Buildings At Risk: Wesleyan Chapel transformed into 21st century arts venue

The frontage of the Peel Centenary Centre from another angle (Bill Quine)

The frontage of the Peel Centenary Centre from another angle (Bill Quine)

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Peel was in the vanguard of the introduction of Methodism to the Isle of Man in the 1770s, at a time of laxity among the Anglican clergy in the island.

In February 1775, the Liverpool Society sent its first Methodist preacher, the Rev John Crook, to the island, a man who had converted to the movement while serving in the British Army in Limerick, Ireland.

A view of the main facade of the Peel Centenary Centre as it looks today in 2016 (Bill Quine)

A view of the main facade of the Peel Centenary Centre as it looks today in 2016 (Bill Quine)

In the Isle of Man he made his headquarters in Peel, a town where he was made especially welcome at a time when the established Church authorities often shunned Methodists or sent trouble-makers to break up their services.

Crook held meetings in a small thatched summerhouse in the grounds of Mount Morrison which had formerly been used as a watchtower by smugglers due to its views over Peel bay.

Although his initial stay was only for six months before he had to return to Liverpool, Crook’s preaching took root and in 1777 the Peel Society was the first Methodist group in the island to build its own chapel, to be soon followed by others in Lonan in 1780, at Ballakaneen in Andreas in 1782 and eventually in Douglas (where Methodists had been given a rough ride by locals) in 1786.

This success was largely thanks to Methodist founder John Wesley responding to pleas from Manx Methodists by stationing the Rev Crook in Whitehaven so that he could make regular visits back to the island using the regular sailing packet service from that port to Douglas.

Probably thanks to Crook, in 1777 John Wesley himself made the first of two visits to the Isle of Man, with large crowds gathering to hear this famous preacher, including a meeting on the slopes of South Barrule where he made many converts.

On his second visit in 1781, Wesley preached twice in Peel - once at 5am on a Monday and then returning for an evening service on the following Wednesday - and said of the townsfolk’s hymn-singing: ‘I have not heard better singing in Bristol or London. Many, both men and women, have admirable voices and they sing with good judgment. Who would have thought this in the Isle of Man?’

Wesley also praised the abilities of the island’s preachers who used both Manx and English in their services and said: ‘We have no such circuit as this either in England, Scotland or Wales.’

Remarkably, by 1784 there were 2,124 Methodists recorded in the island and the movement continued to grow to have a very strong presence in the Isle of Man - and especially in Peel. The first chapel in the town’s Atholl Street was built in 1839, together with a small meeting room across the yard at the side.

Two views of the hall in use, one showing members of the Sunday School and the other the Peel Sisterhood (Manx National Heritage iMuseum)

Two views of the hall in use, one showing members of the Sunday School and the other the Peel Sisterhood (Manx National Heritage iMuseum)

The Guild Room, as this meeting room was called, became regarded as inadequate and in 1875 the townsfolk decided to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Wesleyan movement in the island by building a much larger hall across the road. This Wesleyan Centenary Hall was a sizeable undertaking: it had two entrances and a grand and ornate Classical facade. The Centenary Hall was also used as an entertainment centre in Peel for almost 100 years, with concerts, plays, eisteddfods, talks, gardening shows and jumble sales all periodically taking place.

The first concert for which there are any details was ‘a Visitors’ Concert’ on August 6, 1889, to raise money for the Peel Brass Band Instruments Fund.

In 1913 the Centenary Hall was extended by the building of what is now called the Atholl Room to provide a home for the Chapel Sunday School. The building originally had a low wall and ornate cast iron railings at the front, which gave the hall some privacy and dignity. but these were removed to be melted down to help the war effort during the First World War.

By the 1980s, the Atholl Room had become home to the Footprints Youth Club, while the main hall was used for badminton and the Peel Pantaloons group. In the early 2000s, the Pantaloons committee discovered that the chapel authorities were thinking of selling the hall, but that some of the congregation hoped that it would remain in community use and would not be just converted into flats or shops. It was realised that a structured group was vital to raise funds, buy the hall(s) and do all the necessary work needed to turn the whole complex into a performing arts centre.

The interior of the hall while work on its refurbishment was under way

The interior of the hall while work on its refurbishment was under way

Six directors were appointed, loans secured and the huge amount of voluntary work required was started.

In October 2003, the Peel Centenary Centre opened in its new guise as an arts venue, despite the fact that facilities were poor: the hall floor was flat and audiences had difficulty in seeing the stage - plus there was only one toilet for both the artists and the audience!

Since those early and challenging days, extra dressing rooms for artists and performers have been built, along with five additional, and very welcome, toilets. The latest addition has been the reception room and bar, built with funding from local inventor and entrepreneur the late Cyril Cannell in memory of his parents.

New raked seating, giving excellent viewing, has transformed the theatre, along with LED theatre lighting and a high-quality sound system, which attracts performers from all over the world for events such as the Yn Chruinnaght interceltic festival.

A Wednesday evening monthly film club has proved to be highly successful, as has an art group, and there are many regular bookings for each of the two rooms.

The wish of some of the chapel congregation in those early days, that the hall should be for community use, has come true!

The Wesleyan Centenary Hall in a pre-First World War photograph

The Wesleyan Centenary Hall in a pre-First World War photograph

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