Black Country Living Museum, Dudley – Gospel Car 11, Ebenezer, and Providence Chapel

Black Country Museum on Friday 25 September. Last time we went I remember Gareth being taken for a walk on the cakewalk at the fairground – sadly the fairground has gone at the moment – but the rest was wonderful. They have a superb guidebook too, which means I need to spend another day reading that. They give a simple map which shows the accessible routes, so we had a good explore.

We started with the Newcomen Engine, this is a replica but the original was only about a mile away. It’s dated to about 1712, and is currently waiting for a refurb.

Then past the garage and bus depot – on the way back we had a good chat with the bus driver, he was fascinated by Morgan’s wheels.

We had a lesson at St James’ School, then decided we wanted lunch. It was a bit early in the day, but there was no queue, so we shared a portion of fish and chips. Then we explored the row of shops. Hobbs’ fish and chip shop from Hall Street, Dudley, dates to 1916, but the building is older.

The canal arm and basin date to 1839. I had a chat with the lady on the canal boat – she said that even with the small living area she would rather have been a boater, than have worked in the factories. The staff and volunteers were lovely.

There was a lady beside the Methodist caravan, and we had a good chat to her. It is a replica of Gospel Car 11, Ebenezer, and there is information about it at http://www.methodistheritage.org.uk/gospelcar.htm. This is a website well worth exploring – I realise that northernvicar is rather Anglican, and I have not been good at exploring Non-conformist heritage.

According to the website “The Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists and Church Army all used ‘Gospel cars’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Within Methodism, horsedrawn wagons were partly replaced by hand-pushed ‘trek carts’ in the inter-war years, and finally by deaconess’ caravans in the 1950s. Gospel Cars were used for ministry in markets, fairgrounds, at overnight moorings for barge and boat people, and to traveller camps, and to reach rural locations.”

This reproduction was built in 2011 and it is rather good that it is displayed here. Boat and barge people were one of the historically marginalized groups to whom the Gospel Car missioners were reaching out. “It was a little home on wheels – what are seats during the day were beds at night. It was a little church on wheels – the bigger audience would be addressed from the platform while the smaller audience would be invited inside.” They had pictures, an organ, a gramophone, percussion band instruments and a magic lantern. I am old enough to remember film evenings in our little chapel – Fact and faith films. One of them had the line “I’m going to fill my lungs with helium gas”, and I remember my dad disgracing himself as he got a fit of the giggles. We were supposed to take these things seriously!

My new friend was playing us tunes on her “Atlas organette”, apparently it is a reed instrument, air pressure produced as she turned the handle. As we talked, and I confessed I was a Vicar, we got chatting about our churches. She said something like “I’m not allowed to proselytise while I’m here, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so, but I had a chap earlier telling me the church was useless these days. I gently told him about the amount of food bank collections my church has been going over the last few months.” This caravan was no doubt used for evangelism, social care, and basic education for children in the hour or two they spent here while the boat was being loaded.

The website comments that life with the caravan “sounds wonderful, but with walls of just a single plank thick it would certainly be very, very cold on many a winter night.”

We then walked across the canal to the HQ of the Dudley Canal Trust. I wanted a ride into the canals and J was going to read a book. “We have a boat we can get you on” they said, and indeed they had. They had done some work with plastic screens, so we were all socially distanced and it felt safe. It was a great tour – I remembered quite a lot of it, but they certainly have an amazing set of tunnels. The chap on the boat giving the commentary had a good line in patter, the AV was well worth watching, and we can go again anytime in the next year. They also do longer tours exploring further afield. The lives of the workers, those who did the mining and those working the boats must have been pretty dreadful.

We went back into the main part of the museum, and I visited the chapel. Providence Chapel is the Darby Hand New Connexion Methodist Chapel which originally opened on 29 January 1837. Methodism, and other non conformist groups, were flourishing by the late 1700s. They were more radical than the Church of England, more evangelical, had a greater social conscience, and were not bound by the parish structure.

Darby End grew up in the late C18 as a coal-mining community alongside the Dudley Canal. It was named after a family who arrived in the C16 to run a mill on the Mousesweet Brook (they must have made that name up!). I think the policeman, who was our guide, said that the Methodists were nail-makers who had come to the village from Belper. They were members of the New Connexion, who had split from the Wesleyans in 1797. They worshipped in a house for several decades, until they could afford to build this chapel. A simple brick chapel, galleries added later, with high pulpit and text. It takes me back to my youth, worship in the small Baptist Chapel in Barton, preaching in so many chapels like this across the Cambridgeshire Fens. I remember one church meeting when there was a discussion about what we should put behind the pulpit – we’d recently repainted the interior of the chapel. My dad wanted a simple wooden cross, Sid wanted a text. Sid also worshipped at Zion Baptist chapel, and was a man with strong views. My dad was also a man with strong views. At one point in the discussion, dad suggested Isaiah 40.9 “Get thee to Zion”.

We were reminded by our guide that this chapel was not just a place of worship. It was a place of education, of community, of social care, of political life. It closed in 1974, and the pews were offered to the Museum. They visited, and asked if they could have the whole church. It is good to see it here, but difficult not to wish it was still a centre for its community. I know the world has changed, but when all the chapels and most of the churches are closed, we might realise what we’ve lost. Zoom won’t replace it.

Finally we enjoyed the last row of shops, and talked to the lady on the left, who was out on strike. Sheila Chamberlain-Hyett tweets as @Sheila_Fairy talked to us about the Women Chainmakers’ Strike of 1912 and Mary Macarthur – and I purchased the book. They have an annual festival in Chadley Heath, so it would be good to go next year. There’s also a facebook page Friendsofthewomenchairmakers.

We had had a very good explore, and were almost the last people to leave the museum. Slow on the M6 again, but we made it home. Now all we need to do is go back!

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