Wesleyan Methodist Association Sunday School Teachers’ Plans

Wesleyan Methodist Association Sunday School Teachers Plans

Selly Oak, Birmingham 1836-7

Some years ago when clearing out the vestry at Selly Oak Methodist Church I came across four Wesleyan Methodist Association Sunday School Teachers Plans for July-December 1836 and January -June 1837 (the originals are deposited in Birmingham Reference Library (Archives Dept.) in the Birmingham South-West Circuit collection (Selly Oak Methodist Church).


The background

The Wesleyan Association came into being through a proposal to establish a ‘theological institution’.  The main objection was probably about the way the proposal went through Conference rather than the actual proposal itself.  Briefly, the 1833 Wesleyan Methodist Conference appointed a committee to draw up a plan for a formal training of ministers and Jabez Bunting was appointed as “President of the Theological Institute and Theological Tutor”.  Bunting was the Missionary Secretary, had twice been President of Conference, served two periods as Secretary of Conference and was Convenor of the Stationing Committee.  The proposal was presented to the 1834 Conference, accepted and the Institution established.  There was some resentment that Bunting had yet another important office.  The opposition was led by Dr. Samuel Warren who published a pamphlet, Remarks on the Wesleyan Theological Institution.  He was suspended as superintendent of the Manchester First Circuit, his appeal was rejected and a further appeal upheld his suspension in March 1835.

At a meeting in November 1834 a ‘Grand Central Association’ was formed and next April over 100 people met to demand self-government in the circuits and representation in Conference.  Conference’s response was to expel Warren, Robert Emmett (a supernumerary minister) and John Averill (a minister in Cornwall).  As a result a separate organization was instituted, which held its first Annual Assembly in 1836 and by the following year the membership was reported to be 21,000.  Dr. Warren was elected President and Matthew Johnson, the leader of the Protestant Methodists, who had thrown in their lot with the new organization, became Secretary.  There were five itinerants, including Warren and representatives from 42 towns and circuits.  One of the chief questions to be settled by the Wesleyan Association was membership of the Annual Assembly.  A group led by Warren opted for each circuit to elect one minister and one layman, but another, led by Robert Eckett of London wanted free representation.  Eckett’s party won the day, Warren left the Association and ultimately became an Anglican.  He seems to have wanted reform, but disliked the way it went.  He died in 1862.

In 1839, the word Methodist was added and the Association became the Wesleyan Methodist Association.  Then, in 1857, it joined with others to form the United Methodist Free Churches.  The United Methodist Free Churches, the Methodist New Connexion and the Bible Christian Connexion came together, in 1907, as the United Methodist Church.  The Methodist Church was formed when the Wesleyan Methodist, Primitive Methodist and United Methodist Churches united in 1932.

So to the local scene: the church and the Sunday School at Selly Oak, Birmingham.

In January 1829 a Methodist, Charles Bridgewater, with his wife Sarah, arrived in Selly Oak as the new Inspector of Tolls at Selly Oak Locks, part of the Netherton and Birmingham Canal Navigation.  Then William Frith, who had a coopers business in Birmingham and was a Methodist local preacher at Cherry Street Wesleyan Methodist Church, built a house in Selly Oak.  His family and the Bridgewaters, together with a few others, began to meet in each others houses for worship.  Soon they established a regular meeting where they were joined by more families, including William Monk who was the canal lock keeper.  By 1834 the group felt strong enough to consider building a chapel, so, on 17th December 1833, a covenant to lease some land was made with the Rodway brothers.  A mortgage of £250 at 5% was obtained from Thomas and John Jeffries, boat builders, of Minworth, Warwickshire.  Charles Bridgewater made the trustees a loan of £50 and the final lease was signed on 20th May 1835.  The land, 12 yards by 16 yards, was leased for 99 years at £1. 4s. 0d. per annum.  It was on the corner of the Selly Oak House estate, alongside the Dingle facing the main Turnpike Road to Worcester.  The church, which was opened on 9th September 1835, seems to have consisted mainly of one rectangular hall with another hall, used as the schoolroom and almost entirely underground, below it.  A minister’s house was built on the left side.  William Frith, who had been acting as class leader, was elected as minister and apparently became known as the ‘Bishop’ of Selly Oak!  As soon as the church was opened it was handed over to the Wesleyan  Methodist Association.

When, in 1846, Selly Oak House estate was sold the land on which the church stood, plus another 352 square yards, was bought by the Jeffries for £43.  They offered the whole plot to the church, the trustees accepted and the lease was transferred from Rodways to the Jeffries.  The church now had a site, extending back 34 yards, with a frontage of 16 yards onto the main road.  By 1856 the trustees were able to pay off the mortgage and a new trust was established on 17th January 1856.  When the Wesleyan Methodist Association with others formed the United Methodist Free Churches, for some unknown reason, the trustees decided to leave the Association and join the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion and thus became part of the Islington Wesleyan Methodist Circuit.

There do not appear to be any records surviving of the early days of the church itself, but a few hints seem to indicate that the church prospered and was able to finance a new building around the mid 1870s.  However, there are some of the Sunday School records (deposited in Birmingham Reference Library) and the Teachers and Committee Minutes of 1836-67 are of particular interest for this article.  So we find that certain rules were adopted at the First General Meeting on 4th April 1836.  These included:

(a) choosing a name – Selly Oak Wesleyan Methodist Association Sunday School (they used ‘Methodist’ even though the Association itself did not until 1839);

(b) electing a management committee of 13 members;

(c) setting up a General Meeting to review the School’s progress, its finances and appoint the committee, having a quorum of five, to meet monthly.

(d) deciding that subscribers who paid 2d per month would be entitled to vote at the Annual Meeting and eligible to serve on the committee.

(e) arranging for a Quarterly Meeting to be held to admit (or expel) teachers, make the Plan for the Quarter, and formulate any by-laws – for example, teachers who were absent for no good reason were fined 3d.

(f) the hours of the Sunday School were to be from 9 o‘clock in the morning and from 2-4 in the afternoon.

(g) fines were to be imposed on late or absent teachers, unless a substitute was provided.

(h) the opening and closing devotions were the responsibility of the Superintendent, who also had to ‘call the register’ of pupils and note the absence of teachers in a ‘forfeit book’ to be presented at each Quarterly Meeting.

(i) On Easter Tuesdays there was to be a special children’s address and afterwards each child would be presented with a 2d cake – the teachers subscribed 13p. per annum towards the cost and any ‘forfeits’ also went into the ‘Cake Fund’.

(j) an Annual Sermon was to be preached in May or June on behalf of the Sunday School, which presumably meant that the collection went to the School.

(k) the Superintendent of the School had to be a member of the Society.

(l) the teachers were put into four groups and required to attend every fourth Sunday.

(m) the scholars had to attend the morning service at the Chapel and the Superintendent was ‘expected to give them a short and pointed address on closing the school in the afternoon.’

The first report shows that there were 71 children registered; that their behaviour had improved and the teachers were encouraged by the progress made.  This progress continued in the following year with ‘a goodly number’ now ‘able to read tolerably well’.  Over the years considerable store was placed on the ability to read, not only for studying  the ‘sacred truths’, but also so that the scholars could be ‘in some measure fitted for the transaction of business and the transmission of their ideas.’

Now, bearing in mind some of the details above, to look at the plans themselves.  First some general observations on the four plans:

  1. There were indeed four groups with the teachers being both men and women.
  2. These particular plans were obviously used as a ‘teachers’ register’ as the ‘p’ after the names surely indicates ‘present’;
  3. Writing as well as reading was taught by a teacher in each group;
  4. Mr. Monk was in charge of the ‘Cake Fund’ (see earlier);
  5. By the 2nd quarter it was obviously decided that it was important to check on ‘absentees’, so certain teachers were appointed to do just that;
  6. By the 4th quarter it appears that some teachers were very highly regarded being designated ‘Teachers of the First Class’ – could this mean that they were to teach the more able scholars or those who were preparing for membership?

Then a few comments on the individual quarters

I. July-September 1836

There are 28 teachers listed (31 in total); 20 men and 8 women

Mr. Bridgewater, William Monk and Miss Monk appear fortnightly

II. October -December 1836

There are 27 teachers listed (28 in total); 19 men and 8 women

Mr Bridgewater appears fortnightly

III.  January-March 1837

There are 34 teachers listed (36 in total); 23 men and 11 women

Mr Bridgewater and Mr. Neal appear fortnightly

IV. April-June 1837

There are 35 teachers listed (38 in total); 22 men and 13 women

Mr. Bridgewater appears fortnightly; Miss Whitehouse and Miss Willmot on consecutive weeks

From an analytical study of the plans we can see that there was considerable family involvement: father and daughter of Lilly;Morvan; Neal;-Tague; and Wright families; William Monk and his two daughters, Miss Monk and Miss E. Monk, then Mr and Mrs Bill and Mr and Mrs Wickstone; and the Messrs Walker, Senior and Junior.

In conclusion the choice of the text at the top of the plans seems to indicate the intention, establishment, development, and dedication of the Sunday School and its staff, moving from: ‘In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withold not thine hand’ to ‘Be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.’

E. Dorothy Graham (January 2003)