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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Gildencroft Meeting House and Burial Ground

Gildencroft Quaker Meeting house and Burial Ground

The first Quaker in Norwich was Thomas Symonds, who, in 1654, went to mock a Quaker in the stocks in Cambridgeshire but came home convinced by his views. At first, Quakers in Norwich met in each other‘s houses before buying their first house for a meeting house in St. Lawrence Parish in about 1675. However what became more urgent than having a meeting house they could call their own was having a burial ground. In the days before non-denominational burial grounds like the Rosary, it was at the discretion of the parish priest whether non-conformists could be buried in their churchyard, and on the whole, in Norwich, such permission was refused to Quakers, so the early burials would take place on the land of a Quaker or sympathiser who had enough space. Many early Friends were buried in the orchard of John Lawrence at Wramplingham, for example.

Purchase of the Land at Gildencroft

In 1670, the Norwich Quakers bought about an acre of land in St Augustine‘s parish for £72 from the Great Hospital. They had to make a special arrangement with them for the use of a roadway wide enough for a four-wheeled hearse to approach and turn around:  the last time the Quakers seem to have made a payment for this was £5 in 1945. They didn‘t need all the land at first so they let some of it to tenters to set up frames for drying cloth.

A Friend was responsible for keeping the key of the burial ground, and the gravedigger had to go to him to gain access to the burial ground and prepare the grave, for which he was not allowed to ask the family for more than one shilling, but was allowed to accept more if they offered it.

The New Meeting house at Gildencroft

In 1694 they decided to buy a bit more land at Gildencroft to build a second Meeting house. That in Goat Lane had been opened in 1679. Quakers who lived north of the river sometimes found it difficult to get to the Goat Lane meeting house when the river was in flood. Over the next few years through a process very familiar to modern-day Friends, the Quakers of the day discussed whether to have a meeting house, where to build it, who was to design it, how to raise the money for it and so on. The first meeting for worship was held at the new Gildencroft meeting house in 1699. They also built some houses there, some of which were let to Quakers, and stables for Quakers‘ horses and carriages while they were in the meeting. It was a much larger building than the meeting house at Goat Lane, which proved to be a problem, because by 1707 they were getting advice about putting in extra columns to support the roof.

As crossing the river became less of a problem, Norwich Quakers tended to use Goat Lane as the principal meeting house, and Gildencroft was used more for regional meetings. They bought yet more land there in 1767, but throughout the eighteenth century let portions of it to local tradesmen, including Quakers. 

In 1858, a group of Baptists wanted to rent the meeting house as their church, but it took the Friends two years to agree to let it to them. The rent was set at £30 a year, soon reduced to £24 and then to £20, at which point the Friends included a stipulation that the meeting house should be at the service of Friends when required.  The Baptists offered to buy the meeting house - an offer which was eventually refused as some Friends were opposed to selling. A group from the Baptist church later emigrated to Australia towards the end of the nineteenth century. A few years ago when a descendent came to learn about his roots, he was puzzled to find himself directed to a Quaker meeting house to locate the church of his Baptist ancestors!

Gravestones, or Not?

Although the Quakers kept a record of who was buried where in the burial ground, there were supposed to be no gravestones. The first formal request for one was made in 1692, when "the sense of the Meeting was wholly against it and that for the future, none be permitted to set up any". However the minute goes on to say that Friends endeavour to persuade those who have set up any to remove them.  By 1717, Yearly Meeting said that gravestones should not be used in Quaker burial grounds - I think someone had put up an angel.

However, Norwich Friends clearly had problems trying to persuade one Anne Byars, to take down the table tombstone she set up for her husband‘s grave. There is a series of minutes from which it is clear that they tried several times, but each time had to report failure. Finally in the 1720s, there is reference to the fact that she now shares the same stone - the minute has a distinct note of resignation.

Amelia Opie and her father are buried there. There are many Gurneys and many other local names to be found. One name which has always puzzled me is Ishmael Bashaw died in 1815 aged 80, a native of Adrianopolis, non member, so he was not a Quaker. He may be the same Ishmael Bashaw who wrote The Turkish refugee: being a narrative of the life, sufferings, deliverances, and conversion, of Ishmael Bashaw, a Mahometan merchant, from Constantinople, who was taken prisoner by the Spaniards, and made a wonderful escape to England. The author would be the right age and the book was published in 1797, but I have not been able to see the text.

Reference/Further Reading:

  • A Short History of Quakers in Norwich, Christine Bond & Jane Nolan
  • Friends Meeting house, Norwich archives

Lucy Parker

January 2008.