Once upon a time, this building was on the edge of town, but looked very different to what it does now. And it faced Fargate, not Norfolk Street, as it does now.
Upper Chapel is Sheffield’s oldest Nonconformist chapel. It was built in 1700 and the original brick wall sides still form part of the building.
The congregation was formed by followers of James Fisher, Vicar of Sheffield during the Commonwealth, after he was ejected in 1662 in the Great Ejection, during the restoration of the monarchy, for refusing to subscribe to the Act of Uniformity. Around a tenth of his parishioners followed him in becoming Dissenters, and several more splits ensued, but by the 1690s, the dominant group of non-conformists was led by Timothy Jollie.
Prior to this they probably met for worship in each other’s houses, and the worship grew to such an extent that the faithful few in Sheffield ventured to build a place of worship called New Hall (at the bottom of Snig Hill) – the first Dissenting meeting house in Sheffield.
The congregation grew to such an extent that a bigger chapel was built that faced ‘Farrgate’ and was called New Chapel, the back of it looking across Alsop Fields.
On the death of the Rev. Timothy Jollie in 1714, its members numbered 1,163, the largest group in Yorkshire, and the Trustees of New Chapel appointed the Arian John Wadsworth, causing some dissenters to breakaway and build a new chapel nearby. This was Nether Chapel that gave modern-day Chapel Walk its name.
With two chapels so close to each other, New Chapel became known as Upper Chapel, being farther up the hillside, and in its grounds was the tombstone of Timothy Jollie with the inscription, ‘an eloquent and Evangelical interpreter of the word of God, a man divinely gifted to preach the fundamentals of Christian doctrine.’ The grounds, which form the present day courtyard, were originally used as a burial ground until 1855, when a law was passed preventing further town centre burials.
By the 1840s, Upper Chapel was described as having ‘a dingy aspect externally, and peculiarly inconvenient in the arrangements of the interior.’
In 1847-8 it was completely rebuilt by Sheffield-architect John Frith, a member of the congregation, the style of architecture being ‘Italian, simple and plain in its detail.’
His biggest change was to extend the building to the east and reverse the building to face Norfolk Street.
The principal front, built of cleansed stone, was divided into three compartments, the centre one being composed of an Ionic portico of four columns, over which there were a group of circular-headed windows. It had a slight projection and was surmounted with a pediment. The flanks of the chapel were raised eight feet higher than the former building with architrave moulding, frieze, and cornice, that ran on one level around all the outer walls, with exception of the pediment in the principal front.
The body of the chapel was divided into three compartments by two aisles, commencing at the entrances and terminating on each side of the pulpit and communion table.
A three-sided oval gallery was introduced, the columns supporting it set five feet back from the line of the gallery front and allowing a view of the minister from every part of the chapel.
The interiors were enhanced by later additions and fittings, and according to Pevsner, included pews in1882, the vestry in 1900, and an organ console and central pulpit elevated on Doric columns in 1907, all by Edward Mitchell Gibbs.
From 1890 onwards, 16 stained glass windows were installed, including one re-installation in 2001 of a window found in storage under stairs. Nine of them, all on the ground floor, were designed by Henry Holiday. Further windows were added by Hugh Easton (Liberty and Truth), in 1948, installed either side of the pulpit as replacements for bomb damaged windows.
Upper Chapel is now a member of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the umbrella organisation for British Unitarians. Its trustees still own many freehold properties in Sheffield, and the chapel is connected by staircase to Channing Hall on Surrey Street.
In the courtyard are three sculptures by George Fullard – ‘Running Woman,’ ‘Mother and Child,’ and ‘Angry Woman,’ all sited in 1985.
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