The Wesley Family
The Old Rectory
Video Footage of the Old Rectory
When the Wesley family arrived at Epworth in 1695, they moved into a house comprising "five baies, built all of timber and plaister, and covered with straw thatche, the whole building being contrived into three stories, and disposed in seven chief rooms – a kitchinge, a hall, a parlour, a butterie, and three large upper rooms, and some others of common use; and also a little garden empailed betwine the stone wall and the south". (G.J. Stevenson, Memorials of the Wesley Family). There was also a barn, a dovecot and a hemp-kiln, all surrounded by the croft, making the whole site about three acres.
Samuel Wesley, being a Royalist, an academic and a Tory, could hardly have been more different from the people who lived in Epworth and the rest of the Isle of Axholme. The family suffered from being newcomers in this community and Samuel in particular was regarded with suspicion. His strict expectations of the morality of his parishioners did little to soften this impression. As a result the family were attacked on many occasions, with their crops burnt and their cattle maimed. The wooden and thatch house was also partially burnt.
In 1709, in the middle of a February night, the family woke up to discover that the house was all on fire. They rushed to get out, with the nursemaid collecting up the children. They got to the door and had to rush back in for the key, and eventually escaped what was rapidly becoming an inferno. Only then did they realise that one child was still in the house. John at the age of 5 had found his way blocked so he stood on a box at a first floor window. There was no time to fetch a ladder so one local man stood on another's shoulders and pulled John out of the house, just as the roof fell in. It is not surprising that his mother described this as an act of God's providence. It seems very likely that this fire was not an accident but was another indication that the local people were disgruntled.
The family lost everything in the fire. However, within the year, by December 1709, the new Rectory was built – an elegant Queen Anne house, built not of wood and thatch but of brick and stone. Perhaps Samuel was making a statement, through the scale and imposing structure of the new house, that he was not going to be intimidated. The cost of rebuilding the house, furnishing it and providing for his family, left Samuel Wesley in debt for the rest of his life. Susanna complained that it was never completed.
In December 1716 there began a few months of disturbances in the Rectory which the family eventually decided were the work of a ghost, which they named 'Old Jeffrey'. The activities of Old Jeffrey are very well documented through Samuel's journal, correspondence with Samuel Junior and John Wesley's own account written much later and published in the 'Arminian Magazine'. These accounts have provided rich material in understanding how the house was laid out and how the rooms were used when the Wesley family lived in it.
They had what they called the 'paper' chamber, the 'best' chamber, the 'green' chamber and the 'matted' chamber. With the grand Queen Anne staircase at one side of the house and the rather more simple back stairs at the other, there is a clear impression that there were some rooms that were supposed to be seen by the public and others which were much more the private family rooms.
After Samuel Wesley's death in 1735, Susanna was required to leave the Rectory, since none of her sons had offered to succeed their father as Rector of Epworth (and in any case it is unlikely that John or Charles would have been appointed).
The Rectory therefore continued to be the home of the successive rectors of Epworth. Many put their individual stamp on the house, adding extensions, moving doors and windows and changing the rooms around.
In the Victorian era, soundproofing was added to the floors of two of the first floor rooms, indicating that these and the reception rooms beneath them were the most important rooms of the house.
In 1954 the Church of England sold the Rectory to the Methodist Church. It was purchased by the British Methodist Church and significant financial support was given by the World Methodist Council which enabled it to be restored and for some of the external features to be put back to where they had been when the house was first built.
The house was opened in 1957 as a museum and guest house, overseen by wardens. Many people visited and received hospitality at what was now called 'Epworth Old Rectory'. Since all the furniture in the house when Samuel died was sold to pay off his debts, it is difficult to know whether any items now in the house actually belonged to the family. However the house was furnished with furniture from the period of the style they would have had. The Rectory has a collection of artefacts relating to the Wesley family and the area, including some important portraits.
After a number of years, it was decided that the house would no longer be a guest house but the concentration would be on its role as a museum, interpreting the stories and heritage of the Wesley family. In 2009 the Old Rectory achieved recognition as an accredited museum, and in 2011 it became a registered charity. It is a grade 1 listed building.