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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
This celebrated chapel, along with another in the same street, helps tell the long story of religious dissent in Norwich.
John Wesley, founder of 18th century Methodism, was an early admirer of The Octagon Chapel in Colegate. But the Old Meeting House, virtually next door, has a longer history, tracing its origins to the English Civil War. While the Octagon attracted much of the citys social and intellectual elite during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and its superb decor was the creation of a fashionable architect, the Old Meeting House stood modestly back from the main road .These relative positions are the legacy of a turbulent period of religious strife transformed into toleration and acceptance.
It can perhaps be traced back to the influence of the Strangers, the textile workers from the Netherlands who escaped to England as a haven from persecution at home. By the late 16th century independent congregations thrived in Norwich, comprising worshippers who, for a variety of reasons, didnt accept the Church of England. During the Civil War the Puritan tendency dominated East Anglia, and Norwich was home to Presbyterian and Independent sects. As early as 1643 what would become the Old Meeting House was the site of regular worship; its controversial nature meant it took place in private homes that would not become a target for attack. This was relevant, as laws passed in the wake of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 made their activities illegal. Meanwhile, a free-thinking clergyman, Dr John Collinges, admired as a shining light in this city, was attracting followers. Originally vicar of St Stephens, he lost his living under Charles II, and it was at Colegate that his Presbyterian followers eventually set up their first chapel. It already had a history; during the 13th century the Franciscans friars built there. In 1686 the site was let to John Mottram and James Nuttall as trustees.
The citizens of Norwich interpreted the repressive Test and Corporation Acts widely. Some of the leading people in the city were Dissenters; in return for paying lip-service to the Church of England they were largely free to follow their consciences. In any case, times were changing. The arrival of William of Orange in 1688 led to a new toleration for Protestants at least. Within a few years the Old Meeting House was built .(One of its earliest ministers was John Cromwell, a relative of Olivers). This was a Congregationalist church, which differed from Presbyterians in that it rejected notions of national organisation, preferring its own local autonomy. As the 18th century wore on passions cooled, although Dissenters were still officially barred from holding government office. By then the original building needed replacing. The congregation was wealthy and secure enough to create a building that would make a real statement that they were here to stay .
Architect Thomas Ivory, the man who was already building the citys Assembly House, was chosen to build the new chapel. Ivory was the carpenter at the citys medieval Great Hospital, but was making his name as a highly original architect. His striking octagonal design won over a committee chaired by John Taylor, a member of an influential Norwich family. Although Ivorys building retained the modest aura of a 17th century meeting house he added a raised palladian entrance portico. Inside, the chapel stayed true to the ideas of purity and simplicity of worship, but its eight columns, high windows, domed ceiling and raised gallery make it a splendid achievement without being gaudy. Begun in 1754, it cost a considerable sum of more than 5,000 to build; an amount raised by the congregation. It could hold up to 1,000 people. Rather like the Old Meeting House, created in the late 17th century, the design of the gallery meant that upstairs or downstairs, the centre of attention is on the pulpit and holy table. Initially it was called the New Meeting House to differentiate it from its neighbour, but soon became known as the Octagon .
John Wesley visited in 1757, and wrote: I was shown Dr Taylors new meetinghouse, perhaps the most elegant one in all Europe. The Octagon became the model for a number of octagonal Methodist chapels, including a more modern one at Kings Lynn. As the original Presbyterian congregation gave way to the growth of Unitarianism, a number of leading Norwich families were associated with the Octagon. The 20th century historian and lord mayor of Norwich, RH Mottram, was a descendant of the original 1686 trustee; the Taylors were regular worshippers .Their number included William Taylor, the writer and linguist Taylor regularly accompanied his elderly mother to worship in the 1830s, something which helped redeem him in the eyes of his most trenchant critic, the writer Harriet Martineau. Harriet, herself the scion of a family of French Huguenot surgeons, was regularly offended by Taylors louche, drunken behaviour not something youd expect from a regular chapel-goer. A more conventional figure was Harriets brother, James, renowned as a leading Unitarian thinker, and another Octagon worshipper. Pioneering botanist Sir James Edward Smith was another prominent member and deacon. William Smith was MP for Norwich from 1802 to 1830; an anti-slavery campaigner he successfully campaigned for the repeal of the last remaining acts penalising Dissenters. Joseph Priestley, now remembered as the man who discovered oxygen, but in the 18th century an all-round philosopher and Enlightenment luminary, was another visitor.
The original pews were high, with doors, but these were changed by the Victorians, who undertook a major overhaul in 1889. They enlarged the pulpit and darkened the woodwork in the fashionable taste of the time. In more recent years the chapel has been renovated, with help from English Heritage. As can be expected from a 250-year-old building a great deal of running repairs are necessary.
Today, the Octagon Chapel is treasured for its excellent acoustics, which make musical concerts very popular.