At the end of the 18th century Penketh was a hamlet consisting of 75 houses, where some 300 inhabitants earned their living either by farming or by carrying on a trade such as cobbling or carpentry in their own homes. Part of the parish of Prescot, with its Chapel of Ease at Sankey, Penketh had no Methodist Chapel or Society, although there was, of course, a Society in Warrington. However even at this early date, it seems there was at least one connection with Methodism: preachers had passed through the village and had been guests at the Gandy household.
In the early years of the 19th century George Percival came to Penketh from Cheshire. It is believed his home was in Crowley, also the original home of Richard Hall, who owned a fair amount of land in Penketh. George Percival may well have worked for Hall, but what is clear is that he brought Methodism to Penketh. He made his own home the headquarters of an infant Methodist Society, gathering a small group of followers around him. Services were held in his cottage until numbers became too large to be accommodated. They moved to a nearby farm before the old Chapel was built in Stocks Lane. Even after that, it was common for meetings to be held in the houses of members. One of these was a cottage which used to stand where the kitchen and drawing-room of the old Vine House were eventually built; another was the Gandy's cottage in Cobbler's Square.
The earliest mention of a proposal to build a Chapel is in December 1817, when Richard Hall, then disposing of his estate in Penketh, offered to sell land for this purpose. However it was felt unsuitable and an alternative offer from Thomas Hall of Runcorn (a relation of Richard) was accepted. He sold for "five shillings and in consideration of the regard he had for the trustees" a plot of land at the corner of Stocks Lane and Warrington Road. In 1818 the deed of conveyance was passed into the possession of the first trustees, two of whom resided in Penketh, George Percival and William Gandy. The building was completed and opened for worship at special services on 30th May 1819.
William Gandy remained a leader of the Church for many years but of George Percival little is known; he appears to have left Penketh shortly after the Chapel was opened and to have died some ten years later; he is buried in the Percival family vault in Great Budworth churchyard.
The old Chapel had little to commend it architecturally or ęsthetically. The entrance was at the Stocks Lane end and inside there were two rows of high-backed pews with several rows of benches in front. There was a central aisle. The pulpit with its candlesticks was in the centre and the Chapel was lit by two windows on each side. It was not uncommon apparently for preachers in the passion of their sermon to knock a candle flying. The pulpit was filled by ministers of the Warrington circuit, which stretched from Runcorn in the west almost as far as Altrincham in the east, and by local preachers of varying ability.
For over forty years the old Chapel remained the home of Methodism in Penketh, but in the 1850s it became obvious that a new building would be a better option than constantly repairing a building which was greatly affected by dry rot and age. Throughout its existence it had remained in debt, as a result of borrowing money for the original building. When it was sold in 1860, the money realised was exactly equal to the outstanding debt. Even though its finances were precarious, its spiritual life was growing stronger all the time. One of its strongest adherents, Dr Smith, afterwards Mayor of Warrington, demonstrated his great faith by donating land (the present site) for the building of a new Chapel.
On 5th July 1860 members met at the old Chapel to sing a hymn and say a prayer. They then walked in procession to the site where the foundation stone of the new Chapel was laid by Thomas Hazlehurst of Runcorn. Under the stone were placed several documents and coins and a paper-knife made of wood from a tree planted by John Wesley. The foundation stone has been moved twice since its original laying and more recent searches have revealed that, whereas the documents are intact, and indeed been added to at the time of the building extensions, the coins and paper-knife have disappeared. A large congregation of some 400 people attended the ceremony, held in fine weather, and a substantial tea was held afterwards in a marquee erected on the site. Wide publicity for the new Chapel resulted in many subscriptions being offered. Encouraged by this, the trustees decided to enlarge the original plan and add a School and teacher's house as well. Plans were drawn up and submitted to the government, whose approval, since the buildings were to be used as a Day as well as a Sunday School, brought with it a substantial grant.
Building of the Church continued rapidly and it was formally opened on 22nd November 1860 and dedicated by Rev. G. B. Macdonald. An enterprising gentleman, remembering the crowds at the stone-laying ceremony, inserted an advertisement in the previous Wednesday's Guardian:
The School was opened in the following year and Mr T.B.Richardson was appointed as the first master.
The original Church was much smaller than the building of today, although considerably larger than the old Chapel. There were four windows on each side and two identical windows stood on either side of the door in the west wall, facing Chapel Road. These two windows can still be seen, as they are now the fifth windows on the sides of the building. There was no vestibule and only one vestry, which stood in the place now occupied by the organ. The pulpit was in the north-east corner, and the wall continued straight across in the place now occupied by the choir screen. There was no organ, but a harmonium stood at the front on the opposite side to the pulpit. The present appearance of the Church gives a reminder of the length of the 1860 Chapel. The sag in the wall which necessitated the building of buttresses was at the point where the original wall was joined to the first extension, and the tie-bar which now crosses the Chapel marks the point where the end wall originally stood.
The School consisted only of the part which is now known as the Junior Room and the room next to it behind the partition. The extent of the original building can easily be seen by the fact that it is floored with boards whereas subsequent additions are floored with blocks. The teacher's house was also built at this time, so that the complete building was rectangular in shape with the longer side parallel to Chapel Road. The doorway stood in the centre if this side, and the remains of the arch in what was then the exterior wall can be seen today in the wall which separates the Junior Room from the entrance hall on the south side. There appears to have been a rear entrance too, and it may be observed that the door leading from the kitchen to the store area has a stone doorstep, worn from the outside.
As the years went by, the Wesleyan Chapel continued to spread its influence in the locality. Larger congregations led to talk of extending the Church. In March 1877, when discussions were progressing, the elder Robert Garnett died and, as his memorial, his son offered to defray the cost of enlarging the building. Services were adjourned to the Schoolroom and work began. The west wall was demolished and a new one built nearer to the road, increasing the length of the building by a quarter. The lower portion of this 1877 west wall is now the dividing wall between the Church and the vestibule. The large window high in the west wall was re-erected but enlarged to incorporate the stained-glass memorial panels. By the end of 1877 the congregation was back with 80 extra seats available. Entering through the new porch, in which the doors were central and facing the road, worshippers turned left or right to enter the aisles. An organ, costing £185, replaced the harmonium.
Attention was then given to the School which needed improvement following the 1870 Education Act. The room now known as the Guild Room was added, together with the kitchen in 1879 at a cost of £183. However this proved not really adequate and five years later discussions began about extending the premises further. On Saturday 23rd April 1887 the foundation stones of this further School extension were laid by Mrs Robert Garnett, , Mrs David Garnett and Mrs Robert Cook. At the same ceremony 40 foundation blocks were laid by teachers, scholars and friends from amongst a large gathering. Later in the year the School reopened. The buildings were now in the form of a T, the new portion being the present large hall which stretches to the road. Halfway along each side of this hall was an entrance porch, from which a corridor ran beside the hall as far as the older parts of the building.
By 1891 there was again a need to enlarge the Chapel. The population stood at 1670 and the congregation had steadily grown. A meeting in 1889 met obstacles, but in February 1891 a well-attended meeting decided on an enlargement scheme which involved a total outlay of £1286. The result was the building which remains substantially the same today. At the west end, the vestibule and gallery were built out to the road, the foundation-stone being re laid by Robert Garnett on August Monday 1891. At the east end new vestries were built on either side and the old vestry rebuilt to house the organ and choir, the circular stained-glass window being added at the same time. Under the choir vestry a cellar was made to house the heating apparatus. Side pews replaced the organ and the pulpit, which was repositioned centrally. Gas came to Penketh in 1891 and was installed on the premises during the alterations. The brackets were central and each had half a dozen fish lights in a circle at the bottom. Friday 23rd October 1891 was the date of the first of several Re-opening Services.
At the beginning of the new century there were discussions about further alterations to the Church, but plans were dropped. In 1903 the gas lighting was changed, the new fittings holding gas mantles. (These were subsequently adapted for electric light which was installed in 1926.) The organ was considered too old and it was decided to buy a really worthy instrument. This was bought and inaugurated at special services on the third Sunday in September 1908. In the same year the School, which had ceased to be a Day School when Penketh Council School was opened, was further altered, to create six classrooms and cloakrooms, three on either side of the hall. To compensate for the removal of windows from the walls of the hall, roof lighting was introduced.
Subsequent changes to the Church, after the Second World War, involved exterior buttressing and pointing and extensive repairs and re-roofing to the kitchen and storerooms. In 1945 the Church purchased Bank House and the land which separates the property from Warrington Road and in 1956 the Minister's vestry was almost completely rebuilt. Since then several repairs have had to be done to maintain the buildings. On many occasions discussions have been instigated about the future and even now (Spring 1999), there are further plans for refurbishing the Church and extending it.
Despite the many changes that have taken place, however, Penketh Methodist Church remains a familiar structure and local landmark and the faith shown by those early worshippers in a yeoman's cottage, and the many benefactors over the last 180 years and more, has its lasting memorial in these buildings.
The Sunday School
The Sunday School appears to have been formed in the early days, before the first Chapel, and was probably held in the farm which was used for services. Nothing is known of these early days except that William Gandy, a cobbler, was its superintendent until at least 1839 and that the children had an annual treat. An old register dated 1841 records that the classes were divided into "Bible", "Testament" and "Spelling". In 1847 fuller records were kept and these continue, with some minor gaps, down to the present day. At that time, rules were drawn up and John Gandy was appointed superintendent. The School met at 9.15am and 1.15pm in the old Chapel; scholars were expected to arrive clean in person and dress, and were forbidden to bring babies or foodstuffs. In 1851 the two Robert Garnetts became joint superintendents and the staff consisted of four men and six women who taught 61 pupils, the majority being what we should now call primary age. The move to the new Chapel in 1860 brought no great alteration to the School routine, but gradually over the years the institutions which would become familiar began to appear.
The origin of Walking Day is now lost. It seems to have developed out of the children's treat of the early days, but it is not known when a procession was first included. The route was different and it was the custom to call at the houses of members of the congregation for sweets and gingerbread and to stop at various points on the route to sing hymns. It always ended in a tea, but this did not always give satisfaction. One Walking Day Committee meeting records the following:-
For a long time it was customary for Walking Day to be held on a Friday, followed by a Teachers' Trip on the next day.
For many years the Good Friday Tea Meeting was a great day in the School's year. Its origin is interesting. It had become the custom for a fair to be held at Fiddler's Ferry on that day and crowds came by train from Widnes and Warrington to enjoy a day in the country. The affair usually ended in alcoholic disorder and riot. It was, of course, a great attraction to the youth of the village and non-conformist consciences were deeply troubled. In 1880, in an attempt to provide a counter attraction, the first Tea Meeting was held. The Star of Temperance Brass Band from Widnes paraded through the village beforehand to publicise it, and played at the School during the evening. Musical items were performed, mainly by the Garnetts and their relations, and the Secretary, Benjamin Hobson, reported on the work of the School. In order to encourage the children to attend what might have appeared to them to be the tamer function, it was proposed to award prizes for attendance and memory work and to present them at the meeting. The function was a great success and continued for over thirty years, becoming at last, like the Teachers' Trip, a casualty of the First World War.
For the best part of two centuries the Sunday School (or Junior Church, to use the favoured name nowadays), has offered sound Christian teaching and spiritual guidance to the children of the neighbourhood. It is impossible to read the minutes of teachers' meetings of years ago without realising the deep sense of vocation which inspired successive superintendents, officers and teachers. Throughout the years the faithful labours of devoted men and women have been given to the School and it is impossible to calculate the benefits which their work has brought to individual lives and to the neighbourhood in general.
(These notes are closely based on a booklet written by Eric Bowyer and Roger Bates and produced for the Centenary of the Church in 1960.)