THE trouble with a conventional, rectangular church or chapel is that you end up with plenty of dark, 90 degree angles in which the devil can skulk and conceal himself.

Not so in Yarm’s octagonal Methodist chapel, which celebrates its 260th anniversary on Wednesday with a special service. It is the oldest, continually-used octagonal chapel in the country, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said it was his “favorite”. He liked the simple shape, was impressed by its acoustic qualities – very important when your day begins by preaching a five o’clock every morning – and also said that it meant there were “no corners for the devil to hide in”.

The Northern Echo: John Wesley. Picture: Wiki Commons.Wesley (above) toured the country on horseback, travelling 4,500 miles-a-year, preaching as he went. On Tuesday, August 16, 1748, he was at work in Stockton market place, a “rowdy” town, when he was asked to visit Yarm.

He wrote in his diary: “I refused for some time, being weak and tired; so I thought that preaching thrice in the day, and riding upwards of 50 miles, would be work enough. But they would take no denial; so I went with them about two o'clock and preached at three in the market-place there to a great multitude of people gathered together at a few minutes warning."


Among those present was wealthy salt-dealer George Merryweather, and after Wesley left, he allowed the Methodists to meet in the hayloft above the stables behind his house, which still stands in the High Street.

The Northern Echo: Echo memories - George Merryweather house in Yarm George Merryweather's house in Yarm: Wesley stayed here 18 or 19 times

In 1763, Merryweather bought some land beside the river on which a chapel could be built.

Wesley had been impressed by an eight-sided, corner-less nonconformist chapel he had encountered in Norwich, and as his open-air movement started to seek permanent shelter, he advised that octagons were the future.

Fourteen were built.

The first was in Rotherham in 1761, but it was replaced by a larger, more conventional chapel in 1806.

The second was in Henrietta Street in Whitby in 1762, but it fell off West Cliff into the sea in 1787.

And the third was in Yarm, completed in time for Christmas 1763, when Reverend Peter Jaco, a former Cornish pilchard fisherman who had become one of Wesley’s itinerant preachers, was invited to perform the first service.

The Northern Echo: Yarm Methodist Church as it probably looked when it was built in 1763How Yarm's eight-sided chapel is believed to have looked when it opened

Wesley himself visited for the first time on April 24, 1764.

He wrote in his diary: "I preached about noon at Potto and in the evening in the new house at Yarm, by far the most elegant in England. A large congregation attended at five in the morning, and seemed to be just ripe for the exhortation: 'Let us go on to perfection'.”

The Northern Echo: Yarm Methodist Church At Your Service - The sign pointing out the 1763 church - D23/03/03MG

He liked the chapel so much that he suggested all future octagonal chapels should be to the design of Yarm which, he declared, was his “favorite” (in his writing, he seems to have used what we would regard as an Americanism), and he visited it 18 or 19 times, usually staying with George Merryweather in the High Street.

He was in Yarm for his 72nd birthday in 1775, and wrote in his diary: "How is this, that I find just the same strength as I did 30 years ago? That my sight is considerably better now, and my nerves firmer than they were then? That I have none of the infirmities of old age and have lost several I had in my youth? The grand cause is the good pleasure of God, who doeth whatsoever pleaseth him.

“The chief means are (1) my constant rising at four [in the morning] for about 50 years; (2) by generally preaching at five in the morning, one of the most healthy exercises in the world; (3) my never travelling less, by sea and land, than four thousand five hundred miles in a year."

In 1815, the walls of the Yarm chapel were heightened so that a gallery could be added, taking its capacity to 350. In 1873, a porch was clagged on to it but to no one’s approval – “extremely ugly and wholly inappropriate”, said one critic – and so it has been removed.

The Northern Echo: Echo memories - The octagonal Methodist Chapel in YarmThe octagonal chapel in Yarm today

In 1949, the minister, the Reverend John Wright, wrote that the pulpit from which Wesley had preached had been “until comparatively recently on the premises”.

He concluded: "All enquiries about the whereabouts of the pulpit have failed and we must conclude that it has been destroyed".

But he believed that an unnamed local man, identified as "a keen collector of antiques", had removed it to his house, dismantled it and turned it into panelling.

Do you have any peculiar panelling in your living room with “JW woz ere” scratched into it?

  •  It is hoped that the 260th anniversary service on Wednesday, which starts at 7pm, will be attended by 260 people, including representatives of local councils, community groups and charities. The preacher will be Rev Dr Roger Walton, the former president of the Methodist Church.
  • THE other three of the 14 octagonal chapels to survive are at Heptonstall, near Hebden Bridge (built 1764), Arbroath (1772) and Taunton (1776). Thirsk built an octagonal chapel in 1766 but replaced it with a bigger, more conventional, chapel in 1816.


The Northern Echo: Echo memories - Plaque at the octagonal Methodist Chapel in Yarm