Historic Ipswich meeting house saved after year-long restoration

Unitarian Meeting House

Restoration work has been completed at Ipswich's Unitarian Meeting House. - Credit: Historic England

The £750,000 restoration of one of Ipswich's most historic buildings has been completed - thanks to local fundraising and a grant of £600k.

Volunteers and the congregation at the Unitarian Meeting House in Ipswich are looking forward to welcoming the local community once again following the restoration work which has saved the historic Grade I listed building.

The year-long restoration project was made possible by grant funding of £602,152 from Historic England and tireless fundraising efforts by volunteers and community members who raised almost £140,000 in funding.

Extensive structural repairs to the building were needed, including the re-covering of the entire roof, an overhaul of all drainage, and works to remove unsuitable and corroding steel repairs and rectify structural movement in the timber frame. Cracked composite cement render covering the exterior was replaced with a historically accurate lime render.

Inside the Unitarian Meeting House

The work should preserve the interior of the Unitarian Meeting House. - Credit: Historic England

The Unitarian Meeting House was placed on the Heritage at Risk Register in 2018 after a Structural Survey. Now it will be removed from the Register this year, following extensive restoration work designed by KLH Architects on the recommendations of the survey.

On Sunday - and again on May 30 -  visitors will be able to experience the newly restored building filled with music from its late 19th century organ. Covid-19 restrictions will apply.

It is hoped that further easing of Covid-19 restrictions will enable services and events to resume in the Unitarian Meeting House.

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Trudi Hughes, Historic England Heritage at Risk architect/surveyor, who has overseen the progress of the repair and restoration project, said: “The Meeting House is regarded as one of the finest surviving early 18th century Dissenting meeting houses in the country.

"It has been a great privilege to witness the transformation and protection of its fabric for future generations, brought about by tremendous teamwork and particularly the skills of the many craftspeople involved.”

Linda King, Chair of The Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House Trustees, said: “We treasure our Grade I listed Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House and are extremely grateful to Historic England for all the support they have given us – not only for the grant but also for their advice and encouragement. Thanks to the success of our project, we can look to the future with confidence.”

Suffolk-based contractors, F A Valiant & Son Ltd undertook the restoration of the Unitarian Meeting House with the support of local architects, KLH. Site Foreman Mark Frankis remained onsite throughout the project, including during the first lockdown in March 2020.

Mark said: “As a local Ipswich ‘boy’ who has been aware of the Meeting House building for years, it has been a real pleasure to work locally and to put something back into the town. It has felt important to put the Meeting House back to what it was originally, to remove the steel work, to replace that with oak timber and to put the original lime wash back.”

Terry Lankester

Terry Lankester working on the windows of the Unitarian Meeting House. - Credit: Historic England

Terry Lankester restored the leaded light windows in the Unitarian Meeting House. He said: “It was a great pleasure to work on such a historical building. Due to the Covid pandemic I worked long hours alone at weekends enjoying the feeling of calm in the building. I thought a lot about the lives of the craftsmen who first constructed it."

The Unitarian Meeting House, situated on one of the oldest streets in Ipswich, is regarded as one of the finest surviving 18th century Dissenters’ meeting houses in the country.  It was opened for services in 1700 and has been used continuously for worship since then.