The beautiful interior of the Unitarian Meeting House showing dark wood pews, parquet flooring, wooden pillars and the late 19th century organ. A chandelier hangs from the middle of the ceiling.
Interior view of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House seen from the gallery © Historic England
Interior view of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House seen from the gallery © Historic England

Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House Saved for Future Generations

Volunteers and the congregation at the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich are looking forward to welcoming the local community once again following repair and restoration work to save the historic Grade I listed building.

Extensive repairs

The year-long restoration project was made possible by grant funding of £602,152 from Historic England and tireless fundraising efforts by volunteers and community members who raised nearly £140,000 in funding.

The building needed extensive structural repairs. The entire roof needed re-covering, along with an overhaul of all drainage, and works to remove unsuitable and corroding steel repairs and rectify structural movement in the timber frame. Cracked composite cement render covering the exterior was replaced with a historically accurate lime render.

The Unitarian Meeting House was placed on the Heritage at Risk Register in 2018 after Trustees Property Manager Phil Chatfield completed a Structural Survey commissioned by the Trustees. It will be removed from the Register this year, following extensive restoration work designed by KLH Architects based on the survey's recommendations.

Find out more and get involved

On Sunday 16 and Sunday 30 May (2-3 pm), local visitors will be able to enjoy the newly restored building filled with music from its beautiful late-19th-century organ. COVID-19 restrictions apply.

It is hoped that further easing of COVID-19 restrictions will enable services and events to resume in the Unitarian Meeting House.

If you’d like to lend a hand in keeping this beautiful historic building alive for visitors to enjoy, a new Friends of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House Group is welcoming new supporters. To get involved, visit Ipswich Unitarians website or contact Tessa Forsdike (Secretary of Trustees) on 01473 728498 / 07980 641620.

Skilled heritage crafts

Suffolk-based contractors F A Valiant & Son Ltd undertook the restoration of the Unitarian Meeting House with the support of local architects, KLH.

Site Foreman Mark Frankis remained on-site throughout the project, including during the first lockdown in March 2020.

As a local Ipswich ‘boy’ who has been aware of the Meeting House building for years, it has been a real pleasure to work locally and to put something back into the town. It has felt important to put the Meeting House back to what it was originally, to remove the steelwork, to replace that with oak timber and to put the original lime wash back.”

Mark Frankis Site Foreman, F A Valiant & Son Ltd

Terry Lankester carried out sympathetic restoration to the leaded light windows in the Unitarian Meeting House.

It was a great pleasure to work on such a historical building. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked long hours alone at weekends enjoying the feeling of calm in the building. I thought a lot about the lives of the craftsmen who first constructed it. Imagining what a hard life they must have had working by candlelight, with only basic clothing and likely no consideration to health and safety either. There were quite a few glass quarries with historic graffiti, and it was interesting reading the names of previous glaziers. I feel it’s very important to keep restoring historic buildings using traditional methods and materials, leaving imperfections alone, they have character and are part of history.

Terry Lankester Lankesters

Nigel Davies is master plasterer working for G Cook and Sons Ltd and relished the opportunity to work on this historic building.

I have lived in Ipswich all my life and have been aware of the Meeting House building, but never knew what it was – it seemed quite mysterious. My mother-in-law used to clean there and said what a lovely building it was. I have enjoyed working on it – I started with the early work of putting in the lathes and was involved from start to finish of the plaster work, which gives me a sense of pride. It is a nice feeling to work on an old place like this – it puts a smile on your face – and it feels good that I will be able to walk past with my grandchildren and say, ‘I was part of that’.

Nigel Davies, Master Plasterer G Cook and Sons Ltd

The historic Unitarian Meeting House

The Unitarian Meeting House, situated on one of the oldest streets in Ipswich, is regarded as one of the finest surviving 18th-century Dissenters’ meeting houses in the country. It was opened for services in 1700 and has been used continuously for worship since then.

English novelist Daniel Defoe waxed lyrical in 1722: “as large and as fine a building of that kind as most on this side of England, and the inside the best finished of any I have seen, London not excepted.”

The exterior is self-effacing, giving little clue to the classical grandeur of the historically complete interior. The pulpit is an elaborately carved early-18th-century construction with intricate and beautiful three-dimensional carving.

The congregation sits in original wooden box pews. There are special historic features such as wig pegs, a Dutch brass chandelier and a spy hole, used in times of persecution to check for any approaching persecutors.

When the building was built, English Presbyterians were regarded with suspicion by most of the population. Members had to ensure that they did nothing to unduly draw attention to the building or themselves.