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 much stronger, while just 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 that they offered for sale in catalogues.
By 1850 the technology was being exported all over the world by enterprising manufacturers such as Samuel Hemming of Bristol (and later of London). Many types of prefabricated buildings were produced, including churches, chapels and mission halls. They were built in new industrial areas, pit villages, near railway works and in more isolated rural and coastal locations.
Do any tin tabernacles survive today?
There are only 86 remaining corrugated iron churches surviving in England, and fewer than 20 of these 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 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 building was taken over by the Sea Cadets 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 is rumoured that the chamfered spire was stolen in the 1980s and has not been replaced.
Cambridge Hall is listed at Grade II and was supported by a Culture Recovery Fund grant of £14,862 to help repair the roof in 2021.
2. Church of St Mary, Kington, Herefordshire
The Church of St Mary was built in 1860 for Reverend James Davies of Moorcourt on his own 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 was to 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, there were two infantry regiments and the Royal Field Artillery 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 having been 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, along with 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 workers of the local Robertson jam orchard.
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, lovingly nicknamed ‘Our Lady of Crinkly Tins’ and was listed at Grade II in 1992.
5. Church of the Ascension, Bedmond, Hertfordshire
Listed at Grade II, this tin church is almost unique as it is one of only two that boast 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 originally 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 which is lit by oil lamps. The building has been sympathetically maintained and repaired over the years and is still in use as a church.
The role of Historic England
The most important historic places are protected by listing. You can find out more about these sites from the National Heritage List for England.