|Old Meeting House, Colegate|
The Old Meeting House, hidden away off Colegate, has been a meeting place for Congregationalists in Norwich since it was built in 1693.
Congregationalists had been meeting in Norwich for many years before they had a permanent place of worship. As one of the '"Free Churches" they challenged the established church. For centuries leadership in religious activity in England had been inextricably involved with the political leadership of the day. The "Free Churches" arose from the perception that on spiritual matters it might be necessary to act on spiritual grounds alone, regardless of the intentions of the secular state and, if necessary, in opposition to them. It was in the inception of this initiative that Norwich made a unique contribution to the beginnings of the "Free Churches".
The arrival, in the middle of the sixteenth century, of large numbers of Protestants from the Low Countries fleeing persecution increased the numbers of nonconformists in Norwich provided fertile material for dissenting clergymen.
The first recorded Congregational church in Norwich was instigated by Robert Browne after he arrived to stay with his friend Robert Harrison, the Master of the Great Hospital. Here the two formed a church whose members agreed "To join themselves to the Lord in one covenant and fellowship together and to keep and seek agreement under His laws and government". It is not known where this group met. Persecution soon drove this church to Middleburgh in Holland where it disintegrated after a few years.
Again, Norwich was associated with the next important wave of "Free Church" activity. About 1603 John Robinson arrived as curate at St. Andrew's Church but after the tightening up of clerical discipline in 1604 he was suspended by the Bishop. Denied the liberty of preaching he gathered friends about him for private prayer. The authorities promptly excommunicated those who attended.
Robinson then moved to Scrooby in Lincolnshire to help the church there. However, before long first one and then another of his congregation were fined and imprisoned for refusing to obey the law which said that everyone must attend the parish church regularly and that no one must take part in any other meeting for worship. Most moved to Leiden in Holland with Robinson who went on to become the pastor to the Pilgrim Fathers. He was one of the great figures in our history and his words still echo in the hearts of "Free Churchmen", "The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word". It is interesting to speculate how far Norwich helped to shape John Robinson's views towards Congregational principles and how different the history of the Pilgrim Fathers would have been had he never come to Norwich.
Many more ministers who dissented from the established church were deprived of their livings and moved to Holland and New England. When the imminence of civil war changed the political climate, some of these exiles returned. The congregations they gathered were the mother churches of the Baptist and Congregational Communions in Norfolk, and some have had a continuous life from that day to this.
The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought with it restrictions upon dissenting ministers and their congregations. All ministers who could not conform to the Anglican Church as established by the Act of Uniformity of 1662 were ejected from parish Churches. The majority of these had not before been "Free Churchmen", but they regarded the imposition of the 1662 Prayer Book as a retrograde step. They were called Presbyterian and may have been sympathetic to Presbyterian tenets, but force of circumstances made their position closely akin to that of Congregationalists. These were the most numerous and well-to-do of nonconformists and were represented in Norwich by the congregation which later built the Octagon. Many of the Presbyterian Congregations, the Octagon being among them, later became Unitarian.
The nonconformists were undeterred by fines and imprisonment and eventually in 1689 their position was recognised by the Act of Toleration which suspended the penalties against them though leaving them under many civil disabilities. The Toleration Act made it possible for "Free Churches" to own property and build meeting houses - the Old Meeting House in Norwich, built 3 years after the act came into effect, being an excellent example.
In the years that followed religion was at a low ebb in England. The spiritual drought equally affected both the Anglican Church and the newly liberated "Free Churches". A change came with the Methodist revival. John and Charles Wesley first visited Norwich in 1754 and here as elsewhere Methodist Societies began to be formed. Wesley's' intention was that these should be within the Anglican Church, but that Church proved unable to contain them. They developed a community life of their own akin to that of the older "Free Churches". The Methodist movement had the effect of revitalising other branches of the Church in England.
The 19th century was a century of liberation for "Free Church" men when their disabilities were gradually removed. Leading nonconformists played a great part in local life not only in the sphere of religion but in industry, both as employers and pioneer trades unionists, in education, and in civic government.
The 20th Century saw a drawing together of the various communions which was symbolised by the Lord Bishop of Norwich preaching at St. Mary's Baptist Chapel on the 250th anniversary of the church in 1919.
In 1693 the present building was erected (at the time wisely set back from the main street!) on the site of the Blackfriars Garden, becoming known as The Meeting House, during the ministry of Martyn Finch. Mr. Ian C. Hannah in his "Heart of East Anglia" writes:
'Two noble monuments commemorate Norwich as the first cradle of Puritanism. One stands in her own midst, the quaint, picturesque Old Meeting in Colegate; the other is far away, a bustling city in the New World. Close to where the Blackfriars first lived in Norwich stands the old brick Meeting House of the Congregationalists. It was erected in 1693; its sundial bears that date. Between Corinthian pilasters are two ranges of flat arched windows, a pantiled roof rises above. Round three sides is a gallery, the pulpit is in the centre of the fourth. The flat plaster ceiling rests on columns both above the galleries & below them. The fittings are of the plainest and their materials are of the best. Monuments of the simplest bear blazoned arms, and one or two inscriptions in Latin tell of the culture of those at rest. In its imposing austerity the old chapel speaks of the deep but simple faith of those by whose hands it was raised. The atmosphere seems so redolent of New England that even in Norwich one instinctively looks round for the pine trees of the forest.'
Architecturally the building is of special interest for it is undoubtedly the first important example of "Free Church" architecture. The definite Dutch feeling in its composition and details clearly indicates the influence and association with kindred worshippers in Holland, and under the sundial there is, in the Dutch clinker paving, a large stone memorial recording the burial of a member from Rotterdam.
The architect shares the fate of many of his contemporaries, for his name is unknown. The plan of the building is unusual, the pulpit being in the centre of the longest wall, the idea being that the minister shall be in as close contact with his people as possible. It is also noteworthy that, although the building runs lengthwise, East to West, the Communion Table is to the North.
The main South Elevation demands the most attention, with its thin brick, and still thinner rubbed and gauged pilasters surmounted by Corinthian caps, and the heavy eaves, lead lined above and consul blocks below. The early sash windows (believed to be the first in Norwich) have finely worked brick dressings to the jambs and heads and massive sills of timber. The large flat canopies to the doorways are unusual. The simple sundial in the centre, with the date is a feature rarely associated with "Free Church" buildings.
The paving in front of the entrances is formed with genuine Dutch materials. The walls of the Church are of much greater thickness than usual for this type of building. The roof, on principals running from North to South, is covered with black glazed pantiles.
During the eighteenth century a day school was built to the West of the Church. This later came under the control of the local education authority, and was subsequently demolished.
A century and a half after the erection of the church the bi-centenary of the founding of the fellowship was celebrated. In that year (1842) the Rev. Andrew Reed B.A. (Minister 1841-1855) laid the foundation stone of the two tier School Hall to the South-West of the church. In 1996 the Hall was leased for conversion to a private dwelling.
In 1862 the freehold of the Church was purchased, and in 1866 we read of members meeting for worship in St. Andrew's Hall owing to repairs being made to the Old Meeting House. In 1889 the freehold of the School Hall and caretaker's house was purchased, the house being rebuilt in 1892.
When the Rev. John Lewis became the pastor in 1892 the seating accommodation consisted of the original box pews. A scheme of renovation and alteration was decided upon, and the result was the pews as they are today, which are made from the oak of the original ones. At the same time the vestibules were constructed.
In 1907, during the ministry of the Rev. J.J. Brooker, the Minister's Vestry to the East of the church was built on to the small vestry which was part of the original building. Additional class rooms were also added to the School Hall. On Easter Day 1930 after pronouncing the blessing the Minister, the Rev R E F Peill, M.A., died in the pulpit during the first year of his ministry. In 1932 a small building to the South-East of the church known as the Peill Room was erected as a memorial to him and used by the Primary Department. The Rev Peill came to us after being a missionary for 15 years in Tientsin (China) - a small tablet on the North wall of the interior of the church commemorates his life and work. The roof of the Peill Room (especially that of the Porch) and the bush planted by the entrance gives a far Eastern touch.
The Old Meeting House abounds in interesting features.
"In memory of four Clergymen ejected by the Act of Uniformity, A.D. 1662 who subsequently became Pastors of this Church -
Rev. Thos. AlIen, M.A., who died 21.9.1675,
Rev.John Cromwell, B.A., who died April, 1685,
Rev. Robt. Asty, who died 1686,
Rev.Martyn Finch, during whose ministry the Old Meeting House was built, A.D. 1693, and who died 13th February, 1697".
"Is Williams dead, that cannot bee,
Since dead in Christ so liveth hee"
During 1992 the Church Building was closed due to a suspect ceiling; services were held in the Peill Room whilst investigations were made. However, the problem was not as bad as first feared but still involved a tremendous amount of preparatory work as countless sacks of grime, accumulated over many years between the roof and ceiling, had to be removed by hand!
In January 1993 a major repair and decoration programme commenced. Much of the work undertaken between the roof and ceiling cannot be seen - for example, strengthening of the ceiling joists, some 37 new trusses etc., etc. Work that can be seen includes the new floor, repairs to pews, at least one replacement window sill, repairs to windows, new bricks for old where the latter have become worn, new guttering and down pipes where necessary and a revamped drainage system complete with a new large brick soakaway at the rear of the Church and so on. The work involved cost some £250,000.
During internal decorations, a hidden Crucifix Window (boarded and covered by plaster) was uncovered in the Deacons' vestry and now is "on show" - this find strengthens earlier claims that the Old Meeting House was the first building to have sash windows in Norwich. It is possible that all the present windows were originally of the Crucifix type and that the sash windows were installed at the time when the Vestry was later added to the Church.
On completion of the interior work, the Church purchased new carpeting and velvet curtains for the Deacons' and Minister's Vestries and the linking corridor between both. The only matters left to be dealt are the rebuilding of the organ with replacement casing and the installation of a new heating system. A weekend of special events was held at the end of June, 1993 to commemorate the re-opening of the Church, the 350th Anniversary of the Church and the 300th Anniversary of the building itself.
The Old Meeting House Congregational Church stands today, not only as a fine specimen of the architectural taste of the 17th century, but also as a worthy memorial to our fathers in the Faith. Let us who come within its walls spare time to offer this brief prayer:
'Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for this House of God and Home of men. Grant it increasing usefulness in the service of Your Kingdom. We thank You too, for those who, in times of darkness, kept the lamp of faith burning; for great souls who saw visions of larger truth and dared to declare it; for all who ought for truth and liberty; for the quiet and gracious souls who were a blessing to many; for preachers raised up to declare the message of God with power; and for all faithful witnesses to the life that is in Christ. God, to us may grace be given To follow in their train; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen'
The interest shown in this organ over the years rests in the design quality, design, and antiquity of part of its case. That is, only the upper part of the front, displaying pipes in the form of three towers separated by two flats, with carved pipe shades, and the return panels extending back either side for some two feet and bearing an arrow like vertical motif. The late lamented Stephen Bicknell, after making a detailed inspection (BIOS reporter, Vol. 7 No. 1, 1983) declared that this was most likely the work of Robert Dallam, (1602-1665) but could find no pipe markings to confirm this. The markings uncovered recently certainly are those of Robert Dallam. Also visible were flower heads of five petals on the upper pipe lips and oak leaves on the pipe bodies together with scroll decoration. Could these be oak leaves and apple blossom, Oak Apple day being for many years the annual celebration of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. During Cromwell's Commonwealth, which forbade the use of organs in churches, the Dallam family went to live and work in Brittany, and only returned after the Restoration in 1660. Robert Dallam's skill was in great demand for the cathedrals of England, and he provided a new instrument for Norwich Cathedral in 1664. The Meeting House organ front is believed to be the "chair case" of that organ, (or possibly a temporary one), being the projecting part behind which the organist sat, and only a third of the original Cathedral instrument.
The remainder of the Old Meeting House organ contains material from around 1750 to 1875, and is in itself a potted history of organ building over that period. After years of neglect and severe desiccation, it has been resurrected piecemeal to full playing order with surprising results and may be heard and inspected on Heritage Open Days.
It has recently come to light that the OMH organ did not arrive until 1838 and came from the Bridge Street Concert room which stood in what is now St. Georges St. on the south side of the river on the site of the old technical college which became the Norwich Art School, opposite the former Gunton and Havers builder's merchants. The Hall Concert Society was founded around 1786 but as yet it is not known when they acquired the instrument, or from where. The improvements made prior to its installation and reported at the time accord with the evidence revealed during the recent work.
John Plunkett August 2013
You can find further information about the Old Meeting House and its activities at their website www.oldmeetinghousechurch.org.uk