The Octagon Chapel

The Octagon Chapel is a Unitarian Chapel located in Colegate in Norwich, Norfolk, England.

It is home to a growing liberal religious community of Unitarians, welcoming people of all religious faiths and none. You can find out about Unitarians in these sections of this website.

The chapel is a grade II* listed building. Completed in 1756 by the architect Thomas Ivory (read about Thomas Ivory here)

The Chapel is perfectly octagonal, an example of English Neo-Palladian architecture (click the icon below to read about this type of architecture).

Being octagonal the church has 8 sides and when built the design proved so popular that it was used as a model for Methodist meeting houses across Europe.

What makes the Chapel special?

In the late 17th century the Non-conformist movement rose to prominence in Norwich. Non-conformists or dissenters were people who did not agree with the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which stated that all churchmen used all rites and ceremonies as prescribed in the Book of Common prayer.

It was a time when religious freedoms were evolving and the right of people to choose the path of their own religious beliefs developed.

The Octagon Chapel was built as a place of worship for Non-conformists and became home to the first Unitarian Chapel in Norwich. Its design was also unorthodox for the time and proved so popular it was used as a model for Methodist meeting houses across Europe.

The Octagon Chapel has stood for over three and a half centuries and it remains as both an important historical building and current place of worship for Unitarians.

Who was Dr John Taylor?

Dr John Taylor (1694–1761) was an English dissenting preacher, Hebrew scholar, and theologian.

He was the author of a number of biblical and theological works that were widely read not only in England but America and Europe. His rational approach to theology combined with a strong belief in the scripture found ready acceptance among liberal minded contemporaries of the period.

In his early years as a preacher he learnt and taught at Whitehaven in Cumbria, Derby and Kirkstead in Lincolnshire. In 1733 he was invited to take up the post as minster to a congregation of Non-Conformists who worshipped in a meeting house which stood on the site of the current Octagon Chapel.

Although Dr Taylor was becoming a well-known and respected theologian he did not neglect his duties to his congregation, which increased in numbers and wealth under his time as minister. He seems to have been a well-respected and liked minister:

“No minister was more attentive to his congregational duties than Dr. Taylor. He thought it his duty to visit all his people; it was his pleasure to converse with and instruct them. And by this social intercourse he secured their respect and esteem as a man, while his writing claimed their admiration as a minister”

In 1753 structural defects were found within the old meeting house and Dr. Taylor felt that rather than repair the structure a new one should be constructed which reflected the growing congregation and new age of religious freedom. To this end Dr. Taylor began a competition for the contract to design and construct a new building.

The design that won this competition was put forward by a man called Thomas Ivory. You can read all about who Thomas Ivory was in the following section.

Ivory’s winning design had an unusual structure for the time, being octagonal (8 sided) which helped emphasise the congregation’s responsibility for participation in worship. It allowed the alter to be the focus for all the congregation and fitted into the views of Non-Conformists and Dr. Taylor that people should be a part of their religion and engage with it, rather than simply being instructed on set beliefs.

Dr. Taylor laid the first stone of the building on the 25th February 1754 and in little more than two years the Octagon Chapel was completed, the total cost being £5174 pounds and 15 shillings.

The whole cost to build the Chapel had been raised by the congregation so when the Chapel opened it was unencumbered by debt of any kind. This is further evidence for the prosperity Norwich was experiencing in this time of great growth and development.

It could be argued that without Dr. Taylor’s work as a minister to the Norwich congregation it never would have grown to its size and prosperity that allowed for the construction of such a building, or that without Dr. Taylor’s the decision to demolish the old-meeting house and construct a new building, the old-meeting house may have simply been repaired and the Octagon Chapel never built.

How much did the Chapel cost?

In today’s money the £5174 pounds the Octagon Chapel cost to build would be just over 1 million pounds, £1,081,366!

Who paid for it to be built?

The entire Octagon Chapel was paid for before it was completed and opened. The congregation paid the full cost with just a little also being given by some Norwich residents who were not members of the church congregation.

What makes the Chapel special?

The chapel is a grade II* listed building and was built by Thomas Ivory, who was a prominent Norwich architect and builder. The new style of the Chapel was so well received many other Methodist Chapels were subsequently built in the UK and aboard that copied the design.