Friday, January 27, 2017
Somewhere in the back of my mind there’s the image of a stereotypical nonconformist chapel – the classic design with a symmetrical, vaguely classical brick-built frontage with a central doorway, two tall, round-headed windows and a hipped roof. Chapel design, though, is much more diverse than that stereotype suggests. Town chapels, especially, were often grander than my mental image. Here’s Sheep Street Baptist chapel in Devizes, with its own kind of Gothic grandeur, a building of 1851–2 designed by an architect called Hardick. The building’s plain pinnacles and extra-tall lancet windows mark it out as a typical Victorian version of the first phase of Gothic, 13th-century Early English.
For all its Gothic revival style, this building doesn’t really look like a Church of England church of the Victorian period, perhaps because it lacks a bell tower and has a west door rather than the side entrance favoured by the C of E. It certainly stands out though, this elegant chapel, and no doubt it was meant to advertise itself. The first minister to the united Presbyterian and Baptist congregation that worshipped here was Charles Stanford, a noted preacher who built up the congregation in Devizes before moving to London where he became minister of a chapel in Camberwell.
Stanford became a well known Baptist leader, served as president of the London Baptist Association, and wrote several books – biographies, memoirs, and The Wit and Humour of Life: Being Familiar Talks With Young Christians. If his books are no longer read, his building is still standing out and reminding us of the variety of design approaches adopted by the nonconformists in the 19th century. It’s still in use by the Baptist congregation too.