My great-grandfather Charles Mason was brought up as a Primitive Methodist. This branch of Methodism grew from a large open air meeting of the working class held at Mow Cop in Staffordshire in 1807. (Mow Cop, on the border of Staffordshire and Cheshire, is a ‘ruined castle’ on a hill; actually a summer-house built in 1754 by the local landowner.) The organisers of the meeting had no wish to establish a break-away denomination, but were merely trying to re-assert what they regarded as the basic tenets of Methodism; particularly its missionary outreach to the poor and dispossessed. It this sense it mirrored the creation of Methodism itself, which arose as a branch of the Church of England dedicated to the lowest orders of society. In spite of these views, John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement) remained a clergyman of the established church all his life.
The Church of England was firmly entrenched as the church of the Establishment, and the concentration of the ‘Methodists’ on the less well off proved too controversial for the C off E, and the ‘enthusiasts’ split into a separate denomination. There were also some technical disagreements about church organisation, but the rigid class barriers which existed in society proved to be more divisive. A major development was when the founder John Wesley appointed preachers in North America outside the normal ordination procedure as practised in the Church of England. This action in 1784 inevitably led to the setting up of new denomination after John Wesley’s death.
It was less than twenty years after the birth of Methodism as a new church that the Primitive Methodists were divided in their turn from the Wesleyans. Again it was social rather than religious differences that proved insuperable obstacles to unity; the Baptists and the Quakers (for example) have huge disagreements in matters of belief, but in theological terms there was little to choose between the two branches of Methodism, or indeed between them and the mother church, the C of E. To put it crudely, the Established Church was upper class, Methodists were middle class and the Primitive Methodists were working class. The result was that the Wesleyan Methodists refused to countenance the inclusion of such low-class congregations in their ranks. Such camp meetings as those held at Mow Cop were ‘highly improper in England’ they maintained. Thus it was propriety rather than dogma that stood between them.
Living in Staffordshire the Masons were at the epicentre of these developments and were among the first adherents of Primitive Methodism. Before 1800 the residents of Stoke on Trent and the surrounding area were regarded as a bunch of godless and benighted individuals. The Primitive Methodists provided these people, who had been seen as the ignorant and worthless dregs of humanity, with a path to salvation. The movement rapidly spread around the country from its Staffordshire beginnings. By the 1820s there were Primitive Methodist chapels springing up across Norfolk.
In the UK the Primitive Methodists were finally reunited with the Wesleyans in 1932, but in other parts of the world they maintain their independence. As well as providing the nascent Labour Party with many of its members, the ‘Prims’ were instrumental in the formation of the Trades Union Congress. The Primitive Methodists even more than the Wesleyan Methodists were deeply involved in supporting hospitals, providing education (particularly in Sunday Schools which taught children to read and write before the advent of Universal Education) and were foremost in promoting women as preachers.
After leaving Staffordshire to get married in 1879, Charles Mason was already well established in Trowse at the beginning of the twentieth century, but unfortunately there was no Primitive Methodist chapel in Trowse. (Neither had there been one in the first village in which he had made his home in Norfolk, Easton.) The nearest one to Towse was in Queens Road in Norwich, which had been built in 1872. This remained a church after Methodist Union, finally closing after the Second World War. No doubt Charles occasionally attended these popular services, but mostly the family went to the Mission Chapel (associated with the Congregational Church) in the Street in Trowse. This was demolished in 1970. A hundred year after that first meeting at Mow Cop a grand anniversary was held there in 1907. Charles attended the celebrations in Staffordshire, which suggests that he had not entirely lost touch with his family in his birthplace. One of his granddaughters (there are still grandchildren of Charles Mason, not much older than me) has a plate issued to commemorate the occasion in 1907, and this would have been brought back to Norfolk by Charles Mason.
William and Emily Mason (my grandparents) brought their children up as ‘Congs’, no doubt reflecting their own upbringing in the chapel in Trowse. The youngsters went to the morning service at the Princes Street Congregational Church in Norwich, followed by Sunday School in the afternoon. They had time walk home for tea before it was off again to the evening service; it was not a very restful day of rest. Primitive Methodism did not survive into the next generation of Charles’s family, and six years before his death the church had ceased to exist as a distinct entity.
THE HISTORY OF METHODISM