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The Tin Tabernacle

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

Pre-fabricated churches, often called ‘iron churches’, ‘iron chapels’, or ‘tin tabernacles’, were developed in the mid-19th century to serve fast-growing industrial towns and cities across Britain, the British Empire, and North America. An upsurge of Nonconformism led to a demand for even more buildings.

Quickly assembled places of worship, these structures were designed to serve a temporary purpose before more permanent stone or brick structures could be built.

When was the first ‘iron church’ built?

The first iron church is believed to have been constructed in 1855 in London. They became popular from the late 19th century up to the start of the First World War.

They were still being built in the 1920s and 1930s. The surge of iron churches led famous designer and artist William Morris to complain that they were “spreading like a pestilence over the country.”

How were tin tabernacles made?

Corrugated iron was invented and patented in Britain in 1829, and was the first mass-produced cladding material in the modern building industry. It was a technological breakthrough; the corrugations much stronger, while just as cheap and easy to transport as flat sheeting.

Further significant development came in 1837 when the process of galvanizing the iron with zinc to prevent rusting was patented. Manufacturers quickly recognised its potential for use in prefabricated structures. Several firms such as William Cooper Ltd of London and Francis Morton in Liverpool produced a range of prefabricated iron buildings that they offered for sale in catalogues.

By 1850 the technology was being exported all over the world by enterprising manufacturers such as Samuel Hemming of Bristol (and later of London). Many types of prefabricated buildings were produced, including churches, chapels, and mission halls. They were built in new industrial areas, pit villages, near railway works, and in more isolated rural and coastal locations.

Do any tin tabernacles survive today?

There are only 86 remaining corrugated iron churches surviving in England, and fewer than 20 of these are listed.

Some are still used as places of worship. New uses have been found for others. Some redundant chapels have been moved to museums for preservation such as St Chad’s Mission Church which was moved from near Telford to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust’s Blists Hill, Victorian Town in Shropshire.

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