Friday, January 27, 2017

Devizes, Wiltshire

Chapel style

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.


Hels said...

This may be a babyish question but what was it about the nonconformist groups of the 19th century that determined their architectural needs? Did they have an altar? a baptismal font? a big lectern, no need for clerical processions?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Not a babyish question - a fundamental one! The answer is above all a space for preaching and listening to the sermon, and less space for the sacraments. I ought to do a post about this, with a picture of a chapel interior, to show what this means in practice. (Various denominations also had specific requirements - a big font for total immersion in Baptist churches, for example.)

Peter Ashley said...

I was baptised by total immersion in a tank underneath a massive red brick Baptist chapel by Goddard. In Leicester.