The early days of the Albion Chapel

By Stephen Best

Its recent closure has left one of Sneinton's most striking Victorian landmarks without an obvious role to play in the community. This is the Albion United Reformed Church, which enjoyed an active life of almost 130 years, and whose conception and opening are worth more than a passing glance.

The story goes back to 1842, when a Sunday School was started at Sneinton under the aegis of Castle Gate Congregational Church. A building in Upper Eldon Street was taken, and so successful was the mission carried on there that after two years a further storey had to be added to the building. In due course local Congregationalists met to discuss the question of erecting a new chapel in Sneinton; the inaugural meeting took place in I. & R. Morley's warehouse, with Mr. Arthur Morley presiding. A committee was set up to press on with the project, and for some time was chiefly occupied in sorting out the rival claims of a number of likely sites. Eventually a spot just to the south of Sneinton Road was chosen, and at the end of September 1855 a handbill heralding the foundation-stone laying was printed. Headed 'New Congregational Chapel, Snenton', it announced that the stone would be laid at 3 in the afternoon of Monday, October 8th, the exact hour at which the Castle-Gate bicentenary services were to be held. The handbill went on to relate that 'The Committee has been led to take the necessary steps for erecting this place of worship, simply by a desire to extend the gospel, and thus to further the spiritual interests of a large and growing population'. The new chapel, in being built at the time of the bicentenary celebrations, 'may be regarded by such of the friends at Castle Gate as assist in the effort, as a memorial of the favours so long conferred upon themselves'. The notice concluded with the announcement that 'It is proper to add that the Chapel is intended to be entirely independent of any other; sustained by its own resources, and under its own management'.

THE SURROUNDINGS OF THE ALBION CHAPEL as shown on Salmon's 1861 map.THE SURROUNDINGS OF THE ALBION CHAPEL as shown on Salmon's 1861 map. The built-up character of the neighbourhood can clearly be seen.

The stone laying received extensive coverage in the local press, the Nottingham Review including it in its survey of two hundred years of the Castle Gate Meeting. Describing the ceremony, the Review commented on the presence of 'a very large concourse, including many of the most respectable inhabitants of the town, and of the immediate vicinity'. The design chosen for the new chapel, to be of red brick with stone embellishments, was the work of Thomas Oliver junior, of Sunderland, who must have seemed an unlikely architect of a Nottingham place of worship. Oliver's was, however, 'one of the 'model' designs selected by the English Congregational Chapel Building Society, and adapted by the architect to the site at Sneinton'. Both the Nottingham Journal and Nottingham Review reported the contract for the building work as being about £2,400, the Journal adding the details that the land had cost some £500, while architects fees and other expenses were expected to bring the total outlay to somewhere in the region of £3,300. Of this sum, reported the Review, £1,000 had already been donated, while a further £400 would be forthcoming from the Chapel Building Society.

Those present at the foundation-stone laying, whether respectable or not, were doubtless grateful that the October afternoon was fine and bright, for the proceedings were long drawn out. After the singing of the hymn, 'Before Jehovah’s awful throne', the Rev. J. Hallett, of Newark, read two psalms and offered a prayer.

Mr. Hallett was succeeded by Alderman Thomas Herbert, a prominent lace manufacturer, who, in alluding to the Castle Gate bicentenary, observed that 'the friends of Castle Gate Meeting House had been greatly blessed since their church had been formed, and they felt it to be a holy and Christian duty to bless others'. Alderman Herbert remarked that it was pleasant to be present on this occasion, 'to assist in having another church erected for the benefit of the immortal soul of man'. Attention next focused upon the person of William Booker of High Pavement, the Nottingham architect who was to superintend the carrying out of Mr. Oliver's plans. Booker gave details of the documents sealed in a bottle, which was to be deposited beneath the foundation-stone. These included the names of the committee of management, and of the architect and builder, together with the report of the Nottingham County Association of Independent Churches, papers relating to the Castle Gate celebrations, and a statement telling how the Albion Chapel came to be built. The bottle was duly laid in its place, while Alderman Herbert expressed the hope that its contents would not come to light again for a very long time. The Alderman then performed the main action of the day, by laying 'with the customary formalities', the foundation-stone.

Samuel McAll, Minister of Castle Gate Church from 1843 to 1860, next addressed the onlookers. The Rev. Mr. McAll pointed out that the population of Sneinton was estimated to be in the region of 10,000, a number, he said, nearly as great as the population of Nottingham itself a century before. In a ringing phrase (which, if it does nothing else, serves to illustrate how English usage has changed over 130 years), Mr. McAll asserted that the building of this new place of worship in the centre of Sneinton 'must be a great public convenience'. He felt that the chapel would lead to a more general observance of the Sabbath, as well as providing a moralising influence on the community. Another hymn was then sung, before the Rev. Alexander Alliott, formerly minister at Castle Gate, and now principal of the Western College, Plymouth, spoke the closing prayer and pronounced a blessing. The meeting then broke up, Alderman Herbert no doubt returning to his house in the Ropewalk that contained one of Nottingham's wonders of the age. Mr. Herbert had built a ninety-foot rock tunnel under a road and down to the bottom of his garden. In this, as W. W. Fyfe's 'Rambles round Nottingham' described, were carved Egyptian pillars, the figure of a Druid playing the harp, and a spirited sculptured group of Daniel in the lions den.

Construction of the Albion Chapel proceeded at a brisk pace, and only ten months later the Nottingham newspapers were able to report the opening ceremony. William Booker, the architect on the spot, and William Smith of Woolpack Lane, the builder, had evidently worked well together. Mr. Booker received the accolade of 'our talented townsman', while Mr. Smith’s labours were deemed to have done him credit, having been carried out, so believed the Review, 'to the satisfaction of all parties'.

The Nottingham Journal commended the 'eligible and commanding site' chosen for the new chapel, while the Review was 'struck by the neatness and consistency of the exterior, which is seen to great advantage, being literally 'founded on a rock''. The Review, weighing its compliments carefully, considered the Albion Chapel to be 'somewhat above the ordinary run of chapels as now erected', and congratulated the Congregationalists of the town for putting up such a building. The chapel's main frontage towards Sneinton Road was thought especially striking, the newspapers commenting on its Ionic pilasters, and on the way the round headed window over the door made a big arch in the cornice of the pediment above it. The Review had previously noted that while the roof would, from the outside, appear to be a single unit, it would in internal construction be in three parts, 'thus securing a more regular weight and lateral thrust'. The completed interior of the Albion Chapel was thus of three compartments, with a coved ceiling in the centre, and divided into six bays by cast iron columns running right up to the ceiling, rather than terminating at the gallery. The gallery was 'good and spacious', and accommodated a seraphine (an early version of the harmonium), but the beauty of the ceiling was, in the judgment of the Review, not improved by the paterae (moulded rosettes), which were 'stuck upon it like buttons on a coat'. The Review, while feeling that the chapel's twenty three windows afforded ample light, held varying opinions about its furnishings. It wholeheartedly approved of the seats, made of deal and stained to resemble oak They were, ran the report, 'not of that knee-cramping quality so generally found in chapels of the present day'. The paper did not, however, care for the pulpit and communion table, which did not agree 'with the other parts of the edifice, being too heavy and stuck over with unmeaning ornament'. Intending worshippers were, no doubt, relieved to read that 'there is provision for warming and ventilating the building’, which would be able to seat about 800 people.

Although feeling, as mentioned above, that the Albion Chapel was a 'decided improvement on the 'old style'', the Nottingham Review asserted that architecture must keep pace with 'the more cultivated and enlightened' minds of the population, and that buildings which had satisfied the people of the 18th century would not be accepted by their descendants in the 1850s. The Review was glad to see 'architects and architecture on the move', but yearned for 'a great and vigorous soul thrown into architecture again'. It is to be hoped that those who had subscribed to the building of the chapel were pleased with the result. The Morley family had been generous supporters, and other local residents to have given money for the Albion Chapel included William Burgass, coal merchant and brick and tile maker, of Carlton Hill, and Samuel Weston Moore, lace manufacturer, of Belvoir Terrace: these two gentlemen had each given £50.

The first service was held at 10.45 a.m. on Thursday, August 14th, 1856, with the Rev. Dr. Raffles of Liverpool preaching a sermon on the text 'Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek thy good'. Like the one present at the stone laying, the congregation on this occasion was described as 'highly respectable': its members contributed to a satisfactory first collection of almost £31. So the Albion Chapel embarked on its career, the next event of note occurring a month afterwards when over 40 members of the Castle Gate congregation withdrew, the Castle Gate minutes recording 'That this church accepts with feelings of sincere regret and kindness, the intimation that certain of its members have deemed it their duty to worship at Albion Chapel, Sneinton, and to constitute a distinct and separate Church in that place'. Among these were Mr. S. W. Moore, and William Straw, accountant, house agent and tax collector of Notintone Place, who was to remain actively associated with the chapel until 1905.

Looking back as we do from 1987, when it stands isolated on its rock and dwarfed by the nearby tower blocks, it is perhaps difficult for us to realise just how impressive the Albion Chapel looked in its original surroundings. It stood facing Sneinton Road in the acute angle formed by Albion Street and Herbert Street (later renamed Bentinck Street and Beaumont Street), and, as it was to do until the wholesale redevelopment of New Sneinton in the late 1950s, it dominated the terrace houses around it, and was unmistakeably a building of some presence. The chapel had a dignified wall surmounted by railings, and a neat vestry which harmonised with the rest of the chapel. This was in stark contrast with the unworthy two-storey erection of 1904, which was clapped on to the rear of the Albion Chapel in its place.

It is not intended to tell here the long and honourable story of the chapel, so a few glimpses must suffice. Despite the hard work of a number of ministers, things were at a low ebb by the end of 1893, with only 59 members. Then, on January 7th, 1894 the Rev. Speight Auty became minister and, as the 'History of Castlegate Congregational Church' put it, 'From that time there has been no turning back'. Mr. Auty became a very familiar figure in Sneinton, living as he did in Victoria Villas, Sneinton Dale, and when he died at the age of 67 on December 3rd, 1920, he had been at the Albion for almost 27 years His gravestone is passed daily by many people; it is a large white stone figure of Christ standing by the main path quite close to the Canning Circus entrance of the General Cemetery.

In 1933 something happened which foreshadowed events of half a century later. The Nottingham Journal reported that as 80 per cent of the congregation came from the other end of Sneinton, it was planned to build a Sunday School on vacant land on Lichfield Road. This was to be followed, when the Sunday School was paid for, by the building of a new church. This move did not of course take place, and the Albion Chapel remained long enough in Sneinton Road to become, following the union of the Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church of England, the Albion United Reformed Church In October 1986 it united with Parkdale Road Chapel to become The Dales United Reformed Church.

At the outset of this brief account, it was remarked that the old Albion building was now disused. To any passer-by today this is only too evident, and it must be hoped that an appropriate use will soon be found for this survivor, which was, when it was built, 'the centre of a new, large, and rapidly increasing population'. One final regret must be mentioned. Although the end wall of the 1904 extension bears a name stone and date stone, of the foundation stone laid by Alderman Herbert in 1855 there is, unhappily, no trace.

FOOTNOTE. As we go to press, good news! The building is fully refurbished internally and there is a public Day Centre in being. The Albion Church holds daily services at 7pm. All are welcome.