Congregationalism in Blackpool was originated by a number of itinerant preachers who frequently came to the “summer resort for sea-bathing”, as it was described over a hundred years ago, from such places as Poulton and Elswick.
The most industrious of these visiting evangelists was a Mr Joseph Speakman of Poulton. His efforts resulted in the creation of a fellowship of worshippers who met at a place called Nickson’s Barn. This barn was situated at the corner of Market Street and Lane Ends Street (now Church Street).
When we think of this beginning in a barn it is easy to recall the story of a beginning in another barn, in Bethlehem, nearly two thousand years ago!
It was in March 1824, the first minister for the Blackpool congregation was appointed. The Rev James Wayman tells us that “Nonconformists were looked down upon with ill-disguised contempt in those days. Dissent was considered an impertinence.” Nevertheless, by the year 1825 Congregationalism had obtained such a foothold that it became necessary to erect a chapel to house its adherents.
There was very strong opposition to the establishment of this Congregational place of worship. Attempts had been made to obtain a site for it nearer to what is now the promenade. But the Anglicans of those days saw to it that no prominent site would be available. So the first Bethesda Chapel was erected on the only piece of ground that the early pioneers of Congregationalism could obtain. The site was bought from the Bonny family for the sum of £15 6s. The foundation stone of this first purpose-built place of worship in Blackpool was laid in 1825. In July of the following year the building was completed and opened by Rev Dr Raffles of Liverpool. It was situated, in what was then an out of the way place known as Bonny’s Lane, on the corner of Kent and Bethesda Roads.
The following years witnessed the beginnings of Blackpool’s remarkable growth. In 1846 the first railway to Blackpool was laid, and with the railway there came increasing numbers of visitors, and also residents and business people to accommodate them.
It was not long after the opening of the railway that the little Bethesda Chapel was unable to contain all the visitors who, very different from so many of those who visit Blackpool nowadays, considered it their duty to go to church on Sundays.
There was also another difficulty. The approaches to Bethesda were so bad – becoming muddy pools after the slightest shower of rain – that only the most ardent worshippers would make their way to the little chapel on their holiday Sundays.
So the need for a more adequate and a more conveniently situated place of worship for the growing number of Congregationalists, who were coming to Blackpool from all parts of Lancashire, became urgent. This need was one of the factors that led to the erection of the Victoria Street Church.
It is important, however, that we should note that there was another factor behind the establishment of this new place of worship. A hundred and fifty years ago there was a religious revival stirring the churches of Lancashire. It was known as “The Great Bible Movement” which was characterised by a renewed zeal for spreading the Gospel. The Congregational Year Book for 1850 declares that our church was one of the fruits of this religious revival.
In 1846, the Victoria Street site bought by Mr James Dilworth of Manchester from Rev William Thornber, Vicar of St John’s Church. In August of the same year an appeal was made to the people of Blackpool and visitors for subscriptions to build a Congregational chapel in the centre of the town.
On September 13th 1849, the new chapel was opened in Victoria Street. Initially it had no minister and was greatly helped in these early days by Rev R M Griffiths of Kirkham after he retired to Blackpool.The new church had a promising beginning. Between two and three hundred worshippers would be found within its doors on Sundays and the Sunday school could boast of fifty scholars. After Victoria Street was opened, the original Bethesda Chapel became disused and was later used periodically by the local Methodists.
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