I was in London last week and availed of the opportunity to revisit the War Museum on Lambeth Road. A new exhibition on “The Battle of the Somme” which opened on 1st June prompted my journey across the city. Sadly it proved to be a disappointment. Opened to mark the 90th anniversary of the battle in which the French and British forces suffered 600,000 casualties for little or no gain against German losses of 300,000, it did nothing to awaken the horror or the inhumanity of that four month long battle. On the first day of the Somme the Anglo French suffered no less than 57,000 casualties and amongst them was an Athy man Robert Hacket.
The exhibition was largely given over to the works of the war artists including our own William Orpen and a few personal artifacts on display including the last letter of a 22 year old soldier who was killed in the first hour of the battle and the football kicked by a British officer across no mans land as he encouraged his men to advance against the German lines. I left the Museum extremely disappointed and headed back to the city centre, stopping on the way to visit the Methodist Central Hall in Parliament Square.
Described as an imposing square block in the Renaissance style it was built on the site of a Music Hall called the Royal Aquarium and fittingly the Central Hall still continues occasionally to be used for concerts and exhibitions. I am told that many of the larger British cities have Methodist Central Halls, all intended to be places where Methodist visitors and indeed anyone else can visit for services and as a point of contact. The Parliament Square building was opened in 1912 after a fund raising campaign launched fourteen years earlier in Britain and in Ireland which became known as the “Million Guinea Fund”. It was officially called the “Wesleyan Methodist 20th Century Fund” and was intended to raise a guinea from a million contributors to finance the building of the Central Hall in London as a monument to mark the centenary of John Wesley's death.
Wesley was the great evangelical preacher of his day who once passed through Athy while journeying from Portlaoise to Carlow but unusually for him he did not preach in the South Kildare town. The date was Saturday, 25th April 1789. Nevertheless a small Methodist community developed in Athy around the beginning of the 19th century and has retained a constant presence in the town for over 200 years. I was interested to find on visiting the Westminster Central Hall that it holds 50 bound volumes containing the names of those who contributed a guinea towards the “20th Century Fund”. The volumes are cataloged geographically and the pages record not only the donor's names but also his or her signature as individual pages were sent to each participating Methodist community before being returned to London for binding. The pages relating to the Irish contributors were however not to be found, even though the Irish members of John Wesley's Church contributed over £50,000 to the fund. However, Richard Rathcliffe whom I met on my visit and who is the archivist in the Central Hall told me that the monies collected in Ireland were retained to help develop the church's work in the various Irish Methodist circuits. The written records of the Irish donors were not forwarded to London and there is uncertainty as to whether they are still in existence. If they are, Westminster Central Hall and especially Richard Rathcliffe who has written a booklet on “The Wesleyan Methodist Historic Roll” would like to hear of their whereabouts.
The Great Hall located at the top of the grand staircase in the Central Hall was built to accommodate 2,350 persons in a space covered by a dome which is the third largest in London, being exceeded only by that of St. Paul's Cathedral and what was the reading room of the British Museum. The impression created is that of a vast open space, recreating the open air meeting style of John Wesley's ministry of the 18th century.
It was in the Methodist Central Hall that the general assembly of the United Nations held it's inaugural meeting in 1946 and another notable first was the premier of Lloyd Webber's first musical, “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” held in the same hall in 1968. Webber's father was incidentally musical director of the Central Hall at that time.
I remember old folk in Athy, in the 1950's and later, referring to the Methodist Church in Woodstock Street as the Wesleyan Methodist Church. I wasn't aware of any particular significance in the name and indeed some years ago a member of the church assured me that the name Wesleyan Methodist was not correct. He was right as I found out when I read John Rathcliffe's booklet in which he outlined some basic facts about the “20th Century Fund” and the 50 leather bound volumes recording the names of the donors to that fund. In addition in the booklet he gave a succinct history of John Wesley's Church which was founded in 1729 as an Evangelical movement within the Church of England. After Wesley's death in 1791 his followers broke away from the Church of England and formed the Wesleyan Church. Disagreement among the Wesleyans lead to the formation of the Methodist New Connexions in 1797, the Primitive Methodists in 1807, the Bible Christians in 1815, the Wesleyan Protestant Methodists in 1827, the Wesleyan Methodists in 1834 and the United Methodist Free Church in 1837. The last three groups amalgamated in 1857 to form the United Methodist Free Church. In 1907 the Methodist New Connexions, the Bible Christians and the United Methodist Free Church came together to form the United Methodist Church. Eventually the Wesleyans, the Primitive Methodists and the United Methodists came together in 1932 to form the Methodist Church. So it would seem that the old folk in Athy were correct in referring to the Wesleyan Methodist Church which it was up to 1932 but which thereafter was more properly called the Methodist Church.
Another interesting meeting on the day of my visit to the Central Hall was with Mervyn Appleby who gave a delightfully interesting tour of the complex and later spoke to me of the Burslem Sunday School. A pottery town, now part of Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem was visited by John Wesley on several occasions from 1760 onwards and became a great centre of Wesleyan Methodism. The Burslem Sunday School founded in 1787 broke with the Wesleyan Methodists in 1836 in a dispute over teaching on the Sabbath. That is until 1971 when Mervyn Appleby as a young minister had the task of telling the “elders” of the Sunday School of the personal financial liability they would all have to shoulder while they continued to remain outside the mainstream Methodist Church. The Sunday School was closed and the nearby Methodist Church congregation swelled with the intake of the Sunday School adherents who en masse walked on the following Sunday into church to rejoin again the Methodist Church community their ancestors had left almost 150 years previously. It was a wonderful story and one which I hope Mervyn Appleby who played such a central role in the events of 35 years ago will record in writing while his recall of those days is still fresh in his memory.
One man who did record in his own way the life of the people of the Potteries was Arnold Bennett who as a young Methodist attended the Burslem Sunday School. His second novel, “Anna of the Five Towns” published in 1901 dealt with the provincial life of the Potteries and of his experiences there during the first 22 years of his life. Indeed he returned to the Potteries for the background to many of his novels and short stories and in time became the most famous author to come from the pottery town of Stoke-on-Trent.
The Methodist Church in Athy which now forms part of the Portlaoise circuit has recently seen the departure of its Minister Rev. Noel Fallows to Strabane to be replaced by Rev. Louise Donald who is taking up her first appointment. We wish her well in her ministry and also extend good wishes to Monsignor John Wilson who has replaced Fr. Philip Dennehy as Parish Priest of St. Michael's. We have had a number of Canons of the church as Parish Priests in the past but to my knowledge never a Monsignor. Is this I wonder a first for this ancient parish of ours?