THE STORY OF THE BIG CHAPEL
1856 The story of the building of the Big Chapel is a testimony of the faith and determination of those early members of our society. The work started in 1856. The first task of the building of the Big Chapel was the levelling off of the uneven ground. To build the foundations and schoolroom the hillside was dug out to the level of Barnes Street and many men of the village, although they had no connection with the society, helped to complete this tremendous feat. A retaining wall was built to support the road in front of the chapel. A bottle containing the names of the trustees is believed to be in the foundations.
The full realisation of the ambitions of those pioneers owes much to the progressive attitude and generosity of the Hetton Coal Company who gave encouragement to the miners by helping to supply building materials, stone, sand and lime. They also lent a horse and cart at weekends to help carry these materials.
The larger, darker stones in the building are actually old stone sleepers from the railway and holes where the Chairs' (clamps) carried the lines, can still be seen today. The quarrying of the limestone was done by the men of the chapel and loaded into railway wagons at the quarry. To carry the stones from the wagons to the site, they built a special light railway on which they could push small tubs. To save time and to take advantage of daylight, many of the men went straight from the pit, still wearing their work clothes, their faces black with coal dust, to work on the building. Their wives helped by carrying them meals which they ate as they worked.
The builders were Messrs John and Robert Taylor.
1858 The chapel and schoolhouse in Union Street were erected before the final conveyance of the land to the trustees. Previous negotiations had settled the price of the site as £66.8.0d (£66.40p) and the indenture was completed 8th March 1858. This was between the Chapel trustees and Mary Dorothea Pemberton, the widow of John Pemberton of Sherburn Hall.
The description of the land was: Length – north to south 78 feet Breadth – east to west 54 feet Bounded south by Union St, north by Barnes St, west by the land of Mrs Pemberton and partly by a dwelling house belonging to Francis Love, and east by land belonging to Mrs Pemberton.
As the building neared completion and the roof was under construction, anxiety was felt by the workers that the continuous spell of fine weather, which had eased this arduous labour, would be broken. As if in answer to their prayers, the rain kept off until the roof was completed.
The original building did not have a gallery or organ loft. It had a plaster ceiling and there were no windows in the east and west walls. All the pews had doors. Steep steps led directly from the road to the doors and the entrance to the schoolroom was from Union Street by a small gate and steps to the lower level.
It was indeed a great day when the Big Chapel was finally opened on Saturday 22nd May 1858. Weeks of preparation and baking by the women of the Chapel provided the tea of which 1,100 people partook.
The ceremony was recorded in the Durham Chronicle. They said
The chapel is a beautiful stone structure and does great credit to the Architect, Mr Greener of Sunderland. It will seat more than 800 people with an ample schoolroom on the ground floor which will provide accommodation for 600 scholars. The cost of the building will be about £1,040 towards which bazaars, concerts, donations, tea-meetings and other contrivances of the people who have a mind to work, have realised the sum of £407.2s.6d. The opening services at which the chairman was Alderman Bramwell of Durham also realised the sum of £120.15s.9d making a total of £527.18s.3d. The thanks of the trustees are due to Nicholas Wood Esq. for his generous aid in a variety of ways, especially for free stone and other materials in the building. When the old chapel is disposed of, the trustees will have a light burden.
The reporter's comment that the burden of the trustees would be light when the old building was disposed of proved unfounded as it was sold for only £65.
1865 Although when completed, Union Street Chapel was one of the largest churches in the district, one important defect soon became apparent. This was the difficulty the preachers experienced in making themselves heard. Various devices, such as sounding boards, were tried in attempting to remedy this, but is was not until 1865, when the gallery was erected, that the acoustics improved and the chapel became one of the easiest in which to speak and also in which to sing. The seating capacity was increased to over 1,000.
A delightful story is told of the difficulty found by the men who were struggling in vain to lever the massive beam, which supports the gallery, into the chapel through the upper central window from Union Street. Credit for their eventual success goes to Mr John Lowden who walked from the street up the beam (a somewhat hazardous enterprise) and rubbed soft soap on the window sill and round the beam. The men were then able to slide it in more easily. When the chapel was re-opened, special services were arranged for the first two Sundays and a tea party was held.
1868 On 21st July 1868, the trustees acquired the strip of land, 78ft x 8ft, to the east of the chapel. This was most valuable in providing easier access to that side of the building. It was purchased from Thomas C Thompson.
1870 23rd September 1870 is the date of the conveyance to the trustees of a piece of land in Barnes Street, which was purchased from Mr T lamb for £30.
1872 An infants school was erected on the land purchased from Mr T Lamb. This room is still used by the Sunday School today. It is also used for many other purposes.
1874 The extension to the north side of the chapel was built. The plans for this extension were signed by Thomas Southrow, Architect of South Shields and dated 7th February 1874. Before the alterations were made, a flight of uncovered stone steps led from near the present entrance in Barnes Street, eastwards along the north wall and turned into the only vestry, the present east vestry. The pulpit was against the north wall of the chapel, under a large central window and the gallery extended right to the wall. There were no choir seats upstairs.
The extension into Barnes Street provided on the ground floor – the kitchen, on the middle floor – the north vestry (Preacher's vestry) and on the top floor – a place for the orchestra.
There was a window in the west wall of the extension to light the 'Orchestra Gallery ' and in the same wall a door led into the kitchen. The pulpit was brought forward and the choir seats were behind it and in front of the orchestra. The old stone steps were removed from the back of the building to lead from the schoolroom directly into the chapel. Large windows were put in the east and west walls. The cost of these alterations was approximately £600, one third of which was raised by the members before sanction was given for the work to begin.
1887 In 1887, the wall and steps in front of the chapel were altered, the main improvement being that a turning was made in each flight of steps leading to the doors, making them less steep.
1888 On 2nd June 1888, the trustees were given permission at the Circuit Quarterly meeting to 'lay out £150 in beautifying and renovating their chapel'. There are no details available as to what was done in that year but it seems certain that this was when the undated plans for a new rostrum and communion rail were put into effect. The platform was probably extended and the choir seats put at each side.
1898 Only ten years later, further major work was undertaken in both the chapel and the schoolroom. Although the details of the re-opening celebrations are preserved (pasted on the back of the mirror in the Preacher's vestry), there is no record of what was done. Past members remember a large recess, with loose forms, in the position of the west vestry. It would be about this time that the walls each with one door, were built up to the edge of the gallery on either side, creating the west vestry on one side and the landing and small room (now used as a switch house) at the top of the steps on the other side.
1907 Between 1907 and 1908 over £200 was spent. The plaster ceiling appeared unsafe and was removed and replaced by the present wooden one. Great difficulty was experienced in tearing off the plaster. To support the new ceiling, two large beams, running from north to south, were put in. During the erection of the gallery, a team of strong men had to be enlisted to get the beams through the windows. Having moved the beams inside, it was found that they had been cut too short and because of this, supporting haunches had to be built into the wall at the back of the gallery. More support was needed. It was feared that the older pillars supporting the gallery sides would not carry the extra strain of solid pillars above them. Using iron pipes as pillars in the gallery solved the problem.
The chapel was then cleaned and decorated, the work being completed for the Jubilee Celebrations.
1908 Electric lighting was installed. It is possible that gas lighting could have been installed in 1858 but oil lamps may have been used at first. Before 1900, the stewards of the time lighted the open gas jets with a wax taper on a long pole. There was a centre bracket with about 30 jets, two smaller ones of 8 or 10 jets on the walls by the choir and two more for the gallery. Later, the gaslight system was re¬arranged and incandescent mantles used.
A special service was conducted on 22nd August 1908 by Rev M Johnson who performed the “switch on” ceremony.
1914 During 1914 there was some movement of the east wall. The buttresses on the outside were built to counteract this. Cleaning was again necessary and it was decided to paint the pews, removing the doors first. Electric lights were installed in the schoolroom.
1919 It is apparent that some form of central heating was included in the original building and the boiler house was in its present position from the beginning. A new boiler was installed in January 1919.
1921 The first platform in the schoolroom was on the north wall. It was removed many years ago, possibly when the kitchen extension took place. In 1921, the Football Club raised £50 to extend the platform in the schoolroom, making footlights, for one of their concerts.
1922 Alterations were made to the original L shaped infants school. A wall was built with a door to make two separate rooms. The smaller room acted as a cloakroom.
1923 Many repairs and decorations, particularly in the schoolroom were carried out.
1925 The Chapel was painted and the organ renovated. This work necessitated a loan of £450 from the Chapel Aid Association. The re-opening ceremony took place 26th September 1925 by Mr and Mrs R Bryers of Sunderland. The provisions of the tea were the gift of Mrs L J Place.
1926 The gallery was re-lighted in 1926.
1927 A new boiler was installed in October 1927.
1932 The platform in the schoolroom was extended and dressing rooms made by the Choir.
In 1932, in preparation for the visit of the Synod, the Chapel was thoroughly renovated and redecorated. Improvements were made to the lighting system and new lights were fitted. Carpeting donated by the Women’s Homely Hour replaced felting which had been given 10 years earlier by Mr A Mennear. Efforts by all sections of the Church and many private donations resulted in the work being carried out without adding to the capital debt. The re-opening ceremony was performed by Mrs Gutcher Johnson of Sunderland.
1936 In the schoolroom, the partition from the glass kitchen (we do not know when this was built) to the platform was put up and the platform end enclosed.
1937 In the schoolroom, the heating pipes were placed near the ceiling.
1943 The old stone steps leading to the Chapel, in constant use since 1858, were much worn by 1943. The steps were re-levelled.
1946 The Chapel was again redecorated. The re-opening ceremony took place on 14th December 1946 by Mr L J Place, then of Blackpool, a well respected former member and devoted worker of the Church.
More alterations were made to the infants school. The communicating door was sealed off and a new entrance to the room made from the passage. The smaller room was firstly used by the Nursery department of the Sunday School but today it is the ladies toilets.
1947 The window at the back of the platform in the schoolroom, a hindrance during all stage productions, was bricked up.
1951 The choir was responsible for carpeting the front of the choir and pulpit area as well as installing additional lighting. The back rail of the pulpit was removed so that the choir could enter their seats from the vestry. The choir heaters were installed to remedy the draughts coming from the organ loft.
1956 In December 1956 a new boiler was installed.
1958 This year was the centenary of the Chapel. The centenary of the Chapel was celebrated by a month long list of events, well planned and well supported by everyone, not only our own members but by past members of both the Sunday School and the Chapel. It began with the unveiling of two stained glass windows, which had been fitted for the occasion. One window was dedicated and paid for by old scholars who had passed through the Sunday School and donations came from people as far away as New Zealand and Australia. This window was unveiled by Mr Place, the oldest living old scholar. The other window was dedicated and paid for by the then Sunday School scholars and was unveiled by Miss Jean Westgarth, the youngest Sunday School scholar at that time.
Many past ministers were invited to take services and two very notable speakers were Rev Leonard Tudor and Dr Donald Soper. At the end of a very memorable month, in which all of the various departments took part, all agreed that it had been a huge success and as was stated at the time 'We'll praise him for all that is past, and trust him for all that's to come'
1964 New carpet was obtained for the children’s corner in the Church.
1966 New carpet was obtained for the aisles and front of the Church.
1969 The Church was re-wired electrically by Calvert of Seaham.
1970 The Church was redecorated for the Centenary celebrations of 100 Consecutive Good Friday Concerts. This work was done by T Renoldson of Hetton. Eight new windows to the Church were fitted by Giles of Herrington. The boiler for the heating system was overhauled by Messrs R Cook, J Summerbell, W Liddle, G Westgarth, R Westgarth and Adamson the builder of Hetton-le-Hole.
1971 A footpath along the side of the Church was laid by Mr R R Cook and helpers. This was to make easy access to the schoolroom.
1982 In 1982, an organ screen was made and donated by Mrs Florence Westgarth.
1985 In July 1985, the Church was deemed to be 'Of Special Architectural or Historic Interest' and was given Grade II listed status, thus ensuring the preservation of the building as it is.
1989 Major defects were found in the main roof of the building and also the front facade, which was actually moving. The problems were so serious, that the Church Council were faced with the possibility that the building would have to be closed, or raise a huge amount of money for repairs. The Architect, Mr David Miles also identified other problems with the building, although they were not quite so urgent. After much discussion, the decision was made to undertake a full restoration of the building, the work to be done in phases as the money became available. A committee was formed and the mammoth task of raising money began.
1991 Phase one was the main roof of the Chapel. The work started in 1991 and uncovered more faults with the roof trusses, which in turn meant more money. However, thanks to hard work and the generosity of the members, plus several interest free loans, the work was completed and the loans repaid.
1994… There was some unexpected expenditure in 1994. The north side of the building on the lower level was often subject to flooding after heavy rain, causing the flooring to rot. After a period of heavy and prolonged rain, the kitchen floor collapsed. The floors throughout the passages and kitchen were renewed and at the same time the walls were treated. The kitchen units had been damaged and they too were renewed.
Efforts to raise the money for phase two went ahead. The cost of this was not expected to be as daunting as phase one. The work involved the pointing of the walls and the replacement of windows, sills, and lintels, where necessary.
The next identified problems were the steel undercroft beneath the steps at the front of the chapel and the dampness in the floor and walls of the schoolroom. New steps and steelwork were put in place first and then a major renovation of the schoolroom began. All of the walls were stripped and replastered and a large portion of the floor was replaced. The whole area was carpeted and new heating installed.
2000 As a millennium project, a group of ladies of the church raised money and made pew cushions (very welcome) and new communion cushions.
2003 To meet government regulations regarding facilities for the disabled, a lift was installed adjacent to the steps at the east door of the Chapel, and a disabled person’s toilet was provided for downstairs. At the same time the existing toilets were updated.
The major work was now completed and a celebration dinner took place.
Tribute must be paid to all members who supported the building fund committee in all their endeavours to raise money and to the committee itself who have remained dedicated to the task of restoring this wonderful building. In total, over a quarter of a million pounds has been spent on restoring the building, the money being raised from grants from various community organisations, from the property fund at Manchester, from our own Newcastle District and from our own people.
2007 A new carpet was laid throughout the Church and a new boiler for the heating upstairs was also installed. Thanks to a dedicated and vigilant band of people, the building has always been kept in good repair. Any repairs necessary have been attended to immediately, often by our own members.
The value of the building when it was first erected was just over £1,000. In March 1887, the value of the property was given as £2,400. In 1958, the property was insured for £7,000. Today, the property is insured for £2,200,000.
2008 150th Anniversary - see 150 years for details.
2013 September - more problems with the roof - more unexpected expenditure - more fundraising needed!
2016 Our Chapel continues to establish itself in the community and is still today affectionately called the Big Chapel.