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Ruth Mason, Odd Objects from Victorian Britain

2015 July 8
by lucinda matthews-jones

Ruth is a PhD student in the Geography Department at University College London. Her research focuses on the designed spaces and material culture of Wesleyan Methodism in London between 1851 and 1932 and what they can reveal about contemporary congregational experiences of Methodism. Alongside other graduates from the Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum’s History of Design MA, Ruth is a founding member of the Fig.9 experimental History of Design Collective (www.fig9collective.com). She is also a co-editor of www.visit1862.com, an online space dedicated to exploring the 1862 International Exhibition. All of these images are the rights of © Ruth Mason, 2015.

 

2. Tin Tabernacles

An iron building. A ‘temporary’ building. A movable building. An exchangeable building.

 

An iron building. A ‘temporary’ building. A movable building. An exchangeable building.

Kilburn Tin Tabernacle

This ‘tin tabernacle’ is made of iron. It is located just off Kilburn High Road in London and was first constructed in 1863. Used by the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) until 1947, it began to be used by the Sea Cadets in 1949 and continues to be the home of the Willesden and St Marylebone Sea Cadets to this day. A wonderful surviving example of a building type commonplace throughout Victorian Britain, photographs of this example will help illustrate the following reflections of tin tabernacles and some of their historical implications. Today corrugated iron is associated with huts and sheds. However during the nineteenth century it was commonly used to construct temporary chapels and churches. These iron buildings were quickly given the endearing title of ‘tin tabernacles’.

Although they were always intended to be temporary, some still exist today. Most have been long replaced with permanent buildings. Simple in structure, tin tabernacles often copied the basics of contemporary chapel design. They had simple, vertically arranged rectangular ground plans and were entered through a large door at one of their shorter sides. They had pitched roofs, often included windows with gothic archives and occasionally added towers and spires out of iron. Internally, these chapels often looked very similar to contemporary gothic revival churches. Stained glass windows, wooden pews, choir screens, highly decorated altars, and later electric lighting, were common features of these temporary spaces. The whole material structure of these buildings could sometimes cost as little as £100 (about £4,000 in today’s money). Purchased as flat packs, they could be easily delivered to any part of the country, where they were often constructed by congregations themselves over a number of weekends. Chapels were regularly recycled, re-used and sold onto other congregations.

But these chapels were not just temporary novelties. Beyond the aesthetic appeal they have gained during the twenty-first century, these buildings are intriguing monuments to Victorian religious practices and their engagements with contemporary society. They provide insights into religious groups’ responses to demographic changes, their inter-faith relationships and their connections with technological developments. It is therefore important to answer the question: why did Christian communities in the nineteenth-century require temporary buildings? There are many different answers. Regular large-scale evangelical revivals often required sudden expansions in church provision. The movement of large groups of manual labourers around the country to carry out construction and engineering projects required temporary chapels in their temporary residential locations. While religious communities’ also desired to build more churches in developing urban and suburban areas. These iron chapels demonstrated how religious groups were reacting to some of the major social changes of the nineteenth century.

Iron chapels were not solely associated with one Christian denomination and were built by Anglicans, Catholics and Non-Conformists (protestant groups not affiliated with the Church of England, such as the Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists). Each had different theological perspectives on materials and their importance, using material objects in their religious practices in different ways. In very broad strokes, these theological positions can be summarised like this: Catholics regularly engaged with aesthetically pleasing and material expensive objects and spaces as a means of expressing their worship to God. By contrast, Nonconformists rejected expensive material expressions of worship, continuing with Reformation traditions of material simplicity due to the fear that paying too much attention to the world’s physical materiality was idolatrous. The Church of England, which encompassed many different patterns of religious practice, had various positions on materiality. While some, particularly with the Oxford Movement during the nineteenth century, began to promote the importance of material expressions of divine worship, others maintained more puritanical positions. Therefore, these tin tabernacles are interesting because they demonstrate an occasion on which these various different religious groups were engaging with buildings that had the same material qualities and forms. Indeed, some seemed happy to share and exchange chapels. In 1873 the new Hornsey Wesleyan Chapel was established in an iron chapel purchased from Trinity Church, their local Anglican community. These chapels brought different nineteenth-century religious sects together in otherwise unusual networks of shared material practice and exchange.

 

Finally, it is also worth thinking about these chapels’ material novelty. Invented in the 1820s by Henry Robinson Palmer, Architect and Engineer to the London Dock Company, corrugated iron was still a new material in the middle of the nineteenth century. The lightweight, flexible and strong qualities of this material were a revelation to Victorian society and using it to construct temporary chapels was a massive innovation. Far from lagging behind the times, these religious communities were using the latest technology to great affect.

Although not common, these tin tabernacles are out there and provide fascinating glimpses into nineteenth-century religious practices. So keep your eyes peeled!

 

 

Further Reading

 

 

Smith, Ian, Tin Tabernacles; Corrugated Iron Mission Halls, Churches and Chapels of Britain (BAS Printers, Salisbury, 2004)

 

The Willesden and St Marylebone Sea Cadets’ building, Cambridge Avenue, London, is open to the public most Saturdays from 12-4pm. http://tintabernaclekilburn.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

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