A Tribute to theTin Tabernacle

on Tuesday, 26 August 2014. Posted in Architecture, Traditions and Folklore

I came across a beautiful example of a tin tabernacle whilst exploring the area of Braydon recently, and I began wondering about the history of these most temporary of religious structures. Here’s what I discovered!

Britain saw a ‘revival’ of preaching in the 19th century through to the outbreak of WWI, with mass meetings attended by huge audiences. By the late 1850s churches were becoming overcrowded and the search was on for new buildings to use as places of worship. Non-conformists were not bound by the Anglican parish system and found it much easier to expand with new builds or altering existing buildings. Smith (2004) in his book Tin Tabernacles states that over 100,000 people were converted during this time, 80% of whom were non-conformist.

Welcome, the tin tabernacle!

The industrial revolution brought with it the common use of new materials, including corrugated iron. Places of worship could now be portable, providing a temporary service whilst the community raised funds for a permanent structure. Despite their name, they were not just used by the Tabernacle Congregational Church. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian church lists the word tabernacle as meaning a ‘tent of meeting’; a portable shrine built under the direction of Moses during the wilderness wanderings.Their primary purpose was, however, as a mission hall, helping to spread the word to society at large. Some were transported overseas to ‘exotic’ locations.

The frames of the building were wooden and could be bolted together, with the interior walls of tongue and groove pine board, sometimes whitewashed. The flooring varied from flagstones, to beaten earth, to wooden floorboards.

The tin tabernacle at Hilperton was built in 1899, generally known to have been bought as a flat pack from Harrods (Ikea eat your heart out!). It began its life in the village as a mission church before becoming a Chapel of Ease, serving neighbouring Staverton.

As their use was often temporary, the survival rate of tin tabernacles has suffered. English Heritage has listed some examples.

These amazing buildings, often overlooked, form a distinct part of our built heritage, and offer an insight into the social and ecclesiastical workings of the 19th century.

Julie Davis
Local Studies Assistant

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