Chapels of England, Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity

Chapels of England, Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity, Christopher Wakeling, Historic England, 2017, hardback, 312 pages, ISBN 978-1-84802-032-0, £50

Review

Nonconformist chapels, churches and meeting-houses have attracted an increasing amount of interest in recent years. They are an important part of religious and cultural history and remain a notable part of the topography of cities, towns and rural areas. The foundation of the Chapels Society has been a major contributor to this growth in interest as well as a great variety of publications that tell the story from denominational, local history and architectural points of view. Christopher Stell’s substantial four-volume Inventory of Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-Houses in England provided an essential guide to chapels all over England, many of which had disappeared. Unitarians are fortunate to have Graham and Judy Hague’s The Unitarian Heritage An Architectural Survey of Chapels and Churches in the Unitarian Tradition in the British Isles, published in 1986 and still an indispensable source. Across denominations there has been an increasing awareness of the need to preserve this aspect of our history and where congregations have been unable to sustain some buildings the Historic Chapels Trust has taken over their maintenance. With the publication of this new book, Chapels of England, Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity, by Christopher Wakeling, we now have a beautifully illustrated scholarly account of the patterns of chapel buildings amongst all branches of nonconformity from separatist, pre-ejection times up to the twenty-first century.

Chapels of England

The author brings a thorough architectural appreciation of these kinds of buildings and relates their historical development to the different denominations, the streams of theological thinking and liturgical practice within each of them, local architectural traditions and influences, and the interplay between dissent and the patterns of church building and the use of different styles by the established church. As such it is a tremendously impressive guide to what is a complicated and diffuse subject. Christopher Wakeling is well versed in the varieties of attitudes found within the different churches and sects that built chapels outside of the Church of England. Apparently the total number of surviving examples of Nonconformist chapels is still around 20,000 today, which is a significant number of buildings of one particular type. Dr Wakeling shows how chapel building accelerated at different times, such as the second decade of the nineteenth century when an average of five new meeting-houses were built a week, so that “nonconformist chapels became as characteristic a part of the Regency scene as cinemas were of the 1930s  or supermarkets have become today” (page 73).

Not all dissenters deliberately chose that path. In the first chapter Dr Wakeling makes good use of the sermon preached by John Fairfax at the opening of the Ipswich meeting-house in 1700 when he stated: “Had we the liberty of those places [ie. the parish churches], we should seek no other” (page 2).

And the Ipswich meeting-house with its spiral turned balusters and carved doves and cherubs worthy of Grinling Gibbons is clear evidence that early dissenters (particularly Presbyterians) were not averse to decoration.

But the whole book is an impressively thorough examination of the development of different styles of buildings as theologies changed, as denominations developed, as political circumstances evolved and as economic opportunity came and went. For Unitarians the Dissenters’ Chapels Act gave an added impetus to the frequent nonconformist impulse to build on the grand scale. Dr Wakeling quotes the preacher at the opening of Hyde Gee Cross in 1848 (not named in the text but presumably Charles Wicksteed) as saying the new church was:

Asserting the right of a Dissenting Chapel to look like a parish church, and to be used as a parish church without the least danger of our worship being interrupted (page 128).

But not all nonconformity took this form. Some was uncompromisingly evangelical and required a vast preaching station or a massive complex of buildings surrounding a central hall. In villages and towns small, unobtrusive chapels continued to be built throughout the nineteenth century. The period after the First World War and on into this century has brought a whole new set of challenges. Dr Wakeling shows how different circumstances, both local and national, produced these changes in architecture and the different types of building. The book is also peppered with ‘boxed essays’ which explain some of the terms used or the role practices such as communion had in chapel building over time or features such as seating and graveyards. This helps make for a very complete treatment of the whole subject since what might otherwise be a dry account of architectural history is, rather, rooted in the cultural, theological and liturgical experiences of the people who built the chapels. Consequently the book is also a history of nonconformity told through its buildings.

The book is richly illustrated in colour throughout, with page after page of striking photographs of interior and exterior shots, this is a particularly appealing feature of the book. If I was going to be hyper-critical I would say that the full-page picture of the chancel of Ullet Road Church (page 204) is astonishingly dark and gloomy, it is a much better lit area than this photo suggests. But this is to nit-pick, it’s the only disappointing picture in the book, generally the photographs are sharp and detailed throughout and are a really strong accompaniment to the text.

The author provides a glossary of the various nonconformist groups referred to in the book and is clearly familiar with the ethos and history of each of them, moving assuredly from one tradition to another. Historic England should be commended for producing such an impressive book, it is destined to become an essential publication for anyone with an interest in this aspect of religious history.

This review appears in Volume 26, Number 4, April 2018 of the ‘Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society’.

See

https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2018/03/28/transactions-of-the-unitarian-historical-society-2018/

for details of how to subscribe.

 

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Todmorden Unitarian Church

I last visited Todmorden Church decades ago and it was in a pretty sorry state then, heavily vandalised and with no electricity, it had an air of dilapidation about it. So it was good to return in the company of some colleagues to see the church now.

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Ministers: Jo James, Bob Janis-Dillon, Jim Corrigall, David Steers, Phil Waldron in front of the chancel

One of the things you can’t miss about the church is its dominance on the landscape, it is a big church, an impressive feature of the local topography. But what I had forgotten and what in some ways it is easy to miss is the attention to detail within the building – the marble inlays, the subtle little carvings, the attractive stained glass windows, even the colours of the massive marble pillars. Partly this is because it is actually quite dark inside. The Unitarian Heritage An Architectural Heritage says it has an “under-lit interior” and blames this on the stained glass by “M. Capronnier of Brussels”. An excellent new book Chapels of England Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity by Christopher Wakeling (Historic England, 2017) describes it as the “one unmissable place of worship in Todmorden” and says “despite the clerestory windows – externally unseen – and tiny openings higher in the roof, the light levels foster a sense of religious mystery, augmented by the stained and coloured glass.” I tend to agree with the Unitarian Heritage assessment, I do find the interior a bit too dark but that is a minor quibble. It is a fine building designed by John Gibson of Westminster who also built the local town hall and the Fielden family residence.

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The church tower

Since 1994 the church has been in the care of the Historic Chapels Trust and they seem to be doing a good job, with the church being looked after by local volunteers. They have a varied programme of activities in the church including regular services plus weddings and even some recent christenings. When we visited, Joanna and Richard kindly took time out to show us round.

Verger

Richard Butterworth (verger) and Joanna Drake (volunteer)

The church now has kitchens and toilets sensitively added to the interior which perhaps underlies what a valued resource for local people this church building is. Its history is fascinating, coming, as it did, out of the Methodist Unitarian movement founded by Joseph Cooke and building a new chapel, which still survives, in 1824. The congregation was taken under the wing of enlightened mill owner John Fielden who extinguished their debt and whose three sons built the new church as a memorial to their father, built, it was said at the time, “for the public worship of the one God the Father, and for the instruction in the simple teachings of Jesus Christ, as opposed to such traditional doctrines as those of original sin and eternal punishment”. It opened for worship in 1869 and cost around £35,000. It is the only Unitarian church that I know that has a porte cochère where the wealthy benefactors could dismount and enter the church by a side door protected from the elements. Two of the sons are buried close to the church and matching memorials to all three of them are found on the walls of the interior.

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Porte cochère

The church has what must be one of the earliest and most elaborate church fonts of any Unitarian church, it is probably in need of restoration but it still in better condition than when I last saw it.

Detail on the font

One feature of Todmorden is the repeated motif of the pelican, I am not sure why this is such a popular image here but there is a pelican in the chancel window, and two carved in the choir stalls. There is possibly also another one carved in the end of a pew (almost all the pew ends feature flowers except for this one which houses an angel and what may be another pelican).

Phoenix carving

Choir stall pelican (see note below)

It is heartening to see the clock working and to know that the peal of eight bells are still rung by local bell ringers. Todmorden was a really flourishing congregation for most of its existence and it is interesting that this large building and its congregation left such an imprint in the locality that even now worship continues within it and it provides the home for much activity. It’s good to see the gradual recovery of Todmorden Unitarian Church.

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The view up the carriage drive

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Pulpit eagle

window round

Rose Window

A 360 degree view of the interior can be seen on the church’s website:

http://360.tuc-congregation.org.uk/

Note:

A couple of people have pointed out to me that the carving in the choir stalls which I originally named as a phoenix is in fact what is known as a ‘pelican in her piety’. It is the mother pelican who – in the ancient story – feeds its own chicks (or revives them after they die) with its own blood. I had confused this story with that of the phoenix which, of course, is famous for its ability to resurrect itself. Both the phoenix and the pelican became popular within Christian iconography from early times to represent Christ, for obvious reasons. But I am happy to make that correction and rename the image in the choir stalls. The carving on the pew end looks a good deal more phoenix like, although, to be honest, the photograph I took is not as clear as it might be and I am not able to make a certain identification. It is quite plausible that there are both phoenixes and pelicans in the church, but nevertheless I have removed the references to the phoenix and given credit to the pelican. Both are actually slightly surprising images to be found in a Unitarian church of 1869. The presence of a ‘pelican in her piety’ in Todmorden is probably a unique occurrence in a Unitarian church – unless anyone else knows differently!