Returning to lead tours at Union Chapel

For the first time since the pandemic Islington Guided Walks is back leading monthly tours of Union Chapel. It was a delight to spend an hour there at the beginning of March sharing the glories of the building with a group. There are so many things to enjoy in this Grade I listed building but these are my highlights…

Architect James Cubitt’s “grand open space before the pulpit” 

While the Victorian Gothic Revival style red-brick tower exploding out of the restrained Georgian houses of Compton Terrace is fun it does not prepare you for the grand open space that the architect James Cubitt created inside.  It is the perfect expression of a space designed for every member of the congregation to hear the word of God and see the minister… and for the minister to see them.

The pews and those who sat in them

Most of the wooden pews that sweep around the octagonal space and slope down to the pulpit are original. The detail of the boxes for gloves, hooks for hats and umbrella holders remind us of the generations who have sat here and the dramatic changes over nearly 150 years.  

The chapel was built in the 1870s because the congregation had outgrown their 1806 chapel. James Cubitt designed seating for double the number of worshippers – nearly 1800. Reports say that over 3,000 attended the opening service. A century later the congregation numbered a small fraction of that – about 20.  Today for live events – concerts, talks and films – the Union chapel seats 900 visitors. Our tour charts the rise, decline and then reinvention of the use of this space.

The ceiling

Sitting in the gallery we have a wonderful view of the many decorative features.  The stone, polished marble and onyx of the pulpit gleam and its design is echoed in the polished marble frieze around the rim of the gallery.  However, my favourite feature is heavenwards and from the gallery we are closer to the octagonal Columbian pine ceiling.  It is carved into an intricate pattern of 24 pointed gothic arches leading the eye towards the perforated and decorative zinc screen that allows air to be drawn out of the chapel.

The organ

The Union Chapel has an incredible organ designed by the great organ maker of the 19th century ‘Father’ Henry Willis.  He built organs for St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Albert Hall and… the Union Chapel!  You might have visited the Union Chapel for a concert and never seen the organ – and that was deliberate.  Dr Henry Allon arrived as a minister at Union Chapel in the 1840s and developed congregational singing. When James Cubitt is commissioned as the architect for the new Union Chapel the organ is very important to Henry Allon – as we can see its high-profile builder. However, Allon does not want the organ itself to distract the congregation but rather the music should appear ethereally in the space.  

Cubitt takes advice on the best place to site the organ for the sound, concealing the organ pipes behind a decorative metal screen.  We move around the back of the pulpit to discover the organ console tucked away out of sight of the pews.  However, Cubitt designed the pulpit so that the organist could see through its arches and view the congregation.

The Union Chapel is full of so many stories: of dedicated and celebrated ministers, the effects on the building of the disastrous World War II bombing of Highbury Corner, the saving of the building itself from demolition and so much more.  We hope you will find time to join us on a tour.

Tours of Union Chapel take place on the first Wednesday of every month at noon. Book your tickets at the Union Chapel website.

Susan Hahn is an Islington Guided Walks guide who in addition to leading tours in many of Islington’s historic buildings is also a tutor on our training course.