In Wesley’s footsteps (5): St Bartholomew and the ‘commodious place’ – part 2

The first part of this article discussed how John Wesley’s friendship with Richard Bateman, rector of St Bartholomew-the Great, led to him preaching regularly at this church long after other churches had been closed to him. This all changed with Bateman’s death in 1760. By then Wesley had established his own preaching centres at Seven Dials (West Street Chapel), Spitalfields (The Grey Eagle Street Chapel) and Moorfields (The Foundery), the latter serving as his London headquarters. But I suspect that there was a need for regular meetings at a more central location.

Site of the Bull and Mouth Inn

A blue plaque on 1 St Martin's le Grand (The former GPO) marks the site of the Bull and Mouth

For several years Wesley preached regularly at a meeting house in Bull and Mouth Street. The street was the location of a coaching inn called the Bull and Mouth – the curious name is said to be a corruption of ‘Boulogne Mouth’. The location of the meeting house is clearly marked on a 1754 map of Aldersgate Ward (on the third map down it is bottom centre, above the letters INC of PRECINCT). A blue plaque on the wall of 1 St Martin’s le Grand (formerly the General Post Office but since 1986 the offices of the Japanese bank Nomura) commemorates the Bull and Mouth. The meeting house was built by the Quakers, who gave up the building in 1760, after which it was taken over by the Sandemanian Society, a dissenting sect which had recently been brought to London from its place of origin in Scotland.

Wesley had begun preaching there in September 1756 with high hopes:

As much of real religion as was ever preached there, I trust will be preached there still; and perhaps in a more rational scriptural, and intelligible manner.

However, in his journal entry for 21st December 1763 Wesley wrote:

I took my leave of the “Bull and Mouth”, a barren uncomfortable place, where much pains had been taken for several years, I fear to little purpose.

As the Sandemanians only moved in the previous year one wonders whether their occupation of the meeting house was one of the factors in Wesley’s departure.

Five days later Wesley wrote:

I began preaching in a large commodious place in Bartholomew Close. I preached there again on Wednesday and at both times with peculiar liberty of spirit.

Bartholomew Close ran (and still runs) around the south and east of St Bartholomew-the-Great church and was within the boundary of the original priory precincts. None of the buildings that would have lined both sides of the close in Wesley’s day survive. So what and where was the ‘large commodious place’?

In his detailed history of St Bartholomew’s E.A.Webb demonstrated that it was very probably the old Chapter House of the priory. In a plan of the priory dated 1821 and published in Wilkinson’s Londina Illustrata (1822) the former chapter house is marked ‘St Bartholomew’s Chapel’. Wilkinson also includes an illustration which shows the chapel fitted out with double-decker pulpit, box pews and gallery and described it thus:

The chapel of St. Bartholomew is of equal antiquity with the priory. It is neatly pewed and has a very commodious gallery, also vestry rooms at the back of the north wall from one of which a small window looks into the green churchyard, fronting the doors to the south entrance to the church.

Originally the entrance to the chapter house would have been via the East Cloister. This still survives, and the original doorways, now bricked up, can be seen. However it seems that at some point the floor of the chapel was raised by six feet to bring it up to street level and a new doorway made to provide an entrance to St Bartholomew’s Close.

The Cloisters

The East Cloister - the door to the Chapter House would have been on the left

How long Wesley preached at the ‘commodious place’ is unknown. Indeed much of the later history of the Bartholomew Chapel seems obscure. This is compounded by the fact that there was a long-established dissenters’ meeting house within the main church over the south gallery, occupying rooms that were formerly part of the prior’s quarters. Later commentators were often confused by the relationship between this meeting house and Bartholomew Chapel. According to Walter Wilson (The history and antiquities of dissenting churches and meeting houses, in London, Westminster, and Southwark, vol.3 1810), the last Presbyterian congregation in Bartholomew Close was dissolved in 1753, to be followed, after a gap of ten years, by a congregation or congregations led by a succession of preachers who were either independent or in connexion with the Countess of Huntingdon – in other words ‘Methodists’ in the broader sense of the word. The penultimate preacher mentioned by Wilson is Thomas Madden, who

raised a congregation at Bartholomew-Close, where he preached about a twelvemonth, when he removed to a large room which he fitted up for a chapel, with an organ and prayer reader, and other requisites, and where he was much followed. After preaching there a few years, he removed towards the latter end of last year (1809) to a new meeting house in Aldersgate-street.

Webb argues that the ‘large room’ occupied by Madden was Bartholomew Chapel, i.e. Wesley’s ‘large commodious place’. The illustration in Wilkinson presumably reflects Madden’s alterations.

St Bartholomew's Church and clositers

The modern building behind the cloisters is on the site of the chapter house/Bartholomew Chapel

Modern archaeological investigations suggest that the chapter house was built a little later than Rahere’s church – probably in the 13th century. However, in its later Bartholomew Chapel guise, it must be a candidate for the oldest Methodist chapel. (Unless, reader, you know different.) Unfortunately, the ‘large commodious place’ was destroyed by fire in 1830. An apartment block now occupies the site.


About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
This entry was posted in History, London, Methodism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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