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

Norwich‘s Labour Churches

Norwich‘s "Labour Churches" 

Politics and religion always influence one another whether we like it or not. As a very broad generalisation it could be said that in the opening years of the twentieth century the Conservatives claimed the allegiance of most Anglicans whilst Nonconformists tended to favour the Liberal Party. 

The Labour party in Norwich

From the late nineteenth century onwards the Liberal Party had experienced a growing division between those members who held to a traditional Liberal attitude of concerned paternalism towards the working classes, and those members who took a more radical line, encouraging worker‘s self-representation.  Since they had a greater emphasis on labour issues this second group became known as labour supporters. Bitter divisions arose within Liberalism and eventually some members broke away to form an Independent Labour Party which eventually became the Labour Party.

An interesting development in the opening years of the century was the emergence of Labour Churches.    In 1909 the EDP carried notices of a Norwich Labour Church which met on Sundays in the Labour Institute, St. Peter‘s Lane and a Labour Church and Ethical Society which met at the Victoria Rooms in St. Stephen‘s.  One wonders what they were like.  Were they services with a social flavour to the sermons or were they more like  secular political meetings with religious overtones?  During 1911 speakers at the Norwich Labour Church included Fred Henderson and Harry Witard. 

Fred Henderson

James Fredrick Henderson, known as Fred, was a Norwich man, born in 1867, and very much on the left wing of the Liberal Party.  In 1885 he took part in some rioting due to food shortages and earned himself the distinction of being the last man to have worked the treadmill in Norwich Castle.  In his early years he seems to have had a nationwide reputation as a poet.  Some people have suggested that when Tennyson died in 1892 Gladstone had considered him as a possible candidate for the post of Poet Laureate.  In 1902 he became the first Labour representative to serve on the City Council  and it is believed  that when his wife, Lucy, was later elected they were the first husband and wife team ever to serve together on a local council.    The many talks about Socialism which Henderson gave during these Sunday meetings were published and translated into several languages.

Herbert Witard

Herbert (Harry) Witard was destined to become the first Labour Lord Mayor of Norwich in 1927.  As a boy he had attended the St. Mary‘s Baptist Church Sunday School before running away to sea, and by a strange coincidence there is today a Baptist Church in the road named after him on the Heartsease Estate.   The Independent   Labour Party, as it was still called in 1914, was opposed to the war, and Witard‘s refusal to help with recruiting was never forgiven by some people.  Contemporary newspapers and church magazines give the impression that many people in the city were opposed to the war at the start, but that as it proceeded opposition gradually gave way to acceptance and then definite support, with strong expressions of patriotic fervour.  ILP spokesmen such as Witard often found it difficult to hold  anti-war meetings because most public halls were barred to them.

Ted Doe

May 2008