Union Chapel: Delving in to the archives of this famous, versatile venue
PUBLISHED: 14:52 12 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:00 12 June 2019
Staff at Union Chapel have begun trawling through an array of archive material dating back to the building’s 19th century origins, also featuring plenty of signed posters, scribbled notes and ticket stubs from concerts which took place in the years since 1992.
From Elton John to Brian May and Amy Winehouse to Adele, some of the UK's greatest musical exports have played concerts at Union Chapel down the years.
"One of the things that people cite when they play here is how intimate it feels when you're on stage," explains Emma Stell, Marketing Manager of this historic venue on Compton Terrace.
"I think this is in part due to the design of the building, where the acoustics are so good and the audience feels very close to the performer.
"There's something about the atmosphere; being sat down at the gig you can get an intense focus, and if you're used to playing a bigger stadium, there's a real relationship between the artist and the crowd."
In a bid to unearth some of the secrets of this working church and concert venue first built in 1806, Stell recently began the mammoth task of filtering through its archives.
With signed posters and ticket stubs from the 1990s stacked beside programmes and menus from 1885, there's a huge array of trinkets that will need sorting through here.
You get the impression that Stell - an archaeology graduate - can't wait to get stuck in.
Union Chapel's cherished relationship with live music can probably be traced back as far as the 1840s.
Henry Allon became Minister in 1844 - a position he would hold until his death in 1892 - and it was this well-known Victorian figure (he was friends with Gladstone, and went on lecture tours around America) that insisted the Chapel was a prime setting to listen to music.
"We call him a rockstar," adds Stell. "When he went on this lecture tour of America, he was given a piece of Plymouth Rock as a thank you gift, which goes some way to show his celebrity.
"When he arrived, Union Chapel was musically at zero, but he thought music should be a part of every Sunday Service - that everybody should be singing and celebrating.
"He kind of incorporated music in to Union Chapel services, they became a fashionable place to come, and it got to a point where they outgrew their original Chapel."
Stell seems perfectly suited to her role here, beaming at the chance to discuss the venue's history.
Founded in 1799 by a union of non-conformists and disillusioned members of the congregation at nearby St. Mary's, the first Union Chapel was built on the same site as now in 1806, after members outgrew the front rooms in which they had previously been meeting.
The Chapel was rebuilt between 1876 and 1877 - complete with its bespoke organ - and bomb damage from the Second World War was still being fixed as recently as 2012.
In the 1980s, the congregation took the decision to demolish the Chapel and build a smaller, more manageable replacement, but a group of local residents campaigned to save it.
Stell says: "I think at this point, the congregation wanted to find a way of utilising the space that they had, and opening it up to the people who didn't necessarily want to come for a Sunday service, but still loved the space.
"(They realised) we've got this space, it's really suited to music: the whole thing is designed to have excellent sight lines and acoustics, and is deliberately designed so even if you're sitting at the back, you still have a good view.
"They set up an independent charity in 1991, and in 1992 the first gig happened here."
Despite going through less than 10 per cent of the archive's contents, Stell has already found items including a poster signed by Bob Geldof, original tickets from a Pretenders gig in 1996, and a programme from one of the first comedy events held at Union Chapel in 1992. Jo Brand and Rory Bremner were on the bill.
"The exciting thing is that we've got 25 years worth of gig memorabilia and nobody knows what's in there.
"In a similar way, we've got records dating back to the foundation of Union Chapel in 1799."
The venue is currently fundraising to create a community space in the Sunday School Hall - where the archive is located - and the goal is to hire an archivist, build a team of volunteers and catalogue this bank of information so it is digitally accessible.
"We want the Sunday School Hall to be what it was for originally; a space for the community.
"We're really excited about pulling out stories that will become part of our history. It will inform decisions that we make going forward."
For more details about Union Chapel, click here.
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