5 Nonconformist chapels of England

In England, the word Nonconformist can describe Protestants who do not conform to the doctrines or practices of the Church of England.

The term was first used in the 1660s to describe the places of worship used by congregations of Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Unitarians. It is also applied to independent groups such as the Quakers.

Christopher Wakeling, author of a recent publication Chapels of England: buildings of Protestant Nonconformity, tells us about five of his favourite English chapels:

1. Presbyterian (now Unitarian) meeting house, Bury St Edmunds 1711

Unitarian Chapel, Churchgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk for Chapels Book. View from west.
Presbyterian (now Unitarian) meeting house, Bury St Edmunds 1711 © Historic England

In 1689 freedom of worship was extended to most Protestant groups who had suffered years of persecution under Charles II.  Soon, thousands of buildings were registered for worship.

For example, in Bury St Edmunds, the Presbyterians – who had occupied the town’s two parish churches during the commonwealth – began to hold services in a house in Churchgate Street in 1690. Daniel Defoe is even said to have joined the congregation as a visitor in 1704.

In 1711 this striking new meeting house was built on the site, its lively façade and handsome interior are a challenge to anyone who thought that Presbyterians liked only the plainest of designs.

2. Congregational (now United Reformed Church) chapel, Wellingborough 1874-5 Caleb Archer and Edward Sharman

United Reformed Church, High St, Wellingborough. Interior, first floor, showing curved pews on first floor, straight pews on ground floor with organ pipes and central pulpit.
Congregational (now United Reformed Church) chapel, High Street, Wellingborough 1874-5 by Caleb Archer and Edward Sharman © Historic England

From the early 19th century, Church of England buildings were outnumbered by a new wave of Nonconformist chapels.  The architecture of those new chapels is one of the most undervalued treasures of that enterprising era. The interiors especially are far too little known.

Wellingborough’s Congregational chapel is one of a generation of Nonconformist buildings that attracted international attention and still deserve celebration today.  Its memorable egg-shaped plan, with uninterrupted sightlines and excellent acoustics, inventively enhances the central roles of preaching and congregational music in the Protestant tradition.

3. Wesleyan Methodist chapel, Overstrand, Norfolk 1897-8 by Edwin Lutyens

Methodist Chapel, Overstrand, Norfolk for Chapels Book. View from south east.
Wesleyan Methodist chapel, Overstrand, Norfolk 1897-8 by Edwin Lutyens

Nonconformists were successful not only in towns and cities, but in rural areas as well.  Small chapels in villages or beside country lanes became part of the landscape of Victorian England, and perhaps even more so in Wales.

The Methodists were the most active builders of such rural chapels.  Whether plain Georgian designs, or making a show of decorative brickwork, these little buildings can be visually delightful as well as rich in local and religious history.

This miniature masterpiece was the first religious commission by Edwin Lutyens, then a rising star of English architecture.

4. Baptist church, Cheam Road, Sutton, Surrey 1934 by Welch, Cachemaille-Day and Lander

Baptist Church, Cheam Road, Sutton, Surrey. Interior view from north west.
Baptist church, Cheam Road, Sutton, Surrey 1934 by Welch, Cachemaille-Day and Lander

The story of Nonconformist architecture in the 20th century is – perhaps unexpectedly – important.

After the Second World War it was a Methodist architect, Edward Mills, who brought ideas of modern church architecture to a British audience. And between the wars the influence of innovative German church design was most powerfully seen in this expressionist-inspired work for a Baptist congregation in outer London.

Though the architect, Cachemaille-Day, is famous for his Anglican churches, this Nonconformist commission – the most radical of his works? – has been virtually overlooked by architectural writers.

5. St George’s (now House on the Rock) church, Tufnell Park, London 1865-8 by George Truefitt; adapted 2006 by Paul Davis and Partners

St George’s (now House on the Rock) church, Tufnell Park, London. Interior, gallery level, view from west.
St George’s (now House on the Rock) church, Tufnell Park, London 1865-8 by George Truefitt; adapted 2006 by Paul Davis and Partners. Copyright: Historic England

Although many of the traditional Nonconformist denominations have declined in recent decades, there has been a proliferation of newer movements, including a broad spectrum of charismatic, Pentecostal and independent churches. Some of these have built new premises, but many have adapted older buildings.

A good example is the House on the Rock church in Tufnell Park, London. A largely Nigerian-British charismatic congregation in north London rescued the Victorian church building from near-dereliction and turned it into a thriving place of worship and a centre for community activity. From Huguenot refugees to post-colonial migrants, incoming groups have often helped spark religious renewal in Britain.

Written by Christopher Wakeling, author of Chapels of England: buildings of Protestant Nonconformity.

Further reading

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