There is one problem with England’s superb legacy of Nonconformist architecture (one that is shared by Wales, though Christopher Wakeling’s book is only about England): it is largely unknown because the doors are very often firmly locked. By contrast, many of the UK’s Anglican parish churches are open to anyone who chooses to enter (or, if not, the contact details of the keyholder are usually posted in the porch). We have a lively history in the UK of visiting churches as reservoirs of history and archaeology; these places of worship are seen not only as spiritual spaces, but also as places that can be appreciated in non-religious terms, exemplars of art and architectural styles and movements, and rich resources for studying the all-important role of religion in the lives of people from the late Roman period onwards.
The Nonconformist architectural and artistic legacy is largely unknown, though. You can walk past chapels and meeting houses every day of your life and never know what they look like on the inside. Some denominations reject tourism outright: they are closer to the Roman Catholic Church in this respect – believing that places of worship exist for the purpose of praising God, not as some form of historic visitor attraction. Many Catholic parishes nevertheless welcome respectful visitors and try to keep their churches open for those who wish to seek spiritual sustenance; Nonconformist chapels rarely even do that.
As a consequence, Nonconformist places of worship have not had the attention they deserve from historians who study material culture. There are plenty of documentary histories of Nonconformity in all its many branches, but very few that record and analyse the buildings, furnishings, memorials, and churchyards, seeking to explain their form and development. Even the celebrated ‘Pevsner’ volumes occasionally omit non-Anglican religious buildings (surely as an oversight rather than as a matter of policy), and while their introductory essays do go into considerable detail about the best of the county’s churches, furnishings, and monuments, Nonconformist architecture typically merits no more than a page, and is often described in dismissive terms as derivative – the work of jobbing small-town architects.
Sometimes described as ‘the Pevsner for Nonconformist chapels’, Christopher Stell’s four-volume Inventory of Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting Houses in England, published by the English Royal Commission between 1986 and 2002, tried to compensate for this neglect. Even this was far from complete, though, focusing on pre-1800 buildings, and the sketches that illustrated the volumes were not always as informative as a good photograph. Thank goodness, then, for Christopher Wakeling, who, with his new Historic England book Chapels of England (see the ‘Further reading’ box on p.43), has taken on the task of showing us the full richness of Protestant Nonconformity’s physical heritage. Wakeling’s book is packed with excellent photographs, and he and his team are to be warmly congratulated on managing to obtain more than 100 interior shots – for this is where the all-important detail is to be found.
Having rejected more than 1,000 years of Christian architecture based on the liturgy and rituals of the late Roman and Byzantine church and imperial court, Nonconformist communities dared to devise new forms of worship and new forms of building to support their activities. Some of these differences are visible on the outside – for example, many chapels lack the standard medieval nave and chancel design, and instead have a single hall-like liturgical space. But it is on the inside that the significant differences are most evident.
Early stylistic developments
The opening chapter of Chapels of England reminds us that religion in Britain after the Reformation was remarkably unstable, and marked by continual tension between those who hoped for a return to Rome and those who conformed to the Church of England. Within the established church the religious spectrum was very wide, embracing Puritans at one extreme and those of ‘Popish’ sympathies at the other. Like their Dutch, German, and Scandinavian contemporaries, those at the dissenting end wanted to continue worshipping in existing religious buildings. Their view was summed up by John Fairfax, a Presbyterian minister in Suffolk, who, in a sermon delivered on 26 April 1700 at the opening of a newly built meeting house in Ipswich, referred to ‘our public churches, which the Christian piety and liberality of former ages erected for the convenient assembling of particular congregations on their parochial districts every Sabbath day’, going on to say that ‘had we the liberty of those places, we should seek no other’.
Building separate places of worship was not, therefore, an immediate priority. Existing buildings could be adapted simply by ignoring the chancel and altar, and focusing instead on the pulpit. Churches lent themselves readily to pulpit-centred (rather than altar-centred) forms of worship, because they lacked seating. Bruegel’s painting of the Battle Between Carnival and Lent (1559) shows people leaving church carrying the chairs they had taken with them to sit on during long sermons. Permanent seating, often beautifully crafted, is one of the great legacies of Nonconformity.
If some Protestant congregations saw no aesthetic or theological objection to worshipping in the often-magnificent setting of medieval churches and cathedrals, the tensions that divided them sometimes resulted in the physical subdivision of the building. After sharing Exeter’s cathedral for seven years, the Congregationalists, who met in the nave, quarrelled with the Presbyterians, who worshipped in the former chancel, and insisted on the construction of a partition wall at the not-inconsiderable cost of £800. The parish churches of Hull and Great Yarmouth were similarly divided, and so, probably, were many more churches. Generally the dividing walls were taken down after the Restoration of 1660, but sometimes the physical changes lasted for years, only to be removed during 19th-century restoration campaigns.
The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, dating from c.1618, is one of the very few purpose-built Nonconformist places of worship to survive in England from the reign of James I (1603-1625). Not only did this still have a chancel-like projection – something generally rejected by later dissenters – but the surviving chancel arch is Gothic. This suggests that even those who built new places of worship saw no need to dissociate themselves from medieval church-building styles, at least among three of the four congregations that had coalesced by the time of the 1660 Restoration to form the core of Dissent: the Presbyterians, the Independents, and the Baptists.
During the earlier 17th century, it was the Puritans who led the way to new architectural forms, and in New England rather than Old. Early Puritan settlements in America had a ‘meeting house’ – a term that was first used at Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1631, and was defined as a communal building that served multiple purposes, as a place for secular meetings as well as for worship. These simple timber buildings were deliberately not consecrated, and their builders avoided any hint of saintly dedication. They were generally fitted out with fixed benches and galleries, which were as appropriate for meetings of the town council as for religious gatherings.
To find places of worship that reflected this new Puritan spirit in England, we look to Bramhope, in West Yorkshire, where Robert Dyneley of Bramhope Hall built a private chapel in 1649. The building conforms very well to the formula articulated by John Knox, who played a key role in the creation of new forms of post-Reformation worship in Scotland. He prescribed: ‘a bell to convocate the people together, a pulpit, a basin for baptising, and tables for the ministration of the Lord’s Supper’. The only external sign that Bramhope is a chapel is the bell cote. Otherwise it resembles a village hall – a long, low, single-room building of local stone, with a stone-flagged roof. The main façade has a symmetrical arrangement of mullioned rectangular windows and round-headed entrances. Inside, the seating is focused on the pulpit, which stands against the wall opposite the entrance, flanked by two windows to help light the preacher’s text, and with a canopy to dignify the preacher’s role and assist the acoustics.
Even this style is rooted in the Middle Ages. There is still an eastern space, lit by the chapel’s largest window, that was used for communion, even if there was no division between nave and chancel; and the elongated plan is still based on church architecture. By contrast, the newly built churches in the Netherlands and meeting houses in America tended to be square to avoid a strong east–west alignment and to achieve a closer engagement between congregation and preacher.
Perseverance through persecution
Despite promising religious tolerance when he was restored to the English throne, Charles II signed the Act of Uniformity in 1662, which required clergy to assent to the Book of Common Prayer. As a result, some 2,000 ministers and their congregations were removed from the parish churches where they had been worshipping. At first, they gathered privately in houses or hired halls; but in 1664 the screw was tightened still further when the first Conventicle Act was passed, forbidding religious gatherings of more than four people – except at Anglican services.
The Quakers managed to continue meeting through these penal years, despite suffering fierce persecution (their only occasional advantage was that they had no paid clergy to be singled out for punishment). In 1655, they leased a medieval hall behind the Bull and Mouth Inn in Aldersgate. When this was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, they leased rooms at Devonshire House in Bishopsgate, and in 1668 they built a new meeting house in Gracechurch Street that survived until the 1860s.
The oldest surviving purpose-built meeting house is in Hertford, and dates to 1670. It looks like a domestic dwelling and was, indeed, designed to be capable of conversion into houses, if necessary. Another meeting house of 1670 in Bristol has since been demolished and replaced by the successor building of 1749 that stands on the site today. It appears to have had moveable benches, but no pulpit, font, or altar; a raised platform extended the length of one wall, with seating for Quakers with an aptitude for ministry. The building housed a school when not in use for worship.
The London, Bristol, and Hertford buildings were urban in architectural style. However, humbler vernacular buildings are more often associated with the early days of Quaker gatherings. The meeting house that best reflects this ideal is at Brigflatts, near Sedbergh in Cumbria, completed in 1675. Resembling one of the area’s whitewashed farmhouses, it was literally built by the local flax weavers, who donated and transported the building materials, shared the construction tasks, and made the pleasingly functional benches and gallery.
Making their mark
The move to construct separate, purpose-built places of worship was given significant momentum following James II’s 1687 Declaration of Indulgence, extending rights of worship to everyone; this was followed two years later by William and Mary’s Act of Toleration, which gave rights of worship ‘without penalty or disturbance’ to all but Roman Catholics and Unitarians (the latter because they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity). This second Act in particular gave religious freedoms to many who had met covertly until that time, but it also had the effect of consolidating the division between Anglicans and Nonconformists, especially when it became clear that the Church of England would retain its dioceses and bishops. Despite having much in common with their Anglican counterparts, the Presbyterians (governed by elders and ministers) ended up on the Nonconformist side of the divide, and ceased worshipping in parish churches.
As a result of the Act, thousands of buildings were registered as Dissenting places of worship, mainly in houses or hired accommodation, and soon a new generation of chapels and meeting houses began to appear. From now on, purpose-built Nonconformist religious houses would become a feature of every major town and city in England, and there were some significant experiments in new kinds of building. Not all of them, by any means, conformed to the image we have of puritanical modesty and austerity – indeed, Christopher Wakeling emphasises that the newly emancipated Dissenting congregations seemed determined to make their mark and construct a strong statement within the townscape.
The Old Meeting House in Norwich is a fine example of a building of this era that broke with convention. The building’s principal purpose was to enable large congregations to be seated within easy sight and sound of the preacher. To this end, the ground-floor pews and the gallery seating (supported by pillars with Doric and Ionic capitals) are angled and tiered towards the pulpit. Tall windows filled with plain glass, symbolising the light of reason and giving natural light to the preacher, were supplemented in winter by a handsome brass chandelier. The communion table was placed centrally, close to the pulpit, giving prominence to the concept of communion as a shared meal – hence tables, not altars, were used, and the bread and wine were taken to the congregation in their pews, rather than being given at a communion rail.
These distinctively Nonconformist features seem to have evolved without the systematic use of professional architects. Lacking the substantial resources of the Church of England, Nonconformist congregations relied on the skills, contacts, and financial contributions of the congregation for the resources to construct new places of worship (and to pay the minister’s salary). Ideas were taken from other religious houses: Wren’s light-filled City of London churches were influential, as were Dutch buildings (naturally enough, given that there was a Protestant Dutch king on the English throne). Prints and architectural pattern books served as another source of ideas.
Despite the lack of ‘professional’ involvement, the architectural quality of many of these buildings fully justifies Daniel Defoe’s description of the Presbyterian (now Unitarian) Meeting House in Ipswich, constructed in 1700 by Joseph Clark, a local carpenter-builder, as ‘the best finished of any I have seen, London not excepted’. Sometimes the minister was himself the architect, as in the case of the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, which John Wesley so admired when he visited it in 1757, describing it as ‘perhaps the most elegant [meeting house] in Europe… the inside is finished in the highest taste and is as clean as any nobleman’s saloon’.
Square, octagonal, T-shaped, cross-shaped, and even elliptical plan forms were all part of the architectural repertoire of Nonconformity, but many of England’s 17th-century chapels and meeting houses have what Christopher Wakeling calls a ‘long-wall façade’, with a long street frontage and the pulpit on the opposite wall. As time went on, however, wide building sites became more expensive and so a shift to the short-wall façade is evident from the early decades of the 18th century, with the frontage set back from the street, allowing space for a forecourt and porch. The often-lavish exteriors of these newer buildings were expressive of the self-confidence of Nonconformist congregations from 1750 onwards, when chapel-building accelerated to the point where, as Christopher Wakeling puts it, ‘chapels became as characteristic a part of the Regency scene as cinemas were of the 1930s and supermarkets have become today’. From 1810 to 1820, five new chapels opened in England on average every week.
It was during this period that organs became a regular feature of newly built chapels. Though some denominations opposed the use of music as a part of worship, singing psalms and hymns quickly became an established part of Dissenting religious practice. The hymns of Isaac Watts, first published in 1707, were especially influential, and singing hymns (often to tunes adapted from folk songs or secular music) was an important element in the spread of evangelical worship and Methodism from the 1750s.
In some chapels, the singing was led by a group of musicians who had a pew allocated to them; a tuning fork or pitch-pipe would be used to start the tune, but musical instruments were also used, including viol, flute, clarinet, or bassoon. The first organs were introduced in the 1790s, initially at the rear of the chapel, facing the pulpit. Nonconformists then realised that by putting an organ behind the pulpit one could achieve good acoustic results without occupying prime seating space. And so was born the classic 19th-century chapel ensemble of organ, pulpit, and communion table.
An architectural array
The rise of Nonconformity had an impact on the Established Church. Anglicans reacted by emphasising their differences: three-decker pulpits were broken up, with pulpit and reading desk relegated to secondary positions so as to give a clear view of the altar. The 1818 Church Building Act (known as the ‘Million Pound Act’ because Parliament made a million pounds available for a coordinated campaign of Anglican church building) was explicitly designed to emphasise the differences between Anglican and Dissenting worship; Lord Liverpool, in introducing the bill, even went as far as to state that its purpose was to ‘remove Dissent’.
It did not work. As if galvanised by the competition, Nonconformist architecture blossomed and five times as many new chapels were built as churches. The lively debate about what might be the ‘correct’ style for Anglican places of worship was mirrored in the pages of books and newsletters on chapel architecture, but the result was as pluralistic as the range of denominations, beliefs, and practices grouped under the heading of Dissent. From the 1850s through to the outbreak of the First World War, chapel architects produced an astonishing variety of buildings: from the baroque grandeur of the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster to the Arts and Crafts radicalism of Letchworth’s Quaker meeting house – buildings of great character and individuality to contrast with the Church of England’s emphasis on orthodoxy and convention. The champions of Nonconformist architecture argue that, far from being second-rate or derivative, these impressive buildings are among the finest of their age.
In celebrating this achievement, Christopher Wakeling has one regret: many 19th-century chapels and meeting houses replaced earlier buildings on the same site (that is why their burial grounds often have headstones much older than the building). Victorian and Edwardian Nonconformists often failed to appreciate the qualities of the old buildings they jettisoned in favour of the new. Nonconformity has, in the past, lacked a sense of its own architectural heritage, and an appreciation of the quality of their interiors and fittings. As chapel- and church-going declines, and as more and more chapels face redundancy, we need a strong and active chapel conservation movement. To begin to build that, chapel congregations have to regain their sense of pride by opening their doors and revealing to the world what splendours lie within.
All images: Historic England Archive
Christopher Wakeling, Chapels of England: buildings of Protestant Nonconformity, Historic England, £50, ISBN 978-1848020320.