A high-tech church in London’s Hampstead

FROM THE STREET, the Victorian gothic façade of Hampstead’s Heath Street Baptist Church is unremarkable. Over the past more than 60 years, I have walked or driven past this place of worship, but it was not until today (20th July 2021) that I entered it for the first time.

The church was designed by the architect and surveyor Charles Gray Searle (1816-81) and completed 1860-61. Searle was himself a Baptist. He had been apprenticed to the renowned master builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who bought stone from his father, John Searle, who owned a quarry near Wapping. Charles set up his own practice in about 1846.

According to C.W. Ikin, in his “A Revised Guide to Heath Street Chapel” (quoted in https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/37-5_249.pdf):

“An early print of the proposed chapel shows buttresses but in its method of construction it was more modern, cast iron being used not only for the pillars and probably for the whole interior framework, but also for the gallery fronts and the mouldings of the pew-ends. The strength of the building is based upon this framework formed by the cast-iron pillars in church and hall below and their linking beams. The brick walls cling to the framework and have tiebars linking the hammer beam roof.”

Cast-iron columns

Cast iron, which has high compressive strength, began being used to create buildings at the end of the 18th century. Pillars made of this material can be made slenderer than masonry columns required to support the same load. The slender nature of the columns in the Heath Street Chapel is immediately evident when you enter the building. What is less obvious is that the decorative fronts of the gallery that surrounds the nave are also made from cast-iron. The material has hardly been used for structural elements of buildings since modern steel and concrete became available at the start of the 20th century.

If you do visit this church, do not miss the fine art-nouveau stained glass window at its western end.

Although the Heath Street Chapel was certainly not the first church to be built using cast-iron structural elements, it must have been one of the first buildings of its kind to have been built in Hampstead, which is why I have given this short piece the title “A High-tech Church in Hampstead”.

When we stepped inside the church, two men were setting up things for a lunchtime concert. They told us that these are usually held on Tuesdays at 1 pm. Details about these can be found on the church’s website, http://www.heathstreet.org/activities/lunchtime-concerts/.