Remembering the dedication of the Sage of Earlham Rise

Fred Henderson stood up for the rights of the working class in the city, who lived in the yards and

Fred Henderson stood up for the rights of the working class in the city, who lived in the yards and slums. Photo: Archant Library

It was 150 years ago when a baby was born in Norwich and he grew up to be one of our greatest citizens of recent times with a story which could never be repeated today... from the treadmill to the chief citizen.

Fred Henderson was angry at the way people were forced to live in city slums. Photo: Frances and Mic

Fred Henderson was angry at the way people were forced to live in city slums. Photo: Frances and Michael Holmes - Credit: Frances and Michael Holmes

His name was James Frederick Henderson, but he was known and loved as Fred, a true man of the people... a rebel with a cause. And when he spoke, others listened – people from all over the world.

A staunch socialist, he stood up for the rights of the working class, and as 'father' of Norwich City Council he was respected, and often feared, by the rich and powerful.

A talented writer, author and speaker he was asked to become to become Poet Laureate but he declined the offer saying he was 'quite incapable of writing odes on ceremonial occasions'.

Fred, who also wrote for the Eastern Daily Press and the Norwich Evening News, died, aged 90 at his home in Norwich in 1956 but his name lives on because of Henderson Road – and while the school named in his honour closed, the reunions make sure the school is not forgotten.


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Fred would have loved that and even more that thousands of pounds have been raised for charities and good causes at the annual reunions for the girls from the Gurney and the boys from the Henderson – twin schools which were opened during the year of the Norwich Blitz in 1942 – 75 years ago.

People living in Norwich's slums. Photo: Frances and Michael Holmes

People living in Norwich's slums. Photo: Frances and Michael Holmes - Credit: Frances and Michael Holmes

There were those who said it was wrong to be opening schools when we were at war, and Norwich was under terrible attack with people dying and homes being destroyed, but it was Fred who said it was more important than ever to educate our children in decent surroundings... and the openings went ahead.

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So just who was Fred Henderson?

Known as 'The Sage of Earlham Rise', he had fire in his belly and travelled the world, from America to Russia, giving talks. Wherever he spoke, the people listened.

It was once reported that: 'The Prime Minister was heckled from the gallery by a young man with raven hair and flashing eyes and a voice that would hardly be ignored.'

That was OUR Fred.

Norwich Market Place in the late 19th Century. Photo: Archant Library

Norwich Market Place in the late 19th Century. Photo: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

Born in February 1867, as a boy he was educated in Norwich and then in Belfast, where his father went to work. He returned to the city as an angry young man. He was outraged at the sight of people starving in the damp and dismal slums while the rich had grown fatter.

It was then that young Fred made a name for himself.

People were angry and hungry.

Crowds had gathered in Hay Hill at one big gathering during 1887. One of the men who stood up to address them was young Fred, who told the people he had rebel blood in his veins as he was related to Robert Kett.

They cheered and shouted. He and another man, Charles Mowbray, roused the crowd. A riot broke out, windows were smashed, food grabbed. Police on horses, truncheons raised, moved in. It became known as The Battle of Ham Run and Fred and Charles

Lowes Yard. Photo: Frances and Michael Holmes

Lowes Yard. Photo: Frances and Michael Holmes - Credit: Frances and Michael Holmes

were arrested.

At his trial Fred told the judge his intention had been to lead the crowd to the shops, let them take what they needed, and then send the bill to the local authorities.

While there were shouts and applause in the public gallery, the judge took a dim view of his outburst and sent Fred, aged 19, to four months hard labour. He was said to be the last man put on a treadmill in Norwich Castle when it was a grim prison.

Local journalist and friend Arthur Steward wrote much later: 'It did little, I imagine, except to equip

him for the most arduous treadmill of public affairs which was afterwards his lot.'

The story at the time of the riots which resulted in Fred Henderson being given hard labour at Norwi

The story at the time of the riots which resulted in Fred Henderson being given hard labour at Norwich Castle and as the last man to work the treadmill. Photo: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

In fact, it was largely thanks to Fred in later years that the treadmill was finally abolished as a form of punishment.

On his release from prison he went to work in London. A gifted poet and writer he joined the Star newspaper as a reporter, mixing with famous names such as Bernard Shaw.

He returned to his beloved Norwich and in 1902 was elected to Norwich City Council, the first socialist to stand as an Independent Labour Party candidate.

Although busy with his writing he never forgot the people of Norwich and worked night and day on their behalf. He was regarded as one of the finest speakers of all time.

One of his books, The Case for Socialism, was officially issued as the party textbook by the

Fred Henderson. Photo: Archant Library

Fred Henderson. Photo: Archant Library

British Labour Party, the Social Party of America and the party in Canada.

This was translated into several languages and Fred went on lecture tours worldwide giving one of the first coast-to-coast radio broadcasts from New York speaking to around 12 million people.

In the council chamber in Norwich he was particularly interested in education. He was lord mayor at the outbreak of the Second World War. He was chairman of the Food Control Committee doing what he could to help them when more than 300 people were killed and thousands lost their homes.

He must have been delighted by the Henderson School for Boys and the Gurney School for Girls – named after members of the famous Quaker banking family who lived at Earlham Hall.

After the war Fred, and the brilliant artist Sir Alfred Munnings, were made honorary freemen of the city.

He went on to be a councillor for half a century and an alderman for 30 years. An extraordinary achievement.

His daughter, Edith, was also a talented writer and wrote several books including The Story of Norwich.

Fred died in his sleep at home on Earlham Road aged 90.

At his funeral men and women of all walks of life and in all parties and creeds came to respect the boy who worked the treadmill and grew up to become the 'father' of Norwich City Council.

Let's remember The Sage of Earlham Rise.

Make sure you join our Facebook group, Norwich Remembers, for a nostalgic look at Norwich over the decades. You can share your own photos and memories or simply browse through those shared by other people.

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