The Primitive Methodist Church, Mills Terrace, Chatham

By the early nineteenth century, some Methodists believed that Wesleyan Methodism was becoming detached from ordinary people and far too respectable. They believed in reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged by evangelism and outdoor meetings. These critics were eventually expelled from mainstream Methodism and created their own movement, so-called “Primitive Methodism”. Their first chapel was opened in Staffordshire in 1811, and the movement soon spread around the country. The “Prims” were especially strong in working class urban areas.


A preacher from Ipswich created the first Primitive Methodist group in Chatham in 1844. Rooms were rented in various back streets until a substantial chapel was built in George Street off Fair Row in 1849.


By the 1890s, the George Street Chapel had become too small to accommodate the growing congregation. It was “small enough to put in a waistcoat pocket”, according to one minister. The Church purchased a plot on a building estate being developed on former nursery and brickfield land on the western side of Magpie Hall Road.


Plans were drawn up by George Bond, the ubiquitous local architect, and building work was commenced in 1893 by the prolific local builder and borough councillor, Charles Skinner. The building was formally opened in February 1894. Meanwhile the George Street site went through a variety of uses, including the venue for the Chatham Spiritualist Church.


   

The new Primitive Methodist Church was on rising ground, so the entrance to the chapel itself was in Mills Terrace, and that of the adjacent Sunday School at a lower level in Salisbury Road. The exterior was of red brick with stone dressings in the then fashionable Gothic style. A small tower was erected at the Magpie Hall Road end. The new church could accommodate 200 worshippers on pitch pine seating. The timbered interior was in plain “Prim” style. The Sunday School had room for 400 children.


At the stone-laying ceremony in 1893, a minister reminded his audience that the “Prims” had been born in open air meetings and, said the local newspaper, “hoped the time would not come when they would be too respectable to continue working in the open air”.




However, the denomination’s days were numbered. The Wesleyans and “Prims” had been working towards reconciliation for some time. With the decline of non-conformism after the First World War, the pressure was on for a rationalisation. In 1932, the two groups came together to form the United Methodists.


The Mills Terrace building remained open for worship until its Diamond Jubilee year in 1954, when it was put up for sale. The buildings have had a variety of uses since (e.g. Southern Sheds Ltd were the occupants in the late 1970s). At the time of writing, they are again being used for worship, this time by the Christian Spiritualist Church.


NB The “Prims” also had a chapel in Gillingham Road, Gillingham until 1923, when a school-chapel was opened at the bottom of Nelson Road to replace it. Anticipating Methodist unity, the Primitive Methodists kept the building small, but left a large area in front empty for a possible larger church later. This never happened; the former school-chapel is still in religious use, but by a different denomination.