A history of Hebron Methodist Church

Recent public concerns which led to the formation of the Friends of Hebron Burial Ground in January 2003, call for a re-appraisal of the noble edifice this burial ground once served. Hebron Methodist Church, which opened in 1854, was the result of a devastating schism that split the Methodist Church in 1849. Resentment of the creeping domination of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference by the autocratic Jabez Bunting had been growing in the provinces, and when three ministers were expelled for criticising him there was a rebellion of 100,000 members throughout the country.

There was a massive exodus from the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in British Road (then called Victoria Road or Back Lane) and its membership dropped from 343 to 71. The expelled brethren, or Reformers, moved into the British School, built in 1846 for the children of parents who were opposed to the partisan Anglican instruction given in the National Schools. The British School was still (until 1867) a single-storey building (Malagos 9 and 10) and in 1852 the Reformers bought land from Mr William Goulstone at the rear of his Academy for Boys in North Street (Malago 14) and built Hebron Methodist Church, in the approved new classical style. In the days before the construction of the little streets of terraced houses – Braunton Road, Hebron Road, Melville Terrace and Sion Road – this building must have dominated the entire neighbourhood. Among the leaders of the new Society were John Millard (see Malagos 20 and 21), and Capper Pass, whose smelting industry in lower Bedminster no doubt contributed handsomely to the funds.

There were places in the new church for 470 people, and a further 110 in the gallery opposite the pulpit. Side galleries were added in 1867 and a further choir gallery erected behind the preacher’s rostrum in January 1872 increased the accommodation to 862 persons.

In 1853 an adjoining plot – formerly the pleasure grounds of Mr Goulstone’s Academy was purchased for £300.00 as a burial ground. This received over 1,000 burials during the next hundred years, including in 1865 the unmarked grave of the notorious imposter Mary Baker, more commonly known as Princess Caraboo. (see Malago 31).

There was a further massive southward extension of the church to Sion Road in 1885 to provide Sunday School accommodation. This was built in a decorative mock-Jacobean style, in coloured brick and dressed stone. The interior was no less imposing: a central assembly hall rose to a continuous line of lanterns, or box skylights, along the apex of the roof, and was flanked by class rooms at two levels, the upper floor reached by a balcony supported by elaborate cast iron brackets.

The construction of impressive buildings in British Road, inspired probably by the continuing rivalry between the two branches of the Methodist movement, is probably unique. To the original Wesleyan Chapel of 1836 and the British School of 1846, were added Hebron Church 1854, its Sunday School 1885, and the parent church, making a spectacular recovery after the schism of 1849, built a new church, Ebenezer, on a truly monumental scale in 1886, alongside the 1836 chapel. All these buildings were still standing in 1975; it is regrettable that modernisation, demolition and, in the case of the British School, mindless neglect and vandalism, means that only Hebron, its Sunday School and burial ground remain in their original form. The establishment of the Bedminster Conservation Area in 1998 will at least ensure the survival of what is left.

Hebron Church in its heyday was noted for its outgoing and missionary zeal. It fostered daughter churches at Ashton Gate in Greenway Bush Lane; Salem Chapel, Trafalgar Terrace, Bedminster Down; and the John Millard Memorial Chapel in the Chessels.

The war memorial records 21 men of the congregation who died in 1914-1918. In their memory a fine stained glass window entitled ‘The Great Sacrifice’ was installed in the vestibule. A rare photograph of this period shows wounded servicemen being treated to tea in the school room.

One of the most famous sons of Hebron was Rev. Heber Goldsworthy who went out to China as a missionary and, after 17 years of devoted service, was killed at the age of 42 by bandits who attacked his house on 6th March 1938.

The Second World War caused extensive damage. All the windows on the south side of the church were shattered when a bomb fell in the burial ground. (There is a very graphic account of this air raid by Mr Chambers of Hebron Road, published in Malago 1, pages 18-20). There is no doubt that the church would have been gutted had not fire watchers taken it in turn to sleep in the premises during the worst raids. Even so, the damage to the gallery by one incendiary bomb before it could be extinguished could still be seen in the 1970s, and indicates how close the church came to destruction.

The Rev. Jack House, then a seventeen-year-old local preacher “on note”,*, preached his first sermon in Hebron Church in 1953 and recalls that when the congregation assembled for the Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve they always sang Charles Wesley’s “Come let’s renew, our journey pursue” on the church steps.

In the post war period falling numbers and rising costs called for the rationalisation of the Methodist Church in Bedminster. Hebron Church was large and increasingly difficult to heat and maintain. This issue came to a head over the cost of a new heating system. In the mid-1960s, during the ministry of George Lawrence, the decision was taken to close, and most of the members joined the congregation of the Methodist Church in Stackpool Road, Southville. The memorial window and wall tablets went to the rebuilt Ebenezer down the road, but very few members went back to the parent church. At about the same time the Methodist churches on Windmill Hill, the Chessels and Greenway Bush Lane closed, and their congregations dispersed to other churches.

Hebron Church was sold to the Bedminster Spiritualists who had previously met in a Nissen hut in West Street. The magnificent Sunday School building next door, after a long period of vacancy and neglect, was rescued and restored for business premises, c. 1980. The great central hall was filled in and used for a private enterprise job centre, but the fine cast iron balcony brackets are still visible.

Faced with the huge cost of renewing the roof, in 2002 the Spiritualists moved to smaller accommodation at the corner of Ruby Street and the Chessels, and Hebron Church was acquired by developers and converted into flats. They intended to clear the burial ground for a car park, but encountered local opposition. It was then put up for auction and sold for £21,500 to an Italian speculator who, at that time promised to respect the wishes of the local community. On 18th January 2003 Mike Meechem and his friends called a public meeting in the Ebenezer Church hall to gauge what the public wanted. The meeting was well attended and there was unanimous support for preserving the burial ground, which many have come to value as a small haven of peace and nature in an otherwise urban landscape. The problem of access, or how to maintain it, remains at the time of writing unresolved. If you would like to become a ‘Friend of Hebron Burial Ground’, see the Help Us page for details.

© Anton Bantock: March 2003