Norwich church closing after 200 years

The United Reformed Church on Princes Street Photo: Steve Adams

The United Reformed Church on Princes Street Photo: Steve Adams

It is always sad when a building which has been a part of so many lives closes… but especially when it is a 200-year-old church. Derek James looks at the story of one such place in Norwich.

Princes Street Congregational Church in 1919. Picture: Archant Library

Princes Street Congregational Church in 1919. Picture: Archant Library - Credit: Archant

It was not a good start….

On the morning of Good Friday, April 4, 1817, a divinity student by the name of John Alexander left London on the Day Coach heading for Norwich where he heard he would be able to preach for two or three Sundays at the Tabernacle in Bishopsgate Street.

He wrote later: “It was a cold and comfortless journey, the north-east wind blew bitterly; a passenger on the coach filled me with anxiety and alarm by his account of the state of things at the Tabernacle.

“A few miles before we reached the city we were informed that, just as the Packet was starting to Yarmouth that morning, the boiler had burst, and eleven of the passengers had been frightfully mangled and destroyed.”

Happy birthday. The Rev Nigel Uden, Norwich Lord Mayor Vaughan Thomas and city Sherriff Dr Marian Pr

Happy birthday. The Rev Nigel Uden, Norwich Lord Mayor Vaughan Thomas and city Sherriff Dr Marian Prinsley cutting the cake last year. Picture: United Reformed Church/John Potter/Carole Parry - Credit: United Reformed Church/John Potter/Carole Parry

Moreover, wrote Helen Colman in a book to mark the centenary of Princes Street United Reformed Church in 1919, on arrival at the city he went, as directed, to the house of the aged minister of the Tabernacle, only to find out he and his household had already gone to bed.

After loud and long knocking, believing he had already established his identity, the only response he got was: “I really don’t know you, Sir.” And the window was instantly shut.

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“It was little wonder that the young student meditated quick return to London,” wrote Helen.

“And yet, could he have looked into the future, he would have seen himself spending a lifetime in the city which had given him so cold a welcome.

“And when he was called to Higher Service there gathered at his graveside clergymen and ministers of every denomination, as well as laymen of all classes, from the Mayor to the humblest artisan, to do honour to his memory“ she wrote.

John Alexander became the “Founder and First Pastor” at what was then called Princes Street Congregational Church.

He was one of the most popular ministers in and around Norwich from 1819 to 1866 at what is now the United Reformed Church which has just announced its closure.

When the church opened it had just 14 members but numbers soon grew under John’s leadership to include mayors, sheriffs and leading city figures.

One of them was Jeremiah James Colman, the Victorian patriarch who was mayor three times and for 24 years Liberal MP. Other members of the famous family, including daughter Ethel, the first lady mayor, also attended the church.

Our Jonathan Mardle wrote many years ago: “Another was my old editor Archie Cozens-Hardy, who worked seven days a week for 40 years and used to attend the evening services in Princes Street for spiritual refreshment before ambling across the road to look after Monday’s Eastern Daily Press.”

And he added: “In those days, the nonconformist conscience was a power in the land, nowhere more so than in East Anglia.”

Under John’s leadership the church reached out to all people, the rich and the poor, the old and the young…offering them the hand of friendship and more.

His successor was the Rev George Barrett who set about an expansion programme to rebuild and extend the church on the same site with the brilliant architect Edward Boardman designing and designing the new buildings in the elegant way only he could.

In 1881 the central hall and classrooms could accommodate no less than 1,600 children for Sunday School. Much later it was converted into offices.

Over the years a number of popular and forward-thinking ministers have continued the tradition of reaching out to the community with open arms. Numerous groups and organisations have used the building over the years for events, especially concerts.

This was a church with a big heart which helped and supported so many people and organisations in many different ways.

Names may change, the Congregational Church became known as the United Reformed Church, but the message and the welcome remained the same.

Then, just recently, major repairs works were needed on the building, the congregation was dwindling. The future looked bleak.

A few weeks ago it was announced that Princes Street URC was to close, a year after celebrations to mark the bicentenary of the church.

Minister, the Rev John Potter, said: “We are deeply saddened to leave such a beautiful historic place of worship. I hope that whoever buys this building will respect its heritage and use and be able to preserve it for the future benefit of the city.”

We have much to thank John Alexander and all those who followed him for…they enriched so many lives.

There are seven other URCs in and around Norwich.