St. Saviour’s the “tin church” in The Rookery, a hamlet near Kidsgrove, is one of the oldest surviving iron buildings in the world.
The first iron buildings were lock-keepers’ cottages erected by the canal companies towards the end of the 18th century. Their walls were built of cast iron or iron blocks. They had iron window frames and wrought iron sheet roofs.
Wrought iron corrugated roofing sheets were invented during 1829 by civil engineer Henry Robinson Palmer who used them to roof the large warehouses he was building in the Port of London. Strong and corrosion resistant, the sheets were light and easy to transport by road or canal. Enterprising entrepreneurs soon discovered that they were able to use them to produce “factory made” prefabricated buildings which could be assembled on site by semi-skilled workers.
One of the first to realise their potential was London based civil engineering contractor Richard Walker who built an iron roofed factory in Bermondsey to make corrugated iron roofs. In 1831, Richard published an advertisement that contained an illustration showing an open ended warehouse with a corrugated iron, barrel vaulted roof which he could erect for his customers. Galvanised iron was produced from 1836 onwards and Richard started to manufacture prefabricated buildings with galvanised corrugated iron walls and roofs which were exported to Australia.
By the end of the 1840s corrugated wrought iron sheets had been used to roof Liverpool’s Lime Street Station and New Street Station in Birmingham. When the Californian Gold Rush began in 1849, a Manchester firm E.T. Bellhouse and Co produced prefabricated iron warehouses and miners’ cottages which were shipped to California and erected on the gold field. A two roomed miner’s cottage, with a day-room and a bedroom, cost £100. For more affluent customers, the firm manufactured two storey houses whose price ranged from £450 to £500. The corrugated iron used to construct the houses was coated with tin alloy to prevent rust. Some of the houses had four rooms on each floor and were described as being “equal to that of the most comfortable house” of the same size in England. Barrel vaulted roofs were replaced by pitched roofs in 1849 and in 1850 a twelve room lodging house was sent to California.
At the beginning of the 1850s there were several firms producing a wide range of prefabricated iron buildings that included houses, village halls, sports pavilions, warehouses, hospitals and churches which were exported to the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
E.T. Bellhouse produced a “special emigrant’s cottage” which the emigrant could take with him when he and his family left England to find fame and fortune in a new country. The firm exhibited an emigrant’s cottage at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Prince Albert was impressed by the cottage and the technical skill shown by its designers. He ordered a large wrought iron building, 60 foot long by 24 foot wide, which could be used as a ballroom, a dining room and a theatre at Balmoral Castle. All the major manufacturers of corrugated iron buildings had stands at the exhibition. The Prince was not the only person impressed by their displays. Artists liked the iron studios which they purchased and erected in their gardens. When the exhibition closed the demand for iron buildings increased and in 1855 the United Kingdom’s first “tin church” was erected in the grounds of the vicarage at Kensington. The church was designed by Charles Hemming.
A report in The Builder (27th October, 1855) said it was constructed of galvanised corrugated iron and observed that: “It would not be too difficult on a future occasion to give a more ecclesiastical character to such a structure…” A large number of “tin churches” were built in the second half of the 19th century. One of them was St. Saviour’s which was erected in Butt Lane in 1868 and moved to The Rookery in 1879.
Copyright Betty Cooper and David Martin – The Phoenix Trust 2011