Top reader and local history wonk David Evans sent me an essay this week that neatly connects in with the enquiry I made a week ago about religion in mining communities. One of the most prolific forms of ecclesiastical architure in the industrial Britain of the early 20th century wasn’t the handsome, imposing rural parish church, oh no. It was a corrugated iron shed, nicknamed the ‘Tin Tabernacle’. These odd little buildings are increasing celebrated.
Tin Tabernacles were made from kits as the postacabins of their day – a construction method whose cheapness and ease of construction meant the system was used from everything from field barrack sheds, to aircraft hangars to schoolrooms. But it was as the small chapel that so many of these buildings became that was most notable.
This odd, and peculiarly British architectural phenomena has it’s own website and series of books – and several people have made short films, which I embed through the article.
Thanks, once again, to David, who’s sadly rather bedevilled by his arthritis at the moment. I’m sure all you readers will join with me in thanking David and wishing him a speedy return to good health. Oily fish, old chap. Oily fish, and a wee drop of the hard stuff. It’ll keep your coat lovely and shiny, too…
Now, over to the man himself.
A recent mention of the name ‘Tin Tabernacle’ started me thinking about the number of these corrugated buildings that graced the local landscape at one time in the past, and which, sadly, seem to have largely disappeared.
These pre-fabs of their period may bring back memories of times spent inside these churches and chapels, for they were a regular part of the urban landscape and way of life. They were of many different colours, and of varying standards of maintenance, but seemingly, they were loved and treasured by those who had scraped and worked to find the money to pay for their construction and upkeep.
As the coalmining boom in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and the rest of the local coalfields grew in intensity the rapid influx of workers brought their own demands; housing, transport, and social amenities. It seems that they brought with them their own religious practices from coal mining villages in many parts of the country, too.
The 1861, 1871 and 1881 local census records show just how dire was the provision of adequate housing. Most newly-arrived miners would have to live as lodgers; often several per household. The High Streets, both in Walsall Wood and in Brownhills saw shops increase both in their numbers and in the variety of goods sold. ‘You could buy everything you needed’ was certainly the case.
Brownhills Police Station, its size and the number of Police constables stationed there reflected the other demands and strains of the booming town. Walsall Wood, too, gained a Police House and its own constable.
Churches of different demoninations quickly saw a need for chapels and places of worship in these newly emerging communities. The corrugated iron Tin Tabernacles, as they were nicknamed, started to proliferate. Opposite the those dens of iniquity the Rising Sun and Crown pubs in Brownhills West appeared the Rehoboth. In Clayhanger another was built. The new chapel at Norton Canes sat at the central crossroads of the village, and the Trinity at Rushall village centre is still extant. Others materialised on the Watling Street, by Holland Park, at Muckley Corner near a small hamlet and a further one at Pipehill.
[There were also ones I personally remember at Bourne Vale/Streetly, Shenstone Woodend, and Little Hay, and there are still a few about in the villages and hamlets of South Staffordshire - Bob]
In Barracks Lane? No, not a tin tabernacle chapel, but a corrugated isolation Hospital was quickly erected, and , years later, after it had been decommissioned, it became a corrugated home with a huge greenhouse.
Now, sadly, most have gone. Rusted, surplus to requirements, forgotten. With them have been lost the melodious sounds of the singing by the choirs, the less melodious singing of the congregations, the thin notes from the harmoniums played by lady organists with their red-faces, heavily bustles and bomb-proof bone corsets, the Fire and Brimstone or less frightening Hellfire and Damnation, or rare God is Love sermons from the dour-faced and eagle-eyed preachers and priests, the wafting perfumes of every kind, lavender, rose, carbolic and moth-ball, Imperial mint and Condor Twist, Sunlight Soap and mildew, the yellow glow from the oil-lamps, the hissing and popping from the totally ineffective pot belly heating stoves, the crackle from the rakers, slack and firewood, the clack and lisp and whistle of ill-fitting false teeth during the reading from the Good Book, from the second letter of Paul the Apostle to Thessalonians, verses six to sixteen.
No more the delight of innocent children singing their choruses in mono-tonal unison, ‘Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam’, ‘I’m H A P P Y’ (’cause teacher says I am), the Sunday School Anniversaries, with their ‘Platform’ children in their starched whites, mothers all aglow with pride and fathers, their faces newly shaved and covered in dabs from styptic pencils hither and thither, their hair glued down and glistening under the weight of Brilliantine.
The side-wise glances to fob watches… Sunday dinnertime, you know. The shuffling of discomfort and numbness along the pews when the preacher found a sixth point to his sermon, vital to mention for a third time.
The relief when the sermon ended with a gentle ‘Amen’ from the pulpit, and a resounding ‘Amen’ and a sigh from the corrugation.
The weddings, the christenings, the many desperately sad funerals. The Christmas Carol services, the Sunday School outings… all gone and consigned to the pages of history, along with their communities of those times.
David Evans, May 2012