Marshside Chapel in Kirkby-in-Furness was founded in 1870, but the village’s links with Methodism stretch further back. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition, may have been in the area in 1752. More certainly, he passed through the village in May 1759 on his way up the Cumbrian Coast, crossing the Duddon Estuary to Millom. Writing in his journal he commented that `The tides caused great difficulties’. Nor was he impressed with the local inhabitants, describing the people of Furness as `a generation of liars’. However, this does not seem to have limited the spread of Methodism in this area.
In 1810 Ulverston Wesleyan Methodist Circuit was established and by 1823 there were regular services listed for `Kirby’. In 1852 services were being held a mile to the north, in the hamlet of Grizebeck, but in 1855 the meetings returned to Kirkby. A year later, `Marshside’ was listed as having 5 members, many fewer than more established congregations at Ulverston (112), Backbarrow (70) and Spark Bridge (19), but more than Barrow (2), then a small village, but soon to be the centre of the economic boom which affected the Furness peninsula.
One explanation for the presence of Methodism in the area is that it was brought by immigrants, drawn by the expanding mines and new ironworks. The main industry in Kirkby was the slate quarry on the moors above the village and it is certainly possible that workers from existing Methodist strongholds of Cornwall or Wales could have had an influence.
In 1861 there was a proposal in the minutes of the Ulverston Wesleyan Circuit’s Quarterly meeting `to build a chapel at Kirby’. It took another nine years to lay the first stone, but on 21st April 1870 `The cases of the new chapels at Askam, Kirby and Lindal were considered and passed’. Less than two months later on 2nd June, the foundation stone was laid by Mr John Long, of the Ulverston Circuit.
The local paper commented that
`The followers of Wesley living in this locality have hitherto held their services in a cottage near the site of the new building, but increasing numbers and earnestness at last warranted and effort being made to procure a more suitable place of meeting’.
The new chapel was designed to seat 200-250 people and cost £400-500. Of this £100 and the land was given by the Duke of Devonshire. Cumbrian materials were used, including sandstone from St. Bees, further up the coast. The slate for the walls and the roof was moved from the quarry to the building site for nothing by the local farmers.
For the next twenty years the chapel continued to grow. By 1892, when the Millom Wesley Circuit was divided from the Ulverston, taking Kirkby with it, membership at Marshside had risen from 8 to 24 with a further 10 on probation. In 1905 a schoolroom was added to the chapel. The Barrow News reported:
`At present all meetings, other than those of a sacred nature, Sunday School, parties etc, have to be held in the chapel, which is considered unfitting, consequently it was decided to add a room suitable for such purposes.’
The local MP, Victor Cavendish, who was from the family that owned the quarry, provided all the necessary stone for free.
In 1932 the three main strands of Methodism, Wesleyan, Primitive and Bible Christian, merged to form the present Methodist Church. Kirkby remained part of the Millom Methodist circuit, now expanded from six to ten churches. For the rest of the 1930s, Kirkby maintained a healthy membership of around 40 holding both morning and evening services. However, the congregation did not escape the economic problems of the decade. By 1938 the Circuit had accumulated a debt of £88, a sharp contrast to the positive balance of funds that existed when it was formed in 1932.
Churches also began to close. By 1945 three of the Millom Circuit’s ten churches had held their last service and when it was incorporated with Barrow in 1980 to form the South West Cumbria Circuit (SWECC) there were only four left. Kirkby, however, had survived and today has a small but steady membership, maintaining a Christian presence through the Methodist tradition in the Marshside area of Kirkby.
2000 – present
Built in the 1870s by volunteer labour using slate from the local quarry, the chapel was for many years the hub of the community. Most locals over the age of 70 remember The Band of Hope meetings and they all took the pledge! Over the following years the congregation dwindled, the once thriving Scout troop and Cub pack began to lose numbers, the children found other things to do on a Sunday morning rather than Sunday School and the premises looked shabby and uncared for. Local and Parliamentary elections were always held on the premises and voters hurried away as quickly as possible, not keen to linger in the uninviting building.
The chapel members did care, however, and throughout the 1990s the secretary wrote letters, filled in forms, applied for grants, made phone calls, contacted architects and waited in vain on many occasions at the chapel for yet another builder who failed to keep an appointment. Ministers came and went, some promising help, others keener to close us down.
At the turn of the millennium the Connexion invited small chapels to “dream dreams”, but the answer was always the same: money was only available to improve buildings used by the wider community. With no outside help forthcoming we seriously started fundraising, holding an annual Plant and Produce Sale and then continued to raise money throughout the year by selling homemade jam and marmalade and home grown plants from a small stall outside one member’s house, situated conveniently next to the village shop.
We found a builder willing to work as and when we raised enough money, we presented our ideas at Circuit meeting and some financial support was promised. At a momentous Church Council meeting in February 2009 we were told to go forward in faith, never to lose sight of our aim to have a building which would benefit the wider community.
As the work started locals commented that “something was happening” at the Methodist Chapel and became curious. We met opposition and dealt with it.
We soon had a fully functioning kitchen and toilet, and people came to our annual Plant and Produce Sales to see our improvements as well as to buy.
Volunteers painted the chapel and laid new carpet. Over 70 came to a Circuit Service in December 2009 and we ran out of cups! We were beginning to get enquiries about using the chapel, but we needed tables and more crockery to do this. Money from the Circuit enabled us to go ahead with buying these, a donation helped to install a loop system and a local fund provided money towards the car park.
We are still full of ideas as to how to improve our buildings and make them available to the community. In the past two years we have had outside bookings for two mosaic workshops, been used as a venue for a village surgery by the local MP, hosted activity days for local children and become the venue for the monthly Lunch Club supported by Age UK. Our regular events also include a Lent Lunch, an annual Craft and Coffee Day and a monthly coffee morning made possible by having three new members willing to help. Our finances would not stretch to renovating the Hall, but then in November 2009 it was flooded to a depth of about 60cms, and with money received from insurance we were able to start working on it.
With the support of our new minister, Rev Rachel Williams who arrived in September 2011, we have started a monthly midweek communion service, successfully applied for a grant to help with a new chapel carpet, and are still improving our building when we are able to. We continue to make jam, grow plants and pray.
We are very pleased to be part of the Furness Penisula Faith Trail and look forward to sharing the faith journey of our Chapel and congregation.