Sunday 1 April 2018

Hackney Round Chapel, Acousticons, and second chances

The Round Chapel in Hackney has an impressive exterior, but opportunities to see the interior are limited. I managed it a few years ago during Open House London - but then somehow lost the photographs! Happily, a second chance came when I attended a concert here.

The chapel is misnamed since, behind its rounded front, it extends straight back to make a horseshoe shape. (Admittedly, 'the horseshoe chapel' might have been a more confusing nickname.) The building opened in 1871 to accommodate a fast-growing congregation. They attended the non-conformist United Reformed Church which had been based at the nearby Old Gravel Pit Chapel since 1804, but now needed more room - not to mention that their first home had become structurally unsound, and its lease was coming to an end. Both the local population and the congregation had expanded rapidly in recent decades, prompting the building of a new chapel in a new suburb, Clapton Park. 

The Round Chapel's architect was Henry Fuller, who also designed other non-conformist buildings in the area. Perry and Co won the £10,000 tender to build it, although the final cost was more than double that. The money did pay for a fine building, with its attractively tiled and grated floors and soaring spaces.

The cast iron columns were rather controversial, associated more with railway stations and (gasp) music halls than places of worship. These are rather light and elegant, however, with their graceful lattices supporting a capacious gallery which runs around three sides.

The tiled corridor running around the outside of the auditorium allowed the large numbers attending to move around the building more quickly.

At the back of the chapel are several rows of pews, with doors at the ends. These were presumably intended to damp down background sound, for these seats were fitted with an Acousticon.

Several instruction plaques and one set of control buttons still survive. The Church Acousticon was a hearing aid system which could be installed in a place of worship for the use of its deaf congregants. An Ardente amplifier was wired in, and earpieces were then plugged into sockets at the seats. 

An advertisement from 1933 makes it clear that these devices were heavily promoted to non-conformist congregations, and offered on a free trial basis to them. The publicity claimed that it had been installed in over 4,000 churches including Wesley's Chapel. The remainder of the 4,000 would not all have been in Britain: the company was American, with General Acoustics their British agents. The aggressive marketing continued in the chapel itself: the instruction plaque concludes with the information that 'For hearing general Conversation, small portable sets, invisible when in use, can be obtained.' In the same period, Acousticon were also advertising to cinemas, warning them that without the devices they would lose their deaf customers thanks to 'Talkies'. Not only would the system pay for itself, but it could be obtained on 'hire maintenance terms' as well as outright purchase.

However, by the time the system was installed, the chapel's best days were already over. Its congregation declined throughout the twentieth century, and finally left it in the 1980s. In 1991, Hackney Historic Buildings Trust took over the chapel, which was substantially restored. It is now enjoying a new life as an events venue, a role to which it is very well-suited.