The church in Marlborough Road St Albans is the fifth place of worship in the history of our Methodist congregation.
Although John Wesley visited St Albans four times, in 1748, 1759, 1771 and 1782, it does not appear that he ever preached there. Two places for Methodist worship in St Albans were registered at the end of the eighteenth century, the dwelling house of David Kidd, baker, in January 1793, and a barn on the premises of Charles Kentish, baker, in March 1794 (this was in Romeland, very close to St Albans Abbey). Four steps leading to a wall are all that remain of this first Methodist meeting place.
The St Peter’s Street Meeting House 1801 – 1824
In 1801 the group of Methodists moved to a meeting house abandoned by the Baptists in Crabtree Yard, St. Peter’s Street, and it became their meeting place for nearly a quarter of a century. The room, which could seat about 150 people, lay behind two public houses, the Crabtree Inn and Windmill Inn. According to the Ordnance Survey map of 1878, these inns occupied a frontage of forty feet on the west side of St. Peter’s Street – the Windmill occupying the position of the present Britannia Building Society (No. 49) and the Crabtree Inn, about half the frontage of the site occupied by British Home Stores. When the Wesleyans moved to Lower Dagnall Street in 1824, the meeting house became a skittle alley for the Crabtree Inn (which was pulled down in the late nineteenth century) and later for the Windmill Inn which survived beyond 1907.
The Lower Dagnall Street Chapel 1824 – 1841
When the Wesleyan chapel was built in Lower Dagnall Street, it was very much on the edge of the town, with the new Verulam Road not yet named. The new Town Hall was not built until 1829-31 and pig pens blocked the traffic in Upper Dagnall Street on market days. John Wood purchased the land and the new chapel opened on 7 January 1824.
The Upper Dagnall Street Chapel 1841 – 1898
For some time the Lower Dagnall Street Chapel had been too small to meet the needs of the Society, with people having to crowd on the steps. By 1840 the St. Albans membership numbered 152 but the number of regular hearers was far greater – 350 as stated on the application to build the Upper Dagnall Street Chapel. It was thought that a more comfortable chapel on a better site (perhaps even nearer the main street) was needed. The cost of the new chapel in Upper
Dagnall Street including the land was £1,800. Measuring sixty feet by forty-five feet, the new chapel could seat 469 people.
This chapel was used until 1898 when the premises were sold to the printers Gibbs and Bamforth and became the printing works of the Herts Advertiser. The site is now the storerooms behind Argos.
By 1897 the population of St. Albans was about 15,000. The average congregation at Dagnall Street was 450 to 500 with the chapel practically full in the evening. With the arrival of a new minister, Rev Joseph Jackson, in 1896, there were great hopes for the growth of the work, especially in view of the increased number of working people at the factories in the town.
In March 1897 the Trustees secured the land in Marlborough Road for a new chapel. The site was in the heart of a middle class area but within easy reach of poorer sections of the population. It was bought for £810. It subsequently transpired that the deacons of Spicer Street Independent Chapel had also tried to secure the site in Marlborough Road to build Trinity Church.
The church at Marlborough Road
On this large empty site the plans were for a substantial church. The outside measurements were to be 88’ by 56’. There were to be both end and side galleries. The application to build allowed for 968 sittings (an average of 18” had been allowed for each person!) – of these 568 were to be let, 200 allowed for the Sunday school children and further 200 free seats allowed. The schoolroom (current hall) was planned to be 60’ by 30’ and there were 5 additional classrooms.
The proposed building was of Gothic design and was composed of red brick and stone with a tiled roof. A central feature was the tower which was placed between the schoolroom (hall) and the church. A staircase led from the schoolroom through the tower and into the church gallery.
The rostrum and choir were virtually on the same level and a newly enlarged organ would be placed in the organ chamber.
The architects were Messrs Gordon, Lowther and Gunton of London and the work was carried out by Ezra Dunham, a local builder and one of the Trustees of the Chapel. The estimated outlay, excluding the £810 for the land, was just over £6,000.
The Church opened on 30 June 1898 at 3.15pm following a public lunch served in the schoolroom at 1pm. The MP for Scarborough, Mr J Compton Rickett, in the presence of the Mayor and Corporation, formally opened the church.
The Trustees of Marlborough Road Methodist Church in 1898
Into the twentieth century
In 1900 Marlborough Road Wesleyan Chapel stood in a St. Albans very different from that of today. There were few houses beyond the Crown Hotel in Hatfield Road until one came to Oaklands. Victoria Street was largely developed during the nineteenth century but there was no
Trinity Church and no buildings between Upper Lattimore Road and Beaconsfield Road. London Road had been built up gradually during the nineteenth century. Marlborough Road was one of several churches to be erected in a spate of church building. It preceded Trinity Congregational (now United Reformed) Church, SS Alban and Stephen Roman Catholic Church, Beaconsfield Road, and St. Paul’s Church in the newly growing area of Fleetville. Hatfield Road Methodist Chapel was built in 1906 on the site we know today.
In 1903, a house next to the church in New Kent Road was conveyed from Mr Chant to the Church Trustees for £310. This was occupied for many years by the church caretaker. In the early years of the twentieth century, there were difficulties at Marlborough Road with debt and it was not until 1912 that this was cleared.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, the Marlborough Road schoolroom was occupied by the military authorities. In January 1915 it was agreed that the Sunday School should not make its contribution to the Trust funds because it was unable to use the premises. The Commander of the Division of Troops wrote to the Trustees saying that they would not use the schoolroom for billeting purposes unless absolutely necessary. From August 1915 the schoolroom was used as a recreation room for the soldiers including a billiards table.
After 1918, the Trustees were at last able to implement plans (that had been delayed by the war) to improve the building, install electric lighting and overhaul the organ.
Early in 1935, a design from Messrs Elliots of Reading was accepted for a Communion Table in memory of the late Ezra Dunham (d.1933). This is the Communion Table used today. The Cross that now stands on it carries the names of four members who were killed during the Second World War: Pilot Leslie Burton (d.1940), Pilot Donald Bennett, Pilot Officer K. Jolly (d.1944) and Private John Freeman (d.1945).
At the beginning of the Second World War the schoolroom was taken over by the Ministry of Labour which paid rent to the church. After the war, the Education Authority was allowed to use the schoolroom for physical education classes for two schools.
By 1947 the Trustees were preparing for the fiftieth anniversary of Marlborough Road and agreed to improve the organ. It was decided to install a tubular pneumatic action and move the organ console to a position behind the preacher – the pulpit and rostrum to be moved forward four feet. The scheme cost almost £1,200.
The picture above shows the church in 1962. Within ten years, the spire had to be removed because there were problems with loose tiles.
The ministries of Neville Ashton (1978-83) and Christopher Smith (1983-88) saw the planning and completion of a scheme which marked the greatest change to the building since it opened in 1898.
Costing almost £90,000, the enlargement of the vestibule and the roofing-in of the corridor which separates the church from the hall were great improvements as was the ramp to give disabled access.
In the early 1990s, the need to restore the brickwork around the rear window led to the design of a new memorial window. It was made by S. M. Bowman of Bowman’s Stained Glass, Haddenham, Bucks.
In 1994 major work, costing £30,000, was carried out on the organ. The internationally renowned organist, Peter Hurford, gave the opening concert on the refurbished organ. Since 1995, there have been weekly Tuesday lunchtime recitals in association with the New School of Organ
Studies. The high quality of the organ has led to it being used regularly by competitors in the bi-annual International Organ Festival.
In the years after the Centenary in 1998, there were extensive renovations of the hall and kitchen. Today there are plans to reorder the church premises to meet the needs of the twenty-first century.