Laying the foundation stone for Union Chapel

Laying the foundation stone for Union Chapel

Read the fascinating story of the laying of the foundation stone for Union Chapel. This illuminating account reveals an enormous amount about our history.

Thanks to George Allan for researching this.




On Saturday afternoon the ceremony of laying of the new Union Chapel Compton-terrace, was performed under most cheering auspices. 

From a sketch of the history the church, a copy of which was deposited under the stone, we gather that the chapel had its origins in the year 1802, in the spontaneous association of a few earnest and devout men, in part Episcopalians, and in part Nonconformists, who sought for themselves - the former more evangelical ministry than at that time could be found in the parish church, and the latter some provision for evangelical worship in addition to the two Nonconformist chapels then existing in Islington. 

After worshipping together for about two years they formed themselves into an organised Church, consisting of twenty-six members, and secured as a chapel building in Highbury-grove, now the dwelling-house No. 18. Shortly after this the Rev. Thomas Lewis, who had occasionally ministered to them during the previous two years, was invited to become their pastor. The ordination of Mr. Lewis took place Orange-street Chapel, Leicester-square, in 1801. In August 1806, the church and congregation removed to the Chapel in Compton-terrace, which they had erected. On the 30th of that month it was opened for Divine worship the Rev. Henry Gauntlett, late Vicar of Olney, and the Rev. Dr. Bogue Gosport. It was called Union Chapel, to indicate the union in its worshippers Episcopalians and Nonconformists. The Liturgy of the Church of England was used in the morning, and extempore prayer, after the manner of Nonconformists, in the evening. 

The Lord’s Supper was also administered in two modes, the Episcopalian members of the church receiving it at the Communion table; the Nonconformists administered from pew to pew. The government of the church was vested in the minister and elders, who attended to its spiritual affairs; to the deacons were assigned administration its temporal matters. The admission of members to the church was determined by these officers, their names being announced to the members generally at the Lord’s table. In July 1835, the Rev. John Watson, afterwards Theological Tutor at Hackney College, became assistant minister to Mr. Lewis, at the unanimous request of the church, meeting specially convened for that purpose. He was ordained on November 12th in the same year. Shortly after Mr. Watson's settlement some modification to the government of the church took place. Church meetings were established, members were admitted, and matters, concerning the church were determined by the vote of the members. On the 4th of August 1837, Mr. Watson, through impaired health, was compelled to relinquish his ministry. In September 1843, the Rev. Henry Allon, of Cheshunt College, accepted a unanimous invitation to the co-pastorate. On the 7th January 1844, he entered his ministry, and was ordained on 12th June the same year. In 1844, on account of the diminished number of Episcopalian communicants, the administration of the Lord’s Supper was discontinued in the Episcopalian mode; and, for the same reason, in 1845, it was resolved to discontinue the use of the Liturgy in the Sunday morning service. On Sunday, February 29, 1852, the Rev. Thomas Lewis died, after long and successful ministry. He was interred in Abney-park cemetery. 

In 1861, in consequence of the growing requirements of the church additional ground was purchased, and the chapel was enlarged; 400 sittings were added, and new vestries, lecture and class-rooms were built at a cost £3,783 18s. 3d. The chapel was re-opened on November 29, 1861, by the Rev. Norman Macleod, D.D., and the Rev. Samuel Martin. From the beginning the church gradually increased in numbers and influence. In 1802 it consisted of 26 members; 1843, 319; 1875, 676, including the members of the mission stations, Nichol-street, Spitalfields, and Morton-road of 791. 

The chapel now to be replaced provided sittings for 1,070 persons. This accommodation was limited in proportion to the number of church members, and to the large demands, both pecuniary and for personal service, made upon the congregation carrying the various agencies the church and the fact that a considerable outlay, estimated from £7,000 to £8,00, was needed to provide better Sunday-schools, and put the church buildings into a proper state of repair, induced the members resolve to pull down the old chapel, and to build a new and enlarged one with ample school accommodation. 

Application was made to the ground landlord, the Marquis of Northampton for an extension of the lease of the ground, upon which the chapel and two adjoining houses were built, the freehold not being procurable. After lengthy negotiations, the application was acceded to, and extension the lease to make a term of 99 years, was granted. 

Plans were solicited from seven selected architects, and the competition resulted in the selection of Mr. James Cubitt as the architect of the new buildings. According to the selected plan, the church is to afford accommodation for 1,650 persons, the schools for 900 children, in addition to lecture-rooms, and vestries. The architect’s estimate of the cost for the church, schools, lecture-room, and vestries was £16,693. An estimate for the tower was given separately; this amounted to £1,500. Fourteen builders were selected to send in tenders for the buildings. The lowest tender was for the church buildings, £20,839; tower £5,100, total. £25,939. The tender of Messrs. L. and R. Roberts, of Rheidol-terrace, was accepted, after being reduced by various modifications to the sum of £18,878 for the church, schools, lecture-room, and vestries; the building of the tower being allowed to stand over, conditional upon the amount of subscriptions. These amount to the sum of £14,355 the whole of which, with exception £1,071, has been contributed by the members of the congregation.

To witness the ceremony on Saturday afternoon about two thousand persons, consisting large extent of members of the Rev. Dr. Allon’s congregation, assembled on ground. Flags and bannerets bearing various inscriptions evinced the special interest attached to the event. Three of these rising from groups of children bore the inscriptions of the Union Chapel Sunday School, . the Nichol-street Sunday School, and the Morton-road Ragged School, all agencies of the church. A platform erected close to the stone was crowded with leaders of the Congregational denomination and others who were attracted to the spot by sympathy. Among them were besides Dr. Allon himself, Mr. H Richard, M.P., the Revs. Dr. Moffatt, Dr. Raleigh, Dr. Jobson, U. W. Dale, Dr. Mullens, Dr. Reynolds, Joshua C. Harrison. E. White, Dr. Aveling, Dr. Stoughton, Newman Hall, Dr. Reynolds, W.Tyler, Paxton Hood, George Playford (chaplain City Prison), A. Hannay, and W. Roberts, Mr. H. Spicer, Mr. E. Spicer, Mr. John Owen, Mr. H. Lee, Mr. W. J. Willams, Mons. de Pressensé, Mr. Joseph Soul, Mr. E. Smith, Mr. H. Brooks, Mr. Richard Stone, Mr. W. T. Bolton, C. Tyler, J. Batch, Jas Tidmash, &c. 

The now chapel is, it appears, to be a modified Gothic building adapted for congregational purposes, and built of stone and brick. The architectural design includes, or at least admits of, a handsome spire, but considerations with cost have led to the postponement of that part of the original scheme. 

The service was marked by the musical excellence for which Union Chapel is well known. It began with the singing of “All people that on earth do dwell.” A prayer appropriate to the occasion was then offered by Mr. R. W. Dale, Birmingham. The next item in the programme was a passage of Scripture which was to have been read by the Rev. Gordon Calthrop, vicar of St. Augustine’s, Highbury, but Mr Calthrop did not put in appearance, and it became generally whispered that at the eleventh hour Mr. Calthrop had been politely “advised” by the Bishop of London not to take part in the service[1]. In Mr. Calthrop’s place the Rev. Dr. Aveling read the 67th Psalm, and this, again, was followed by Monk's anthem, “The earth is the Lord’s”. 

Mr. Henry Spicer then made, preparatory laying the memorial stone, a few remarks, including brief and interesting sketch of the history Union Chapel from its origin in 1862 to the present time, and in concluding his retrospect he congratulated the assembly that the days were done by when Nonconformists were compelled to hide themselves for the purposes of worship in barn-like structures, and expressed a hope that chapels like that about to be erected would rise up in other parts of the country.

Mr Spicer then laid the stone with the usual formalities, including the depositing of a bottle filled with suitable records, and immediately after Mr R. Stone as secretary of the Building Committee, presented to him a handsome silver trowel bearing the inscription: “This trowel, used in laying the memorial stone of union Chapel, Islington, by Henry Spicer, Esq, senior deacon of the church, was presented to him by the Building Committee, May 13, 1876. Henry Allon DD, pastor; James Cubitt, architect; L.H & R Roberts, builders.” The completion of the laying of the stone was signalised by hearty cheers, and succeeded by the singing of Dr J.M. Neale's hymn, commencing, “Grant that all we who here today[2].”


Dr Allon then addressed the assembly in an eloquent speech in which he said that the ceremony of that day was not intended to have any superstitious significance or to consecrate in anything but a general sense the place to its purpose as “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and they ought not to disparage the sanctity of all things by claiming sanctity for one. 

In every high and holy sense they consecrated the building to whatever might tend to God's glory to a special service rather than a special sanctity. There was a certain sanctity about the memories recalled that day of the old building. There were those there that day who seventy years ago were present at the opening of the old Chapel. The oldest member of the church had been in communion since 1817, two deacons had held that office since 1832, and one since 1840. Of these two had been communicants since 1825 and the other since 1829. Twenty-eight of their communicants were such prior to his ministry in 1844. 

Dr Allon then took a comprehensive view of the whole subject of public worship and of the past and present position of Nonconformists. In concluding, he said, “we are thankful for our assured liberty of worship, for the protection which the law throws around the proceedings of today. We no longer need to build our churches in the narrowest streets, obscurest corners, nor to disguise them in the architecture of a factory, nor to construct them with hiding places in the roof. This assembly is no longer an illegal assembly; this ceremony is no longer a crime: the civil sword is no longer wielded for the enforcement of ecclesiastical allegiance or for the extirpation of doctrinal heresy. Our worship and our doctrines are left to the sole and fitting determination of our own reason and conscience. For this we are thankful, first to God, next, to our martyred forefathers and their successors, who, through long generations, won for us these liberties by their sufferings and their blood; next, to a series of enlightened statesmen not always not often thinking with us in ecclesiastical matters, but strong, faithful, and fearless in their battle for civil and religious liberty, of whom I will say here Mr Gladstone, one of the most uncompromising of Episcopalians, is among the most illustrious; at last, not least, to the personal religiousness, catholicity, and constitutional honour of our Noble and beloved Queen, around whose throne are best affections gather with the instincts of true freedom and the fervour of grateful loyalty.” (Cheers.)

Another anthem, “How amiable are thy tabernacles, etc.” (T Norris), was then sung: after which the Reverend Dr Raleigh offered prayer.

Next came the presentation by a number of ladies of purses, the aggregate amount thus subscribed on the spot being upward of £1,000. Dr Allon said that one purse was subscribed by their Jewish brethren, adding that he believed such contribution was unprecedented and regarded it as an omen of better times that were coming.

The reception of the purses was followed by the singing of two verses of the National Anthem and that of the Doxology, and the Rev Dr Mullins then pronounced the Benediction.

The Dejeuner

Immediately after the ceremony of laying the memorial stone, about 300 ladies and gentlemen partook of a dejeuner at the Middleton Hall. Mr Henry Lee of Manchester, presided.

The Chairman, in giving the usual toast, “the Queen,” said Nonconformists had not been accustomed to bask in the sunshine of Royalty but they could not look back without feeling that under Her Majesty’s rule immense concessions had been made to religious liberty. Nonconformists would never be found wanting in loyalty to the authority of the realm so long as her rule was based on justice and truth. (Cheers.)

The toast having been honoured musically,

The Chairman next gave, “Success to the new enterprise and the principles it represents.” He said as Nonconformists they could not look back to the time when the foundation stone of the old Chapel was laid without feeling that since that time their position had become greatly altered. Their principles were not less rooted in their hearts than at that time; but they could not be unmindful that they were now coming to the front and beginning to find influence in the hearts of conscientious men. The great bulk of the people, although attached to various forms of Church government, believed in the main principle of religious liberty. With respect to the toast, he trusted the new Chapel would be a place where religious life would be developed; that it would become a centre of usefulness, and that from its pulpit would be preached the great principles they represented. The old French motto, “Liberty, equality, and fraternity,” was true of them if exercised on Christian principles and without any idea of Republicanism (Cheers and laughter.)

Mr Henry Richard, MP, congratulated Dr Allon on the proceedings of the day and touching upon the subject of consecration said they did not believe in it in a superstitious sense. They held much the same opinion as a clergyman, the Rev Mr Howell, of Longacre, once expressed. While in Wales, Mr Howell was associated, with the Welsh Calvinistic-Methodists, and went about amongst them preaching. Some busybody - there were always such busybodies to be found - reported him to the Bishop. The Bishop sent for him and said “Mr Howell, I hear you go about preaching in unconsecrated places.” “My Lord,” said Mr Howell, “when Christ placed his foot upon the earth he consecrated every inch of it.” (Cheers.) No doubt they all felt there was a certain sacredness of association connected with a place of worship. They all felt that, and he felt some such association with Union Chapel for when he was a student at Highbury College more than 40 years ago, he used to worship there, and he saw before him now vision of the venerable form of the Rev . Thomas Lewis. He was a man possessing great interest for the students in those days, for he was the only Nonconformist minister who was allowed to read his sermon. (Laughter.) Dear as the memories of the old place must be he had no reason to fear that when the new one was built anyone would weep for the desecration of the old edifice. (Cheers.)

Mr Edmund Pressensé[3] addressed the assembly in French and in an eloquent address expressed, as a member of the French Protestant Church, his cordial sympathy with the struggle which had been going on in England for the liberty of conscience.

The Reverend Gordon Calthrop, who on rising was received with several rounds of cheering, said from the first day he had entered that important parish he had received nothing but loving kindness from their pastor, and when Dr Allon was entering what seemed a new era in his experience, he should have been sorry not to have said a few words of cordial congratulation. Although only two clergymen of the Church of England were present - a fact which must be remembered in connexion with Saturday, and the necessity of preparing certain sermons - (laughter) - he assured Dr Allon that the clergy of the parish in their hearts were distinctly proud of him. (Hear, Hear.) Dr Allon had laboured amongst them for many years, with what success they knew.

His name was honoured in the Church of England, and he himself was loved in that church. Dr Allon, after a ministry of 30 years, still had his hold upon the people as strongly as ever, while his pulpit oratory was as great as ever. This was a great test of a man and he (Mr Calthrop) congratulated him on having been honoured by God with exceeding strength and great blessings. He desired to express his feelings of hearty sympathy with the ceremony of that day. 

Union Chapel represented an exceptional matter, for Dr Allon had not there the embarrassments and perplexities or the dictations of a bishop. (Cheers and Laughter). Nonconformists, however, had men amongst them who were to all intents and purposes, bishops. (Hear.) Dr Allon was one of these and it was quite proper that a bishop should have his cathedral to preach in. (Laughter.) He congratulated Dr Allon on the proceedings of the day and assured him that he spoke on behalf of a large body of silent churchmen by whom Dr Allon was regarded as a true friend of whom they had every reason to be proud. They wished him success and many years of useful ministerial life. Would they, Dr Allon's good friends and people, accept from his lips a very cordial and affectionate God speed. (Cheers.)

The Rev R.W. Dale, and the Rev A.T. Rogers also delivered addresses of a congratulatory character during the evening.

The Jubilee Singers were present, and they sang some of their hymns at intervals with great success. We understand that the collections during the day amounted to £2,500.



“The typical busybody,” alluded to by Mr. Richard, M.P., in his speech on Saturday at Myddelton-hall, seems to have been at work to prevent the Rev. Gordon Calthrop from extending a trifling courtesy to Dr. Allon, on the occasion of the laying of the memorial stone Union Chapel. Mr. Calthrop, whose liberality towards Nonconformists has never been of that excessive kind in which a clergyman stultifies his acceptance of ecclesiastical conditions, designed to take part in the ceremony, and his share of it was be the reading a passage from Scripture. Somebody, however, horrified at the prospect of an Episcopalian rubbing shoulders with Dissenters, communicated with the Bishop of London, and that right rev. prelate is said to have advised Mr. Calthrop not to appear. Mr. Calthrop showed due obedience to his ecclesiastical superior, and without, we believe, outraging in the slightest the freedom permitted to Churchmen in orders, contented himself with appearance at the subsequent dejeuner, and a speech, in which he good-humouredly congratulated Dr. Allon on his freedom from the dictation of bishops. In these days, when Dr. Allon is able to say, as he did, in his eloquent speech on Saturday, that liberty of worship is now protected by law, and that though the civil sword is no longer wielded for the enforcement of ecclesiastical allegiance, or for the extirpation of doctrinal heresy, the action of the Bishop strikes us as one the remaining bits of fossilised arrogance which clings to the Establishment, and which every day grows more and more absurd in view of the growing Catholicity of the age. Mr Calthrop, as a Churchman with broad and liberal views, saw no harm in reading the Scriptures anywhere where they would be received with reverence was not asked to read, and doubtless would have declined read, recantation of the Thirty-nine Articles, or an impeachment of the Establishment. 

All he intended was to lend his countenance and support as a parochial clergyman to a brother in the Protestant vineyard, who differing and agreeing to differ with him on questions of ecclesiasticism is yet faithfully pursuing in much the same way the great work in which he is himself engaged. The spirit of the age is tolerance, and in social circles a man would be considered a fool who nowadays set up impassable barriers between Churchmen and Nonconformists. We can the less understand then that men whose only differences are on questions of Church government, should not be permitted to breathe the same religious atmosphere, and should actually precluded from engaging together in a public Christian work where they are in common agreement. 

The element of absurdity is greater when we find Mr. Calthrop forbidden to read the impartial Scriptures on an open ground at Compton- terrace, and yet free to mark his special approval of Nonconformity at Myddelton-hall. The Freemantle case, and this experience of Mr. Calthrop, maybe coupled together, and will, we hope, the last absurdities committed in the name of the Establishment by the Bishop London.

[1] Rev Calthrop spoke at the subsequent “dejeuner”. See the Islington’s Gazette’s editorial on this at the end of this transcript.

[2] Dr Neale was a high-church Anglican priest and poet. The hymn goes thus: “Grant that all who here today/ Rejoicing this foundation lay/ May be in very deed thine own / Built on the precious corner stone/ The heads that guide, endue with skill/ The hands that work, preserve from ill/ That we, who these foundations lay/ May raise the topstone in its day.”

[3] At the time, M Pressensé would have been a member of the French National Assembly

‹ back