The man behind Norwich's 'secret garden'

opening ceremony of the James Stuart garden

The opening of the James Stuart Garden in 1922 by Lord Mayor, Sir Henry Holmes - Credit: Archant Library

He was described as a gentleman of great tenderness, deeply sympathetic and the possessor of one of God’s greatest gifts – a genius for making friends

It was in October of 1913 when James Stuart, one of our best-loved and respected citizens of the time, died…but his memory lives on.

We have Stuart Court which opened in 1915  at Recorder Road, followed by the opening of the James Stuart Gardens, nearby, off Prince of Wales Road, in 1922.  A peaceful retreat amongst the hustle and bustle of city life.

So who was James Stuart?

James Stuart GardensByline: Sonya Duncan

James Stuart Gardens in Norwich - Credit: Sonya Duncan

A man from Scotland of extraordinary talent, James arrived in Norwich to talk about the University Extension Movement where he met and fell in love with Laura Elizabeth Colman, daughter of the great Jeremiah James Colman.

When they married at Princes Street Congregational Church on July 16, 1890, we reported: “Rarely, if ever, has a domestic event awakened such a widespread and kindly interest among the residents of Norwich, and indeed far beyond.

“Naturally everyone desired that the heavens should smile on the wedding day of a pair who have shown practical sympathy with various movements beneficial to the community,” added our reporter.

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And what a day it was!

Thousands of people lined the decorated streets as the bridal party arrived at the church in eleven carriages and then waited to wave them on their way to the wedding breakfast at Carrow Priory.

James was born in Fife in 1843, the son of a wealthy mill owner. He went to St Andrew’s University and then to Cambridge, where he was master of arts and doctor of laws, and a fellow of Trinity.

At the age of 24 he was appointed the university’s first professor of applied mechanics.

But James was very much a man of the people. He once spent a week living with a miner and his family in a tiny pit cottage in Northumberland to discover how tough life was.

He campaigned for an education for all and would travel the country talking to, and meeting people, from all walks of life.

James went on to became a Liberal MP and then a journalist, launching a newspaper for the Liberal Party,  before coming to Norwich – and falling in love with Laura Colman.

Laura was a member of Norwich City Council and the first female J.P. for the City.

They lived at Carrow Abbey and over the next 20 years or so welcomed many people including members of the royal family. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra dined with them when  they opened the new Jenny Lind Hospital in 1900.

A man the people of Norwich took to their hearts James Stuart. 

A man the people of Norwich took to their hearts James Stuart. - Credit: A Norfolk Chronicle

Laura Stuart (Colman) OBE, member of Norwich City Council and the first female J.P. appointed for the city. 

Laura Stuart (Colman) OBE, member of Norwich City Council and the first female J.P. appointed for the city. - Credit: A Norfolk Chronicle

Stuart threw himself into public life. Chairman of the Governors of Norwich Grammar School and president of the Liberal Association, he also became a director of J & J Colman and worked hard to set up the pension scheme for the workers – many of whom spent their entire lives with the much-loved company.

He reached out to those who needed help and Lord Cozens-Hardy described him as a man of great tenderness, deeply sympathetic and the possessor of one of God’s greatest gifts – a genius for making friends and the people of Norwich loved him.

He became ill in 1909 and after a cruel and painful battle finally died on October 12, 1913.

Staff, residents and trustees celebrate the100 years of Stuart Court almshouse in Norwich.PHOTO BY

Staff, residents and trustees celebrate the 100 years of Stuart Court almshouse in Norwich. - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

A private funeral service was held at Carrow Abbey and black shutters and flags at half-mast lined the route from Carrow to the family plot at the Rosary.

The Colman family and the city agreed he must be remembered in an appropriate way. Ethel and Helen Colman led the way.

The first was a block of 22 houses, designed by the celebrated Edward Boardman & Son on the newly-developed Recorder Road. They would be self-contained, with a bathroom, be let at a low rent and called Stuart Court.

They were opened in 1915 by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Cozens-Hardy and then, in 1922, the James Stuart Garden nearby, was officially opened by Lord Mayor Sir Henry Holmes. Created once again by the Colman sisters.

It was brilliant writer Robert Bagshaw, in his 1997 book A Norfolk Chronicle, who wrote so well of discovering  this secret garden when he was a boy growing up in the city.

A haven of tranquillity such a short distance from the tumultuous hurly-burly of the city streets.

“I sat for a while, thanking our forefathers who realised that a small green oasis such as that garden achieve as much as making Norwich a fine city as do any amount of fine buildings.”

The story above tells what Robert discovered about James Stuart… and why we have much to thank members of the Colman family for.