Primitive worship

This chicken shed – at Raikes Lane, Lynn, near Stonnall, must be one of the oldest metal buildings surviving in the locality. It’s certainly the most primitive I’ve ever seen. Such quick erection methods were unique at their introduction and suddenly allowed quite large buildings to be constructed very quickly and at low cost.

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

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8 Responses to Primitive worship

  1. pedro says:

    Thanks for the memories. I have passed a few of these buildings and wish I had recorded them on photos.

    I remember one in Witton Road Aston that is still there, and the bus was inevitably held up alongside as it made its way to the City.

    Regards Pedro

  2. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    thanks for putting the article on your blog and especially for finding the film clips. and for all your hard work in assembling the final edition! Most appreciated.

  3. David Oakley says:

    Great article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it, plus the photos and music (especially Jerusalem). Had a lot of experience as a youngster, being a member of the Christian Brethren, of these tiny places of worship. Glad to see Shenstone Woodend mentioned as this was a “one of ours”.
    These simple places were necessarily due to lack of funding on behalf of the tiny but distinct denominations that were springing up everywhere. No central funding, but just a simple desire to spread the gospel. Some sects had
    philosophies that may have hindered this desire, but they were deeply and sincerely held, inasmuch as the Christian Bethren believed at one time, that money could be obtained in sinful fashion, such as gambling, so you never saw a collection box for any stray visitor to donate. Funding was often provided by “saved” members of the assembly, which was alway cheerfully given. A complete reversal of this philosophy was practised by the Salvation Army who policy was “Give us dirty money and we will make it clean”. hence the collection boxes in the streets and the lassies with their bonnets selling Thw “War Cry” in the pubs. Money put to excellent use, I may add. This business of being “in” the world but not “of” the world was carried through in other ways and it was not unknown that a popular catchy tune of the time was often hijacked by the “Army” on the basis of “Why should the Devil have all
    the best tunes ? Probably why the Salvation Army is a worldwide force for good, and many “tin tabernacles” are rusting and disused. Excellent Christians, no doubt, but perhaps a little too unworldy to have persisted as a major religious force in todays materialistic world.

  4. Pingback: Meet me on the corner « BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  5. pedro says:

    “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?”

    I remember my mother using that expression!

    Regards Pedro

  6. David Evans says:

    HI Bob
    a conversation and a cup of tea with a lady who used to attend the Tin Tabernacle in Clayhanger Road, just off Lindon Road, when she was a child..she mentioned getting a “star” on her attendance card each time she went to Sunday School. A full card and pupils could go on the Sunday School “outing”..on a double decker Harpers bus to Sutton Park to enjoy the amusements there..fairground rides etc.
    That Tin Tabernacle has closed down, but is now owned by Pat Collins fairground as their artwork studio !

  7. Holly says:

    Mmmmm looking at the site, searched for the Memo on a Friday note but could not find anything? Anyway think we need a thread of the Memo on a Friday night all that pent up teenager hormones
    Awaiting girls/boys coming through the swing doors at 7 xxx northern soul fast Eddie me and Noel dancin etc…… Come on…….. Xxx

  8. pedro says:

    A link to the Chapel in Little Hay Lane…

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