Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich saved - but more buildings at risk

The trustees of the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich with MP Tom Hunt

The trustees of the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich with MP Tom Hunt at the celebrations in September, following the restoration - Credit: Maggie Hodges

Historic England has published its latest Heritage at Risk Register - with good news for supporters of Ipswich's Unitarian Meeting House.

The Grade I listed building, known as one of the finest 18th-century Dissenters' meeting houses in the country, is no longer on the at-risk list.

It is among 13 heritage buildings and sites which have been saved over the past year.

Another historic place of worship which has been saved is the 12th-century Church of St Edmund in Hargrave, near Bury St Edmunds.

However, the bad news is that 26 sites in the East of England, including Shrubland Hall, have been added to the Heritage at Risk Register this year because of concerns about their condition.

A working party clearing the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich in February 2020 so the builders could move in

A working party clearing the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich in February 2020 so the builders could move in - Credit: Tessa Forsdike

The Unitarian Meeting House's year-long restoration works were completed earlier this year, thanks to grant funding of more than £600,000 from Historic England and tireless fundraising efforts by volunteers and community members who raised more than £140,000.

A celebration was held in September to mark the completion of the £750,000 project.

Linda King, who chairs the Unitarian Meeting House trustees, said: “The trustees and congregation are thrilled with the final result of the restoration programme and are full of admiration for the men and women whose knowledge and skills have achieved the rescue of such an historically important building.

Unitarian Meeting House, Friars St. Ipswich, Suffolk.View from north.

The Unitarian Meeting House in Friars Street, Ipswich, has been restored - Credit: Historic England

"Equally important is that once again we are able to use the meeting house for our worship and for community events.”

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Tessa Forsdike, secretary of the trustees, said: "It's such a massive relief. We are only a small congregation and it was a huge amount of money to raise, so we are incredibly grateful to Historic England."

The building originally opened in 1700 and was praised by Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe in 1722.

He said it was “as large and as fine a building of that kind as most on this side of England, and the inside the best finished of any I have seen, London not excepted.”

Terry Lankester restoring the windows of the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich

Terry Lankester restoring the windows of the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich - Credit: The Construction Team

Extensive structural repairs were needed, including the re-covering of the entire roof, an overhaul of all drainage, and works to rectify structural movement in the timber frame.

Cracked composite cement render covering the exterior was replaced with a more suitable lime render.

Work started early last year, only to be delayed by the Covid pandemic.

An interior view of the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich, showing the box pews

An interior view of the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich, showing the box pews - Credit: Historic England/Patricia Payne

Tessa said: "We held our last service in February 2020 and hoped to be back by the autumn - but then Covid happened and in the end we only got back in June this year."

The Unitarian Meeting House team has recently been awarded a Suffolk Heritage Champion Award by the Suffolk Preservation Society.

It has also set up a Friends group for those who want to support the building. 

The Church of St Edmund in Hargrave is no longer on the at-risk list

The Church of St Edmund in Hargrave is no longer on the at-risk list - Credit: Historic England

The Church of St Edmund in Hargrave has also been saved, thanks to the devoted local community.

The original building dates back to the late 12th century, and was extensively remodelled in the 19th century.   

The interior has a number of special features, including the original late 12th-century south door and a 15th-century rood screen and font.

Within the 1460 brick tower - considered the church’s finest feature - there are three bells dating from 1566, 1622 and 1841.

The Church of St Edmund in Hargrave. A view of the Nave from the west.

The Church of St Edmund in Hargrave. A view of the Nave from the west. - Credit: Historic England

Together with grant funding from Historic England, the church community raised £80,000 for the re-slating of the roof in 2013.

A year later, severe cracks were discovered in the east end of the chancel. The church again started urgent fundraising for repairs, which were completed in 2020.

St Edmund’s was also supported by the Taylor Review Pilot, a £1.8million scheme funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and run by Historic England. It received help with repairs and the development of a building maintenance plan.

Heritage at Risk 2021Church of St Edmund, Barn Acre, Church Lane, Hargrave, Suffolk.Chancel screen

The chancel screen at the Church of St Edmund in Hargrave

Historic England gave £1.5million in grants to historic places in the East of England throughout the past year, plus another £928,650 for lifeline grants from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Tony Calladine, East of England regional director for Historic England, said: “Despite the challenges we have all faced recently, this year’s Heritage at Risk register demonstrates that looking after and investing in our historic places can bring communities together, contribute to the country’s economic recovery and help tackle climate change."


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