Churches and Religious Buildings. 3 - The Chapel

The Victorian age is considered, rightly or wrongly, as a great age of Faith. Religion, especially that of Nonconformity (that is the Chapel rather than the church) lay at the heart of industrial middle class life. Most middle class Nonconformists belonged to three great persuasions; Congregationalists, Baptists and Wesleyan. Despite their often minute doctrinal or organisational differences, most Nonconformists had the same outlook: work, faith and duty. The strong strain of Puritanism that existed in religious life from the 17th century found its modern expression in the Congregationalists or Independents. It was not always a chapel for the working class. “Our, said one Congregationalist minister, is not a church of the poor”. The Congregationalists were especially strong in the great towns and the works of Samuel Smiles were almost as much a pillar of their belief as the Bible. They prided themselves on their independence, indeed each congregation was independent of all others; each chose its own pastor and each ran its own affairs. Those Pastors in charge of a congregation would be well paid, much more so than a clergyman of the Established Church.

The history of Non-conformism in this country is a complex one, for minute doctrinal differences between groups led to an increasingly fragmented following. Many of the different persuasions attracted a different class of people. Whilst persuasions like the Wesleyans may have been the preserve of the middle class, others catered for the needs of the less well off. The diversity of Nonconformism is shown by the number of names given to their chapels1. We have Primitive Methodists (the “Prims”), Particular Baptists amongst others. The congregation of each was not only determined by social class but by place of work. Just what divided these disparate groups are to most of us a mystery.

In White’s Directory of 1851 it states, “Dissenters are as numerous in Wolverhampton as in most other towns of similar population, having no fewer than twelve places of worship”.

In England there is a special connection between the Nonconformists and the new towns or rather industrially expanding towns where they knew that they had a special strength, even though they could not claim the allegiance of the large masses. In Wolverhampton, Nonconformist attendance made up more than 50% of churchgoing. Nonconformists themselves were not a unified body, either in terms of social composition or economic strength, as the wide range of chapels show. Towards the end of the century they were more important than their numbers suggest as they were often influential in local affairs. The Unitarians in particular played a great part in civic life providing mayors and officials and encouraging interest in reform. Nonconformists were Liberal to a man but of course not all Liberals were Nonconformist.

The study of Nonconformist architecture has been much overlooked in this country. Most of the books on church architecture tend to concentrate almost exclusively on that of the Church of England, with occasional forays into buildings used for Roman Catholic worship. The chapels and meeting places of Quakers, Baptists and others have been relatively neglected.

After about 1850, Nonconformists began to employ specialist architects as well as more respected local ones.

Darlington Street Methodist Church.

Many also tried to give uniformity and a more recognisable form to chapel architecture. F.J. Jobson, the Methodist architect, published a book called “Chapel and School Architecture”, where he maintained that chapels are not meant to be like concert halls. He speaks of the “House of God” and “scriptural holiness”2. Although he regards the Gothic style with some praise, he reiterates the traditions of Nonconformity, that of hearing the word and seeing the minister. The central aisle, such a feature of Anglican churches is ruled out.

Often the main interest in Nonconformist chapels is the interior. Whereas parish churches have been subject to numerous alterations over the years in response to the whims of this or that movement, or the fad of the incumbent, chapels and meeting places tend to have retained their original furnishings intact. For Dissenters, the most important focal point of the building was the pulpit; hence there was no reason for a choir and apse. Seating arrangements centred on the need for as good a view as possible of the preacher. Seats were angled to avoid interrupted vision or even placed in a horseshoe fashion. In the galleries the seats are usually raised on tiers. Sometimes the whole floor was raised so that no one’s line of vision was obstructed.

The pulpit too, as the focal point, became more and more elaborate. First they acquired testers; then they were set on elaborate rostra surrounded by balustrades. When women began to preach in the chapels, a presumably easily excited congregation erected panels called modesty boards to prevent them seeing a glimpse of ankle. One important feature of Victorian Nonconformist chapels, especially those that date from the latter half of the century, is the provision of subsidiary facilities. Rooms were provided for the preacher and possibly the sexton and also reading and education rooms often with a church hall too.

The wealth, or otherwise, of Nonconformist groups, led to the building of a wide spectrum of chapels from the humble side street, to the magnificent town centre buildings. All of them had this much in common though; simplicity of interior decoration, where the study of the word of God took precedence over meditation and imagery.

The Methodist Chapel in Darlington Street, built to replace a chapel of 1825, is a large, powerful building that almost makes a mockery of the designation chapel.

Until recently it was in danger of demolition; as the Queen Street Congregational Church had already suffered the same fate, its rescue is to be doubly welcome. 

The chapel was constructed late in the reign of Queen Victoria; in fact it only just qualifies for inclusion in this book as it was not finished until 1901, the year of the Queen’s death. In 1899 the previous chapel on the site had needed re-pewing and it was found that considerable renovation was needed. 

Darlington Street Methodist Church today.

It was therefore decided to demolish the old chapel and erect a new one, more in keeping with the influence wielded by the Methodist body and “better fitted for the aggressive work of evangelism which the 20th century was going to inaugurate”. Whilst building was in progress the Agricultural Hall was used for services.

What is most striking about the building (and what was almost the cause of its downfall) is the huge spherical copper dome that is such a dominant feature of the Darlington Street skyline. There are also two façade turrets. The best place to see the chapel is not from the front but from the bottom of Skinner Street. From here the great hemispherical dome can be seen to best advantage. It rests on a drum that has four pedimented windows with three narrow windows in between. During the research for this book we had many pleasant surprises but nothing prepared us for our first visit to this chapel for the inside is not merely powerful but also movingly beautiful; not only grand but bordering on  the theatrical. From the inside as the outside, the most notable feature is the dome, which from the inside has much delicacy partly due to the Art Nouveau glass.3 The triforium is, unusually inlaid with mosaics. However it is the tall double Corinthian columns that are so striking. The bottom column holds up the horseshoe gallery. The large pulpit with seating, occupies as expected the central place in the chapel with choir stalls behind. It is small wonder that after the opening ceremony the services proved a great attraction to the town, so much so that many seat holders found it impossible to occupy their seats, even half an hour before services began.

As noted before there are often numerous rooms for meetings, education, living rooms etc. in Methodist chapels and here too they are much in evidence but they were built at a later date. Inside the administrative rooms are three blacked windows that show the extent of the original building before later additions.

The Congregational Church, Queen Street. 

Of equal size and impressive character (it seated 1,250 people) was the Congregational Church in Queen Street that was demolished in 1970. The architect was Bidlake who lived in Waterloo Road next to the subscription library. The impressive nature of this now sadly demolished building should not really surprise us, for as stated in the introduction, the Congregationalists were some of the wealthiest of the Nonconformist sects and in Wolverhampton they numbered the Mander family amongst their adherents. There was a further Congregational chapel next to the Roman Catholic church of S.S. Mary and John in Snow hill, a building described as “A structure of imposing appearance, in the decorated Early English style”. This was built by John Barker the iron founder of Chillington. There are, unfortunately, no Quaker meeting houses left in Wolverhampton. The Quakers, or to give them their correct name the Society of Friends, had a meeting house in Broad Street. Although this has now gone, the burial ground, which is a dedicated public open space, still exists on the corner of Westbury Street and Broad Street.


1. The nickname given to one Nonconformist group in Willenhall was the High Flyers due to their belief that they were nearer to God.
2. Interestingly, Nonconformist places of worship have much in common with the great Franciscan churches of Italy where too the word was of primary importance. So empty and cavernous are they that they are known as “preaching barns”.
3. Another small Art Nouveau feature of this chapel are the elegant door handles.

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