History of Stanhope Methodist Church
John Wesley made thirteen visits to Weardale. On each occasion he preached at Ireshopeburn, initially in the open air and, after 1760, next to the site of the Dale’s first Methodist chapel to be known forever as High House. New buildings followed in Wolsingham and Westgate before Stanhope’s first Wesleyan Methodist chapel was completed in 1800. Wesley recorded only two visits to Stanhope – in June 1788 at the age of 85 and June 1790, only nine moths before he died. On his first visit, he described Stanhope as eminent for nothing in this age but a very uncommon degree of wickedness! He stayed two days, preaching twice. The second time at five in the morning in the upper room of a house in the market-place. It was exceedingly crowded. The main beam supporting it began to give way. The floor began to sink. One man leaped out of the window and the rest slowly and quietly went out so that nobody was hurt except a poor dog that was under the window. “I then preached in the open air, to twice or thrice as many as the room would have contained, who were all attention. O how white are these fields to the harvest.”
In June two years later, he preached again in the market-place. No house would contain the congregation. “So I stood in a broad place near the church; and enforced, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” Maybe the house collapse had encouraged the building of the first Methodist chapel in the village. It was completed in 1800 at the roadside edge of a field along that part of the village back lane which soon became known as Chapel Street. The two-storey stone building was small, unpretentious and rectangular, typical of the first generation of Methodist chapels of the 18th century.
At that time, the new Wesleyan society at Stanhope had yet to experience the vigorous nineteenth-century rivalry of Primitive Methodists and their new 1849 Gilmore chapel. For the next 50 years, the village population doubled through the impact of mid-nineteenth century lead-mining and smelting, limestone quarrying and railway transport. Between 1849-1897, the Gilmore Primitive chapel with Sunday school rooms had been enlarged four times! Only the latter now survive as domestic accommodation.
By the 1860s, the little Wesleyan chapel was much too small. It was sold and converted into two present-day dwellings. A new building and adjacent Sunday schoolrooms were essential. These were completed in 1871. The new complex, a short distance from the 1800 chapel, was large with many steps. It coincided with extensive work at neighbouring Ashes quarry which supplied both builders and sandstone for the impressive new, ornate architect-designed chapel, scheduled now as a grade two listed building The unusual semi-circular, amphitheatre interior, extended c.1900, comfortably seats 350. In 1906, the church membership had risen to 173. Gas piped from the village gas works gave wall lighting which sufficed until the 1930s. The splendid pine ceiling and sloping pews, the tall, arched, leaded windows, including one beautiful stained glass portrayal of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, give the chapel considerable character. A large elevated choir and pipe organ area face the congregation. The organ, transferred from the Gilmore chapel in c.1968, and a smaller, ground-level, moveable pulpit are innovations.
The school buildings were an integral part of the chapel with a joint central-heating system using coke and since 1967 an oil-fired boiler. The school served the village both as a Methodist day school and Sunday school. The school playground was also a valuable car park. The 1870s were a time of great educational change in the Dale. Weardale’s existing schools were either charitable or Barrington Anglican foundations. Providing only for a of minority of pupils of Church of England parents, they were insufficient to accommodate literally hundreds of Dale’s children. An Education Act (1870) solved the problem by authorising non- denominational elementary schools, catering for 5-13 year-olds. They would be funded by ratepayers and managed by a parish Board of local people. Stanhope’s Methodist day school was leased to the Board in 1877, later to Durham County Council and, after closure in 1968, was returned to the full control of the Chapel. At its height, at the turn of the century, the Stanhope Board school had 200 pupils, averaging 40 per room. The old school continues to have many church and village functions.