Bethel's role in history of our town

PUBLISHED: 11:10 16 May 2008 | UPDATED: 20:23 05 July 2010

Lowestoft historian John Holmes recalls memories of the Bethel, which faces an uncertain future after being put up for sale, with the help of an article written by the late Trevor Westgate, a former chief reporter on The Journal.

Lowestoft historian John Holmes recalls memories of the Bethel, which faces an uncertain future after being put up for sale, with the help of an article written by the late Trevor Westgate, a former chief reporter on The Journal.

LIKE others I too was saddened to read of the possible demise of the Bethel as it is very much part of our town's history as the following account records.

Many of us of course will remember the Bethel when it not only served meals but also offered the facilities of a bath. Yours truly often took advantage of both of these facilities. In the latter case it was usually on a Saturday I would have a bath using Lifebuoy Carbolic soap which was deemed to be the way to kill all germs and maintain a healthy skin.

The late Trevor Westgate compiled the following account from material supplied by the very popular Port Missionary, Malcolm Pears of the Bethel.

It was written in 1999 to mark the centenary celebrations of a building that has served the town, and especially the fishing community, faithfully and well down the years. In March, 2004, a Bethel building has existed in Lowestoft for around 160 years.

The Lowestoft Sailors' and Fishermen's Bethel in Battery Green was officially opened on February 23, 1899 but the first Port Missionary was appointed as long ago as 1850 and early activities were centred on a building in Commercial Road.

It is a remarkable testament to the continuing strong faith of those involved, and the substantial impact made by the Bethel Fellowship on the lives of hundreds of local families.

The Bethel, like so many other distinctive features of Lowestoft's life, owes its origins to the formidable energies of the Victorian entrepreneur Samuel Morton Peto.

He was concerned for the spiritual welfare of his workers, as well as ensuring that they were properly housed and fed, and in 1847 he engaged the services of a young Gorleston preacher, William Johnson. In 1850, Johnson was appointed the first Seaman's Missionary for the British and Foreign Sailors Society in Lowestoft.

Early meetings are believed to have taken place in the British School room in London Road and later in a room behind the Custom House.

Whatever place was used was called “Bethel” and the congregation soon outgrew the available premises. Anniversary services were held in various places in the area. In 1859 the morning anniversary meeting was held in the Baptist chapel, the afternoon meeting in the Carlton Colville chapel and the evening meeting in the Congregational chapel.

It was hardly surprising that there was a move for the Bethel to acquire its own substantial home, and in 1860 a deputation went to see Morton Peto to seek help in building a chapel in Commercial Road, capable of holding 300 people.

In the following year a series of successful revival meetings, held in the Goods Shed, attracted gatherings of around 1600 fishermen. Money came in only slowly, however, despite general approval for a movement that sought “the moral and religious elevation of our sailors and fishermen, and is entirely un sectarian in its character and operations.”

Eventually a plot of land was bought for fifty two pounds ten shillings in Commercial Road. This plot was soon exchanged for another, offered by the Railway Company and a Bethel was built at a cost of just £4188. The whole debt was cleared within one year.

On October 26, 1863, a crowd of some 500 people attended the laying of the foundation stone by Edward Leathes, of Normanston House.

A bottle placed in a recess contained documents and three coins two halfpennies and a farthing. The new Bethel was opened in March 1864. It was designed to hold 400 people, and space was left to add an extra classroom and reading room as soon as the £450 cost of the main building had been cleared.

The Bethel was said at the time of its construction to be the largest building of its type in the world. It was estimated that 1200 people somehow crammed in to attend the first big testimony meeting.

Jarrolds of Norwich printed a special programme of 20 hymns for a meeting attended by Sir Francis Crossley of Somerleyton Hall. The Victorians certainly believed in cracking on with developments, and by the annual meeting of 1864 the missionary was able to announce the establishment of a little Sailors Home next to the Bethel, which had already given shelter and help to several shipwrecked crews.

The Home was his own responsibility, “and he looked to God alone to help him carry it on.”

Mr Johnson added that when he started the shelter he did not even have £1 to furnish it. Since then he had received £67 from far and near, and had a library of several hundred volumes, and reading room with a good supply of London and local papers.

Among the trustees of the Bethel was John Fitzgerald, whose younger brother Edward became famous as an author and translator of the Rubaiyat of Omah Khayyam.

It is recorded that Edward liked to visit the Bethel, “provided his brother was not preaching” and enjoyed the hearty singing.

Services were undoubtedly conducted with plenty of gusto, with wooden benches always well filled with sailors in their Guernsey's, who chewed tobacco during prayers and even kept quid's (lumps of tobacco) in their cheeks whilst they sang.

The astonishing scale of the work carried out by Mr. Johnson and his wife can be seen in the annual reports. In 1868 there were 534 religious meetings, 1200 ships and boats were visited, 1500 visits were made to families, over 300 Bibles and Testaments in various languages sold, 800 Gospels distributed and 25,000 tracts given out.

Small wonder that the London Society had to send down an extra helper during the home fishing. Many Lowestoft skippers proudly flew the distinctive flag awarded by the society to vessels that did not fish on Sundays. After many years of service, William Johnson was taken ill and died in 1896 at the age of 78.

He did not, alas, live to see the present Bethel built. But he can truly be said to have laid firm foundations for those who have succeeded him to keep the faith during the ensuing hundred years.

“From my point of view it has always been great to have the Bethel in Lowestoft as it is one of a very few of our historical buildings that remain intact.

“I therefore hope that a way can be found to retain this lovely building to meet the needs of the present congregation and hopefully future generations,” said Mr Holmes.

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