The first record of a Methodist ‘Preaching House’ in Morpeth, the forerunner of the present Methodist Church, is in 1784.
We don’t know exactly where it was, but Wilson’s Handbook to Morpeth, 1884, describes it as “a schoolroom in Well Way, where services were held until 1809”.
Methodism in the North East began, however, in Newcastle. On Friday, May 28, 1742, John Wesley paid his first visit there.
He said: “I was surprised: so much drunkenness, cursing and swearing, (even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before, in so small a compass of time.”
On the Sunday morning: “At seven I walked down to Sandgate, the poorest and most contemptible part of the town ...”
He preached twice in Sandgate, each time to hundreds of people. He left the next day, but his brother Charles came in September and stayed for over a month.
He too preached in Sandgate, and became known as the Keelmen’s Chaplain.
On Good Friday, April 1, 1743, only six months later, his brother John decided to visit a place that was worse than all the rest.
He said: “I had a great desire to visit a little village called Plessey, about ten measured miles north of Newcastle. It is inhabited by colliers only, and such as had been always in the first rank for savage ignorance and wickedness of every kind.
“Their grand assembly used to be on the Lord’s Day; on which men, women, and children met together, to dance, fight, curse, and swear, and play at chuck, ball, span-farthing, or whatever came next to hand.
“I felt great compassion for these poor creatures, from the time I heard of them first; and the more because all men seemed to despair of them.
“Between seven and eight I set out with John Healy, my guide. The north wind blew the sleet in our face, which froze as it fell, and cased us over presently. When we came to Plessey, we could very hardly stand.
“As soon as we were a little recovered, I went into the Square, and declared Him who ‘was wounded for our transgressions,’ and ‘bruised for our iniquities’.
“The poor sinners were quickly gathered together, and gave earnest heed to the things which were spoken. And so they did in the afternoon again, in spite of the wind and snow when I besought them to receive Him for their King, to repent and believe the Gospel.”
Three days later: “On Easter Monday and Tuesday I preached there again, the congregation continually increasing. And as most of them had never in their lives pretended to any religion of any kind, they were the more ready to cry to God as mere sinners for the free redemption which is in Jesus.”
Three months later, an amazing change had taken place.
On Sunday, July 17: “I preached (as I had done the Wednesday before) to my favourite congregation at Plessey, on ‘Him hath God exalted, with His own right hand, to be a Prince and a Saviour’.
“I then joined a little company of them together who desire ‘repentance and remission of sins’.”
This means that he established a Methodist Society at Plessey. It quickly became his favourite, apparently of anywhere in the British Isles.
He later said of them: “The society of colliers here may be a pattern to all the societies in England. No person ever misses his band or class, they have no jar of any kind among them, but with one heart and one mind ‘provoke one another to love and good works’.”
Plessey was in Stannington parish, and the colliery was owned by Sir Matthew White Ridley. The village no longer exists, but in Wesley’s day it must have had a population of over a thousand.
According to a boring made “about 200 yards from the Wheat Pit, August 6th, 1752”, there were three good seams of coal, one of 3ft 2in thickness at between 15 and 16 fathoms, one of 3ft 1in at 19 to 20 fathoms, and one of 4ft 5in at 27 to 28 fathoms.
Both mine and village were flourishing when Wesley first saw it in 1743, but the mine closed in 1813 when, Hodgson says, “about 300 colliers and their families removed to a new colliery establishment then commenced at Cowpen”.
The only inhabitants left were old and infirm persons who were pensioners of the Blagdon estate.
Plessey Colliery, as it was in Wesley’s day, was somewhere to the west of the Plessey Checks roundabout.
The first edition of the OS 6in map was surveyed in 1858. The hamlet of ‘Plessay’ is shown standing on the west side of a dog-leg in the road leading to Shotton.
This road is now merely a farm access road. There are no buildings of any sort on the site, but the angle in the road probably marks the position of the Square, where Wesley often preached.
Acknowledgements: Location map taken from Sheet 78 of the OS New Popular Edition, 1947, fully revised to 1921. Borehole data for Plessey from the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, available on the Durham Mining Museum website.