06 April 2024

Quakers in Norwich have
a 200-year-old meeting house
and a history from the 1650s

The Quaker meeting house on Upper Goat Lane, Norwich, was built in 1826 … Quakers have been present in Norwich since the 1650s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

During the past week, I have been blogging about some of the cathedrals, churches and other places I visited when we were staying in Norwich last week. Charlotte and I were staying in Saint Giles House Hotel, and around the corner on Upper Goat Lane stands the 200-year-old Quaker meeting house.

The Gurneys of Earlham Hall were the most notable Quaker family in Norwich. Their banking business later amalgamated with other banks to form what is now Barclays Bank. Norfolk Quakers like Joseph Gurney, his sister Elizabeth Fry and their Anglican brother-in-law Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton were nationally conspicuous social reformers.

The religious and spiritual movements that led to the formation of the Religious Society of Friends in the mid 17th century grew out of the radical Puritans who were brought together by the founding Quaker George Fox (1624-1691). They sought a simpler form of Christian worship without clergy, churches or elaborate ritual.

The Society of Friends or Quakers first arrived in Norwich in the 1650s and for the next two decades Quakers met in private houses or in large open spaces such as Mousehold Heath to avoid detection by the authorities.

By 1676, Quakers in Norwich had raised enough money to buy a plot of land off what is now Upper Goat Lane, close to the junction with Pottergate, to build a meeting house.

The first meeting house on Upper Goat Lane was built in 1679. But it was another 10 years before the Act of Toleration extended to nonconformists the right to have their own places of worship. In the meantime, some meetings were held in the Norwich Gaol, where a number of Quakers had been imprisoned.

Friends also bought an acre of land to use as a Quaker burial ground in an area known as Gildencroft, about a mile to the north and just across the River Wensum. Today it remains the only cemetery still in use within the bounds of the old city walls.

By the end of the 17th century, Norwich had become one of the leading Quaker centres in England, with around 500 members in the city, and it became clear that a second meeting house was needed. This was built on a plot of land beside the Gildencroft burial ground and opened in 1699.

A plaque on the meeting house remembers the life and work of Elizabeth Fry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The novelist and poet Amelia (Alderson) Opie (1769-1853) was born in Norwich and was a childhood friend of the Gurney children. She married the portrait and history painter John Opie in 1798. Later she became a leading campaigner for the abolition of slavery. She was baptised in the Octagon Chapel, but later joined the Society of Friends and was buried in Gildencroft burial ground.

Elizabeth Gurney (1780-1850) attended the Goat Lane meeting in her younger days. She married Joseph Fry (1777-1861) in the meeting house in 1800, and is best remembered as Elizabeth Fry for her prison reforms.

The number of Quakers in Norwich continued to grow, and a new and larger meeting house was built on the site on Upper Goat Lane in 1826 to serve the new and different needs of what was then an evangelical meeting led by Friends such as Joseph Gurney of Earlham Hall.

The new meeting house was designed by the local architect and builder, John Thomas Patience of Holkham House. He became City Surveyor in Norwich 1836 and designed Lady Lane Methodist Chapel, the Roman Catholic chapel on Willow Lane and several public buildings in Norwich.

Access to the meeting house is through the ‘Long Room’ on the south side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The meeting house is a dignified building designed in the classical style with a handsomely-fitted interior. The new building had two meeting rooms, including a women’s meeting room, both galleried, and other accommodation.

The building had become a financial burden by the 1850s. Through the impetus of both the adult schools movement and mission work, additional land between the meeting house and Pottergate was bought in the 1860s for classrooms and a hall.

The need for much of this space had changed by the end of World War II and it was leased to other organisations. A lot of work was done on the meeting house in the 1940s and 1950s, and it was refurbished in 1987 under the direction of Peter Codling. The work included levelling main gallery and its conversion to a separate space.

The main building is rectangular on plan, with lower two-storey wings flanking a small forecourt enclosed by iron railings. The front walls are faced with white brick laid in Flemish bond with stone detailing. The side and rear walls are faced with red brick. The brickwork shows signs of modern repair, including concrete lintels over the large window openings of the rear elevation. The roofs are covered with slate.

The main elevation has a central doorway with a massive tetrastyle stone porch with unfluted Doric columns. The walls on either side of the porch are blind. Above the level of the porch, the front is filled with three large round-headed windows separated by pilasters rising to a plain entablature and cornice; the central bay is slightly set forward.

The side walls have four similar windows and the rear (west) wall has three windows, all set in sunk panels. The projecting wings have three-bay fronts to the courtyard with rectangular sashes below and square sashes above and a plain stone cornice and parapet. The single-bay elevations to Goat Lane have blind recessed panels with semi-circular yellow brick arches.

The meeting house is now generally entered through the single-storey corridor or ‘Long Room’ that runs the length of the south side of the building and fronts the car park.

Inside the Quaker Meeting House in Norwich

The main meeting room is a handsome tall rectangular space, lit by two large round-headed windows on each side and with a deep moulded plaster cornice. The walls are panelled in oak to head height, with timber benches against the walls, and there is an elders’ dais with fixed benches and a rail across the full width of the west wall.

Across the east wall are the timber Ionic columns of the gallery, which has been enclosed behind the column-line by timber and glass partitions. The gallery space has also been enclosed, but the original panelled gallery front remains, as do the original gallery stairs in the entrance foyer.

The women’s meeting house lies to the west, behind the dais of the main room. It is entered from the south side under a gallery. The walls are panelled in oak, but the benches along the walls are modern. The gallery rests on a pair of columns with simple block capitals. The space behind the columns has been in-filled and enclosed. The gallery itself remains open.

There are some timber benches in the main meeting room and elsewhere which follow the pattern of the benches on the elders’ dais, and may be original to the building.

There has never been a proper burial ground at Goat Lane, but by special arrangement the scattering of ashes has been allowed in the garden area on the south side of the meeting house.

A plaque commemorating the social reformer and campaigner Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Two plaques on one of the front left-hand projecting wings commemorate Elizabeth Fry and her brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845), the social reformer and campaigner against the death penalty and slavery.

Buxton was a member of the Church of England, he spoke regularly in the meeting house and also used Saint Andrew’s Hall to organise meetings supporting his causes.

He was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He lived at Northrepps Hall in Norfolk, and was a contemporary of the Revd Patrick Comerford Law (1797-1869), who was the Rector of Northrepps in 1830-1869.

The garden area on the south side of the meeting house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The architectural character of the area around Norwich Meeting House is mixed, with the mediaeval Church of Saint Gregory to the north, below Pottergate, a number of attractive old domestic buildings in Pottergate itself, and a brutalist multi-storey car park to the south. The open ground immediately south and west of the meeting house is used for car parking.

The building is listed at grade II* for both its architectural interest and its historical importance through associations with the Gurney family and others.

Although there may have been a few burials in the garden at Upper Goat Lane, the principal burial ground for Norwich Quakers has always been at Gildencroft on the edge of the city. Among those buried there in the early 19th century was Ishmael Bashaw, a Turkish merchant and refugee. His memoirs are thought to be the first book published in England by a Muslim.

Attendance at the Gildencroft meeting house gradually declined and it was leased to the local Baptist congregation in the late 19th century. The building was destroyed during World War II, during the German bombing raids on the nights of 27 and 29 April 1942.

Friends use the meeting house on Upper Goat Lane for about 10 hours per week, and the building is used for an average of 100 hours a week by local and community groups. Meetings for worship are held every Sunday morning from 10:45 to 11:45 and at lunchtime every Wednesday from 12:30 to 1 pm.

Meetings for worship are held in the Norwich meeting house every Sunday and Wednesday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
7, 6 April 2024

‘Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene’ (Mark 16: 9) … a statue of Saint Mary Magdalen above the gateway at Magdalen College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We have come to the end of Easter Week, and tomorrow is the Second Sunday of Easter (Easter II).

Throughout this week, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

‘Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene’ (Mark 16: 9) … an icon of Saint Mary Magdalen in the chapel in Magdalen College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mark 16: 9-16 (NRSVA):

9 Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’

‘He appeared first to Mary Magdalene … She went out and told those who had been with him’ Mark 16: 9-10) … the Church of Aghia Magdalini or Saint Mary Magdalene, in Nea Magnesia, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 6 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Easter Day Reflection.’ This theme was introduced last Sunday by the Revd Dr Carlton John Turner, USPG Trustee.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (6 April 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord, we pray for you to reveal yourself to us. May we be inspired to create change where it is needed and take action where there is your work to be done. Amen.

The Collect:

Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of Life,
who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
have delivered us from the power of our enemy:
grant us so to die daily to sin,
that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

God of glory,
by the raising of your Son
you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope;
for a new day has dawned
and the way to life stands open
in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Collect on the Eve of Easter II:

Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 16: 15) … a sculpture beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org