10 December 2012

Protect At Risk Historic Methodist Chapels in Cornwall

New English Heritage guidance helps safeguard the special character of historic chapels that may not remain in use.

Methodist and Nonconformist chapels in Cornwall are vulnerable to decay and closure because of long-term maintenance problems, ageing congregations and small communities that struggle to keep them in good condition. Over 900 chapels have been recorded across the county, but under 250 now remain in religious or community use. The great majority of the others have been converted to other uses, very often domestic. Such new uses can retain their distinctive character, especially if they remain in some form of community use, but in many cases this has been lost due to changes that have removed or hidden the features that made them special.

English Heritage, The Methodist Church and Cornwall Council have produced joint guidance to help local communities make important decisions about the future use of these special buildings which safeguard their character, especially when they are no longer in religious use. The guidance helps new owners to safeguard their character whilst recognising that some adaptation may be needed to give them a sustainable future. The guidance is published on the English Heritage website:

  • Guidance for Methodist and Nonconformist chapels in Cornwall
    Guidance for Methodist and Nonconformist chapels in Cornwall
    Publication Date: 10 Dec 2012
    Cornwall's many Methodist and Nonconformist chapels are under great pressure for change. English Heritage, Cornwall Council and the Methodist Church have collaborated on this guidance to direct approaches and inform change to these important buildings.
    More info

The Guidance for Methodist and Non-Conformist Chapels in Cornwall is divided into two parts with 'The Chapels Assessment Framework' aimed at planning officers and applicants, including agents and architects who may be considering new uses for chapels, including where conversion to residential use is accepted as the optimum viable use. The second part, 'The Historic Chapels in Cornwall' provides guidance on the historic character and significance of chapels and looks at the issues facing chapel communities.

Methodism in Cornwall

Chapels and their communities developed as an important part of Cornish culture and its landscape, especially after Methodism took root from the late 18th century. Many Cornish people migrated to Australia, the Americas and other parts of the world in the 19th century, taking their mining expertise and technology, they also took their religious conviction and established chapels to serve their new communities.

Cornwall has one of the highest concentrations of Methodist and Nonconformist chapels in England including 184 listed chapels - 30% of the national total. Eighteen are listed at Grade II* for their rarity and historical significance as outstanding examples of their type, and one, the Quaker meeting house at Come-to-Good, Kea, is listed at Grade I. Most chapels date from the 19th century, often resulting from successive phases of rebuilding and reordering, and there is a great variety of size and architectural style.

Example of a residential chapel conversion

The Gothic-style Alexandra Road Chapel in Penzance (1903) has been converted into residential flats
© Eric Berry

The Value of the New Guidance

Jeremy Lake, English Heritage expert and co-author of the new guidance said: "The greatest number of chapel closures within the Methodist Church is in Cornwall, and in coming years more chapels will close and be sold with many being converted to residential housing. The challenge with those that remain open is how to maintain them while for those that close it is to find appropriate new uses for them that respect, so far as possible, their interiors. This guidance provides a way of helping owners, estate agents, communities and planners to manage sensitive change to all chapels and find a sustainable future for the most significant and vulnerable ones."

Joanne Balmforth, Conservation Officer for the Methodist Church, said: "We are extremely proud of the built heritage and legacy resulting from the Methodists presence in the Cornwall area. We support the use of this guidance to conserve what we consider to be buildings of exceptional quality, often retaining intact interiors of significant national interest. We welcome this guidance as a serious attempt to inform and guide those with an interest in the conservation of Nonconformist chapels, whether it be managing sensitive alterations to extend their use, or in finding a sustainable and appropriate new use if the building is no longer in use as a Place of Worship."

Councillor Colin Brewer, Cornwall Council's Heritage Champion said: "We are delighted to have been able to work with English Heritage and the Methodist Church on this guidance, which will be a major step forward in taking an informed, consistent and sensible approach to the future of our unique legacy of chapels here in Cornwall. This is not a remote academic issue for those of us, whether Methodist or not, who have grown up with or come to value these chapels as part of our landscape, our shared identity, or our personal histories. It means much to us to know that we can work with partners to make sure that these special places will have that same presence in the lives of future generations in Cornwall."

Mark Kaczmarek, Cornwall Council Cabinet Member for Housing and Planning said: "These Methodist Chapels are as important for our towns and villages as the Cornish Engine Houses, they a truly a part of our identity and worthy of protecting. My report endorsing the guidance given by English Heritage has just been submitted to the Planning Advisory Panel today and has had unanimous support from the panel members. The council’s planning officers will be delighted to be able to use this document when considering any change of use/ conversions."

A successful domestic chapel conversion

St Dennis is an example of a successful domestic conversion
© Eric Berry

Examples of Successful and Sensitive Conversions

  • The 1884 Wesleyan chapel at Gulval is now a studio. It exemplifies a design type where the Sunday School and other rooms are accommodated within a basement underneath the chapel.
  • The former Wesleyan chapel at Manhay, listed grade II in Wendron parish,  has been converted to a residential property but retains its fine facade, with rusticated surrounds to the door and sash windows.
  • The Gothic style 1903 Alexandra Road Chapel in Penzance has been converted into residential flats and relates well to housing of the same period.