Intended to be temporary structures, tin tabernacles were cheap flat-pack churches or chapels, ordered from a catalogue and erected quickly to tide the congregation over until a permanent structure was built. The corrugated-iron stop-gap then disappeared; but even those which weren't replaced were vulnerable to issues such as rust. As a result, they are relatively rare today, and seeing one is always a pleasure. The tin tabernacle in Cambridge Avenue, Kilburn is especially exciting, as its more recent life has given it an extraordinary interior.
The Congregationalist chapel was built as part of a housing development in 1863, and developer James Bailey intended it to be replaced later with a more conventional chapel. However, his bankruptcy in 1866 was probably one reason that this never happened, so the iron structure is still standing over 150 years later.
Transformations over the years included the addition of a total-immersion font at the east end of the building. By the early twentieth century, however, the chapel was falling out of use. During the Second World War, it was used as an Air Raid Precaution store.
Soon after the war, the building was transferred to the Sea Cadets - who continue to occupy it today. They showed great ingenuity in transforming the interior into a battleship - using two old buses to do so. Information boards on all aspects of ships and shipping, from sails and knots to ship identification, were crafted using painted wood. The total immersion font and crypt were filled with concrete, and a Bofers anti-aircraft gun now stands in pride of place.
That same ingenuity furnished the naval chapel. The fittings come not from another place of worship but from the set of Becket, filmed in 1964 at Shepperton Studios with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.
The tin tabernacle can be visited on most Saturday afternoons (contact them via the website to double-check). Donations are very welcome, as this fragile and extraordinary building is in desperate need of restoration, and a fund-raising campaign is underway.
I visited with the Victorian Society - find out more about their excellent events programme here.