A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 11, Telford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1985.
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There is little evidence of early protestant dissent apart from a few Presbyterians and Baptists in the late 17th and early 18th century. The puritan vicar Francis Wright, 1621-59, was an active Presbyterian in 1648 but was reckoned an Independent by 1654. In the 1660s the ejected ministers of Kynnersley and St. Alkmund's, Shrewsbury, whose allegiances had also been Presbyterian and Independent, retired to Wellington and were buried there. (fn. 1) Their presence presumably fostered dissent, though numbers were not great. There were 40 adult nonconformists (just over 1 in 40 of the adult population) in 1676 (fn. 2) and only 2 families were known c. 1693. (fn. 3) Dissenters licensed meeting houses at Aston (1693) and Wellington (1701 and 1730). (fn. 4) They may have been Presbyterians: a house at Aston was licensed for their worship in 1715. (fn. 5) Richard Smith, vicar 1751-73, firmly opposed nonconformity and tried to spoil a Quaker meeting at the market hall in 1760 by ringing the church bells. (fn. 6) By 1799 about one in five of the parish's population were dissenters, mostly Methodists, with a few Quakers and Baptists. (fn. 7)
On Census Sunday 1851 many more nonconformists than Anglicans attended worship in the parish. (fn. 8) There were considerable differences between the coalfield townships (Hadley, Ketley, and Lawley) (fn. 9) and the rest of the parish. In the three coalfield townships some 83 per cent of recorded attendances (at eight places of worship) were Methodist, half of them Wesleyan. Anglicans and Baptists had only one place of worship each, with 12 and 5 per cent of recorded attendances respectively. In the rest of the parish the combined recorded attendances of all protestant nonconformists were only 35 per cent, while Anglicans and Roman Catholics recorded 46 and 19 per cent respectively. By 1981 only two churches in the area of the ancient parish outside the coalfield townships survived to represent the long established nonconformist denominations: a Union Free church in Constitution Hill formed by Congregationalists and Baptists, and a Methodist (formerly Wesleyan) church in New Street.
Benjamin Wright is said to have been the first Anabaptist in the town. (fn. 10) His house was licensed for worship in 1695 (fn. 11) and there were Baptists in 1730. (fn. 12) Wright's son-in-law Robert Morris (d. 1746) left 20s. a year to the minister of the Baptist meeting in Stillyard Shut, Shrewsbury, to preach four sermons a year at his house in Wellington. (fn. 13) There were no Baptists or Presbyterians in the parish by 1772 (fn. 14) but there were a few Baptists by 1799 (fn. 15) as the result of a revival led by Dr. John Palmer, minister of the Shrewsbury Baptists. (fn. 16) They met at Chapel (later Portway) House in Chapel House (later Plough) Road. (fn. 17) In 1807 Particular Baptists opened a new chapel in Back Lane (later King Street). (fn. 18) There were 52 members in 1824 (fn. 19) and the chapel is said to have been rebuilt in brick in 1828 (fn. 20) with seats for 340. On Census Sunday 1851 morning attendance was 60, evening attendance 100. (fn. 21) The chapel was enlarged in 1897 (fn. 22) but closed in 1920 (fn. 23) when its members joined the Congregationalists at Constitution Hill. (fn. 24)
The Quakers, whose meeting in 1760 was well attended (fn. 25) and who licensed a meeting place in the town in 1768, (fn. 26) achieved no lasting success in the parish outside Lawley where the Darbys' and Reynoldses' influence was strong. (fn. 27) In 1980, however, a group of Quakers that had met at Lilleshall since the 1960s was meeting at a house in Wellington. (fn. 28)
Congregational worship in Wellington was established when an Independent congregation was founded in 1818. (fn. 29) A brick chapel was built at Tan Bank in 1825 (fn. 30) with a donation from the publishers F. Houlston & Son. (fn. 31) The large building could hold c. 350 (fn. 32) but there were only 28 members in 1828, and in 1834 the size of the congregation was discouraging. Despite a revival of support in the earlier 1840s, when Congregationalists from Wellington founded a church at Oakengates, there were only 32 members in 1845. (fn. 33) By 1851, however, adult attendances averaged 120 in the morning and 200 in the evening. (fn. 34) Another decline followed. There were 37 members in 1863 and the chapel was closed and sold c. 1880. (fn. 35) Another revival occurred in 1898. (fn. 36) Services in temporary premises were well attended and in 1900 an impressive new church was opened at Constitution Hill. Built of brick with stone dressings, it was designed in the Gothic style by Ingall & Sons of Birmingham. (fn. 37) In 1920 (fn. 38) the Baptists closed their King Street chapel and joined the Congregationalists, whose church was then registered as a Union Free church. (fn. 39) There were 41 members in 1983. (fn. 40)
In 1772 there were 10 Methodist families in the parish (fn. 41) Their distribution is uncertain, but Methodism is likely to have grown rapidly in the coalfield townships. In the parish as a whole Methodists were the largest group of worshippers recorded in 1851, though outside the coalfield townships their combined strength only equalled the Anglicans'. The Wesleyans were the most numerous Methodists but their places of worship were less widely distributed than the Primitives'. (fn. 42) The New Connexion was represented outside the coalfield townships only by a preaching place at New Works recorded in 1839. (fn. 43) Between 1851 and 1885 more Methodist chapels were built than at any earlier period and some old ones were rebuilt or enlarged, but the movement's prosperity was less than it seemed, (fn. 44) especially as the area was entering a long economic and demographic decline. Most Methodist chapels nevertheless managed to remain open until the later 1960s; thereafter many closed.
Wellington people were attracted to Wesleyan meetings at Madeley held by the vicar, J. W. Fletcher. (fn. 45) In 1765 Fletcher preached in Wellington (fn. 46) but the vicar, Richard Smith, opposed him with some succeess. (fn. 47) In 1771 a house in New Street was registered for worship probably by Methodists, (fn. 48) but in 1772 numbers were allegedly declining. (fn. 49) After Smith's death in 1773 Methodism grew in strength. A chapel in Chapel Lane (fn. 50) was licensed in 1797, (fn. 51) and in 1799 there were c. 200 Methodists of 'Lady Huntingdon's sort'. (fn. 52) Wesleyans were supported by John Eyton, vicar 1802-23, who preached at their meetings. (fn. 53) In 1813 Wellington was the only Wesleyan preaching place in the parish outside the coalfield townships (fn. 54) but by 1823 a society had been formed at Arleston. (fn. 55) It expired in 1845 and was briefly revived in 1856. (fn. 56) A preaching place at or near the Wrekin existed 1825-8. (fn. 57) A society existed at Steeraway from 1886 to 1892 (fn. 58) and in the 1920s. (fn. 59)
The Wellington chapel was enlarged in 1811 (fn. 60) and replaced in 1836 (fn. 61) by a new brick building at the junction of New Street and St. John Street. On Census Sunday 1851 there were 277 adult attendances in the morning and 251 in the evening. (fn. 62) In 1866 accommodation was increased to 560 by the addition of galleries (fn. 63) and in 1883 the chapel was replaced by another (fn. 64) farther west along New Street, which remained in use in 1983. The chapel of 1883, designed by Herbert Isitt to seat 850, was of brick with stone dressings, with an imposing Italianate façade. The chapel of 1836 was kept as a Sunday school and lecture hall (sometimes called the Central Hall) until 1916, when it was sold. (fn. 65)
A Wesleyan meeting was formed at Watling Street in 1859, (fn. 66) and in 1861 (fn. 67) a small brick mission chapel opened there immediately west of what was later the junction with Regent Street. It closed c. 1941 and was let as commercial premises. (fn. 68)
The first Primitive Methodist meeting was at 229 Watling Street. (fn. 69) In 1822 Edward Williams's house in Tan Bank was licensed and in 1823 a schoolroom in Elizabeth Lewis's house there. (fn. 70) A chapel said to have been built in 1826 (fn. 71) stood in Tan Bank by 1835. (fn. 72) Rebuilt in that year, (fn. 73) it stood just off the street, south of the junction with Foundry Lane. (fn. 74) In 1898 (fn. 75) it was replaced by a new chapel on the opposite side of Tan Bank, designed by Elijah Jones (fn. 76) in brick and terracotta with Gothic details, where there were 285 sittings in 1940. (fn. 77) The old chapel was kept as a Sunday school, (fn. 78) probably until a new school was built next to the new chapel in 1906, (fn. 79) and was demolished c. 1972. (fn. 80) The chapel of 1898 closed in 1966, when the congregation amalgamated with that at New Street; it was used as a Methodist youth club (fn. 81) until 1978 when it was bought by Muslims for a mosque. (fn. 82)
Outside the coalfield townships there were, besides the Wellington chapel, Primitive Methodist societies at Street Lane and Arleston (by 1834), (fn. 83) New Works (by 1837), (fn. 84) Watling Street (from 1838), Aston (from 1840), Steeraway (from 1842), (fn. 85) and Leegomery (by 1846). (fn. 86) Such groups were not always long lived or continuously active. Arleston, Aston, and Steeraway were active 1849 and 1861. (fn. 87) On Census Sunday 1851 the Aston cottage meeting had 40 afternoon attenders and 35 evening attenders (fn. 88) and 20 attended the afternoon service at Leegomery. (fn. 89) By 1890 the only active societies were at Aston (fn. 90) and New Works (fn. 91) and by 1928 both were gone. (fn. 92)
Dr. J. E. Cranage, an unconventional Anglican, was inspired by a visit to Ireland in 1859 to lead an undenominational mission among the poorer people of Wellington. His preaching at the town hall and elsewhere attracted numerous followers and in 1862 he built New Hall, (fn. 93) a large plain brick building off High Street. In 1875 there were meetings at noon every day and three meetings on Sundays, (fn. 94) as well as twelve cottage meetings in and around Wellington. Since 1859 there had been weekly meetings at the workhouse. In 1889 a Children's Gospel Hall was added at the west end of the hall. Cranage's work was supported by the 3rd duke of Sutherland and by Millicent, marchioness of Stafford, (fn. 95) a noted philanthropist. (fn. 96) After Cranage's death in 1891 Robert Weston continued his work (fn. 97) but the mission closed c. 1899 (fn. 98) and the hall was sold to the Y.M.C.A., (fn. 99) which disposed of it within a few years. (fn. 100) Wellington cemetery had a nonconformist chapel by 1882. (fn. 101) A Gospel Army Mission room in New Square was registered in 1883 but had closed by 1896. (fn. 102) The Salvation Army had a barracks in Foundry Lane (registered 1887, closed by 1896) (fn. 103) and a hall in New Street (registered 1912, closed c. 1923). (fn. 104) An iron chapel at Wappenshall canal junction closed for worship in the early 20th century and was dismantled. (fn. 105)
Other sects had begun to appear by the 1930s, when Christadelphians had Sunday services at the Rechabite Hall, Tan Bank. (fn. 106) Jehovah's Witnesses met in assembly rooms in Station Road from c. 1952 (fn. 107) and moved c. 1954 to a newly built Kingdom Hall near the junction of Regent Street and Watling Street. (fn. 108) They left it c. 1980 (fn. 109) and in 1981 it was occupied by a church affiliated to the Spiritualists' National Union, which had previously used a hut on the opposite side of Regent Street. (fn. 110) Mormon open-air preachings had attracted hostility rather than converts in 1853 (fn. 111) but c. 1972 a substantial new church in Glebe Street was opened. (fn. 112) A few years later (fn. 113) the First United Church of Jesus Christ (Apostolic) took over the former Primitive Methodist Sunday school, Tan Bank; it was a predominantly West Indian church that had previously met at the Belmont Hall, New Street. (fn. 114)