Pre-fabricated churches, often called ‘iron churches’, ‘iron chapels’ or ‘tin tabernacles’, were developed in the mid-19th century.
They served fast-growing industrial towns and cities across England, the British Empire and North America. An upsurge of Nonconformism led to a demand for even more buildings.
Quickly assembled places of worship, these structures were designed to serve a temporary purpose before more permanent stone or brick structures could be built.
When was the first ‘iron church’ built?
The first iron church is believed to have been constructed in 1855 in London. They became popular from the late 19th century up to the start of the First World War.
They were still being built in the 1920s and 1930s. The surge of iron churches led famous designer and artist William Morris to complain that they were ‘spreading like a pestilence over the country.’
How were tin tabernacles made?
Corrugated iron was invented and patented in Britain in 1829 and was the first mass-produced cladding material in the modern building industry. It was a technological breakthrough: the corrugations were much stronger and as cheap and easy to transport as flat sheeting.
A further significant development came in 1837 when the process of galvanizing the iron with zinc to prevent rusting was patented. Manufacturers quickly recognised its potential for use in prefabricated structures.
Several firms, such as William Cooper Ltd of London and Francis Morton in Liverpool, produced a range of prefabricated iron buildings they offered for sale in catalogues.
By 1850 the technology was being exported worldwide by enterprising manufacturers such as Samuel Hemming of Bristol (and later of London).
Many prefabricated buildings were produced, including churches, chapels and mission halls. They were built in new industrial areas, pit villages, near railway works, and more isolated rural and coastal locations.
Do any tin tabernacles survive today?
Only 86 remaining corrugated iron churches of all denominations survive in England, and fewer than 20 are listed.
Some are still used as places of worship. New uses have been found for others. Some redundant chapels have been moved to museums for their preservation, such as St Chad’s Mission Church which was moved from near Telford to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust’s Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire.
Here are some surviving examples.
1. Cambridge Hall, Kilburn, London
Cambridge Hall was built in 1863 as St James’s Episcopalian Church. It appears that the church was active until the mid 1920s.
The building is documented as being used as an Air Raid Precautions store during the Second World War. Later, it became known as the Lord Lloyd of Dolobran Memorial Hall.
The Sea Cadets took over the building in about 1949 and renamed Training Ship Bicester, following the established practice of naming a training building after a decommissioned vessel to which the branch is linked.
The interior was substantially altered in the 1950s when the Sea Cadets installed a new interior, a mock-up of a Ton-Class Minesweeper vessel. It’s rumoured that the chamfered spire was stolen in the 1980s and has not been replaced.
2. Church of St Mary, Kington, Herefordshire
The Church of St Mary was built in 1860 for Reverend James Davies of Moorcourt on his grounds as a chapel of ease for worship by the outlying communities in the Parish of Pembridge for some years.
Davies commissioned Samuel Hemming’s company to construct the prefabricated chapel at the beginning of the year. It would be a variation on Hemming’s advertised ‘Iron Church’ design with a nave, chancel and porch.
Easter Monday, 1860, the build was complete. Around 100 people attended the opening ceremony, with more remaining outside due to lack of space. It is still in use as a church today.
3. Garrison Church of St Barbara, Deepcut, Surrey
This prefabricated Anglican church was built in 1901 to serve the units stationed at Deepcut and Blackdown camps. At that time, two infantry regiments and the Royal Field Artillery were stationed there.
A short opening service was held in March, and a dedication festival in September on St Michael and All Angels’ day, after whom the church was initially named.
It was not until the closure of Hilsea Barracks in the 1960s that the church was re-dedicated to St Barbara, the Patron Saint of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC), whose operations and training were moved to Deepcut in the 1940s. The RAOC was amalgamated into the newly created Royal Logistic Corps (RLC) in 1993.
In 1905 an acre of land surrounding the church was gifted by the Crown, and a burial ground was consecrated.
The church has been embellished with memorials and artworks over the years, typical of regimental churches where items commonly move with the regiment.
You can spot a brass First World War Roll of Honour memorial, a plaque commemorating the Ordnance Services in Malta, a pipe organ from Hilsea, and the RAOC 7 Division banner dating from 1917 and commemorating service in Mons and Ypres during the First World War.
The stained glass windows in the church range in date and origin. Those in the east end were installed in 1922 and taken from the Portobello Barracks, Dublin.
The three archangels in the west end were bought in 1956. The three windows above the choir vestry were re-sited from Hilsea and another to the west. The church is still in use.
4. Former Bailbrook Mission Church, Bath, Somerset
This former mission church was opened in July 1892 for the local Robertson jam orchard workers.
Its 30-foot lantern tower, lancet windows with intersecting tracery and hand-coloured glass make it a particularly elaborate example of a Tin Tabernacle.
It’s now a private residence nicknamed ‘Our Lady of Crinkly Tins’.
5. Church of the Ascension, Bedmond, Hertfordshire
This tin church is almost unique as it is one of only two boasting a spire and a bell.
It was bought for £80 by Mrs Solly of Serge Hill House, wife of the then Squire of Bedmond, and presented to the village ‘so that the spiritual lives of those residing in Bedmond shall go forward with increased vigour.’ It is a working church to this day.
6. Church of All Saints, Brokerswood, Wiltshire
The iron church in Brokerswood was initially situated in Southwick, some three kilometres to the north, where it replaced an earlier church that had been destroyed by fire in 1897.
When a new stone church (St Thomas’) was built in Southwick, the iron church was dismantled and reassembled at its current location in Brokerswood, on land given by a Mr Asher of Wimborne. The first service was held at the church on 30 November 1904.
Electricity arrived in the hamlet in 1959 but was never connected to the church lit by oil lamps. The building has been sympathetically maintained and repaired and is still used as a church.
A tin tabernacle stood on Cleeve Hill until the end of the last century, but has now gone. It was used when I lived in Bishop’s Cleeve.
Lots of farm buildings in the Lloyd George survey of land values (relating to People’s Budget in 1909) had galvanised roofs.
The Old Heath Congregational Church, Colchester, which closed only in the last year, is a good example of a tin tabernacle also.
I attended Bedmond Junior School in the late 50’s and vividly remember walking to the ‘Tin Church’ for services of Harvest Festival, Christmas and Easter. What is really strange is, as I remember, the interiors where beautiful – just like any church carved wooden pews and pulpits. I must go back and visit to check if my memory is correct.
Thank you so much for this fascinating article. These places deserve to be preserved, and better known. Glad to read that so many are still in use
First time I had ever heard of tin tabernacles very informative.Thanks
There’s a tin church in Faversham, Kent. It was a ‘satellite’ of the parish church (which is – just- the largest parish church in Kent) and is less than five minutes’ walk from it. No longer used for services, it was briefly used as a church hall after the existing church hall (much further away) was sold, and then stood empty for years. It was sold a few years ago and is now a café and music venue (Hot Tin). The ‘porch’ entrance on the tin church is on the west end of the building rather than on the side, and the building’s a faded dark red, but in other respects its very much like the one in your picture. It can be seen/admired in Whitstable Road, Faversham – opposite the Recreation Ground.
As a boy I attended services here with my late mother. I can still remember the unique smell of the palce…
Ah, you could mention that the Deepcut one, because it looks more ‘American’ than most English churches, was the location for a well-known scene in the first Kingsman film.
My master’s dissertation (2020) was on the conservation challenges of tin tabernacles. I made the fullest list to date of those remaining in England – I’ve found 157!
Hello, I am one of those responsible for maintaining and funding the conservation of the Iron Church at Brokerswood, illustrated above. I would be absolutely fascinated to see your dissertation if that was possible.
Hi Peter, if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I can share a copy of the dissertation.
You should also definitely send a copy to the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings (Bromsgrove, Worcestershire) for their research library. They also have a tin church, but I guess you found it!
Harriet, I would be interested to know if many are now in use as village or community halls. I am currently writing a book about the history of village halls and I recall from my early work in the late 1970s and early 1980s that some were old “tin tabenacles”, possibly mostly since replaced. 5% of halls were corrugated iron in 1988, some of these possibly formerly churches?
I know of six that are still churchs or mission chapels in Historic Surrey (Modern Surrey plus the rest up to the Thames.) Also there are several more that are in use for other things including village halls.
Hi Louise, if you email me (email@example.com) I can share my list. I have identified current uses of each tin tabernacle too, many of which are now village halls.
Here is an interesting account of prefab iron churches exported to Canada
Interesting article. We have an iron church in Frodsham, Cheshire that’s just turned 150 this year and is still in use as a community church hall and place of worship. The building was put on rollers and shifted 10ft to the left so that land behind could be developed about 30 years ago. It’s a well known and loved building in the town.
Please remember the one at Avoncroft open air museum https://avoncroft.org.uk/
we visited one In New York state a few years ago (My brother’s wife’s Brother was the minister) Shipped from Britain and wit a basement.
What a wonderful article. I really enjoyed reading it. I’m getting the maps out!
If you are in the Malvern area then take the B4208 and you’ll find a small tin church on the left driving towards Ross on Wye at Coombe Green, it has unfortunately lost it’s tiny spire, but the rest of it appears intact, stay on this route and further along there is a similar design but this time in wood and in good condition : The Church of the Redeemer at Pendock Cross, the latter is on Google maps. A lovely road and near to British Camp in the Malvern area where you can fill the lungs climbing to the top and then get a fine cup of tea and cake at Rufz cafe. https://www.facebook.com/RuffzRefreshments/
I think I’ve found a Tin Tabernacle in Surry, not used as a church but nearby and still used as a meeting place.
There are five tin tabernacles surviving in Surrey that are still churches or chapels. There is another Lambeth Borough.
Also, All Saints’ Church, Basingstoke. Now used as hall and overclad in UPVC in 1970-80s. Original turret and bell in old photos but no longer extant.
There used to be a small, very plain one at the side of the road at Lilburn Glebe near Wooler, in Northumberland. I’m not sure if it’s still there.
Broughton Road community centre in Skipton was originally a tin tabernacle – a mission church. Farnley Iron Works in Leeds produced tin churches to order and delivered them by train – the works had a siding.
An application to demolish the tin tabernacle in Desborough, Northants and replace it with flats has just gone in, it also was used as the local fire station.