Wesleyan Reform in Southampton 1851-1857

Rev Benjamin Gregory was a minister in the Southampton Wesleyan Circuit from 1851-1854 in the aftermath of the Flysheets Scandal. In his 1898 book, “Sidelights on the Conflicts of Methodism”, p 491, he describes Southampton as “a delightful instance of the triumph of moderation and forbearance, and a little judicious letting alone.” He says that “not a dozen, all told, were lost to the Society.”
Indeed, the movement for Reform in Southampton was modest, but well-reported in the local liberal newspaper, the Hampshire Independent. The doings of Conference were reported, and local meetings in Salisbury and the Isle of Wight. Things came to a head in Southampton when Rev. Samuel Dunn, who had been expelled from the Wesleyan Conference in 1849 for supporting moves for reform, spoke at a meeting in the Long Rooms 22 January 1851. In the chair was John Mansell, a builder, “a respectable tradesman of Southampton, who has been a member of the Wesleyan body for about 30 years and a local [lay] preacher for 21 years” (Hampshire Independent 25 January 1851.) Also present were local preachers George Walters Bleckley, a bookseller, and Richard Wake, blacksmith. The Superintendent minister Rev John Crofts visited Mr Wake after the meeting and suspended him as Class Leader. Further actions followed: although their names were still on the Plan, they had not been given any preaching appointments, even though this meant cancelling some afternoon services. The next Quarterly Meeting took place 26 March, and Mr Crofts served notice that the three men would face a complaint or charge against them for the part they played in the Long Rooms meeting. The men were found “guilty of the enormous crime of daring to think for themselves” (Independent 29 March 1851.) On 20 April, they started holding separate Wesleyan Reform services at 20 Hanover Buildings. George Medley, from Romsey, preached at one of the early services as “unexpelled”, but it wasn’t long before he too left the Wesleyan Connexion.
At the beginning of April, Wesleyan members were given their quarterly ticket of membership, with the words “Mark them which cause divisions and offences – and avoid them. Romans xvi.17” Several members, including Richard Wake junr, and his friends George Plowman and George Biles, refused to accept the tickets because of the passage of scripture, and were told they were no longer members or Sunday School teachers. The loss of members to the Southampton Circuit seems to have been relatively small at this stage, but over the next few years, numbers dropped from about 590 to about 500 overall. We are told that others refused their tickets, too, but we don’t know their names, except perhaps members of a family named Prince who brought their little girl to the Long Rooms Meeting for Mr Dunn to baptise.
By March 1852, the Reformers were organising themselves into Circuits and Districts. At a Portsmouth District meeting held in Salisbury, 15 March, Mr Wake reported that Southampton had started with 21 members, and now had 38, and an average congregation of 60. They had five local preachers, three leaders, four classes, 7 Sunday School teachers and 42 pupils. Compared with Salisbury, with 300 members and 8 preaching places, or the Isle of Wight, with 210 members, this was modest, but unlike some circuits, Southampton was sending representatives to meetings, Mr Bleckley had become the District Secretary, and Mr Mansell was on the District Committee.
Mr Mansell said: “The Methodist people were paying men to be their masters instead of their servants. He was determined to do so no longer.” (Hampshire Independent 20 March 1852)
In 1854, the Wesleyan Reformers took over an old school building on the west side of Lower Canal Walk, in one of the poorest areas of Southampton. It had just been vacated by the Ragged School, which had just moved to purpose-built premises in St George’s Place, Houndwell. The school had been built in 1829 as a Church Infant School for the parishes of All Saints and Holy Rood, which had closed Christmas 1849.
After repairs and fitting out, the opening services took place on Sunday, 28 May 1854. The preacher was Mr T Pybus, of Bakewell, Derbyshire. They had held their third anniversary services at Hanover Buildings Sunday 16 April. John Mansell registered Lower Canal Walk for worship 22 June 1855.
Membership in May 1854 was about 40. They had no paid minister, but the local preachers were conducting burials for their flock in the Old Cemetery. The Cemetery Committee were puzzled by the payment of fees to Mr Bleckley, a bookseller and stationer, and not a Reverend, but were told that he “always presented the amount of his fees to the Infirmary.” (Hampshire Independent 24 June 1854.) A week later, Mr Bleckley wrote to say that his church regarded the use of the prefix “Reverend” as a “relic of bye-gone ages … without Scripture authority or precedent.” (Independent 1 July 1854.) He did not believe in a paid ministry, and held that the 3s fee for his services was an imposition on the bereaved, so he either returned the money to the family, or, if they would not accept it, gave it to the Infirmary, or some other charity. Mr Mansell, who also performed burials for their members, did the same. The “unconsecrated” Cemetery register records 12 people buried by either Mr Bleckley or Mr Mansell between 1853 and 1859. Their addresses are Bevois Street, South Front, Chapel Road, and two, William Henry Cole and James Cole, come from the same family.
In 1856, the chapel was “occupied at day of the cure of souls” by the Reformers, and “at night for the cure of bodies,” by C H Oswin MD, who ran a dispensary and delivered lectures to his patients. Unfortunately, Dr Oswin fell behind on his rent to the tune of £8 6s, and Mr Mansell took him to court.
In 1857, about half of the Wesleyan Reformed congregations merged with the Wesleyan Methodist Association to form the United Methodist Free Church. John Mansell seems to have joined the Bible Christians, another branch of Methodism for whom ministers were servants not masters, about this time: he was a trustee for Hedge End Bible Christian Chapel 5 March 1857, and the Bible Christians had use of the Chapel from 1857.
In September 1857, following the death of his wife, Richard Wake snr emigrated to the United States.
In February 1858, George Bleckley sailed with his family on the Parsee to Australia.
The small Wesleyan Reformed cause in Southampton had faded away.
The building was advertised for sale in the Hampshire Independent 26 March 1859. It was in use by Plymouth Brethren in 1865, and as Julius Hyams’ tailoring workshop, 1894-1928.
John Mansell died 4 July 1860.

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