Once, the walled city of Norwich had 58 churches within its confines. After the break from Rome these Anglican churches were supplemented by new kinds of building to accommodate the varying shades of non-conformism.
The term nonconformist can be traced to the licensing of clergy who – during the reign of Elizabethan I – subscribed to the Act of Uniformity and were therefore ‘conformable’ to the rules of the established Protestant church . But, as we know, Norwich citizens have always taken pride in their nonconformability  and this was expressed in the Dissenting or Nonconformist chapels built from the C17 onwards.
By 1580 nearly half of Norwich’s population were Protestant ‘Strangers’ from the Low Countries who had come seeking religious tolerance not granted by their Spanish overlords. These separatists from the Catholic church worshipped in ‘eglises libres‘ and The Old Meeting House off Colegate (1693) is an important architectural example of this Free Church Movement . This square-plan building shows Classical rather than Gothic influences and we will see the four large brick pilasters capped by Corinthian capitals, used again. The sash windows are thought to be the first in the city.
The invention of sash windows is uncertainly attributed to Robert Hooke who helped Christopher Wren survey and rebuild the City of London after the Great Fire (1666). The ability to set back sash windows helps prevent the spread of fire and they were specified in subsequent building acts.
By the C19, Norwich was not a healthy place for the city’s poor living in the crowded and unsanitary ‘courts’ vacated by the wealthy merchant-class . The rising population in the second half of the C19 created a demand for new, well-built, sanitary homes  that was met by the terraces built on land freed by the break-up of the Steward and Unthank estates in Heigham .
From 1801 to 1861 the population of Heigham had risen from 854 to 13,894 – too large to be served by the old parish church of St Bartholomew (bombed in WWII). Four new parishes were therefore formed: Holy Trinity in Trinity Street (built on one of the first blocks of land released by CW Unthank ); St Barnabas’ (at the junction of Heigham and Northumberland Streets); St Thomas’ Earlham Road (damaged in WWII and rebuilt in the 1950s and 60s) and St Philip’s (at the junction of Stafford Street and Heigham Road).
In late 1944 a US bomber, in difficulty and trying to find its way back to base, clipped a pinnacle on the tower of St Philip’s . The pilot courageously steered the plane towards waste ground near the station but none of the crew survived the crash.
This increase in the number of churches continued into the C20. Pevsner notes that around a dozen churches were built in the new suburbs between 1900 and the start of WWI . However, after WWII the next generation’s churchgoing declined and St Philip’s became redundant and was demolished in 1977. On a recent visit I was told that the stone basin in the garden of the adjacent care home had been the church’s font.
St Philip’s church rooms, at the rear of the site, survive as the Douro Place chapel.
Only the tower of the original parish church of Heigham – old St Bartholomew’s – survived WWII and so its congregation met instead in the disused Primitive Methodist church (1879) in Nelson Street.
Reflecting an era of public philanthropy, the Nelson Street church has a foundation stone laid by mustard manufacturer JP Colman with a commemorative stone dedicated to printer and Sunday school supporter Thomas Jarrold.
The church’s roofline does seem rather alien, more suited to New England than the flatlands of East Anglia. This can be attributed to the narrow spire that was added in 1956 when St Bartholomew’s North Heigham was adopted as the parish church . It is now Gateway Vineyard Church.
Nonconformist chapels like this sprang up across the expanding city during the latter part of the C19. While the Anglican Church (and perhaps the Wesleyan Methodists) tended to favour the Gothic other nonconformists built rectangular temples in Graeco-Roman form. In modernising his own Congregational Church in Princes Street (1869) Edward Boardman added a Classical facade with a triangular pediment, using white brick from Gunton’s Costessey brickworks (see previous post ). The ornate facade has four large Corinthian pilasters that Boardman may well have borrowed from the Old Meeting House across the river.
Below, Boardman repeated the use of giant Classical pilasters on the Primitive Methodist Chapel on Queen’s Road (1872).
The Gothic Revival Baptist Chapel at the city end of Unthank Road was built (1874) during the city’s expansion southwards but – like other contemporaries – did not reach its century (1874-1954). Below, it is shown with the catholic church (now cathedral) of St John the Baptist in the background.
The original Unthank Road Baptist Chapel (above), designed by Edward Boardman in 1874, was demolished in 1954 to be superseded by a Presbyterian church – a replacement for the church in Theatre Street that was destroyed in the Blitz. The new Modernist church incorporates the original foundation stone from Theatre Street. In 1972 the Presbyterians and Congregationalists came together to form the United Reformed Church . In 1956 a former member of the Boardman practice – Bernard Melchior Feilden – designed what Pevsner thought the best postwar church in Norwich.
On the eve of WWII (1939), the practice of Edward Boardman and Son replaced a Gothic-style Methodist chapel (1894) with the much larger St Peter’s Methodist that still stands – just about – at the junction of Park Lane and Avenue Road. It was a neighbour of mine for several years so it is sad to see it empty and in a state of disrepair.
Fewer churches were built between the wars ; the following come from the 1930s archives of local builder RG Carter.
This photograph taken by George Plunkett shows the Belvoir Street Wesleyan Methodist Church (1869) up for sale in 1989. It was demolished to make way for a block of flats but is survived by the adjoining twin-bayed Memorial Sunday School (seen on the far left) that Carters built in the 30s.
The simplicity of the Norwich Christian Spiritualist Church, built in 1936 by Carter’s, contrasts with Gunton’s chimneys peeping out from the Victorian St Mary’s Croft further along Chapel Field North (see previous post ). This steel-framed one-storey building was funded in part by a large Spiritualist meeting held in Norwich after WWI, which was addressed by the faith’s most famous member, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Incidentally, the Spiritualist Church was a temporary home for the city’s Jewish community after their synagogue was destroyed in the German Baedeker raids of 1942. The original building was in Synagogue Street – the only street of this name in the country. It was on the opposite side of the river to the Riverside complex alongside Thorpe Station.
In 1948 the Jewish congregation moved to a prefabricated building on Earlham Road, opposite St John’s Catholic cathedral. The present synagogue below was built (though not by Carters) on the site in 1968/9 and is now on a 999 year lease .
Carters also built: the United Congregational School, Jessop Road (opened 1931); Dereham Road Baptist Sunday School in Goldsmiths Street; the Anglican shrine at Walsingham; and a garden house at the back of the Old Meeting House. The garden house was named for Reverend REF Peill who died in the pulpit on Easter Day 1930.
In Recorder Road, just off Prince of Wales Road, Carters built a Christian Scientist church (1934) to hold 300. It is now a Greek Orthodox church. The chequer of flint and brick on the boundary wall and the main north wall are reminiscent of the turret on The Gatehouse pub on Dereham Road, also built by Carters (see previous post ).
Of Carters’ inter-war churches a personal favourite is St Alban’s Lakenham (1932-1937). It was designed by local architect Cecil Upcher who lived and worked in Pull’s Ferry . The detailing is especially pleasing. Externally, the vernacular whole-flint walls are outlined in red brick and tile …
… internally there are several attractive features including the painted concrete ceiling.
In 1955, in response to a competition by the Eastern Daily Press to provide a work of art above the altar, Geoffrey Camp painted a reredos of an androgynous Christ in Majesty above Norwich. Camp is a founding member of the Norwich Twenty group of artists and a Royal Academician.
The cityscape at the bottom of the reredos shares the same viewpoint – St James’ Hill – that John Moray-Smith used for The Norwich Panorama (ca. 1947), recently restored by the Norwich Society .
A thread that runs throughout this post is that the city’s churches have been reused and adapted over a very long time. But despite Norwich being famed for its medieval churches (‘one church for every week of the year’) many of these older buildings are empty and still to find a new purpose. With such cultural treasure it should be possible to find imaginative uses to attract those who come to cities for something other than shopping.
An important start is being made by the Norwich Churches Project  who are looking into the relationship between the city, community and architecture. Its downloadable churches trail and guide is available HERE . I can also recommend their free exhibition in the Archive Centre behind Norfolk County Hall, Norwich: ‘Drawing in the Archive: the Visual Record of Norwich’s Medieval Churches 1700-2017‘. Monday 21 August – Friday 17 November 2017.
©2017 Reggie Unthank. Archived by the British Library’s UK Web Archive
Thanks: I am grateful to the RG Carter Archives, whose list of Carter’s 1930 buildings prompted this post. I am grateful to Jonathan Plunkett for permission to reproduce images from the essential and fascinating archive of Norwich buildings photographed by his father George (www.georgeplunkett.co.uk). Thank you Shea Fiddes for the information on Synagogue Street.
- Holmes, Frances and Holmes, Michael (2015). The Old Courts and Yards of Norwich: A Story of People, Poverty and Pride. Pub: Norwich Heritage Projects.
- O’Donoghue, Rosemary (2014). Norwich, an Expanding City 1801-1990. Pub: The Larks Press.
- Pevsner, Nikolaus and Wilson, Bill (2002). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Burrall, Paul (2017). John Moray-Smith, a booklet published by the Norwich Society http://www.thenorwichsociety.org.uk/moray-smith-panorama (exceptional value at just £3!).