Wesley Deaconess Order Archive

Scope and Content

The collection consists of official papers, photographs, policy documents, personnel records and the personal papers of deaconesses and supervising staff. The records of annual Convocation and the Deaconess Institute are also well-represented in the archive. Some printed ephemera, such as news cuttings and publicity literature, have been retained within the archive and is therefore included in this catalogue. However, published volumes including periodicals have been processed separately from the archive and are to be found in the relevant library printed catalogues.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Wesley Deaconess Order was founded in 1890 by the Wesleyan minister Thomas Bowman Stephenson (1839-1912), who recognized that an Order of dedicated women (referred to as deaconesses or sisters) had a valuable part to play in the life of the Church. His thinking was influenced by the work of Pastor Fliedner’s Deaconess House at Kaiserswerth in Germany. Initially the Institute was closely connected with the Children’s Home and Orphanage (later NCH and now Action for Children), but in time the two organizations became separate entities. Its first residential House was in London, named Mewburn House after its donor. Others were opened in Norwich (Bowman House), Leicester and Salford. Stephenson was Warden of the Order as well as Principal of the Children’s Home and Orphanage until 1900 when he moved to the Ilkley Circuit. The headquarters of the Order, known as the Deaconess Institute, was transferred there when a former boys’ school was purchased in 1902, providing accommodation for the warden and 27 students. The Order’s combined headquarters and training facility remained in Ilkley until transferred to Birmingham in 1967, following the closure of Headingley College, Leeds. From 1968 to 1970 it was associated with Handsworth College; then followed it to Edgbaston, where its new headquarters in Pritchatt’s Road were opened in 1971..

Until 1901 deaconesses were ‘recognized’; between 1902 and 1936 they were ‘consecrated’; and from 1937 on they were ‘ordained’, following an order of service included in the new Book of Offices. Ordination was to lifelong service, but until 1965 they were required to resign on marriage. They met together in an annual Convocation. The sisters engaged in pastoral, mission, evangelistic, social and prison work, and in nursing, teaching and work overseas. The home work was exercised mainly through attachment to chapels or circuits.

About the same time as Stephenson, the Rev. Alfred Jones (1833-1911), UMFC Connexional Evangelistic Secretary, had plans to use women for evangelism and visitation work, but failed to gain Conference support. However, the following year the Conference endorsed plans of the Rev. Thomas John Cope (1838-1927) for a Deaconess Institute organized along very similar lines. At the Union of 1907 the Deaconess Institute became part of the United Methodist Church.

The Primitive Methodist Church did not have an organized ‘order’, but there were deaconesses who ‘learned on the job’, though they attended some lectures at the UM Institute. With Methodist Union in 1932 the WM Order and UM Institute were united, with the 22 PM Sisters joining in 1934.

Following the opening of the presbyteral ministry to women, recruitment to the Order ceased in 1977 and remained closed until 1987 when the Order was renamed the Methodist Diaconal Order. In the following year, entry was opened to both women and men.

Before the entry of women into the ordained ministry in 1974, the deaconess work was the principal official means by which female ministry was exercised in British Methodism. The contribution made by deaconesses to the life of the Church was immense and had a particular, but not exclusive, impact on youth work and social ministry, especially in the inner city.

Source: Online Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland, ed. John Vickers


The collection has been arranged in seven series

  • WDO/1 Minutes and related papers
  • WDO/2 Official papers other than those created by committees (Wesleyan Methodist and post-1932 Methodist Church)
  • WDO/3 Official papers other than those created by committees (Non-Wesleyan Methodist)
  • WDO/4 Images
  • WDO/5 Overseas Mission
  • WDO/6 Personal papers
  • WDO/7 Notes, printed ephemera and a sound recording

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

The collection includes material which is subject to the Data Protection Act 2018. Under the Act 2018 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process personal data for archiving and research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Open parts of this collection, and the catalogue descriptions, may contain personal data about living individuals. Some items in this collection may be closed to public inspection in line with the requirements of the DPA. Restrictions/closures of specific items will be indicated in the catalogue.

Some institutional and personal papers within the collection fall within the closure period of 30 years from the date of creation imposed by the Methodist Church of Great Britain and are not to be made available to researchers without the archivist being consulted. In addition, the usual data protection and freedom of information provisions apply in accordance with relevant legislation.

Acquisition Information

The archive was deposited at the John Rylands Library in 2012 as part of the Methodist Archives and Research Centre collections.

Other Finding Aids


Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The archive of the Deaconess Order was used by Dr E. Dorothy Graham in her authorship of Saved to serve: the story of the Wesley Deaconess Order 1890-1978 (Methodist Publishing House: Peterborough, 2002)


No further accruals are expected.

Related Material

Saved to serve : the story of the Wesley Deaconess Order 1890-1978 Graham, E. Dorothy, 2002, Peterborough : Methodist Publishing House