It is immensely sad to share the news that John Booth, Chair of the Friends of Bethesda chapel (in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent), died on Saturday 22nd February.
A retired electrician, John was a huge enthusiast for Bethesda. It was after all, where he met his wife Jean, when they attended services there before it closed. His commitment was enormous, even at times when his health was a source of concern. He happily threw himself into helping in whatever ways he could with the project to restore Bethesda and was involved with the Friends of Bethesda from its inception in 2003.
When HCT first became responsible for Bethesda, it was a semi-derelict shell of a building, infested by pigeons, and a daunting restoration project. The appearance of the chapel in the BBC2 Restoration Series in 2003 (winning the local heat and coming a creditable fourth in the final) galvanised interest in Bethesda. John, Jean and a coachload of supporters from Stoke attended the final of the 2003 series when it was recorded at the Tower of London.
John was the deputy chair of the Friends of Bethesda for many years, and became chair when Fred Hughes retired a year ago.
He opened the chapel to visitors, to potential users, to architects and builders. He maintained contact with the police, the council, the security contractor, the traffic-control staff, and the city-centre manager. For most local people he was, as it were, ‘Mr Bethesda’. His complete lack of pretension meant that he was trusted
respected, and able to build support from all quarters.
Though not a professional historian, John wrote two well-received histories of Hanley, and devoted years to the study of Bethesda’s history. He co-authored HCT’s substantial booklet about the chapel, and was invariably the one who gave talks about Bethesda. He undertook his own research into the service records of all those recorded on the Bethesda War Memorial – leading to him publishing a book listing all the details. His special research into the chapel’s work during the First World War led to the HLF-funded exhibition, ‘Bethesda Our Boys’.
John arranged many of the events at Bethesda and established links with a network of local businesses and individuals who helped when asked. Most recently he had been working hard on the chapel’s forthcoming bi-centenary weekend (9-10 May), and found a local company to print the programmes at cost price. It is of course poignant that John will not be able to take part in the celebrations.
John was an enormous help to HCT during the two main phases of conservation work at Bethesda. He was delighted that Prince Charles visited Bethesda – twice – and that John had the opportunity to meet and talk to him.
Two very tangible legacies of John’s involvement are the restoration of ‘The Light of the World’ stained glass window and the new toilet facilities at Bethesda.
When Bethesda closed, two local men were concerned that the beautiful stained-glass window ‘The Light of the World’ would be broken by vandals. They arranged for it to be boxed up and taken to a place of safekeeping, where it lay forgotten for approximately 25 years. John undertook enquiries around Stoke-on-Trent and managed to track it down and it returned to Bethesda in 2010 as part of the second phase of restoration works. Without his research it might well have been lost without trace.
John recognised that the lack of toilets would be an issue that would restrict the future use of Bethesda for major events. His tenacious pursuit of funding for the conversion of the former vestry block paid off and a new toilet facility was completed in January this year.
John’s wife, Jean, has also been an active member of the Friends, and their son has used his professional skills to help with IT matters.
The work to restore Bethesda has come a long way since John first became involved – it will be a fitting tribute to John and his endeavours if the final phase of work can be undertaken.