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4A Bye St History

The address of Ledbury Methodist Church is 4a Bye Street, a corner property at the junction of Bye Street and the entrance to a very convenient (free on Sunday) car park! Bye Street itself has ecclesiastical connections as it was originally called Bishop Street, a name first recorded in 1288 and so called because (it is believed) the Bishop of Hereford owned land here. The name Bye Street first appears in 1668 but Bye Street and Bishop Street seem to have then been interchangeable for almost 200 years, and it was only in the late 19th century that Bye Street won out.

The church is on part of site which used to be a tannery on the north side of Bye Street. It is not known when the tannery was first built, but it was there in the 18th century, owned by the Hankins family before passing to the Mutlow family for most of the 19th century. Several generations later, the surviving owner – Joseph Mutlow – did not have much interest in that line of business and, in 1892, sold it to a Mr C W Stephens. And, most interestingly, those initials (C W) stand for Charles Wesley! It is not known if Mr Stephens had Methodist roots or perhaps even attended the old Methodist Church in The Homend, but it would be a delightful twist of history if he did!

The plot of land occupied by the tannery did not quite extend to The Homend – there was a half- timbered, but rather dilapidated, house on the corner itself, but after that came the tanning works and then the large drying area which would have been needed for the leather to hang and dry – dark enough to stop sunlight spoiling the leather, but with louvred windows to allow some air movement to gently help the drying process – and it is on this old drying area that Ledbury Methodist Church now stands.

Charles Wesley Stephens was a local businessman, owning a thriving ironmongers shop, initially it is thought in The Homend, but later at the junction of the High Street and New Street; he was also a local councillor on both Ledbury Urban District Council and the County Council.

Along with the tannery, he had acquired the house previously mentioned at the top of Bye Street; this was demolished in the early 1890s, allowing the narrow alley-like entrance to Bye Street to be widened, and the “clock tower building” – the Barrett Browning Institute, now the Poetry House – to be built. When he died in 1912, his estate was valued at around £10,000, or about £1 million in today’s money.

When the old house was demolished, the tannery itself was also pulled down, leaving an open space between the new Barrett Browning Institute and what had been the drying area, and which had been left standing.

Charles Wesley Stephens had no heirs to carry on the business, and on his death 
in 1912 the ironmonger’s shop and what was left of the tannery was sold to George Hill who turned what had been the drying area into a warehouse. His son, John, inherited the business on George’s death and decided – around 1930 - to expand the “Hop Growers Requisites” side of the ironmongery business by turning the warehouse into what became known as The String Works, and which provided employment for many in the town. The remaining open space between the String Works and the Barret Browning Institute was filled with an ex-WW1 seaplane hangar and used as shops and storage facilities, before being demolishedand replaced with the current Sears House in 2005.

The String Works closed around 1967 and the building was used as an office supplies shop and then as a medical research facility, until – in 2020 – Ledbury Methodists acquired it as their new home and converted it into a warm and friendly church premises.

And if only we’d moved there 70 years earlier, members could have arrived by train, since the old Ledbury Town railway station would have been just a 100 yards or so down the road. And before that a gentle trip on a barge would have been possible until the canal was bought out and closed by the railways. And before that – who knows!

Image of how the building might have looked 
by John Chappell

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