Search Form
font size: Increase | Decrease | Reset
Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

History of the Norwich Quakers

History of the Quakers in Norwich

The Religious Society of Friends Quakers) has its origins in the 1640s and 50s, the time of the English Civil Wars and of Cromwell‘s Commonwealth. During this time George Fox and others gave to various groups of dissenters a unifying vision and a form of organisation which has survived largely to this day. From earliest days Friends were also known (jocularly) as Quakers, because they quaked in the presence of God - and the name has stuck. Thomas Symonds in 1654 was the first person in Norwich to be convinced. In the same year the first meeting was established and for some years regular Meetings for Worship were held in private homes or in the open air.

The 17th Century - Early expansion and persecution

During the latter half of the seventeenth century the Society of Friends was a rapidly growing body. By 1670 the Friends had leased a building for meetings and in that year they purchased land at Gildencroft north of the river for use as a burial ground. From 1675 to 1679 they raised some £400 to provide themselves with a meeting house of their own. At the time the average man‘s wage was about £8 per annum. In 1676 they purchased a plot of land in Upper Goat Lane for £80 which forms part of the present plot, and on Wednesday 12th March 1679 they held their first meeting in the new meeting house on the site. After further fund-raising, a second meeting house was opened in April 1699 on land adjoining the burial ground at Gildencroft.

Early Norwich Friends were often artisans and small tradesmen; they were persecuted by the authorities and endured ridicule and violence from their neighbours. From December 1682 to November 1684, 17 of the Monthly (business) Meetings were held in Norwich Gaol. It is significant that John Defrance, who was Clerk of the meeting, was jailed on 3rd December 1682 and spent much time in gaol during the next 3 years. These hardships drew the Quakers into a closely-knit community who accepted responsibility for each other in times of distress and suffering. The carefully kept records of the time provide vivid details of the collective and personal history of early Friends.

1700 to 1850 - Respectability and slow decline

After the ferment of the seventeenth century the period from 1700 to 1850 was one of comparative quiet for Friends, who were by now regarded as being "respectable". They provided effective social services, building almshouses in the courtyard of Goat Lane Meeting House for 4 poor Quakers in 1703; giving permission in 1715 for a member to run a school in the Meeting House; and reporting to London in 1725 that poor members were so well supported by Meeting that none need rely on parish relief Their standards of probity and fairness in business brought many of them wealth and influence and their identity with scientific and medical outreach was matched by their concern for social reform and education.

Elizabeth Fry is probably the best-known Quaker of this period; she was one of the eleven children of John Gurney, the Norwich banker, and worshipped in the original Goat Lane Meeting House as well as in the present one, completed in 1826. Elizabeth‘s brother Joseph John Gurney was a powerful advocate of the plan to replace the Goat Lane buildings. He was much influenced by the evangelical movement of the time and, as well as being one of the founders of the British & Foreign Bible Society, travelled widely in America on behalf of the Society of Friends.

Unfortunately, the new buildings were expensive to construct and maintain, and the local Quaker community found them a troublesome burden for many years. Membership meanwhile had declined and in 1851 the Meeting offered to sell Goat Lane Meeting House to Wesleyan Reformers, who would have been willing to rent it, but the two parties could not agree terms.

After 1850 - Social concern and revival

Fresh life and vigour was injected into the local Quaker community shortly after this low season, when Alexander Eddington came to the city as a partner in a family grocery business on Gentleman‘s Walk. He and his wife involved local Friends in the growing adult school movement. Adjacent buildings in Pottergate were acquired for the work in 1873 and again in 1883 and many people came into membership of the Society as a result of this close association

During the Second World War the Goat Lane buildings escaped direct bombing although much of the surrounding property was devastated. Postwar the Friends decided the Pottergate premises could be let to Norwich‘s first old people‘s club and to two firms as offices. The Gildencroft buildings were destroyed in an air raid in 1942; they were rebuilt in a more modest form in 1958 and now house the Treehouse Children‘s Centre. Friends retain the right to use the premises when interments are made in the adjoining burial ground.

Modernisation of parts of the Goat Lane premises was undertaken between 1973 and 1975, including the provision of well--appointed living accommodation for Wardens.

Quakers in Norwich today

Today Quakers still meet for worship in Norwich as part of a worldwide movement. With nether clergy not a prepared order of service, meetings for worship are held largely in silence out of which anyone may speak briefly, as they feel led to do. This can develop a sense of the eternal behind a succession of everyday events.

Quakers try to live every day in simplicity, truth, equality and peace, seeing that of God in everyone. Meetings are held at Goat Lane on Sundays (10.45-11.45) and on Wednesday (12.30 - 1). The Wednesday meeting is followed by a simple lunch. Meetings for worship are open to anyone.


  •        Christine Bond & Jane Nolan, A Short History of Quakers in Norwich

Nick Williams

August 2007