Lichfield's Early Methodist Connections

Lichfield may be strongly associated with the Anglican Church but it also has some fascinating historic links to the early Methodist Church, including the venue of a supposedly secret meeting.

Thomas Coke was born in Brecon in 1747 and became an Anglican curate; but he was dismissed in 1777 for his Methodist ways. He joined John Wesley who, incidentally, passed through Lichfield on several occasions but never preached here; the nearest location being Tamworth. By 1784 Coke was a trusted confidant of Wesley who ordained him as Superintendent of the Methodist church in the United States. His co-Superintendent, and eventually first Bishop, was Francis Astbury who was born in Hamstead, Birmingham, and spent his boyhood at Great Barr. His home, now known as Bishop Astbury's Cottage, still stands as a museum to his life and is owned and managed by Sandwell Council.

Following Wesley's death in 1791, the Methodist movement entered a period of uncertainty as to its future direction. Coke, who had returned from the United States, was impressed by how well the movement was working there and drew up plans to remodel the Church here along similar lines. By 1794 he was ready to call a meeting to discuss his proposals. It was vital for him that the meeting should take place with the utmost secrecy and Lichfield was chosen as the venue, presumably because it was centrally located with good coaching links. There was no Methodist Church in Lichfield at this time - so no one would be likely to recognise the participants.

The meeting took place on 1st April 1794 at an unidentified Inn in Lichfield. Eight ministers participated and agreed what would have been far-reaching changes to the Church's operations. But, predictably, the meeting could not be kept secret. Imagine the local reaction to the simultaneous arrival of eight outsiders in Lichfield, all clearly of some importance. The magistrates were informed and the strangers duly watched.

It must be remembered that this was a time of political unease; across the Channel, the French Revolution was in full swing. Would the same disruptive forces arrive on our shores? Thomas Coke was of distinctive appearance. He was only just over five feet tall and quite rotund. It was soon confirmed that the eight were Methodist preachers - daring to meet in the heart of the Anglican community in a cathedral city! The meeting hastily concluded and the ministers departed.

In the event their proposals fell on deaf ears, especially when it was learned that the reorganisation would lead to each of the eight being elevated in the Methodist hierarchy! Coke, however, went on to found the Methodist Missions, dedicating his life to the missionary movement. He died in 1814 whilst sailing to Ceylon to establish a mission there and was buried at sea.

The history of Methodism in Lichfield does not end with the frustrated meeting of 1794. Methodism arrived late in Lichfield and when it did that was due in no small measure to an uncle and nephew from north west Leicestershire. Joshua Kidger was born in Griffydam in 1775 and his nephew John in Worthington in 1795. We know little of their early life but sometime in the early nineteenth century they moved to Lichfield. Joshua became the wharfinger (wharf manager) at Gallows Wharf on the Wyrley and Essington Canal. The site of this wharf on London Road has recently been restored by the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Trust. Joshua lived there and, as a dissenter (that is non-Anglican), he had to register his home for services with the local magistrates. Joshua was central to the movement to establish the Methodist Church in Lichfield. So successful was he that a larger building was needed and a suitable site was found in Lombard Street.

The Lombard Street Wesleyan Chapel was registered in 1813 and opened in 1814. Most unusually for a Methodist church it also had a small burial ground. As the congregation swelled Joshua asked his nephew, John, to move from Leicestershire to assist - which he did for two or three years.

Joshua Kidger remained in Lichfield for the rest of his life. On leaving his job at Gallows Wharf he set up a grocer's and tea dealer's shop in Bird Street. Later still he became a house agent and coal dealer. He died in 1861.

It is thought that the Lombard Street building was sold in 1921 to the Women's Institute. The burial ground in front of the building was eventually deconsecrated and the remains relocated, possibly to Saint Chad's churchyard. The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses now occupies the site.

This article draws on the booklet 'Glimpses into our Past' by Michael Green, 2018.

Roger Hockney
June 2020