Friday, July 1, 2016
Most British people, even if not chapel goers or architecture buffs, are aware of the thousands of nonconformist chapels that dot the towns and villages of England and Wales. And even if we’ve not thought much about it, most of us could draw a typical chapel from memory: central door, a pair of quite tall windows,* shorter window above the door, and a plaque with a name or date somewhere in the centre too.
Once everywhere, these familiar buildings are not quite so common now, but there are still many, and the variations on this simple design seem endless – Gothic or Classical or Romanesque style; brick or stone or stuccoed walls; variations in window height and proportion. Most of them were put up by local builders without the help of an architect and it’s very difficult (for a non-expert at least) to classify them or to find any sort of pattern that might ascribe one style to the Methodists, another to the Baptists, and so on.
The builders of the Bridgnorth Baptist Church set to work in c 1742, the town’s tiny Baptist congregation of the early-19th century having clearly expanded quite a bit.¶ Their chapel is therefore earlier than the big Baptist expansion that occurred later in the century, with the popular preaching of men like Spurgeon and the resulting large Baptist churches (‘large classic convenictles’, as John Betjeman described them§). At Bridgnorth they used the simplest of classical means to produce a quiet, well proportioned facade: very plain pilasters in the centre and at the corners; moulded surrounds to the windows and doors with just a little elaboration; quite a large parapet in which draws the eye to the central name plaque, which is done in the clearest sans serif capitals. A lick of paint, together with the sunlight, throwing all those details in relief, does the rest.
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*Or two pairs of windows, arranged one above the other on either side of the door.
¶The Baptist Magazine (in a piece by one J. B., dated 7 January 1821) says that in 1816 the church numbered just three members, one of whom died the following year; by the time of the article, the number was up to eight. The writer prayed, ‘May the set time to favour this part of Zion soon come!’ It looks as if this prayer was answered.
§ See John Betjeman, ‘Nonconformist Architecture’ in First and Last Loves, 1952. Betjeman does attempt to ascribe styles to specific denominations, and to generalize about the differences in architectural approach between different groups of, say, Methodists (Weslyan Methodists favouring a solid, faintly Gothic style, Primitive Methodists going for much plainer buildings in general, with the occasional ‘flimsy Italianate’ city chapel). But generalizatons about this are difficult. I am eagerly awaiting Historic England’s forthcoming book on nonconformist chapels, scheduled for publication towards the end of this year.