Whitley Bay United Methodist Free Church, Northumberland

Remains of the church on the morning following the fire in 1903
Image from the collections of the Newcastle upon Tyne District Archives
The rebuilt church on the site of the former chapel
Image from the collections of the Newcastle upon Tyne District Archives

Whitley Bay was established in 1116 as a hamlet owned by the Prior of Tynemouth. Until the early years of the twentieth century, it was known as Whitley or Whitley-by-the-sea but the word “Bay” was added to avoid confusion for travellers between there and Whitby in North Yorkshire. It remained relatively undeveloped until around 1860 when new housing was constructed and then from 1882 when the North Eastern Railway opened a station, rapid development took place.

In 1868, a UMFC chapel was formed in a cottage on what would later become Simpson Street. The members worked hard to erect a “proper” chapel that they could call their own and on 4 July 1878, Rev A Halliday, President of the Conference, preached at the opening of the Cullercoats and Whitley UMFC at the corner of Whitley Road and Margaret Road. This was the first Nonconformist Church in the then village.

The Society grew rapidly and the Sunday School, especially, was growing and in 1888 work began on erecting a church hall opened in August 1891 by Mrs Benson who contributed £50 to the fund. A new organ was installed in the church in July 1895 at a cost of £270.

In July 1899, the church broke away from the North Shields UMFC Circuit and became a one church Circuit and under the leadership of their new minister, Rev Bruce W Rose, plans were set in place for the extension of the premises to include class rooms and a larger hall. The foundation stones were laid on 6 May 1903 for what was to become known as “The Benson Hall”, Mrs Benson having given £100 and 40 yards of land for the purpose. At the same time as construction was being undertaken, electricity was installed in the church.

On Friday 16 October, 1903, in the early hours of the morning, the chapel caught fire and was completely destroyed despite the best endeavours of two fire engines and the local police. It was believed that the fire started in the basement of the chapel building. The adjacent hall, not yet officially opened, was pressed into service and by the end of the following day hymn books, an organ, piano and seating had been borrowed for the service to take place whilst handbills had been printed and displayed around the town. Remarkably, the 10.45 am and 6.30pm services continued on Sunday 18 October.

The Benson Hall was opened on 4 November to a large gathering of local people. Shortly afterwards payments were received from the Insurance company amounting to £1800 for the church, £300 for the organ and £33 for the Hall and Piano and plans were afoot for the building of a new church.

The tender of Mr Styan of £2,990 for the new church building was accepted in March 1904 and the stone laying ceremony performed in June, by Mr John Mackenzie. Furnishings for the new church included: Organ from Blackett & Howden at £500; Porch, oak panelling and pulpit from Robson & Sons £200; Electric lighting £75; Tip up seats (cinema style) £275 18s. The new church was opened on 7 June 1904 by Alderman Thomas Byers JP.

Little was undertaken to reduce the debt which by 1911 stood at over £2000. Despite the intervention of WWI, membership rose to over 150 when Rev E F H Capey accepted an invitation to become the church’s minister. In March 1916, the church began using Capey’s “Sanctuary Worship” published that year by the Connexion and although services continued, much of the buildings were requisitioned by the military.

Following the cessation of hostilities, a stained glass memorial window was installed in the church along with a brass tablet and oak table in memory of those who had fallen. The table and tablet were unveiled on 13 November 1920 and the Trust Minutes record…“the service when the tablet was unveiled was a service of thankful commemoration. The Deputy Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne, Captain Arthur Lambert, MC, addressed us in kindly and well chosen words, and performed the act of unveiling. The oaken table is the work of a local artist, Mr Francis, of Park Parade, who is himself, we hear, a V.C. Unfortunately, the table was incomplete on the day of the unveiling and must not be judged by its appearance then. The names of the men who have returned have been cut into the oak and have yet to be gilded, and when the final touches have been given, we shall have a table which will add to the beauty and sacredness of our sanctuary”.

Methodist Union was agreed unanimously and following this, the church became known as “St Margaret’s”

The Harvest Festival service on 3 September 1939 included the declaration of war and the announcement that the evening service would end before blackout time. After October 8th, the evening service was moved to 3pm because of the blackout restrictions which were heavy being a coastal town. By March 1941, all of the premises, with the exception of the church and vestry, had been requisitioned by the Military Authorities and in February 1943 damage had been reported during an air raid (the nearby Trinity Methodist Church was completely destroyed by a 500lb bomb on the night of 29 August 1940). St Margaret’s suffered a lot of damage either from blast or the occupation of the buildings and the compensation paid at the end of the war, £131, did little to meet the cost of repairs.

Church life continued and by 1965, membership had risen to its pre-war total of 157. The early 1970s saw repairs to the church Tower with help from the Circuit funds whilst the members agreed to improvements to the church amounting to £7000. These improvements included new seating facing the memorial window, floor sanding and polishing, new lighting, small pulpit, redecoration and ceiling lowering in the hall, new toilets and the repainting of all parts of the premises. The works were completed in time for Easter 1975.

By 1989, the premises were again in need of significant major repairs and the decision was taken reluctantly to close the church on 9 July. The church was subsequently demolished and flats built on the site.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *