Norwich's open door for 200 years
PUBLISHED: 16:55 12 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:55 12 April 2019
It was 200 years ago when a chapel which continues to play a leading role in so many lives opened. Derek James tells the story of what is now Princes Street United Reformed Church
Nonconformists have nothing to do with bishops, priests or steeple houses...it would therefore be impossible to have a nonconformist cathedral anywhere.
But, wrote our Jonathan Mardle many years ago, if there were such a place in Norwich then the big grey-brick church of the Congregationalists with its marble doorway in delightful Princes Street would be most likely to qualify for the description.
The list of Mayors, Sheriffs and other local dignitaries who have attended it since its foundation in 1819 is most impressive and remember, these were the days when the nonconformist conscience was a power in the land and nowhere more so than in East Anglia.
It is a home from home offering spiritual refreshment and the warm hand of friendship and companionship to so many different people in Norwich and across Norfolk and Suffolk in the 21st century.
Times have changed and so has the chapel. Today it is the United Reformed Church which hosts a range of events in the community.
It was on Good Friday in 1817 when the Rev John Alexander, a young preacher, was invited to come to speak to the nonconformists at the Tabernacle in Bishopgate, Norwich.
John, aged 25, had already gained a reputation for missionary work during his training...the people loved him. He was asked to become the first pastor of a new church in Princes Street when it opened in 1819 and he stayed for almost 50 glorious years.
It had cost £4,800 and various developments and alterations have taken place over the years. Top architect Edward Boardman re-designed the building in 1828.
Under the leadership of John Alexander, a man said to be fired with dedication who had, as a young man, “a ruddy face and locks as black as a raven’s wing” the chapel prospered and flourished.
When the church opened it had 14 members but its reputation grew under John’s leadership and the membership continued to increase and thrive
Hundreds of men and women joined the church. There were four Sunday Schools, including those at Trowse and Thorpe, where children were taught to read and write.
A society for the “sick and aged poor” was opened, a provident society was formed to help those in need. John threw himself into public life, visiting chapels outside Norwich.
He was also chairman of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and a great supporter of the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Buxton.
John’s father William, also a Congregational preacher known as the “Lancashire Apostle,” gave him this advice: ”Begin by exercising strict discipline. Warn all your members against irregular attendance. Warn them against tattlers, tale-bearers...mischief makers, busy-bodies, who are great troublers of churches...”
Well, John certainly became one of the best known and much-loved men of the church across the region...and I think he would be delighted at how his beloved Princes Street continues to out to the community with open arms.
Today the minister is the Rev John Potter and he and Carole Parry, editor of the monthly newsletter for the church, told me how a range of events take place at Princes Street.
They include a monthly “Community Lunch” where people can just turn up and enjoy a meal for £4 prepared and served by members of the congregation. This is followed up by Tuesday Fellowship with a guest speaker.
The Princes Street Guild has been going for more than 30 years and now meets on the first Tuesday afternoon of the month. Speakers are invited. Then there is a afternoon film show. No need to book and there is no charge.
“Our members support all the ‘Tuesday’ events but we are delighted that they are also supported by the community in general,” said Carole.
On Advent Sunday and Easter Sunday they share breakfast with neighbours at St George’s Tombland. There is a choir and last year they took part in Norfolk Day raising funds for a school in Zimbabwe – their support continues.
“For the last three years we have taken part in Heritage Open Days and have welcomed hundreds of people through our doors – very successful and worthwhile from our point of view and visitors are more often than not surprised at the modern interior of such an old building,” added Carole.
Throughout the year they run a “Good Cause” – there are four charities chosen for the year. Some local, others national or international. And they collect for Foodbank and offer Fairtrade goods for sale.
“I hope this gives readers a flavour of what goes on at Princes Street – we are very much alive and love to welcome people to our church/building.
“We really enjoy a social gathering and use every opportunity to celebrate and give thanks whilst still being aware of the many needs of the community, both local and worldwide, and doing what we can to help,” said Carole.
What a wonderful place Princes Street United Reformed Church is – an open door for 200 years.