Britain's forgotten Methodist Halls

At one time, Methodist Central Halls thrived across Britain, but since their heydey in the early twentieth century, only a handful remain in the hands of the Methodist Church.

Dr Angela Connelly, a historian at the University of Manchester, has been studying the changing fortunes of the 99 Methodist Halls that were built across the country at enormous cost to the Church - equivalent to £90 million in today's terms.

From Brighton in the south to Glasgow in the north, Methodist Halls were at the heart of their communities, providing all kinds of entertainment and services.

The characteristic they all shared was that they were very large buildings designed so that they would not look like churches.

That's part of the reason why so many of them have been forgotten, Dr Connelly believes.

“Because they do not look like churches or cathedrals, the public aren’t aware of those that remain at all," says Dr Connelly.

“But in their heyday they attracted big crowds: the Manchester and Salford mission headquarters once boasted 2,000 volunteers.”

The Missions promoted cultural activity to make their religion relevant to everyday lives and tempt people away from the lure of alcohol, explains Dr Connelly, who is based at the University's Manchester Architecture Research Centre.

These included popular entertainment such as film shows, concerts and variety performances.

Joseph Rank – of Rank Hovis – provided much of the capital to build the Central Halls.

His son, J Arthur Rank, the film producer, was also a prominent Methodist who became interested in the movie industry after seeing the pioneering use of religious films at the Methodist Missions in the 1920s.

The wife of the Methodist Times founder and reformer Hugh Price Hughes, also established the nation’s first ever crèche for working girls at the West London mission in the 1880s.

“Nearly everyone in the UK will have seen a Methodist Central Hall: Pavarotti performed at Kingsway Hall and the UN Declaration was signed in Westminster Central Hall," she says.

“But few of us know what they are, how they are used or what has happened to them."

Fast forward a century and only 18 of the original buildings still belong to the Methodist Church. Twenty-seven were completely demolished or bombed during the War.

The rest have changed hands and in some cases completely changed their roles, with some converted into bars and pubs.

The Grimsby and Southampton Methodist Halls have been turned into theatres, while Liverpool’s Central Hall is home to a collection of independent traders. In Bristol and Bradford, the Central Halls have been converted into flats. Probably the best known Methodist Hall today is Westminster Central Hall, functions largely as a conference venue and is still used for many Christian events.

In her report, to be published in a John Rylands University Library of Manchester paper this month, Dr Connelly will argue that the decline of the buildings is down to the long-term fall in attendance at Methodist churches nationally.

“As numbers dropped and maintenance costs spiralled, rooms were let out to other organisations and the halls were used for a wide variety of events," she said.

“Through the twentieth century, more space was rented out to other organisations for theatres, libraries, social services and even school exams."

Although in some places the purpose has changed considerably, Dr Connelly is glad to see the buildings being preserved in some shape or form.

“These halls were, and in several cases still are the best venue in town," she says.

“But it’s sad how many of these important buildings are no longer standing - quite moving when you read of the read of the struggles the Methodists had to keep them going.

“But I would rather these buildings are used by the public - even as a bar - rather than lose them altogether as they are such an important part of Britain’s urban history.”

'A pool of Bethesda': Manchester's First Wesleyan Methodist Central Hall will be published this month in the Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 89:1, 2012-13.