After visiting Union Chapel a couple of times, I decided to join a tour to explore it in more detail. Tours take place on the first Sunday of the month, after the service (the place is a working church as well as a theatre and gig venue). I turned up to hear about the history of the building.
The first chapel in Compton Terrace was built in 1806 by a group of Anglicans and Nonconformists (the former had broken away from their parish church, dissatisfied with their experiences); it was named Union Chapel as a symbol of the fact that it unified Christians of various denominations. Anglican and Nonconformist services were held there for forty years, but then Anglican services declined, and in 1847 the Chapel joined the Congregational Union of self-governing Nonconformist churches. It is still self-governing today, with each member having equal authority.
The present Chapel was built in the late nineteenth century, under the supervision of Dr. Henry Allon, the minister from 1843-1892. James Cubitt’s design was chosen from seven submitted, and it remains to this day. The design comprises an octagonal space modelled on the Romanesque church of St. Fosca at Torcello, near Venice. The central chapel is surrounded by a rectangle with offices and a Sunday school, it was expanded to encompass the houses and gardens on either side of 18 and 19 Compton Terrace, and crowned with a dome and tower.
The chapel was dedicated in December 1877, and for several years remained an important centre of worship in Islington. However, the congregation was starting to diminish by the end of the century, and this decline continued through the early part of the twentieth century.
In 1982 the demolition and redevelopment of the Chapel was proposed: thankfully, this did not happen, and it became established as a venue for concerts, recitals, gigs and other arts events. The old Sunday School is often used for rehearsals: the cast of the hit musical Sunny Afternoon rehearsed here before opening in the West End. Union Chapel is also home to Margins, a charity established in 1994 to help disadvantaged people. Its importance is recognised by English Heritage, who have assisted with grants for many years.
I really enjoyed my tour of Union Chapel: it is a truly stunning building, versatile and well-used, and an important part of Islington’s heritage. I strongly recommend a visit, either attending a gig or taking part in a tour, to explore this beautiful place.