Religious rollercoaster | Then & Now

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Gillingham Methodist Church is the High Street’s most striking building, but behind its facade is a tale of intolerance and persecution, says Roger Guttridge

An early 20th century view of Gillingham High Street showing a policeman on point duty at the Station Road junction, the Methodist Church spire in the distance and the tower of the parish church beyond that.

Behind the most imposing building in Gillingham High Street is the story of a religious rollercoaster.
The town’s Methodist Church has hardly changed since it was built in 1876-77, with its spire pointing heavenwards.
But the story of Methodism in Gillingham goes back another century or so – and the movement had a rocky ride in its early years.
It was a very different tale from that which unfolded a few miles up the road at Shaftesbury, which was visited no less than 16 times by the movement’s founder, John Wesley, who is believed to have opened the town’s first chapel in 1766.
While button-mould maker and preacher John Haime was the early driving force of Methodism in Shaftesbury, at Gillingham it was glover and excise officer John Cave who tried to fulfil the same role.
Born in Gillingham, Cave had been living and working in Talgarth, Wales, but returned to his native town to spread the Wesleyan word.
Preaching at outdoor meetings, he sought to stimulate religious discussion and certainly appears to have done that – one of his meetings caused so much dissension that the Riot Act had to be read.
This was the start of what amounted to a campaign of persecution against Cave and other Methodists, who were ’railed against’ every Sunday.
Cave was eventually driven out of town, returning to Wales, where he pondered on ‘why the Lord suffered me to go to Gillingham to experience so much trouble’.

A similar view today showing the Methodist Church and Lloyd’s Bank (right) and the Post Office in the former Fish haberdashery and outfitters premises. Image: Roger Guttridge

A dissenters licence
A breakthrough came, ironically, after Gillingham’s Church of England vicar fell out with local farmer Henry Broadway about a pew in the parish church.
Broadway, who had previously been a trustee of Motcombe’s Methodist chapel (opened in 1774), decided to open his own church at Gillingham.
In 1792, Broadway applied for a licence to allow dissenters to take part in meetings at his house in St Martin’s Street.
‘Broadway himself became a local preacher for 30 years and is remembered as a man with strong passions and feelings, but also as someone with a great regard for the poor,’ says John Porter in his book Gillingham: The Making of a Dorset Town (2011).
‘He had married Mary Carpenter, reputed to be a religious woman, who frequently held public prayer meetings at 5 o’clock in the morning.’

The High Street c1900 – the Methodist Church and Wilts and Dorset Bank on the right with Fish family’s outfitters opposite.

Broadway’s money financed the construction of Gillingham’s first Wesleyan chapel but he died a few years before it opened in 1836.
Construction of its successor 40 years later owed much to the town’s growing prosperity following the arrival of the railway in the 1870s. It was designed by architect Thomas Hudson, whose artist’s sketch features a spire that is slightly shorter than the one which eventually appeared.
The Lloyds’ Bank building next door pre-dates the church by two years and is one of the few in Gillingham which has not changed its use in 150 years.
It was originally the Wilts and Dorset Bank, replacing a building in the Square, which in turn had replaced a banking service conducted from someone’s house.
Present banking trends suggest we might eventually go full circle on that.

Motor vehicles had taken over the High Street by the mid-20th century. Far left is part of Stickland’s garage and motor trading business, which had premises on both sides of the road.

Opposite the bank is a shop with the word ‘Fish’ above the door, but it wasn’t selling sea creatures. This and adjoining Cheapside House – now the Post Office – were run by George and Elizabeth Fish, draper’s and outfitters.
The Fishes were major Gillingham traders who also had shops on the north side of the High Street selling groceries, provisions, furniture and ironmongery. By 1931, Sidney Fish had a boot store in the High Street.

The future of Gillingham Methodist Church is currently under discussion.

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