A presentation by Sandra Gann
A discovery of the site of an old ‘iron church’ in Spittal led to an exploration of ‘tin tabernacles’ as
that is what the hundreds of iron churches erected during the Victorian era were called. What were they, why were they called tin tabernacles as they were made of iron and why were they so
prevalent during this era?
In the first half of the 19th century, new methods of galvanising corrugated iron sheets led to the
production of materials that could be used for larger buildings that traditional roof tiles could not
have supported e.g. Crystal Palace. This product was ideal for affordable, easily and quickly
constructed buildings of any size. It was also very transportable in flat-pack kit forms. It became the answer to the need for many new churches both here and abroad in the late 18th – early 19th century.
The Victorians placed much emphasis on the moral importance of churchgoing. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were about 10,000 parish churches in England. By the 1870s the population had more than doubled and 3,204 new churches were constructed and nearly a thousand were completely rebuilt. During this time there was a vibrant and often competitive religious culture with many varieties of belief and disagreements within the protestant and particularly Presbyterian communities, which led to the need for new alternative places to worship within small communities.
Following the Industrial Revolution, by the late 19th century the opportunities for new work in factories in urban areas lead to huge demographic changes – the population living in cities rose from 17% in 1801 to 72% in 1891.
During this period there were also mass expeditions overseas to pursue riches e.g. The Gold Rush in Australia and the Yukon; Diamond Mining in South Africa. These expeditions were contrasted to the colonisation of The Falklands when in 1843 30 Chelsea pensioners were sent out to settle following an Act of Parliament confirming the Falklands were British. Tin tabernacles were purchased in kit form in the UK and sent out to wherever they were needed. They were cheap, portable, transportable and initially seen as a temporary church until a permanent building was constructed.
The era of the tin tabernacles came to an end by the Second World War. However, there are still many examples around. A few still act as places of worship, and many put to other uses.
Why were they called tin tabernacles? A Tabernacle is described as a ‘temporary movable dwelling place’ and the process of dipping the iron sheets into molten zinc meant they became lighter in colour and developed a sheen – in fact they looked just like the tin of tin cans that had been processed earlier in the 1800s for the first time. I think the alliteration also reflected the affection the Victorians had for these unique buildings.