Architecture of The Round Chapel

In 1869, Henry Fuller was appointed architect. We do not know whether others were considered. but Fuller would have been an obvious choice. He was well known as a nonconformist church architect, and had designed three other chapels in the area: a chapel in Pownall Road, Haggerston: one at Cricketfield Road; and a design for the gigantic International Chapel, Kingsland Road. The building tender was won by Messrs. Perry & Co. at a cost of £10,290. The final cost was £21,294. an extremely high price at the time. The last service at the Old Gravel Pit Chapel was held on 23rd April 1871 and the new chapel was inaugurated on 26th April 1871.

The new chapel was a most unusual building. For a start it was round, or at least roundish. How many round 19th century churches can you think of? Secondly, it was large, impressive and extrovert, reflecting a new mood of self-confidence and assertiveness in the British nonconformist world. Thirdly, iron was used in its construction - a truly novel idea at this time. Fourthly, the building was curiously neither Gothic nor classical, but something rather in-between.

The building's originality lay in its shape and general conception and divergence from the nave-and-aisles arrangement. Its resemblance to a theatre was remarked upon at the time and this proved remarkably successful in fulfilling some practical requirements. Firstly, the building could accommodate a large congregation, with its generous size and galleries. Secondly, it was highly desirable, with the nonconformist emphasis on the sermon, that all could hear and see the preacher. Thirdly, Fuller facilitated movement around the building by use of ingenious curving circulatory passages behind the chapel. An article on 'Contemporary Chapel Building' of 9 February 1872 in Building News praised Fuller's church and his attempt to find a new direction for nonconformist architecture, but criticised the columns for interfering with sight lines from various spots: '... it makes cast iron columns almost a necessity, with all the trashy detail that they lead to - and it involves so many of them, that in spite of their thinness, they cause a very considerable obstruction'. The Building News columnist preferred stone and its qualities of solidarity, massiveness and durability. Iron churches were out of the question at this date in England, and many bishops had refused to consecrate them.

Yet at Clapton, Fuller had used iron in a considered and deliberate way, exposing the structure and revelling in the lattice arcade effect that it produced. Its potential for leaving massive areas of the building unsupported cannot have escaped him, given the drama of the central area.

Finally, there is the outside of the chapel, which contemporaries called 'Romanesque', presumably because of the round arched windows. In fact, the building is an eclectic mixture of Italianate motifs. The rounded west end faces the main road, flanked on either side by octagonal towers housing the staircases. The roof is a distinctive feature with its steep pitch and elaborate cast iron balustrade. The exterior is faced with ashlar masonry, again unusual in 19th century churches. The current facings date from 1906 when the originals were replaced. The chapel was built with ancillary rooms to the rear and a verger's house to one side in Glenann Road. By 1873, these were felt to provide insufficient space, and a new extension with school and lecture rooms was built on the Powerscroft Road side of the church. The school building was designed in a similar manner to the existing chapel. The block was set at right angles to the main building. In 1881, a wing was added projecting towards the chapel in a polygonal form echoing the rounded front of the parent block.

The chapel was designed on a horseshoe-shape plan with the roof and intermediate galleries supported by iron pillars. Delicate and detailed columns form a continuous eye-catching iron arcade at roof level, with spectacular lattice work effects above which the majestic roof floats. The ceiling is most unusual in being flat with a double cove at the sides. At the east end of the church, an enormous arch set into the wall provides a frame for the organ and pulpit.

The kind of centralised plan used at the Round Chapel was being experimented with in a few other non-conformist churches at this time. but it is still exceedingly rare. There is a precedent in 'fee]'. even if not exactly in shape, close by in Hackney, most unusually in the Georgian church of St John-at-Hackney, Mare Street 1792-97 by James Spiller. However, Fuller probably had in mind the idea of a theatre when he designed the Round Chapel, with its great height, three-sided - gallery and rounded plan. Here he was following the ancient Roman auditorium plan, as in the theatre of Marcellus or Wren's Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.

The form of the church should be considered in the context of a debate taking place in the 1870s about nonconformist church architecture. This debate centred on the need to find an appropriate architectural form for nonconformism. Traditionally this had been met by the rectangular preaching box whose origins date from the early 19th century. Then, anonymity and a desire to blend in with the surrounding domestic architecture had been the key issues. But by the 1870s, most of the disadvantages which nonconformist groups had suffered from had disappeared, and the movement was entering into a new more expansive phase, marked by larger and more impressive buildings. But on what models should these be based? Most nonconformist designers provided increased grandeur through Gothic Revival nave-and- aisle plan churches in the Anglican style. But others argued for a distinctive chapel form, which would differentiate their buildings from Anglican ones. In Clapton Park chapel, Fuller provided a resounding demonstration of an alternative approach.

The school's extension was designed by James Cubitt, one of the most distinguished nonconformist architects of the period and author of Church Designs for Congregations of 1870. His masterpiece is the huge Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington of 1876. Cubitt and Fuller shared office premises at 26 Finsbury Place, EC. Cubitt began practising in 1867, and in 1872 joined Fuller's practice as a partner. Fuller himself retired in 1874 and the Clapton Park chapel was his last building. Cubitt may have had some input into the Round Chapel design of 1869; arguments for Cubitt's involvement centre around the highly innovative and dramatic nature of the building, which can certainly be seen as a forerunner of both Cubitt's book of the following year and the later Union Chapel. Conversely, most of Fuller's designs, such as his Kingsland Road design, are in a Gothic style and follow the traditional nave-and-aisles arrangement. If Fuller did design the Round Chapel it represents a very late change of architectural style, but there is insufficient documentary evidence to tell whether Cubitt was involved or not.