History of Union Chapel
In 1799 a small group of Anglicans from St. Mary's parish church in Islington, disillusioned with their worldly vicar, broke away and began to worship with a group of Nonconformists at 18 Highbury Grove. Theirs was a "Catholic and liberal plan intended to unite Christians of different denominations in religious worship and brotherly affection". This spontaneous ecumenical initiative was so successful that seven years later, in 1806, they built their own chapel in Compton Terrace and called it Union Chapel. Their first full-time minister, Thomas Lewis, had been appointed two years earlier. The name embodied the "enlarged and liberal principles" of the congregation. It was proudly recorded at the time that the Chapel "neither belongs to, nor takes, the exclusive denomination of any one party of Christians, but is the friend of all ..." For the next forty or so years, both Anglican and Nonconformist services were held there. But Anglican membership declined as St. Mary's itself became a more vigorous evangelical church, and by 1844 Anglican services had ceased. In 1847 the Chapel joined the Congregational Union of self-governing Nonconformist churches. Today, the Chapel is still run by its congregation with each member, including the minister, having equal authority, and is a member of the Congregational Federation.
Figures of note
of Gladstone and one of the great figures of Victorian church life. He came to Union Chapel in 1844 and remained as minister until his death in 1892. It was under him that the present Chapel was built. He is commemorated in the fine set of six stained glass windows by Lavers & Westlake above the south gallery. He was editor for many years of British Quarterly Review, a heavyweight journal for nonconformists with intellectual interests. One of the congregation in the period 1864 to 1872 was H.H. Asquith, then in his teens, who later became Prime Minister. He moved away from Islington in adult life, but kept in contact with Dr Allon for some years and, for example, wrote reviews for the British Quarterly Review. At the beginning of the 19th century, Islington was a village of 10,000 or so. Sunday was not much associated with church going. As Lewis wrote with intense disapproval, "thousands were in the habit of flocking from the metropolis to the tea gardens in the village, and no pains were taken to dissipate the moral darkness." By 1870 there had been dramatic changes. The population had risen to just over 200,000. Between 1800 and 1840, 24 new Anglican and Nonconformist churches were built to minister to this expanding population. Union Chapel itself had 650 members, with many more coming to its services. Another 191 members were in branches in the south of the borough and in Spitalfields.
By 1866 the original building had been enlarged and given a grand colonnaded façade by Lander
Bedells Architects. In 1872 it was decided to build a new and larger Chapel. The congregation bought the houses on either side of the Chapel, 18 and 19 Compton Terrace, in order to build in their gardens. Alfred Waterhouse was retained as adviser, and there was an architectural competition. From a field of seven, he had no hesitation in commending the design submitted by James Cubitt. It was, he rightly said, "unique", and the Building Committee unanimously agreed. James Cubitt (1836-1912) was the son of a Baptist minister, and was not related to the famous Cubitt family of builders and engineers. He practised as an architect, almost exclusively building nonconformist churches. Other churches by him which survive include Emmanuel Congregational Church in Cambridge, and the Welsh Presbyterian Church in Charing Cross Road.
There was a happy meeting of minds between Cubitt and Allon. In his book Church Design for Congregations, published five years earlier in 1870, Cubitt had expounded his views. He attacked conventional nave and aisle design as obsolete. When the "columns are thick or moderately thick, it inevitably shuts out a multitude of people from the service ... When, on the other hand, its columns are thin, the inconvenience is removed, but the architecture is ruined ... The type as it remains is but a shadow of its former self-a medieval church in the last stage of starvation". Too many conventional architects were failing the main test: "to produce a grand and beautiful church in which everyone could see and hear the service".
Allon's requirements, as set out in the notes he issued as guidelines for the architects, were in almost perfect harmony with what Cubitt had already written: that "every person should see and hear the preacher without conscious effort"; that the acoustics should also be suitable for prayer, and "he who prays cannot shout in addressing the Almighty"; and that since the function of the choir was to lead the congregation "it should be in it and of it-under no circumstances separated from it". He ended with a ringing declaration that "Our church buildingsare for use, not for the realisation of conventional ideas which unfit them for use". This must have been sweet music to Cubitt whose vision it was "to step out of the enchanted circle of habit and precedent ... to break through the tyranny of custom".
Cubitt's solution was dramatic and ingenious: a massive irregular octagon placed within a rectangle and crowned with an elaborately decorated wooden ceiling soaring above the central space. The pews are carefully arranged, including a raked ground floor, so that nearly every member of the congregation can see and hear whoever is in the pulpit.
The tower, which so dominates the Islington landscape, was the last part to be built, and was only completed twelve years after the chapel itself had been dedicated. Cubitt said that he had modelled the Chapel on the Romanesque church of St. Fosca at Torcello, near Venice. It was designed to seat 1,700, with a large Sunday school hall at the rear to accommodate 1,000 children. It cost over £47,000 all told to build-a staggering sum at the time. The splendid pulpit is the focus of the whole building and is based largely on medieval Tuscan examples. It was designed by Cubitt and the stonecarving was by Thomas Earp. The rose window above the organ, depicting angels playing musical instruments, is contemporary with the building of the chapel. It was designed and made by Frederick Drake of Exeter and was the gift of Dr Nathaniel Rogers. The four lancet stained glass windows showing St Michael, St Gabriel, Phoebe, and Mary, are by Messrs Powell, 1912, and are a memorial to Mrs Henry Spicer. The Chapel made Cubitt's reputation as an architect, and is probably his best work. It is still very much as he created it.
The Chapel was dedicated in December 1877, just over 18 months after the laying of the foundation stone, with celebrations which lasted a fortnight. Gladstone came to the ceremony, so did a succession of well-known preachers like Newman Hall and Charles Spurgeon, who preached to 3,500 people who crammed into the new building to hear him. Spurgeon no doubt took it in his stride, he regularly preached to crowds of 10,000-and for several hours at a time.
The Organ furore!
A few weeks after the Chapel's dedication, the organ was inaugurated, and Spurgeon was once again invited to preach. This was a less successful occasion. The service had opened with singing and organ music. Spurgeon then took a stand in front of the new organ and denounced the practice of spending large sums "upon worthless noise boxes" as a "sinful waste" for, "they drowned the only sound of praise God cared to hear, the human voice". He would like, he said, to see every organ in the country smashed up. The astonished congregation hissed vigorously, and understandably, for under Henry Allon the Chapel had become famous for its music.
When he started his ministry in 1843, Dr Allon found the services, as he bluntly put it, "musically at zero". Forty years later a contemporary noted that "the audible participation of a thousand worshippers induces a sense of communion which appeals most powerfully to the religious emotions". The singing was in parts, which the congregation practised at weekly classes throughout the winter. The choir led the singing, but Allon disapproved of "the delegated worship of the choir" and required high standards from the congregation, whose repertoire included the "Hallelujah" Chorus. The Chapel boasted some distinguished organists, such as H.J. Gauntlett (who wrote the music for "Once in Royal David's City") and Ebenezer Prout. The present organ was designed especially for the Chapel by Henry "Father" Willis. Willis was one of the outstanding organ builders of the last century, and was responsible for those in the Albert Hall and Alexandra Palace. Situated behind the pulpit, the organ has the beautiful voicing characteristic of Willis. Apart from one stop (the original choir gemshorn has been replaced by a piccolo), it remains as Willis designed it, which is a rarity. Part of the quality of its sound derives from the fact that the pipes extend below floor level into a well, which enriches its resonance. Part also comes from the acoustics of the Chapel, which Cubitt disarmingly described as "unexpectedly, and it may perhaps be said, unusually good".
Architectural Merits of the Chapel
The Chapel's architectural importance has been recognised by its listing Grade I and by English Heritage and the Lottery Fund providing grants towards the restoration of the building, conditional on the Chapel and the community raising considerable sums. The Friends of Union Chapel, a registered charity, was set up in 1982 to try to secure the maintenance and improvement of the Chapel and to stimulate wider interest in and use of the buildings. From the mid 1980s under the dynamic leadership of the Chapel's then minister, the Rev Janet Wootton, great advances were made towards these objectives by the congregation, including the setting up of Union Chapel Project. It is the outstanding example of the reuse of a historoc building without damaging its function as a church and its unique late Gothic Revival style.
Want to know more?
If you would like to learn more about the Chapel, or become a member of the Friends of Union Chapel, please write to Friends of Union Chapel, c/o Union Chapel Project, the Vestry, Compton Avenue, London N1 2XD or look at www.friendsofunionchapel.org.uk