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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Friends Meeting House

Friends Meeting House

The central piece of land upon which this Meeting House stands in Lower Goat Lane, Norwich, was given to the Religious Society of Friends by Onias Phillipo in 1659 and Quakers have now worshipped on this site for 350 years.

A new meeting house

The Norfolk Chronicle, October 28th 1826 reported that "...the newly erected Friends‘ Meeting House in this city was opened for divine worship for the first day on Sunday last...Unfortunately seen to great disadvantage...[that is, facing Goat Lane not the wider thoroughfare of Pottergate] it is unquestionably the handsomest and commodious modern building in the city and does great credit to the talent and genius of Mr Patience, the architect, and also to Mr John Bensley, the builder of this city by whom the structure was erected...On entering the principal building you ascend a Doric portico of four columns, by a flight of steps extending the length of the building. At the inner entrance is a vestibule (with staircase to the gallery) from whence  two doorways communicate with the principal meeting: the entire of the fittings are wainscot, highly varnished, and in strict accordance with the building;  in the centre of the building is a lanthorn light containing in its area 600ft".

This article describes, using original source material from Friends‘ extensive archive, how the project came to fruition.

Cramped accomodation

By the early nineteenth century 225 Quakers were squashed into a Meeting House built for 165. "...Some inconvenience still being felt in our accommodation at the Goat Lane Meeting House a proposition having been made for its sale..." a committee was nominated to consider the way forward. They came up with a radical idea in which "the most effectual method of proceeding [was] the erection of entirely new buildings for which [they] proposed the "annexed plan" as very desirable in its general features " with a recommendation for "John Patience as a suitable surveyor." Patience was an unknown in Norwich and no record has been found as to why he was chosen.

Thus began a protracted series of petty squabbles as to what the building should look like. From correspondence in the Friends archive at the Norfolk Record Office -

Edward Candler. 19.4.1825

"Allow me to make an observation...entrances [should be] made to the sides to prevent draughts as well as exposure to the street during the time Meeting is gathering [and] the covered way extended to the street by which means Friends might alight from their carriages and walk in the dry ..."

Samuel Gurney 27.4.1825

"...The Meeting House at Chelmsford...appears to me their wants and yours are very similar...and I think it right and judicious and entirely think Goat Lane is the right place to build upon... and recommend Dutch panelling and forms...".

Samuel Gurney. Undated

[The] "lantern upon the roof is objectionable unless from the situation needful [and] tends to weaken the roof..."

Whilst seeking subscriptions amongst Friends they "...agreed that the whole of the old marterials be sold..." Auctioneer R. Clements organised this sale which raised a total of £309 15 shillings. The catalogue survives and shows that even the outside privy raised £2 14 shillings. A neighbour complained that his light would be affected so Friends directed "...the sum of £20 or £30 be paid...as a mark the Committee entertains of his liberal conduct..."

The new building

The site had supposedly been cleared and the bricklayer Robert Goose was paid to have done the job. There is marked evidence in extant 18th century brick courses under the floor of the Large Meeting House that this was not done and the new building simply constructed over and around the footings of the old one with the frontage facing a somewhat revised angle. (One hypothesis on why there were subsequent problems with circulation and heating may be answered by these retained pieces of brickwork blocking free flow of air.)

Joseph John Gurney who was charged with the responsibility of raising and investing funds for the project wrote optimistically "I do think there is every prospect of making a real good job at Goat Lane...". There was opportunity for the site to be further enlarged and the corner of Upper goat Lane was rounded off to make the building more visible from Pottergate. The whole of the lane was paved in York stone at a cost of £170. John Crook added a small stable at the south west corner for £40.

With the site ready to build on by 24th May 1825, 50,000 bricks were delivered to Robert Goose‘s premises and Patience was instructed to prepare working drawings and estimates. Sealed tenders were invited from preferred tradesmen, some of them Friends who would be expected to do their work at a reduced price. Gurney questioned "...how far the estimates will be under or agree with the cash and what may be the guard we have against this [going into debt]. The risk of if may be lessened by the activities of our surveyor Ingenuity exceeds the mark full as readily as dullness..."

When finally displayed, Patience‘s working drawings of a building in a grandiose, neo-classical style incorporating an imposing portico suggested that the project would be considerably over budget to the amount of £4539.9.10d. "In the meantime the main building [was] to be proceeded with without delay..." To his credit, Patence devised practical alterations to the plans; removing side galleries, a roof lantern, Committee Room, Women‘s Gallery and stairs would reduce the bill by £800 but he charged £150 for the extra drawing work! As is obvious now, not all of these revisions were carried through.

By spring of 1826, the project was sufficiently advanced to discuss the fitting out of the interior. The Woman‘s Meeting were allowed to view seating plans for the Large Meeting House but the question of methods of heating the building was solely the concern of the men.

Joseph Gurney seems to have encouraged Friends to spend money freely on the project "...a new grand contrivance must be found for heating and airing... Extra plans from our surveyor. He must have extra pay...". It will be shown later that Gurney forgot that he had encouraged this largesse and blamed Patience for the extra expense.

Recommendations from Chelmsford Quaker Meeting and Chelmsford Town Hall sent John Candler down to view the two heating systems. He was impressed that "...hot air passed through [the] flue laid under the floor...[and] heated to 20 degrees above the common temperature at an average expense of one and a half bushels of coal...". Patience went to see for himself "...in order to judge whether the present buildings would be injured by the introduction of a similar one...". George Woods at Chelmsford got the contract and the final installation cost was £110. £10 over the original quote. Gurney‘s Bank allowed an overdraft "...in cases where it was required...".  As yet the building had no lighting. Gas would cost £50 to install and funds were dangerously low. The decision was made to light only with oil lamps.

A costly enterprise

Came the time of reckoning up and all the final invoices were examined. Robert Goose‘s tender for redigging and rendering the earth was considered overcharged. The carpenter, John Bentley, was not paid for all the wainscoting he claimed to have put in. Mary Crowe and Son requested payment for a greater weight of lead than that ordered for the main roof to a cost of £47.12 shillings.

In the roof space  - and the author has climbed up to see it - on the head of the queen post immediately to the west of the lantern position there is a plaque that records Spicer Crowe as plumber to this meeting in 1826. it is made of lead sheet and the lettering seems to have been done by hammering a nail into it.

It was the middle of winter and Friends were cold in their new building. The heating system did "not completely answer expectations...". In the three months they "burnt five chaldrons of coal [six and half tons], the man [was] generally up at 3 o clock on the mornings of Meeting days having lighted the fire overnight [and they]rarely met without complaints of the cold".

By April 1827 all the accounts for the construction of the Meeting House were in and it became apparent that the total costs were £7,731 and the Committee was over £2,000 short! They were "...requested to use their discretion in making further collections and bring the amount of the same...". While efforts to reduce the debt were in hand across three counties, much closer to home, Friends were spending their second cold winter in their new Meeting House. The heating system was still not fulfilling Wood‘s promises. The Woman‘s Meeting House was especially uncomfortable, and they pleaded for heat again through February and March. In September 1828 the women offered £20 out of their own funds.

Already the Friends needed to change the use of some parts of the Meeting House. In May 1832 it was "agreed that the lower apartment in the Cottage lately occupied by Anna Maria Bransby may be used as a library room for the printed and other books belong to the Meeting and the friends on the Yearly Charge Committee are desired to have it fitted out for this purpose..." In July the books were moved in.

If only at the early stages the of the project the Committee had listened to Henrietta Gurney:

"..Vain as I may appear I cannot help saying there are certain things in which women are the best judges and I believe had we been more consulted some errors would have been prevented and greater convenience ensured. Excuse this hint from thy vain Friend."

The Meeting House is now the place of great community and outreach that 19th century Friends commissioned John Patence to create. They held their vision in trust for those of us who follow on; we have such a resource in these mellow walls reaching out daily. City commuters use the bicycle shed, shoppers eat sandwiches in the garden. Every month groups from Yoga to Philosophers, Choirs, Buddhists, Humanists, Geologists, Theosophists, Watercolourists, ex Wrens who have read the Quaker Peace Testimony; between fifty and sixty groups use the Friends Meeting House in the course of a year.

Sources/Further Reading

  • Friends Meeting House archives
  • Sue Debbage, ‘Handsomest and Commodious‘

Sue Debbage

August 2007