The history of the Boys’ Brigade Hall in Manchester Street goes back 230 years. Wilson’s Handbook to Morpeth and Alec Tweddle’s Town Trail No. 2 tell us most of what we know about it.
The site was first developed by Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791). Lady Huntingdon was a religious, but temperamental lady. She was devoted to the Church of England and, being a peeress, was entitled to maintain her own chapel and chaplain.
She exploited this to the full, appointing evangelical clergymen as chaplains who might otherwise have been forbidden to preach at all. She was a sort of Methodist, and was associated with both Charles and John Wesley, but eventually split from them.
In 1779 she established the Spa Fields Chapel in Clerkenwell. It was formerly the ‘Rotunda’ of a tea garden, and seated 2,000 people. She took an adjoining house, had a door knocked through and declared it to be a private chapel.
The Bishop of London would have none of it, and forbade her chaplain, Thomas Haweis, from preaching there. She seceded from the Church, registered Spa Fields as a dissenting meeting house, and in 1783 founded her own denomination, Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion.
She micro-managed all of its affairs, but in 1789 took steps to give it a constitution that would survive her death. A ‘Plan of an Association for uniting and perpetuating the Connection of the Right Honourable the Countess Dowager of Huntingdon’ was drawn up, but never ratified.
She died in 1791, leaving her chapels and most of her property to personal trustees.
The Plan would have created 23 districts, none having more than five chapels. Morpeth was District No. 23, with one chapel – Manchester Lane.
It was the most northerly of her meeting houses, quite isolated, the next nearest being York and Whitehaven.
It suffered a decline, and in 1809 the Wesleyan Methodists, who had had a ‘preaching house’ in the Wellway since 1784, purchased it outright.
Methodism began in Morpeth on July 18, 1748, when John Wesley preached at the Market Cross.
He wrote: ‘As soon as I had sung a few verses at the Cross, a young man appeared at the head of his troop, and told me plainly and roughly, “you shall not preach here”. I went on; upon which he gave the signal to his companions, who prepared to force me into better manners; but they quickly fell out among themselves. Meanwhile I began my sermon, and went on without any considerable interruption; the congregation softening more and more, till, toward the close, the far greater part appeared exceeding serious and attentive.’
He came again in September 1749. It was a market day.
‘It was feared the market would draw the people from the sermon; but it was just the contrary; they quitted their stalls and there was no buying nor selling till the sermon was concluded.’
In 1757, he ‘preached the love of Christ to sinners in the Market Place’. In 1780, in his 77th year, he had the use of the Town Hall, but still preached in the Market Place subsequently.
John’s brother Charles gave up the travelling life, married a nice girl much younger than himself, and settled down to family life. John never did. He was attractive to women, but hopelessly indecisive about whom to marry. When at last he did, it was to a widowed lady with children by her first marriage.
They were not compatible. Whereas Charles gave up in part because of illness, John had an iron constitution, was indifferent to hardship and utterly committed to his punishing schedule of preaching tours.
Mrs Wesley eventually left him, and whatever may be urged on either side, one can only sympathise with a woman who simply wanted to lead a normal life.
In 1823 the old chapel was partially rebuilt, but in 1883 was demolished, along with a cottage at the back.
‘On the site thus enlarged a very handsome chapel has been erected. The front is built of the best stone … viz:—that from Nunriding Quarries. Its architectural appearance is chaste and attractive...The principal feature of the front elevation is a lofty central gable containing a large traceried window of five lights and surmounting two deeply moulded and recessed arched doorways.
‘On either side...are lower wing walls pierced by two tiers of traceried windows. All the windows of the chapel are of tinted cathedral glass glazed in lead in lozenge-shaped pieces. The internal fittings are made of pitch pine and have been much admired....Underneath the chapel is a school, a vestry and a heating chamber....The chapel was opened on April 1st, 1884...The mayor and corporation, accompanied by their mace bearer...attended the service.’
The Morpeth Company of the Boys’ Brigade took over in 1964.
William Smith, later Sir William, was a Glasgow businessman. He was also a Sunday school teacher and an officer in the 1st Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers.
He founded the Boys’ Brigade in 1883 for the benefit of the older boys in the Sunday school, who not unnaturally found Sundays something of a bore.
Its activities were based loosely on those of the Volunteers, with a simple uniform of cap, belt and haversack.
Its objectives were: ‘The advancement of Christ’s Kingdom among boys and the promotion of habits of Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect, and all that tends towards a true Christian Manliness.’
One of his many innovations was summer camps for boys.
Companies were soon established in London, Manchester and Huddersfield, and the Morpeth Company was founded in 1894.
You could not have better people looking after the old chapel.
Two things spell the doom of an older building: too little money, and too much. If there is too little for its upkeep, it eventually becomes uninhabitable, is closed and demolished.
Too much money is not only about millionaires demolishing on a whim.
In Morpeth we have the insidious situation of property owners, not least central and local government, being money-poor but land rich.
The temptation to take the cash without regard to the fate of the building is all too obvious.
But successive generations of Trustees and Captains of the Boys’ Brigade have cared for the old place so that it is now a venue for a variety of organisations and activities – a fine example of conservation by adaptation.
The street frontage is largely intact, and the interior still has gracious arches behind the platform. But it has modern wiring, lighting and sanitary fittings.
Long may it stay so.