It’s more than 15 years since my friend, John Booth, and I sat in the newly opened Mitchell Arts Centre, gazing across at the line of low cottage shops, the pet emporium, Soos Café, the gents barbers, a shoe shop and the Army and Navy Stores.
We talked about Bethesda Chapel, the icon that had recently narrowly missed winning the competition in the BBC programme Restoration. Supporters had travelled to London to cheer on our bid, and from these well-wishers the dedicated Friends of Bethesda Group was formed.
Bethesda closed as a place of worship in 1986. It was an edifice dear to John and his wife Jean. It was where they married and worshipped.
The chapel had been in danger of change of use and even demolition when Bethesda Heritage Trust failed to keep it in public use. Its sale saw planning applications to turn the building into an entertainment venue defeated. And so it lay unused except for vandals and vermin for ten years.
Listed as Grade II, this recognition fortunately prevented applications for Bethesda’s demolition from going ahead. And in 2003 Historic Chapels Trust, a body that raised sufficient funds to complete a first stage of restoration, and subsequently a second phase, acquired the building.
Throughout the years from 2005 John Booth led the Friends of Bethesda from the front. He oversaw the building projects and was onsite each day to support the building work with the project managers relying on his immense historic and heritage knowledge to bring the detailed framework back to life.
We love nostalgia – it’s a key part of what we do here at StokeonTrentLive.
So much so that we’ve got a dedicated Facebook group – that’s all about nostalgia!
It’s called Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire Nostalgia.
It’s a look at the history and heritage of Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, including local places and faces, lost buildings and industries, military history and a nod to our proud past.
You can read more nostalgia stories as well as join in with the conversation – sharing your own recollections and photographs.
We look forward to seeing you in our group!
During a second phase of restoration in 2011, builders continued to rely on John’s support and knowledge – as one project manager told me, “This work would never have been this good without John’s input”.
Whether he was leading private, personal or public tours of the chapel, John’s guests always came away refreshed and bowled over by his knowledge, not only of the chapel but also of Stoke-on-Trent’s recognised heritage.
An author of several books, specifically about Hanley, his place as a leading local historian is assured, and his work today is proving invaluable to student researchers.
I’ve been privileged to be chair of the Friends Group with John as my deputy. And until John took over some three years ago, it was in reality John who took the helm, and I’m so glad that everyone knew this. John was ‘Mr Bethesda’. And so, just three weeks ago, John and I sat in Mitchell Arts Centre café gazing across at the new surroundings. The row of lovely cottage shops had gone.
The colourful Smithfield offices loomed high above us. A new hotel and companion high-rise luxury apartments were nearing completion, and there in the background, as it has been for 200 years, was Bethesda Chapel.
We both have aged, but John was clearly struggling with chronic health conditions, even as he was putting together the agenda for the celebration of the bicentennial in May, but nothing could slow him down.
The telephone call on Saturday informing me of his death broke my heart. John Booth was my friend, a superb historian, and a lover of all things Stoke-on-Trent.
But above this, the success and popularity of the ‘Cathedral of the Potteries’ is because of the Friends Group, which he steered until his sad passing. His modesty would never approve of my saying that he was the person that made Bethesda Chapel work, but he was that person. He was, indeed, a very special human being.