Tin Tabernacles were Flatpack Churches Sent Across the World

tin tabernaclesBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

This old tin church is living history. Built in 1863, it was one of thousands that were sent by the Victorians to colonies all over the world as temporary places of worship.

The history dates back to the Industrial revolution. The concept was developed by British engineers in the early 1800's who invented a new way of folding or corrugating iron so that it became rigid. They then realized that the cheap, light-weight metal could be used for large buildings.

tin tabernaclesBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

By the early 1840s several manufacturers were producing corrugated iron using the system which remains to this day. The sheets could be overlapped to form an interlocking, watertight roof. This was perfect for prefab.

tin tabernaclesBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

There was a religious revival taking place at this time and missionaries wanted to build churches in their new, often very poor, communities both in the UK and farther afield. They had to be cheap and easy to erect because they would often be located far from places where there were traditional church building materials.

Enter the flatpack tin tabernacles:

They were available for sale through catalogues. The most common was timber framed and clad on the outside with the corrugated iron. They were relatively cheap: costing anything from £150 for a chapel seating 150 to £500 for a chapel seating 350. If they had been made from regular building materials they would have been far more expensive.

tin tabernaclesBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

Of course they were considered a " a pestilence over the country" by the traditionalists. But they spread because they were so cheap and easy to erect.

A description of one:

Opening of a New Iron Meeting-House.
On Thursday last the "United Free Church Primitive Methodists" opened a new iron building at the corner of Argyle Street and the Woodbridge Road. The building has an odd appearance, and as it is but a temporary structure, it has been not inaptly termed the "tin tabernacle". [...] The sides and roof are of corrugated iron, and present the appearance externally of a huge tin cannister."
—Ipswich Journal, 1874.

tin tabernaclesBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

Now this one has been turned into a home for sea cadets. There is little that remains of historic interest in the interior. It has been turned over to a display of memorabilia and meeting rooms.

This month it is the scene of an art installation, hence open to the public for a short time.

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