The following article was written by W.J. Suter, in 1970 (links added, December 2014) and printed in Ashford A Record of 500 years, a few copies are still available at St Mary’s Parish Church in the centre of Ashford.
Methodist origins in Ashford go back two centuries to the visit of John Wesley in 1771 to what he described as “one of the pleasantest towns in Kent”. He so stirred some members of the Church of England that, while remaining Anglicans, they began to gether in private houses for “Class Meetings” of Prayer and Testimony. By the turn of the century this group was linked with others in several villages to form a “circuit” headed by the young church in the ancient borough of Tenterden.
The Rev. William Robarts records preaching in 1810 “to some 200 persons, some noisy, some attentive”, crowded into an old lodge, so he sought urgently for a better meeting place. The Assembly Room (now King’s Parade) was used, but plans to buy it with help from Canterbury friends fell through because they were building their own church. Finally farmer Jeremiah Chittenden’s house in Hemsted Lane (now Hempsted Street) was converted and opened as a chapel on Christmas Day 1810. Ten years later this was the head church of a circuit extending to Mersham, Challock and Charing.
This adapted house served until in 1843 when thgere stayed in Ashford, a staunch Wesleyan, Elizabeth, wife of William Betts, whose firm built the South Eastern Railway from London to Dover. “Seeing the unfitness of the old chapel for public worship, her benevolent heart was set on providing a new one, ” which “at her request and desire … was built and presented by her husband to the Wesleyan Conference, she being taken for her rest before it was finished.” This simple but dignified building still stand in Hempsted Street; the memorial tablet just quoted was later removed to Back Street and only came to light in the present alterations.
The lease of the chapel was transferred in 1846, on behalf of the Methodist Society, to Henry Peake Ramsey, the dounder of the High Street chemistry business which until the fire ten years ago proudly still stated “Late Ramsey – Chemist to the Queen”. The membership was then over a hundred, and the list included many families still active in teh church; the “Ramsey Charity” too is still distributed every Christmas.
During the second half of the 19th century railways developments increase Ashford’s poplulation, and its Methodists needed a larger church. Plans were made for one in Tufton Street connecting with the old building, but Headquarters advised a more prominent position. The Bank Street site was leased for 15 guineas a year and the present building was opened in 1875, when the famous preacher Dr. Morley Punshon thought it large and uncomfortable. It was certainly expensive – the Gothic East Window involved an extra £1,000 for a high roof – and the Trustees had to seel the old chapel which they had meant to keep as a Sunday School. The Unitarians bought if for £800, and later the Society of Friends had it for their Meeting House until a few years ago, when it ceased to be a place of worship.
So the Sunday School had to use a dark, ill-vented, gas-lit underground room, while the church above hardly encouraged attendance. With bare cement walls and no heating the bast building was freezing in winter; music came from a centrally-placed harmonium, but the preacher isolated at the far end was sometimes inaudibly; a large debt crippled progress. However, energetic Christians while foudning businesses which still flourish also worked hard for their church, notably Frederick Lee and later his son Herbet, Robert Marsh and his son Harold and the Knock family. By 1890 the debt was gone and central heating installed, with vestries, organ gallery and rostrum improving the interior. At the same time much excavation gace the schoolroom more light and air.
Later the galleries were extended all round the church, and up to 1939 all were well filled three times every Sunday – for there was a flourishing P.S.A., and Brotherhood whose speakers included a Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. The unique Rev. Roderick Kedward of Hothfield (his Memorial stands by the A.20 there), was M.P. for Ashford and his brother Dan its Superintendent Minister; the family is still active in this circuit and in the Ministry.
Finally, despite oposition our fathers purchased the adjacent house, on the garden of which the Wesley Hall was built in 1927, while extensive repairs and improvements were made to the church. The resultant debt was long a burden, and 28 Bank Street (“Church House”) has always partly and sometimes entirely let as offices. So it was that part of the Sunday School was exiled to Norwood Street for much of the 1939-45 war. Church services and Wesley Guild continued, with forces guests welcomed from many parts of the world. In the Lower Hall the church ran a fine forces canteen, while the Wesley Hall was requisitioned as the Employment Exchange after the bombing of Dover Place.
After the war came new life and activity. The debt was cleared, the church freehold purchased for £300 and the premises redecorated and further improved. Youth work flourioshed with a live Sunday School and a Youth Club that became one of the largest and best in East Kent. Once more premises became inadequate and the 1960 Albemarle Report offered a solution. Led by the Rev. R. Nelson Ludlow, teh Trustees obtained a grant to rebuild the Hall as a Youth Centre, with Methodist aid for Church Improvement. Now the members are actively raising their £10,000 share of the costs.
Ashford Methodist Church has a wonderful history, with God showing a way whenever difficulties seemed insuperable. Now we look forward in an atmosphere of denominational fellowship and unity that our pioneers never knew, sure that our church will continue to play a great part in the worship of God and in service to the community.