Through a combination of luck and good judgement, Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House retains its original aspect and character more or less intact. This adds to its rarity for few such Meeting Houses have survived, and fewer still without drastic alteration. The rarity is heightened still further by its timber-frame construction. It is believed to be the only remaining example of a purpose-built timber-framed Dissenting Meeting House of its period.
The land for the Meeting House, in a courtyard off St. Nicholas Street, was purchased for £150 by the Ipswich Mercer, Thomas Bantoft. The contract for the building was signed on 5th August 1699 by six people on behalf of the congregation and by Joseph Clark, 'house carpenter', of Ipswich. The cost, excluding windows, galleries, pews and pulpit, was £256-14s-6d. The galleries cost a further £96. The contract - still extant - provided for "four Barrells of good small beere" to be supplied to Clark and his workmen whilst "Imployed in the said Building" - perhaps supplied by Thomas Catchpole, "beer brewer", one of the congregations signatories! The prefabricated timber frame construction meant that the basic building work did not take long - about two and a half months - and the official opening service was held on 26th April 1700.
The Meeting House measures 60 x 50 feet (18 x 15 metres) with a ground area of 2,800 square feet (252 square metres). The ceiling is 22 feet (6.6 metres) high. The building stands on brick plinths, with timber-framed stud walls. The double-pitched hipped roof is tiled and supported by four wooden columns, traditionally said to be ship's masts. Each of the three doorways is surmounted by an elliptical lunette, and the other windows in the north, west and east walls are square-headed with two lights, divided by a transom. Much of the leaded glass is original. The circular windows high in the south wall, and perhaps the rounded heads of the windows below them, may date from the major restoration of 1900.
Externally, the walls are plastered. At the eaves, a wooden modillion cornice doubles as a gutter on the east, west and north walls. The door-cases have elaborate pediments and surrounds, each with its own pair of carved brackets - doves and cherubs on the north side, foliage on the east. The forecourt north of the Meeting House, now opening on to Friars Street, was originally a burial ground - opened in 1806. The area to the east is one of the few remaining courtyards that were once characteristic of the Ipswich townscape. The buildings on the south and east sides of this courtyard pre-date the Meeting House. The southern range was adapted as meeting rooms for the congregation in 1975, replacing a hall that stood in the courtyard from the late 19th century until this time. The 'upper room' of this range has a particularly fine array of roof timbers.
The high pulpit in the centre of the south wall dominates the space, emphasizing the pre-eminence of the 'the Word, read or preached' (Fairfax) in the worship of this tradition. The central space was provided for a communion table, emphasizing the democracy of the Protestants Lord's Supper 'in the midst of the congregation'. The contrast with earlier church design is both striking and deliberate, reflecting the distinctive theology of the Reformers. The clustering of the pews and galleries around the central space emphasizes the concept of the congregation as a 'gathered community' - even a family - and of the building as a Meeting House. The clear glass of the windows, in contrast to the stained-glass 'picture windows' of medieval churches, illustrates the Puritan concern with simplicity and the 'clear light' of the Gospel and of Reason. The same Puritan opposition to 'idolatry' explains the lack of original representative imagery depicting people, animals or supernatural beings.
The magnificent hexagonal pulpit is the work, if not of the great wood-carver Grinling Gibbons himself, then certainly one of his pupils. The involvement of Gibbons' workshop in the Meeting House has led to speculation that his great collaborator on London's City Churches, Sir Christopher Wren, might have had a hand in this building too. The richly carved and decorated pulpit stands on a tulip base and is reached by a stair with twisted balusters. It is surmounted by a carving of pineapple design. The superb acoustics of the building make a 'sounding board' unnecessary. Below the pulpit is a reading desk of humbler workmanship.
The box pews are characteristic of the 17th Century and are original. However, the two main blocks of downstairs pews are rearranged in the 1900 restoration so that all the seats face the front. Originally, the pews had seats on three or four sides, and this arrangement can still be seen in the large pews abutting the east and west walls. One of these, on the east side, contains a sample of the original white brick flooring, replaced elsewhere by wooden parquet in 1900. The pews in the galleries are in their original positions.
For much of the building's existence, families rented their own pews and 'pew rents' were a principle source of income. The remains of locks can still be seen on some pews, illustrating just how private these were! In a few of pews, wooden pegs can be seen. Proverbially, these are wig-pegs, on which gentlemen could place their wigs - these still being fashionable when the Meeting House was built. Like most of the timber used in the interior, the pews are made of pine.
The large double doors in the east wall were originally the main entrance. The small modern brass plate in the right-hand door conceals a spyhole. This lines up precisely with the narrow alleyway into St. Nicholas Street, and here a watch could be kept for attackers or hostile officials, reminding us that religious liberty was by no means assured when the Meeting House was built.
The central three-tiered chandelier is an original fitting. It is of Dutch manufacture, a reminder of the strong links between East Anglian Dissenters and their counterparts in the Netherlands. It holds twenty-four candles and makes a magnificent sight when ablaze on a winter's evening! The wrought ironwork on which it hangs is not original, however, and probably dates from 1900 when the ceiling was replaced.
The hexagonally-faced clock on the north gallery is also original and pre-dates the building. The winged cherub above it may well be a later addition, being rather out of place in this austere Puritan setting.
The entrance vestibule and the vestry were created by the erection of thin screens and are not original. The pews would once have extended right to the back of the building. The incorporation of the west porch into the vestry is a modern development.
The organ, built by the Ipswich firm Bishop and Sons in 1878, was installed in the Meeting House - its third home - in 1900. It has two manuals and sixteen stops. It is the third organ the Meeting House has had. The first was installed in 1799 and was first played on 17th March of that year. It was located in the north gallery, as was the second organ, installed in 1865. In 1885, however, it was moved downstairs, where it was damaged in a flood.
The extensive restoration of the Meeting House in 1900 was directed by the Unitarian architect, Ronald P. Jones. Other major works on the fabric were undertaken in 1930, 1954 (when electricity was installed) and 1975, when the west and south walls were refounded. Most recently, from 1988, a rolling programme has seen the full restoration of the south, east and west walls - affected by death-watch beetle, woodworm and wet-rot; the redecoration of the exterior; the refurbishment and extension of the entrance vestibule and the vestry, and other work designed to enhance this historic but living place.