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Methodism in the Potteries 
Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme


Hill Top Sunday School

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The origin of the Methodist New Connexion Sunday School

Burslem Sunday School
Burslem Sunday School

Known locally as 'Hill Top' as it stands at the top of Westport Road.
Situated between Wade Heaths and Enoch Woods Potteries.


Forbidden to teach writing

In 1836 a group of Sunday School teachers were expelled from the Swan Bank Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. The basis of expulsion was that they were teaching the children to write as well as to read.

Sunday School was the only education opportunity for many children in industrial areas as at the time there was no statutory obligation to educate them and by the age of 8 or 9 they were in full-time employment working long hours often 6 days a week.

William Shaw (an old potter) wrote:

'What shall I say of the benefit I got from the Sunday School? To speak of the benefit it has been to this nation would be a joy, and all I could say would fail to tell the measure of its beneficence and inspiration, especially to the children of the poor in those days. To me, very soon, it was a life within my life........ Sunday was verily an oasis in the desert to me.'

When I was a Child William Shaw

In these schools children not only found peace and quiet after the muck and grind of the factory; they found dedicated men and women, willing to spend time trying to teach them all the things of which their social class had deprived them. They offered a chance to catch up, to make good: they offered the only chance, before compulsory primary education, for the working-class child.

'Unfortunately, the powers above soon noticed that although thrift and frugality were good for workmen, education was not necessarily at all to the employer's advantage, and a distinct change of policy emerged.

It was decided that, after all, it was wicked to teach poor children to write: a pamphlet by Robert Martin called The Impropriety and Sinfulness of teaching children to write on the Lord's Day shows clearly enough what kind of excuses were thought up to cover this essentially political decision.

The teaching of writing was prohibited by the Methodist Conference: Jabez Bunting, one of the most powerful Methodist ministers in the first half of the nineteenth century, was determined to put an end to what he called 'this secular art', and he succeeded. Reading was still allowed, because after all the poor had to be able to read the Holy Scriptures.

It's hard now to picture the pious Sunday Schools as hot-beds of Jacobinism and dissent and radicalism, but that's how they were regarded.

The poor, of course, were quite well aware of the reasons why they were being deprived of their education: Shaw, the Old Potter, says, 'I remember hearing a clergyman oppose educating the people on the grounds that they would write nasty things on the walls'

from.. "Arnold Bennett a biography p11" - Margaret Drabble

Hill Top Sunday School, Westport Road, Burslem
Hill Top Sunday School, Westport Road, Burslem
photo:  The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
Staffordshire Past Track

The construction of the this chapel was a result of a dispute between the Sunday School teachers and trustees of the Wesleyan Chapel in Burslem. The dispute concerned a writing ban on the Sabbath day which would severely limit many children's education, Sundays being their only days of learning. The clash of views came to a head in May 1836 when the teachers were locked out of the school and at a subsequent meeting of supporters the building of a new school was proposed.

In 1843, it was written by Ward that:

'In 1837, they purchased a plot of land in a prominent situation, and at a very great expense erected a building to serve the two-fold purpose of School rooms and a Chapel, which now forms a striking ornament to that part of the Town. The School rooms occupy the basement storey, the Chapel the upper storey which is galleried round very commodiously; along the whole front and in advance of it is a portico of eight Doric columns twelve feet in height supporting an entablature of stone on which is inscribed in large letters, 'Burslem Sunday School'.

In 1841 the Superintendent of the Sunday School, Joseph Wood, was interviewed by Samuel Scriven who, on behalf of the government, gathered evidence about the working conditions and education of children in the Potteries......

Wesleyan New Connexion, for Children of all Denominations. 

No. 218. Joseph Wood, aged 53: I have been the superintendent of this school 24 years. It was first established in the Wesleyan Methodist chapel, where it was conducted for a number of years. A dispute took place between the preachers and managers about six years ago relative to the introduction of rules adopted by the conference, which ended in the trustees expelling us from the premises which we previously occupied.

This dispute led to the erection of the present building for a school to be conducted under the firmer system of management. At that time about 1700 children of both sexes attended. it under the tuition of 240 teachers; we have continued our efforts ever since, and now number 539 boys, with 93 teachers; and 728 girls, with 107 teachers: there is besides this number a class of adults of 30. The building stood us in between 3000 and 4000., out of which we have paid a considerable sum, and stand indebted in the amount of 2093 15s. The only means we have of defraying this is by annual collections and voluntary contributions. Our current expenses are considerable for books, coals, etc, which is also paid by the like means. The system of education pursued is in part upon the Lancasterian and part upon the collective or catechetical principle. The children meet at half-past ten and continue till twelve, meet again at two and continue till four, attending both before and after the religious worship of the chapel; we admit them at five years old, and often before, and continue them as long as they like to remain. 

We have no day-school at present, when however the debt is paid off we hope to establish one, and support it by the seat- rents of the gallery. The greatest number of these children have no other means of acquiring information but by their Sunday schools, in consequence of their being taken so early to work at the factories. I do not see much difference in the comparative educational condition of the children of the Sunday and day-schools, for this reason, that the time the latter devote to it is limited. and during their infancy, and except followed up by the former is of very little use to them. I think the potters' children are above par I mean those who do attend school; but there is a vast number who are ignorant, grossly ignorant, who attend nowhere; this results in some instances from the poverty of the parents, in others from their extravagance, in many from their total indifference to religious or secular education. 

We have a library attached to the school accessible to the writing and Bible classes; the books are of history and biography; immoral works are excluded. 

(Signed) JOSIAH WOOD. 

Hill Top Sunday School c. early 1980's
Hill Top Sunday School c. early 1980's
photo: Ewart Morris

The building today

This impressive building was built in 1836 on the corner of Westport Road and Hall Street.
Closed in January 1977, a fire caused widespread damage in 1983. Beyond repair the main body was demolished in 1987 but the dramatic front portico remains (and is a listed building)

The sad state of the portico of the Sunday School
The sad state of the portico of the Sunday School
Feb 2008

Known locally as 'Hill Top' as it stood at the top of Westport Road.
Situated between Wade Heaths and Enoch Woods Potteries. (Wades Hill Works of 1814 in the background) -this is the area known as the Sytch and is the location where Wesley preached.....

'1761, March 9th - Preached at Burslem at half-past five, in an open place on the top of the hill to a large and attentive congregation, though it rained almost all the time, and the air was extremely cold....'


next: Wesleyan Chapels in the Potteries
previous: Duck Bank Chapel