When I arrived in the Ely and Newmarket Methodist Circuit four years ago, I knew little about the origins of St John’s Church on the High Street. Thanks to the loan of a booklet produced for the Centenary Anniversary in 1990, I was able to find out some interesting details about the history of the building and the Methodist Society in Littleport. I hope you find the following extracts from the aforementioned booklet of interest about one of the familiar and prominent buildings at the centre of your village. I have made some minor edits to Reverend John Flintham’s text for the purposes of this article.
John Wesley the founder of the Methodist Movement came to the Fens in 1774, preaching in Ely, Sutton and Earith. Even though Wesley did not visit Littleport on his travels his preaching must have kindled a fire of enthusiasm in the Fens around Ely.
‘We discover from documents that the Methodist cause in the village was first established in a cottage in Crown Lane until a small Chapel was built in 1806 in the area then known as Nill End – now called High Street. Many and often humorous are the tales told of those early days of Methodism in the Fens. From 1808 to 1812, the Littleport Circuit reached to Cambridge, Chatteris, March and Manea, with many small places in between. The two ministers appointed to this vast area both lived in Ely. Having preached at Littleport on a Sunday the minister would then be required to travel to Dairy Houses, stopping the night at the farm of a Methodist where he had to share the farmer’s bed, whilst the farmer’s wife was sent to stay with a neighbour. It is said that in the mid 1850’s when Haddenham boasted a minister of its own, this gentleman would preach at Littleport and then visit the surrounding chapels and it would be a week before he was able to return home.
In the Littleport Chapel there was no heating and it was lit only by candles. Those were hard days also for the tough and fiery preachers – one of whom was known to have walked 23 miles to fulfil his preaching appointment at Littleport. The Preaching Plans of those days would bear such strange sounding instructions as ‘Horse Hire Fund’ and ‘Worn Out Preachers Fund’.
Such was the enthusiasm and growth of the Littleport Society that their Chapel had to be enlarged in 1835, and by 1889 they had laid the stones of a new Chapel on the adjoining site. This building was completed in 1890 at a total cost of £1,600… It was noted that the carpeting of the rostrum and communion area, together with linoleum in the aisles was an exceptional feature, reflecting credit on the Trustees and all concerned. Heating by means of hot water pipes was a great innovation – the pipes being fed by apparatus in the cellar under the Vestry… It was not until 1909 that a pipe organ was installed which had to be pumped by hand.
How times have changed in the last 127 years. Sadly, we do not have the same large congregations of days gone by except of course for baptisms, weddings and funerals. On these important occasions we are always pleased to offer a welcome and hospitality to Littleport friends and neighbours who see the Methodist Chapel as their spiritual home.
What makes us distinct as a Methodist People today?
The Methodist People have always been active on matters of Social Justice in our own country and the wider world. We are also known for our enthusiastic hymn singing, expressing in song the Christian faith in which we believe. Methodists have also gained a reputation for making delicious cakes and putting on a good spread for special occasions. However, what is central to our brand of Christian discipleship is a personal relationship with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by the help of the Holy Spirit present with us today. Our calling is to follow Jesus Christ, to be like him in thought, word and deed and to share the great love of God that Christ has revealed for all the world and which is recorded in Holy Scriptures. I will finish with Wesley’s ‘Four All’s’ which Methodists still hold to today: All need to be saved, All can be saved, All people can know they are saved, All people can be saved to the uttermost. This is still the best news ever and if you want to know more we would love to see you at St John’s.