The History of Dorset Gardens Methodist Church

John Wesley never visited Brighton or Hove, the nearest he got was Rottingdean in 1758. However, he did encourage the work of the George Whitefield and the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion writing a letter from Liverpool in 1767 when that body opened a Church in North Street in Brighton, next to Lady Huntingdon’s house. He wrote: "I trust before you receive this you will have reason to bless God for His comfortable presence with you at Brighthelmstone" (an older name of Brighton).

However the Wesley brothers, John and Charles disagreed profoundly with George Whitefield over the Methodist belief that “Christ died for all”. The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion believed that Christ had died only for some, the ‘elect’ or ‘chosen’. In the early years of the 19th century some of those who attended the church in North Street left the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion and joined a prayer group of Wesleyan Methodist soldiers stationed in the town, it was during the wars with France. From that prayer group the first Wesleyan Methodist class meeting was held in late 1804. The numbers grew gradually and in 1807 the Lewes and Brighton circuit was formed, but the decision had already been made to build their own church.

So the first specifically Wesleyan Methodist Church in Brighton or Hove was built on the site of the current Dorset Gardens Methodist Church. It was opened on 26 August 1808 and was a square building of red brick, with round-topped windows, and a square porch at the main entrance which was up a passage from St. James’s Street.

There was a gallery round three sides of the church, and the choir occupied the back gallery facing the pulpit. Seating was of a box-pew type, with high backs and doors. The church was lit by candles held in brass standards and bracket. Three years later the entrance was changed from the long passage in St. James’s Street to a far better one in Dorset Gardens itself.

Whenever George IV or William IV were at Brighton in the Pavilion they had their private band with them. A number of these were Methodists who, when time allowed, brought their instruments to Dorset Gardens and played to accompany the hymns. One of them was Charles Mennich, ‘was reputed to be the finest horn player in the world’. The Mennich family remained associated with the music in Brighton for very many years.

There were a number of changes over the years, with a large hall for a Sunday School being built in the 1820’s and gas lighting replaced candles in 1841. In 1855 an organ was introduced, against the express wish of the Superintendent Minister who refused to attend the dedicatory service.

In the 1880’s there was a major redevelopment. A larger, and better, building was erected on the old site. This is the building that was demolished before the current modern building was erected. It was finished in 1884 with red brick and an italianate tower. The architect was C. O. Ellison of Liverpool. This new building was given electric light and a new organ in 1894. There was a major extension to the south side of the Church which was opened in 1930 by Rev. Dr. J. Scott Lidgett. It is this new section that forms the area of the new Church.

The Church served the people of central Brighton and Kemp Town.  Its most famous role was as the base for the Dome Mission which was started in 1907 by Rev. Aldom French from another Wesleyan Methodist Church in Brighton - Norfolk Road Wesleyan Methodist Church on the borders of Brighton and Hove.

The idea was to hold a service every Sunday evening in the main large theatre/hall in Brighton, the Dome - which had been built as extremely ornate stables for the Prince Regent, but which had served Brighton in its new capacity for many years.  Holding a service in this public building was thought more likely to attract those who would not wish to go to a church as such.  Dorset Gardens Methodist Church took over this work in 1924, and under ministers such as George Simpson [1938-1946], Fred Pratt Green, the famous hymn-writer, [1948-1953], and Leslie Newman [1953-1968] the evening service regularly attracted 2,000 people.

With changing times, that work has also changed and the Church no longer has its evening service at the Dome. Another re-development continues the line of change and response to new challenges that the Methodist people have made over the past 200 years.

There have been many members of Dorset Gardens who have made a positive contribution to the town and there is space to mention just one of them. Dr. (Sir) Arthur Newsholme (he was given his knighthood after he had left Brighton) who a trustee and a steward at the church. He was Brighton’ first Medical Officer of Health and in 1908 became the Medical Officer for the Local Government Board. In a comment on a recent study of his life it was stated of Newsholme:

‘No one contributed more in modern England, to the growth of preventative medicine and to the improvement of the quality of life for the working classes, or has received less recognition from historians for it, than Arthur Newsholme.’

Brighton and Hove recognises his contribution, and that of Leslie Newman, by naming a bus after each of them.

In the tradition of our forebears, we have changed our building to meet these new challenges, remembering the words of John Wesley, "THE BEST IS YET TO COME".

Michael R. Hickman
Circuit Archivist

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