Our community in Bristol have been telling us why they think the New Room matters to Bristol. From the history and stories our museum shares to the tranquil space of the chapel, watch the video to discover their answers...
Curious about the objects in this video? Scroll down to discover their history...
The membership books on display in the museum are the earliest records of the members of the New Room and date between 1783-1786. John Wesley insisted on personally checking whether a person’s beliefs and behaviour were appropriate to justify their continued membership. Records of membership were therefore updated regularly. Wesley revised the list in 1790 when he recorded an increase to 944 members. He recorded that two-thirds of the members were female and the membership was divided up into fifty-seven classes spread across the whole of Bristol. These classes varied in size from nine to eighteen members. Wesley listed the addresses and occupations for all but a hundred of the members and this informs us about the social background of the New Room membership.
Only six men and twenty-one women are listed as gentlemen and gentlewomen. There are fifty-five men and women identified as servants, making this the most common occupation among the members. The next largest group of male workers were 47 shoemakers and the largest female groups were 26 washerwomen and 24 sempstresses. There were 19 shopkeepers and 16 schoolmistresses. Other significant groups were carpenters and clerks, followed by tailors, weavers, glassmakers, coopers and smiths. The rest of the membership was spread over almost seventy different occupations, ranging from cabinetmakers, chandlers, and colliers to nurses, staymakers, brewers and masons and from army officers, porters and printers to shipwrights, sugarbakers and toymakers. These occupations reflect the city-centre location of the New Room.
The eighteenth century is renowned for its elaborate fashion. Opulent dresses, luxurious fabrics and fancy footwear all paraded the gardens, ballrooms and parlours of wealthy town and country houses. Hairstyles did not escape this love of excess. Whilst high and extravagant wigs became the height of fashion, hygiene did not. Lice were rampant, and able to roam freely at all social occasions. Ladies’ wigs in particular contained false hair stuck on with pomatum (hair grease) and dusted with flour which provided an ideal home for lice. The wig scratcher would have made a handy tool for relieving an itch. John Wesley refused to waste money on fashionable wigs, although his brother
Charles wore them. It was this love for trifling fashion and opulence which John Wesley loathed. He hated the huge gap between rich and poor. He rejected the concept that people should view their property as ‘theirs’ and waste money on fashion and other needless things when so many people were starving and deprived of decent clothing or a place to live.
It is rumoured that after Lord Chesterfield heard that the ladies at Bath were wearing their hair ‘three or four storeys high’, he replied, “Yes, and I believe every storey is inhabited, like the lodging houses here, for I observe a great deal of scratching”.
In 1747 John Wesley published his medical handbook, ‘Primitive Physic, or an easy method of curing most diseases’. He wanted people who couldn’t afford a doctor to be able to treat themselves at home. He listed ailments alphabetically, giving a brief description of symptoms, and suggesting a range of treatments, many of which were based on the work of doctors judged reputable in his day. These often involved herbs and plants that could be easily grown or found. Some of his remedies should stay firmly in the eighteenth century, such as drying and powdering a toad to make pills to help ease asthma! But some were effective remedies. For example, honey is used in many of his remedies and science has subsequently confirmed its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Some of his ideas were based on what was then the cutting edge of medical science and so he advocated electrical treatment for a number of ailments, mental as well as physical. ‘Primitive Physic’ became the most popular medical book of its time: going into 23 editions and selling over one million copies.
As a young man teaching in America John Wesley was shocked to see the pupils from richer families
mocking those classmates who could not afford shoes. His response was to turn up at school himself wearing no shoes. These shoe buckles belonged to John Wesley and are a perfect reminder of this story of compassion and humility. We know the shoe buckles must have had their fair share of use because as a travelling preacher John Wesley travelled over 250,000 miles across the country on horseback! If he had needed a replacement pair then Birmingham would have been the best place to stop. In the late eighteenth century Birmingham boasted the most extensive manufacturing of buckles in the country, producing 2.5 million pairs of buckles each year.
Miniature Hymn Book
As miniature books have existed since Babylonian times, the novelty of their size is nothing new. So why was it that these hymn books were so small? The biggest indication for us in identifying why they were this small is to establish their purpose. Miniature hymn books would have been in the packs of travelling preachers, so portability was clearly essential for their distribution. As a rule of thumb paper was expensive, so generally speaking the smaller a book was, the cheaper. There are of course exceptions, one being when a printer takes advantage of a book’s small size to show off their skills in intricate printing and binding. It is more likely that with Methodists being non-conformists who encountered a number of violent mob attacks the small size gave a handy way of concealing the books from prying eyes. The miniature hymn book featured in our film is entitled, ‘A collection of Hymns for the people called Methodists’, and it contains over 300 hymns. It’s a fascinating curiosity for us today – do come and view the collection of tiny books in our library, but don’t forget your magnifying glass!
Thoughts upon Slavery, 1774
Published in 1774, this pamphlet contained not just an account of the barbarities of slavery but also an emotional appeal for people to reject such an evil institution. At the time John Wesley wrote this many Christians were saying that there was nothing wrong in slavery because the Bible contains many accounts of people owning slaves and it never condemns slavery. For Wesley that was a nonsense: slavery ran counter to Christ’s command that we should show love to all and ignored the worth of every individual as a child of God. In 1776 ‘Thoughts upon Slavery’ was republished in America with John Wesley calling the war between America and Britain God’s punishment for the two nations engaging in the slave trade. In 1787 the pamphlet was republished again upon John Wesley joining the newly created Society for the Abolition of the Slave.
In the eighteenth-century sugar was produced in a cone shaped block called a sugar loaf and often packaged in blue paper. These sugar loafs were broken into smaller pieces using sugar nippers before finally being ground down for cooking using a pestle and mortar. Since the establishment of the East India Company in December 1600, Britain became the main producer of sugar. However, the growing sweet tooth of our nation came with a bitter taste. Products such as sugar were all made available to an eager British market through the slave trade. Sugar became as important to the economy as oil is today! As the campaign for Abolition gathered pace in Britain, many British people started to boycott the use of sugar, earning themselves the name ‘anti-saccharrites’. John Wesley published ‘Thoughts upon Slavery’ in 1774, in this he attacked the slave-trade and stated, "Better no trade, than trade procured by villany". It was as early as 1736 when John Wesley was working as a missionary in America that he began to oppose the introduction of slavery into the colony of Georgia.
Manillas were a form of currency used in West Africa. The manilla originated before the colonial period as a result of trade. A variety of sizes, designs and weights were produced, often in large quantities. They were usually made of copper or bronze. Manilla were still recognised as currency and in use as decorative objects as late as the 1940s. They are particularly associated with the Atlantic slave trade. Around 8 Manillas would have been traded for one adult who was sold into slavery from Calabar (modern day Nigeria) in the eighteenth century. It was in 1755 that John Wesley described slavers as ‘man-stealers’ and ‘the worst of all thieves in comparison to whom highwaymen and housebreakers are innocent’. At the end of his life Wesley wrote his final letter to William Wilberforce in 1791 encouraging him to continue campaigning not just against Britain’s involvement in the slave trade but against slavery itself: ‘Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw sun) shall vanish away before it.’