On a Kilburn side street is a large corrugated iron church-like shed that’s looking rather sorry for itself – this is the famous Kilburn Tin Tabernacle.
Built in 1863, it was meant to be a temporary church with a requirement that it would be replaced with a conventional stone church within 5-years. Obviously, this never happened, and the church building is still standing today — although it’s now officially the Training Ship Bicester, and is used by the local Sea Cadets as their land base.
Although these types of church buildings are nicknamed Tin Tabernacles, they’re actually made from corrugated galvanised iron, and quite a lot of them were erected, although few survive as they were always intended to be temporary structures. There are five known survivors in London, at Bowes Park, Haggerston, Kilburn, Wood Green and Yeading.
Kilburn’s Tin Tabernacle has had the most interesting life of them all though.
Used by the Congregational Church until 1894 by when it was already falling into decay, it was taken over by another church who mainly used it as a community hall until it closed at the start of WW2. It may have been used during WW2 as an air raid precautions centre, but it was formally taken over by the Sea Cadets in 1948, who renamed it the Training Ship (TS) Bicester.
To assist with training, the interior was fitted out as if it was a small ship, with the ground floor rooms fitted with water bulkheads and the walls reputedly made from recycled bus panels. A bridge was added at the rear, and in the 1960s, two guns were added, including the 40mm anti-aircraft gun that takes pride of place in the centre of the room.
The Sea Cadets have since had to find alternative accommodation simply as the state of the building isn’t suitable at the moment, although it is still in use for community events.
There are fortunately plans to do something about its condition.
Working with the London Historic Buildings Trust there are plans to stabilise the structure and to add some much-needed facilities not just for regular users but also to bring in an income to keep the Tabernacle properly shipshape into the future.
Inside it’s very much a community hall that has clearly been used by a naval organisation. Lots of flags draped around the sides, plenty of naval heritage dotted around, and the very distinctive ships doors that lead to side rooms. One is a rope store, another is the (locked) armoury, and a third is the local heritage collection.
Possibly the most curious to find here is the ship’s chapel, which comes complete with plastic stained glass and a huge altar table. The religious fittings came from Shepperton Studio and were used in the film Becket. No one seems to know how they ended up here, but why not, it adds character.
There’s a fantastic scale model of the Tin Tabernacle at the rear, with an officer’s mess and bar, oh, and Tiff, the ship’s cat.
Vital repairs to secure the roof were recently carried out following a Covid-19 Emergency Heritage at Risk Response Fund grant from Historic England. There are now plans to seek funding to restore the rest, as it’s currently on Historic England’s register of Buildings at Risk.
The Tin Tabernacle was open the other weekend to the public to show off the interior and garner feedback from locals as to their plans to renovate the building, once funding is secured. It’s all at a very early stage at the moment, but in time, the usually closed off Tin Tabernacle will be open to the public a lot more often.
In the main hall, a cluster of buckets on plastic sheeting reminds us how perilous a state the building is in and how urgent the restoration is becoming.