I had not come across Tin Tabernacles until a member of “Bridport History Society”, John Lodder, now deceased, wrote an article referring to one in Bridport, known as “Christchurch, Walditch”. Walditch is an adjoining parish to Bridport. John Lodder was researching the history of Walditch and came across both St Mary’s Church and Christchurch. He found an entry in the “Bridport News” of January 9th 1880, headed “New Iron Church”, which stated that it was intended to erect an iron church in the parish of Walditch, near East Bridge, Bridport. The Rev W C Templer had complained in 1849 that the Parish Church of Walditch, St Mary’s, was too small for its congregation and was also in need of repair. The repairs were commenced and also plans for the iron church were made.
Rapid growth in population during the Victorian era led to overwhelming pressures to provide cheap, rapidly erectable church and chapel buildings. Enterprising companies designed church and other buildings in kit form, and produced catalogues, illustrated with drawings and prices. Size could be altered according to need.
The Devon and Somerset Advertiser for August 6th 1880 described the opening of the new church, Christchurch, on a site given by Mr W H Chick, and built in 10 weeks by a firm owned by Mr Broad, of Islington, London. The 1901 O.S. map shows it to be behind East Villas, opposite East Bridge in Bridport and west of the railway line, there then, i.e. near the River Asker, south of East Road. The church became known locally as “the Tin Tabernacle” and research by John Lodder shows that it became better attended than St Mary’s, in Walditch and he suggested that perhaps it drew some of its congregation from Bridport town. Christchurch had a small, neat bell turret over its entrance and music was provided by an harmonium. There were many varied preachers, in addition to Rev Templer. Mr and Mrs Rowe of Walditch were entrusted with care of the church. The opening service was attended by local dignitaries and clergy.
About 1910 the church was granted permission to build a Mission Hall, in the garden nearby at The Cedars, again in Walditch Parish. It was proposed that it should be constructed in the same manner as Christchurch, a wooden structure, covered with galvanised iron or “Elernit” sheets. The height of the building was to be 9 feet to the eaves and the foundations to be brickwork and sleepers. There were to be 7 windows, the tops opening and ventilation in the roof. All external doors would open outwards.
Christchurch and its Hall are thought to have been demolished between 1920 and 1933. The only picture of these buildings is a small photograph in the Bridport Museum collection which has been included in two books, “A Book of Bridport” by Short and Sales and “A Bridport Camera” by John Sales. The photograph is a view from Back Mills, the leat (filled in years ago, which was parallel to the River Asker) and Folly Mill. It may be that following the First World War, with great loss of life, the need for these additional buildings was diminished.
Some two years after this introduction to Tin Tabernacles our Programme Organiser, Roland Moss, arranged a visit to one still in use and not far away. This was St Saviour’s at Dottery, constructed of corrugated iron and wood lined, again with a small turret and a single bell. It is easy to miss, but is just short of the Bridport, Broadwindsor and Broadoak cross-roads. We were aided beforehand by a description from historian the Rev Bill Hill, who wrote that this church was conceived by the Rev Dr Alfred Edersheim, then vicar of Loders. Edersheim realised that his parishioners were quite scattered, in particular those living in Dottery and Pymore. He began holding services in local cottages, but by 1881 the congregation outgrew them, so his solution was the Tin Tabernacle at Dottery, which he was able to announce in the 1882 Loders Parish Magazine. The dedication ceremony took place in February 1882 to a full church, attended by nine clergy, headed by Archdeacon Sanctuary, Edersheim and his curate, W P Ingelow.
Furnishing inside St Saviour’s at Dottery, includes plain benches on either side and a small font. At the east end is the clergy stall and behind a pulpit, with the harmonium on the other side. Behind is a small vestry.
It appears that these “Tin Tabernacles” became the vogue in the mid 19th century, although they were not made of tin, but corrugated iron with a galvanised coating of zinc to prevent rust. The corrugations enabled sheets to be overlapped for a water proof joint. Internally they were lined with tongue and grooved boarding, perhaps of pine, which could be decorated as required by the congregation. Some were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851, but John Ruskin, the Art Critic of the day, did not approve, as although practical they were not attractive architecture. “Tin Tabernacles” may not have met the architectural conventions of the time, but they met the needs and economic necessities of ordinary people.
Tabernacles were reasonably inexpensive, about £150 for a 50 seater or £500 for 350 seats. Conventional building materials, for the same size, would be considerably more expensive. The Tabernacles were surprisingly durable. Some 30 to 40 still exist in England, although not necessarily in use now. Some are listed buildings.
A local author, Michael Russell Wood, has published a book entitled “Dorset’s Legacy in Corrugated Iron”, which includes a variety of such buildings, as well as “Tin Tabernacles”. He lists two which are no longer in use for religious purposes, one is the Sherborne Baptist Chapel, once known as Coomb Church. The other was the Mission Hall at Highwood, near Wool, which is now converted and is in private ownership. The other buildings shown are on farms, aircraft runways and domestic.
I now realise that I passed another one every day of the first 15 or so years of my working life, in a small village called Sandy Lane, Wiltshire. It was well disguised for a rural situation by a thatched roof.
Look out for others on your travels.
Last November The Marshwood included an article entitled “More Grist for the Mill”. This did not extend East of Dorchester, for space reasons, so did not include the Sturminster Newton Mill, or “Stur” as it is locally known. This Spring I heard a short piece on BBC Radio 4 which told how it was being restored, with a view to re-opening for tourists, but when Covid19 appeared the work was “moth balled”. However they were approached by a possible customer for a small quantity of flour and then by a local baker, who was experiencing difficulties with supplies. I hope they have managed to continue. The mill is over 1,000 years old, so it predates the Domesday Book.
Cecil Amor, Hon President of Bridport History Society.