Union Chapel


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 2UN


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Statutory Address:
Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 2UN

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Islington (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Congregational chapel, 1876-7 by James Cubitt, tower completed 1889.

Reasons for Designation

* Architecture: one of the outstanding Nonconformist buildings of the C19, built to an innovative and highly sophisticated plan by the foremost Congregational architect of the period; * Fixtures and fittings: an outstanding and near-complete scheme comprising woodwork, ironwork and polychromatic stonework, along with excellent C19 stained glass and a notable Willis organ; * Historic associations: built for and to the specifications of Dr Henry Allon, an important figure in contemporary religious and intellectual circles, with links to WE Gladstone and other leading Liberals.


Islington's Union Chapel was established in 1799, when two of the area's numerous Evangelical congregations - one Anglican, the other Independent - came together to worship in a small chapel at No. 18 Highbury Grove. In 1806 they moved their base to Upper Street, taking over a new 1,000-seat chapel at the centre of the recently-developed Compton Terrace, designed by H Leroux. Over the succeeding decades the chapel gradually lost its hybrid character and became solidly Nonconformist, joining the Congregational Union in 1847. Under the leadership of Dr Henry Allon - minister from 1844 to 1892, editor of the Quarterly Review and a leading figure in contemporary Liberal intellectual circles - it became one of the foremost Congregational churches in London, particularly noted for its strong musical tradition, with a wealthy and well-connected congregation drawn from the fashionable northern suburbs.

The 1806 chapel was altered and extended several times: a school was built to the rear in 1837, a grand Ionic portico was added to the front in 1839, and the worship area was enlarged in 1861, adding a further 400 sittings. Even this proved insufficient, however, and in 1869 the decision was taken to build anew. A competition was organised, assessed by the eminent architect Alfred Waterhouse, who also acted as consultant; an essential stipulation was that all members of the congregation should be able to see and hear the minister. The winning design, by James Cubitt, was for a vast octagonal building inspired by the C11 church of Santa Fosca at Torcello near Venice, with a Sunday school, lecture theatre and vestry block/caretaker's house grouped together at the rear. The old chapel was demolished in 1875, and its replacement - designed to seat 1,600 - was built in 1876-7 by the local firm of LH & R Roberts at a cost of nearly £40,000; the upper stages of the tower were completed to a modified design in 1889. Thanks to Allon's connections in the Liberal party, the chapel enjoyed the patronage of important political figures: WE Gladstone was among the 3,500 people at the opening ceremony on 5 December 1877, and in 1908 Herbert Asquith (who had been part of Allon's congregation as a young man) was heckled by suffragette protesters whilst opening a Union Chapel bazaar. The chapel's membership declined steadily through the post-war years, and the building was seriously threatened with demolition in 1981. Since the 1990s, however, it has seen increasing use as a performing arts venue, with the resulting funds used to finance repair projects including the complete re-tiling of the roof in 2005-6.

James Cubitt (1836-1912) was one of the leading Nonconformist chapel architects of the C19. The son of a Baptist minister from Ilford, Essex, he was articled to the Nottingham architect Isaac Gilbert and attended classes at the Nottingham School of Art. He later worked as an assistant to RJ Withers and WW Pocock, the latter being the designer of the great Metropolitan Tabernacle at the Elephant and Castle, Southwark. From about 1868 he was in partnership with Henry Fuller, whose Congregational church at Clapton he completed after Fuller's death in 1872. Union Chapel was among his first major works, and is considered his masterpiece. Many of his other churches have been demolished, including the Redeemer in Birmingham (1882) and Osborne Road Baptist Church in Newcastle upon Tyne (1887); apart from Union Chapel, important surviving works include Emmanuel Church in Cambridge (Grade II, 1874) and the former Welsh Presbyterian Church on Charing Cross Road, London (1888, Grade II). His book Church Designs for Congregations (1870), which advocated stylistic eclecticism combined with polygonal central planning (based on Byzantine and early medieval precedents) for maximum visibility and audibility, was a key text in the development of Nonconformist architecture.


MATERIALS The chapel is faced externally in Leicestershire red brick with Bath stone dressings and a roof of red clay tiles (the latter re-laid in 2005-6). The interior is faced in Bressingham red brick with stone dressings, marble inlaid decoration and joinery of Colombian pine.

PLAN A complex, Byzantine-inspired cross-in-square plan with four transept-like arms opening into a central octagonal space. The longer western arm, which includes the tower, forms the entrance vestibule, with flanking stairways leading to the raked octagonal gallery. The eastern arm, behind the central pulpit, contains the organ chamber. To the rear is a complex of ancillary buildings comprising the former Sunday school, lecture hall and vestry block (q.v.).

EXTERIOR Union Chapel occupies a narrow plot at the centre of Compton Terrace, whose late-Georgian houses flank it closely on either side. Its intricate plan is expressed externally in an extremely complex roofscape: the central space is covered by an octagonal roof with an open lead and timber cupola at the apex and buttresses at the angles; gabled roofs cover the transept projections to north, west and south, and the extruded corner sections between have hipped roofs. The style is a 'modernised' Early English Gothic, with a multiplicity of broad stepped lancets and a big rose window in the eastern transept.

To the west, a 170-foot tower projects forward dramatically from the line of the terrace. The tower, completed in 1889, is of four main stages, with clasping buttresses terminating in octagonal pinnacles. Its upper section has a cruciform roof with four arcaded gables, crowned by an octagonal spire. Below is a belfry stage with large twin openings (the intended bells and louvres were never installed); much of the stonework detail here was lost during the repairs of the 1950s. Below this, a large clock bracket on a triple-shafted corbel projects above three stepped lancet windows lighting the rear gallery. The lower stage forms the chapel's principal entrance, a huge Gothic portal with a gable above set within a band of blind arcading. The portal itself has an elaborately moulded archivolt supported on triple ringed shafts with foliage capitals; the twin doorways have glazed triple-lancet tympana and an oval wheel window above, and contain part-glazed sliding doors of heavy panelled construction. Flanking the tower on either side are two-storey porches with slightly smaller portals, of a simpler design with the wheel window replaced by triple lancets set in a vesica or pointed oval. A panel to the right of the main entrance records the chapel's foundation and rebuilding.

INTERIOR The chapel's interior is a single cruciform space with shallow transept arms, the cross enclosing an octagon formed by galleries running between great polygonal piers. The internal walls are faced in Bressingham red brick with stone dressings, with Colombian pine used for all joinery. Over the long spans to the cardinal directions, the galleries are carried on a triple arcade with granite columns, while single segmental arches bridge the shorter intermediate spans. The gallery-fronts bear a frieze of square panels filled with brightly-coloured marble revetments. The organ chamber, concealed behind a wrought-iron screen, takes the place of the gallery at the east end, with an open, round-arched arcade running in front of the rose window above. The corner sections between the transepts have complex arrangements of transverse arches. The main piers rise to capitals with carved foliage and human heads, supporting eight great Gothic arches with billet mouldings to the archivolts, those to the shorter spans reinforced by segmental relieving arches. The ceiling of the octagon has long arched braces and blind triple lancets converging on a richly-decorated central panel. The ceiling under the tower has a similar design of arcading surrounding a central panel.

FITTINGS The chapel contains a rich and almost complete set of late-C19 fittings. On the eastern side of the octagon is a mosaic-floored dais supporting a hexagonal stone pulpit carved by Thomas Earp, its open arcaded base supporting a superstructure of quatrefoil panels containing marble lozenges, with marble shafts at the corners rising from sculpted corbel heads. Immediately behind this, an elaborate polychromatic iron screen conceals the pipework of the organ, which is an unaltered Henry Willis instrument retaining its original hydraulic bellows pumps; its presence reflects Henry Allon's pioneering commitment to music as an integral part of Congregationalist worship. In the rear wall to the right of the dais is an arched doorway giving access to the ancillary complex, its tympanum containing a fragment of Plymouth Rock (traditional landing site of the Mayflower pilgrims) with a plaque recording its donation by the Pilgrim Society of Massachusetts in 1883; Allon had long-standing connections with the United States, and had visited the country on a lecturing tour in 1870. A demountable table with an open arcaded front, made (like the other timber fittings) of Colombian pine, fits into a slot at the front of the dais. The pews are arranged in an arc centred on the pulpit, and have shaped ends with decorative roundels, some retaining their original umbrella-holders and drip-trays. (Certain areas of pewing have been removed, for example beneath the west gallery, but the majority remains intact.) Beneath the galleries, the lower walls have matchboard dado panelling with a strip of patterned tiles above, punctuated by ventilation ducts treated as octagonal half-columns. Panelled, part-glazed doors at the west end give access to the entrance lobby and gallery stairs, the latter having carved newel posts and decorative iron balustrades. Around the walls are placed a number of memorial plaques, including (to the left of the dais) a large brass tablet commemorating Henry Allon's ministry. Four 1880s wrought-iron gasoliers in Art Nouveau style hang (inverted) from the octagon roof.

STAINED GLASS The most notable piece of stained glass is the eastern rose window by Frederick Drake of Exeter; this is original to the building and contains eight figures of angel musicians. Most of the windows originally contained simple patterned glazing with a narrow border of lilies, some of which still survives. Above the south gallery are six lancet lights by Lavers and Westlake, installed in 1893 as a memorial to Henry Allon and showing scenes of preaching and ministry. In the north- and south-east corners are smaller figures of saints and angels by Powell of Whitefriars. The north transept windows were destroyed by wartime bombing and replaced in 1946 with glass by John Rankin: a scene with Ruth and Naomi above the gallery, and simple textual scrolls below.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Binfield, C, The Contexting of a Chapel Architect: James Cubitt, 1836-1912, (2001)
Cherry, B (ed), Dissent and the Gothic Revival, (2007)
Cherry, B, Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: London 4, North, (1998 revised 2001), 664
Harwood, W H, Henry Allon, D. D., Pastor and Teacher, (1894)
Thistlethwaite, N, The Making of the Victorian Organ, (1990)
'Building News' in , (29 March 1878)
Elaine Kaye, entry on Henry Allon in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).,
English Heritage historians' file on Union Chapel (ISL 52).,
SAVE Britain's Heritage, report on Union Chapel (1981).,


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 21 Feb 2007
Reference: IOE01/16322/04
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr Anthony Rau. Source Historic England Archive
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