. While all of this was being discussed many plans for the permanent building were drawn up but either disregarded or modified until 1954, when, after more than 20 years of frustration regarding the provision of extra accommodation. Mr F.J. Nunn personally bought all the available land to the south and cast of the church, and offered to the church as much land as they needed, thus in 1955 authorisation was at last given for the building now known as the Wesley Hall. The Building Fund stood at £2521.19.9d. The final estimate for construction was £2400.Od plus £97.0.0d. for installation of Electricity.

The Hall was built in 1955/6, and was officially opened by a Capt. Hardy on December 1st 1956 with the Rev. Noy from Norwich being the Preacher. Things were no different in those days, and the actual cost exceeded the estimate, but fund raising continued and by October all outstanding bills for the hall had been paid, and even two heaters purchased at a cost of £10.7.0d. So the special fund opened in 1933 for the Hall was closed and the Balance of £27.0. Od. was transferred to Chapel Funds.

While all this was happening a small note in the Minute Book tells us that in 1948 a Mrs. G.W. Gibb presented to the Chapel two brass vases as a memorial to her late husband. These brass vases are now celebrating their own half century, and are still in use, and can bee seen most weeks on the Communion Table.

In October 1958 it was decided to replace the old style coal fired stoves used for heating with an Electric System (still in use to this day), and it was agreed to accept a tender from Eastern Electricity to fit two, four foot long tubular heaters in each of the fifteen pews, and one, two foot heater in each of the eight windows, plus three, 15 amp sockets, all this for £112.0.10d.

In 1959 the envelope system for collections, still in use today, was introduced, and this was considered very progressive and modern at the time.

After the 1939/45 War, during all the activity of the building etc., day to day life in Elmswell and its Chapel continued, but an ongoing worry was membership. In 1950 it was 50 but a steady decline set in and by 1990 it had fallen to a low of 14, but since then things have improved, with attendances at services now averaging in the mid twenties.

So as we approach the Millennium and Elmswell’s third century we are again in a strong position to serve our Lord and the community in which we live. Our premises have in recent times been completely re-vamped with new toilet and kitchen facilities.

It is a place of worship but also a home to many village organisations, ranging from the very young through the Mothers and Toddlers group, teenagers through the Dominote Music and adults through Keep Fit, Aerobics and Carpet Bowls all of whom use our premises on a weekly basis and have recently been joined by Elmswell’s latest organisation the Elmswell Amateur Dramatic Society. To enable us to continue to give help to the village we now propose to redevelop the Exchange Hall, and to provide disabled toilet facilities so that no one need be excluded.

From the very early days Elmswell has been a centre of Methodism for the district and round about. It has had its ups and downs, but on several occasions it has seen great revivals, and it has always remained a strong country Church. It has been served by some great and faithful men and women, and it is only when this is so can a Church hope to prosper.

“We’ll praise Him for all that is past,
And trust Him for all that’s to come”.

JOSEPH HART (1712-68)