Around 1347 the Franciscan Friary was built at the southern end of Walsingham village. Visiting pilgrims to the shrine often stayed there. The ruins next door to the chapel now occupy 2.5 acres but in its prime it occupied 13 acres. This means that the site of our chapel was in all likelyhood part of the original Friary that was dissolved and demolished in 1538. This means that preaching and worship first occurred on this site over 650 years ago.
On Tuesday October 30th. 1781, John Wesley wrote in his journal: ‘At two in the afternoon I preached at Walsingham, a place famous for generations. Afterwards I walked over what is left of the famous Abbey, the east end of which is still standing. We then went to the Friary; the cloisters and chapel whereof are most entire. Had there been a grain of virtue or public spirit in Henry the Eighth, these noble buildings need not have run to ruin.’
By the time Wesley arrived in Walsingham, the Methodist Society had been meeting for two years, although they did not have their own building. Unfortunately the earliest minute books of the Society have long disappeared. The Accounts Book of the Trustees from 1793 tells us that ‘the building of Walsingham Wesleyan Chapel was begun 10th. June, 1793’
A contemporary account tells us “after singing and prayer, upon the ground the foundation was laid. The first stone was laid at the South West corner by Mr Weldrill, officer of excise, the second by Lewis Minns, miller, at the North West corner, the fourth was laid at the South East corner by Martha Weller, shopkeeper, the fourth was laid at the North West corner by Mr Denton, then assistant preacher in the circuit.”
This is a hugely significant date in Methodism as Walsingham was the first purpose-built chapel in the whole of the District still in use. A year later, almost to the day, the records tell us the church was opened by worship on Sunday June 8th 1794 by Mr Charles Boon, the preacher of Yarmouth and Chairman of the District. The text taken was Haggai Chap 2 vv 7, 8, 9. Total cost was around £750.
The ministers at the time in the Walsingham circuit were William Denton and Isaac Lily and in 1794 William Heath and Francis West. There were 200 members.
Throughout the 19th century, Walsingham was at the head of a Wesleyan circuit stretching at times from Heacham and Hunstanton in the west to Titteshall in the south and Bodham in the East. The exact composition varied as the circuit boundaries were redrawn, a process that continues to this day. In 1798 the circuit comprised 12 churches with Walsingham, Burnham Thorpe, Wells and Briston being the largest the total membership being 157. By 1847 the circuit had expanded to 33 places the strongest being Wells, Walsingham, Fakenham and Docking. By April 1881 there were 16 chapels in the circuit but after reorganisation Walsingham found itself in the Dereham circuit by 1895. After Methodist union in 1932 the chapel became part of the Wells circuit and by 1951 was part of the larger Fakenham and Wells circuit. Later still it was combined into the Fakenham, Wells and Holt circuit until eventually becoming the current Central Norfolk circuit.
During the period 1901-1913 collections averaged between 8 and 9 shillings per week. Pew rents brought in £10 per annum in 1888 but had declined to £2 2shillings by 1921 the last year they were recorded.
1790 the Methodist Conference Minutes stated, ‘All preaching houses in the future are to be built on the same plans as the London or Bath Chapels’, the London Chapel being Wesley’s Chapel in City Road. These instructions are very much in evidence in the Walsingham building. The interior of the chapel is dominated by the imposing pulpit, of which it was once remarked, (possibly by the author of this article!), ‘ I expected to meet a Sherpa guide half way up to lead me to the summit.’ This is not the original pulpit, dating from 1890 when the original was sold to a local businessman, Mr. Back, for the sum of five shillings. There is also a 3 sided gallery, still containing the original box pews, although the ground floor pews were replaced during Victorian times. The accounts entry states, ‘May 19th. 1888. Paid 2 men for removing old pews to Mr. Woodcock’s brewery 3s-0d.’
Due to the fragmentation of Methodism, there were 4 places of Methodist worship recorded in the Religious Census of 1851, the only one ever taken, with total attendances of over 170 in the afternoons and 130 in the evening.
The Chapel complex is also fascinating as it presents a whole; chapel, manse where the minister lived and Sunday School room or hall. Although the latter two are now homes and no longer owned by the Chapel it’s still very easy to see their original functions.
The School Room dates back to 1890 when it was built on the site of the stable for the minister’s horse. It cost £229-15s-11.5d !! Most of this money was raised by public subscription although £7 was borrowed from the general chapel fund of the Wesleyan Church and £60 from Mr George Wright a Methodist Miller and farmer from Great Walsingham. Both were repaid. After many years use it was eventually sold to the Knights of Malta who later sold it for conversion into a holiday home.
The manse was built around the same time as the chapel at a cost of £105-10s-9d for the building and £48-1s-6d for the furniture. It was not always used by the minister as there were other manses around the circuit and was sometimes rented out. Eventually it too was sold to the Knights of Malta and later converted to a holiday home.
In more recent times a renovation programme costing £28,000 was undertaken between 1985 and 1987, and there are presently plans in hand to make access to the building easier for the less able.
Walsingham has been a site of pilgrimage almost 1000 years, following the building of the house representing the house where Jesus lived, after the Lady Richeldis had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Today people come to Walsingham from all over the world, with many of them incorporating a visit to the chapel into their visit. This has led to a wonderful ecumenical movement within the various denominations, and indeed, much of the information in this profile comes to us by way of the Rev. John Hawkes, a Catholic Deacon who produced his book, ‘Walsingham; Methodism in the 19th Century’, in 1998, as a special study for the Open University, and Methodism owes him a great vote of thanks for his contribution to our heritage. This book is still available second hand on Amazon if anyone is interested in learning more.