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Winchelsea Historic
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History of Winchelsea Methodism

Another bit of the old Wesley Tree comes home

Many artifacts and curios were made from the wood of the old Wesley Tree. On Saturday 28th April 2018 another wooden object returned in the hands of Alison Butler of the Methodist Heritage Committee. Alison told us the story of how it was found. As the numbers of Methodist clergy training places had diminished the artifacts from the closed colleges had found their way to safe storage in a bunker under an airfield in the Midlands. Alison is trying to place these artifacts in relevant places and clearly she noted that an old 'tamper' used when placing foundation stones bore a small silver shield referring to its provenance in 1899/1900 by two stewards of the old Rye circuit. 

The old Wesley Tree did not fall until 1927, but from time to time it may have been pruned of branches. We can only presume that more substantial branches were taken away to be turned into various objects before that. But what is even more surprising is that we already have a near identical twin tamper, with a similar shield attached. Perhaps local wood-turning Methodists had a small cottage industry going using fallen or pruned branches from the ash tree and turning them into sell-able objects!

Alison Butler holds the tamper, whilst Ian Pruden shows off some modern memorabilia from the children of Staplecross School who visited the Chapel and made a book about it.

New information from Australia

Sent by Marie Donaldson of Australia 26th June 2016

She says “When my Wesleyan great, great grandparents, William Martin and his wife Cordelia, nee Sinden, from Winchelsea, arrived in Sydney, Australia in 1838, they brought with them two objects of great significance to them.

William was the son of William Martin and Mary nee Jones and was born in 1806.

The first object was a portrait of John Wesley, which hung in the tiny weatherboard Wesleyan Methodist Church in the village of Burrell Creek, about 300 kilometres north of Sydney, for many years. The second was a wooden goblet, said to be a christening goblet and it is supposed to have been turned from wood from the ash tree under which Wesley preached his last sermon in Winchelsea.”The inscription reads: “This goblet is turned from a part of the Old Ash Tree at Winchelsea, Sussex, England, under which the Rev. J. Wesley preached his last sermon in the open air. 17th October, 1790.”

It appears that Mary Jones may have been a cousin of Aseneth Jones, whose parents hosted Wesley on at least one visit. If the object pre-dates their voyage to Australia it will be the oldest known ash tree item of memorabilia from Winchelsea. Might it have been carved from a branch of the old tree or even its precursor?


A Short History of Winchelsea Methodism

A book with a much more detailed history of the Chapel and Methodism around Winchelsea was published in November 2013. It is is available to purchase directly,with all profits going to support the Chapel. It is available from the Chapel when open, or from Battle Methodist Church's Emmanuel Centre.

It can also be ordered by post from:

Battle Methodist Church, Emmanuel Centre, Battle TN33 0TE

Price £6 plus P&P (£3 UK, £5 EU, £8 RoW). Cheques should be made payable to 'Friends of Winchelsea Methodist Chapel'


Winchelsea Historic Methodist Chapel has changed very little since it was first opened in 1785. The "Preaching House" as it might be called was opened in 1785, and registered for worship on 2 October 1786 as 'Evens's Chapel' by William Boothby in the denomination 'Protestant Dissenters'.

Methodist pioneers came to this very eastern part of Sussex in 1756 and John Wesley's initial visit to Rye was in 1758. After that Rye became the centre of an extensive Sussex Circuit of which Winchelsea was an early member, forming a Society in 1774. However there must have been a Winchelsea  'meeting' before 1771 when Wesley first visited on 30 October and preached in the open, possibly under an ash tree.

His next visit was 12 years later when he preached from the pulpit in the Historic Chapel on 28 January 1789.

The Pulpit from which John Wesley preached

Wesley visited for the very last time on 7 October 1790. Because the Chapel was too small for the crowd that thronged to hear him he gave his very last outdoors sermon in Winchelsea, under the Wesley Tree by St. Thomas' churchyard. This was six months before he died.

The small Society survived and by the date of the 1851 Religious Census Winchelsea Wesleyan Chapel's Steward, William Forster, recorded 30 attending in the morning, 50 in the afternoon and 60 in the evening. These numbers encouraged the building of a new chapel in a more central location in 1867, with the help of well connected benefactors.

The 1867-1969 Chapel (left of centre)

The old Preaching House was put up for sale....fortunately there were no buyers, so it was used as a Sunday School room and thus thankfully preserved.

After the 2nd World War attendances declined and eventually the newer chapel was sold  in 1967 and later was demolished. the proceeds were used to restore the old Preaching House. But by the 1980s things were in crisis. It was decided to minimise church administration and to meet only monthly, but by 1994 this too was more than the small congregation could support. The problem was resolved when the circuit took over the responsibility for the use and maintenance of the chapel and set up the 'Friends of Winchelsea Methodist Chapel'. The 'Friends' are very conscious that this little Chapel is not simply a museum but also a place where God can be met.

So Winchelsea has the distinction of being the place at which John Wesley preached his very last open-air sermon on 7th October 1790, This was 51 years after his first open-air sermon in Bristol and just six months before his death. He was such a noted preacher that the Chapel was too small for the large congregation which gathered, and being barred from the parish church, he preached in the open air, seated under a large ash tree – possibly the same one that he had preached under in 1771? This visit was the last time he preached outdoors.

The "Wesley Tree" is just around the corner from the Chapel and the present tree was grown from a cutting from the old tree that blew down in September 1927. The picture below shows a group of Winchelsea Methodists visiting the original tree before it fell.

Pre-1908 photo of Winchelsea Wesleyan-Methodists under the old Wesley Tree. The photo includes Obadiah Easton, Superintendent of the Sunday School for 50 years, whose individual photo is below. We are fortunate to have a lot more information about Obadiah, courtesy of his great granddaughter June Cooper and if you click on his photo a pdf containing this information will open.

Obadiah Easton

 This large painting of the 'Wesley Tree' on display in the Chapel is by Phyllis Davis, one of eight paintings which she produced for an event put on by the junior church at Christchurch Methodist Church, Bexhill in 1985 and also performed in the grounds of Greyfriars, Winchelsea. The script, by the Rev. Gordon Chambers was set to verse by the Watson family whose granddaughter Rebecca was the narrator. (ref: Methodist Recorder 23 May 1985)

A sapling grown from a cutting from the original tree was replanted on the same spot in 1931 and in 2013 the son of the Wesley Tree was quite large but showing signs of some 'stress'. East Sussex’s tree officer identified that the Wesley Tree had been infected by Hairy Bracket fungus, which is often associated with a virulent fungus called White Rot. The tree was heavily pruned in 2013 to remove diseased limbs, which posed a threat to the public, and its crown has been lowered. By the Summer of 2017 it appears to have made a good recovery with copious new branches and leaves. But in order to ensure that there will always be a Wesley Tree in the town, the Winchelsea Heritage Conservation group arranged for cuttings and seeds to be taken from the tree. Local residents have been asked to plant the cuttings and seeds, so that a sapling will be ready to plant if the current tree has to be removed.

Every Chapel Anniversary a congregation gathers under the tree, sings lustily and then processes to the Chapel for a service, let us hope that this tradition can be preserved.

Replanting the new Wesley Tree sapling in 1931

In recent years an old carpet was lifted and the old wooden floor was exposed, treated and finished with no less than 5 coats of dark varnish. This enhanced the look and feel of the interior considerably. During the procedure part of the floor was lifted and it was realised that the floor was supported on old ship's masts - as they had been soaked with tar for their previous use these beams were fully intact and a wonderful example of thrifty re-cycling.