Old Meeting House Congregational Church (1643)

The Best Hidden Church in Norwich

Brief History of The Old Meeting House

The Free Churches are a factor to be reckoned with in the history of England and in the history of Christendom; they claim to be part of the mainstream of Christian Tradition.


They emerged as separate communions during the ferment of the Reformation. For centuries earnest men and women seeking the way of Christ had been deeply dissatisfied with the state of the Church. So encrusted had she become with sub-Christian tradition that the practical duties of the Christian life were often obscured by unethical practices; so involved was her organisation with secular politics that its high offices were a standing temptation to worldly ambition. The desire for reform did not easily take shape.

 In England, Henry VIII wished to overset the power of the Pope. In so doing he set in motion forces hitherto latent. There was the greed of those who wished to profit by the break-up of the great monastic estates; there were the hopes of others who had long looked for the reform of religious abuses. The King needed the support of both.

 On the Accession of Edward VI the reforming party came into power and proceeded to reshape the National Church. The task was one of incredible difficult and the Tudor governments were not the most suitable instruments for reforming a spiritual body. An Act of Parliament had to limit the illimitable. The reformers produced a Prayer Book of great literary and devotional value but the Archangel Gabriel himself could scarcely have made a book to meet every need of every worshiping community for an indefinite period. In the old church, there had been a much greater latitude. With the various monastic orders, the friars, and the laymen’s guilds there had to be a great variety of religious practice. The government also made strenuous efforts to curb any preaching likely to be hostile to the regime in the church and state. The regimentation of the National Church left a vacuum, which the Free Churches rose to fill. The sense of local community, which had been strong in the monasteries and guilds, and the unfettered preaching of the gospel, which had been the special prerogative of the Friars, became their heritage.

 The birth of Free Churches involved a new initiative in religion. For centuries, leadership in religious activity had been inextricably involved with the political leadership of the day. This state of affairs was perpetuated in the Reformation Church of England. The Free Church idea arose in the perception that in spiritual matters it might be necessary to act on spiritual grounds alone, regardless of the intentions of the secular state and, if necessary, in opposition to them. It was in the inception of this initiative that Norwich made a unique contribution to the beginnings of the Free Churches. Here had settled large numbers of Protestant refugees from the Low Counties fleeing from the sword of Alva. Their immigration was encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I on political and economic grounds. Having set herself up as their champion against the odious persecutions of Rome she was obliged to give them what Rome denied – freedom of religion. Their church order was what we should call Presbyterian and their worship less stereotyped than that enjoined in the Prayer Book. This had to be tolerated and the Strangers were permitted to worship in their own way. By the middle of Elizabeth’s reign, nearly half the inhabitants of Norwich were Strangers. The more numerous Dutch speaking community was allotted the choir of the great church of the Black Friars for their worship while the French speaking company had the use of the Bishop’ Chapel in his palace grounds. Thus, by 1580 more than one-third of the inhabitants of the city were nonconformists from the National Church and belonged to what were actually called Free Churches (Eglises Libres).

It was natural then that it should be in Norwich that a church was gather in 1580 on what has become known as the Congregational model. In that year Robert Browne, a clergyman of advanced ideas, came to Norwich to stay with his friend Robert Harrison who was Master of the Great Hospital. Here the two formed that church whose members agreed, “To join themselves to the Lord in one covenant and fellowship together and to keep and seek agreement under His laws and government”.

 Persecution soon drove this church to Middlesburgh in Holland where it disintegrated after a few years. However, the Brownists were spoken of everywhere and such churches began to spring up spontaneously. After over 4 centuries a considerable portion of those now associated in the World Council of Churches share substantially the views of the Church put forward by Robert Brown.

 Again Norwich was associated with the next important wave of Free Church activity. About 1603 John Robinson came to be curate at St. Andrews Church, Norwich. After the tightening up of clerical discipline in 1604 he was suspended by the Bishop. Denied the liberty of preaching he gathered friends about him for private prayer. The authorities promptly excommunicated those who attended. John Robinson then moved to Scooby, Lincolnshire to help the church there. However, before long first one and then another were fined and imprisoned for refusing to obey the law which said that everyone must attend the parish church regularly and that no one must take part in any other meeting for worship and most removed to Leyden in Holland with John Robinson as a pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers. He was one of the great figures in our history and his words still echo in the hearts of Free Churchmen, “The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word.” It is interesting to speculate how far Norwich helped to shape John Robinson’s views towards Congregational principles and how far the history of the Pilgrim Fathers would have been modified had that finely-tempered soul never sojourned in this ancient city.

 Up to this time much of the material which was to form the Free Churches remained within the National Church, hoping for a further reformation of her order and worship. The reforms of Archbishop Laud were in the opposite direction to what they had in mind and drove out many such men for, in Norwich diocese alone, some 50 ministers were deprived of their cures. A number of them fled to Holland and New England to escape from what they called innovated injunctions in the worship and service of God.

 When the imminence of civil war loosed the bonds of government sufficiently to make it safe for them to return, some of these exiles came back. The congregations they gathered were the mother churches of the Baptist and Congregational Communions in Norfolk, and some have had a continuous life from that day to this.

 In the Civil War the Parliamentary side was chiefly Puritan, composed of men who belonged to the Protestant wing of the National Church. The “separatist” (Free Church) element having learned to regard the Bishops as its principle foe naturally sided with Parliament. In 1643 Parliament summoned the Westminster Assembly to advise upon the reform of the Church. The bulk of its members were Puritan divines all of whom were episcopally ordained clergy of the National Church. The majority held Presbyterian views but there were five Congregationalists among them William Bridge, a leading figure from Norfolk. These five fought a constant rear-guard action on behalf of their Free Churches and effectively prevented the Assembly from devising a workable plan to reform for the National Church on Presbyterian lines. It may be that Episcopalians as well as Free Churchmen owe them an unacknowledged debt. Cromwell favoured the Free Churches which flourished during his tenure of power and in some places had the use of Parish Churches for worship, their ministers being included within the loose framework of the church establishment.

 As the Congregationalist and Baptist had “tried the patience” of the Episcopal Church, a new body now rose to “try” them – this body was the Society of Friends or Quakers, followers of the mystic George Fox whose silent worship habit of breaking in on the assemblies of others were equally affronting to the orthodox of the time. The first Quaker meeting in Norwich was formed in 1654.

 At the Restoration all ministers who could not conform to the National Church as established by the Act of Uniformity of 1662 were ejected from parish Churches, but they regarded the imposition of the 1662 Prayer Book as a retrograde step. They were called Presbyterian and may have been sympathetic to Presbyterian tenets, but force of circumstances made their position closely akin to that of Congregationalists. These were the most numerous and well-to-do of nonconformists and were represented in Norwich by the congregation which later built the Octagon. Many of the Presbyterian Congregationalists, the Octagon being among them, later became Unitarian.

 In the Act of Uniformity of 1662 a final attempt was made to reduce the national religion to a single pattern. It was unsuccessful. The nonconformists were undeterred by fines and imprisonments and at last, in 1689, their position was recognised by the Act of Toleration suspending the penalties against them, though leaving them under many civil disabilities. The Toleration Act made it possible for Free Churches to own property and build Meeting Houses – the Old Meeting in Norwich (1693) is an excellent example.

 In the years that followed religion was at a low ebb in England. The spiritual drought equally affected the National Church and the newly liberated Free Churches. John and Charles Wesley first visited Norwich in 1754 and here, as all over England, Methodist Societies began to be formed. The Wesley’s first intention was that they should be within the National Church, but that Church proved unable to contain them. They developed a community life of their own akin to that of the older Free Churches. The Methodist Movement not only gave birth to this great new spearhead of Christian advance, but revitalised all branches of the Church of England.

 The 19th century was a century of liberation for Free Churchmen when their disabilities were gradually removed. Leading nonconformists played a great part in local life not only in the sphere of religion but in industry, both as employers and pioneer trades unionists, in education and civic government.

The 20th century saw a drawing together of the various communions which was symbolised by the Lord Bishop of Norwich preaching at St. Mary’s Baptist Chapel on the 250th anniversary of that church in 1919.

 Old animosities have died down, though divergent principles of church government are still strongly held by those who understand them. Members of other Communions are often little aware of the claims, tenets or history of the Free Churches. It is hoped that this booklet do something to remedy this lack of information in a city which has made an important contribution to Free Church history and whose life members of the Free Churches have greatly enriched.

 The foregoing comes from the preface of a booklet issued for a thirteen-day exhibition at The Old Meeting in 1951 arranged by the Norwich Free Church Federal Council. Nowadays most Churches are working together.




 It is difficult to say when Independency first saw the light in Norwich. The year 1642 is the date usually given for the founding of the fellowship, but we know that Independents hipped in this city many years earlier. In 1580 Robert Browne, generally regarded as the founder of Congregationalism, came to Norwich and joined Robert Harrison and opened an energetic campaign on behalf of New Testament principles. They soon gathered around them a company of like-minded people, who formed what we may truly call the first Congregational Church in the city of Norwich. Where they met we do not know, but we do know that they were not allowed to meet interference and, after twelve brief month, persecution compelled them to seek freedom elsewhere. “The Lord did call them out of England,” was the recorded judgement of all the members. “Apparently,” writes the late Dr. Dexter of America, “in 1581 the little church and its pastor emigrated to Middleburg, where they received permission of the magistrate to abide in freedom of faith and worship.”


 “Did all the members of the church go, or were some obliged to stay behind?” This question at once springs to mind as we think of the flight to Holland. Unfortunately, we cannot answer with certainty; but it is incredible that every member should have been in a position to sever all home ties. From the financial standpoint alone it is unlikely, and we may, with some degree of probability, conjecture that a few of the members of this little Independent church continued to meet for worship in each other’s houses.

 For the next fifty years a curtain is drawn across the stage of Nonconformity in Norwich, and then something happened to show that Independency was far from dead. At the beginning of our Church Book under the date 1635 we read:

 “The urging of Popish ceremonies and divers innovated injunctions in the worship and service of God; the suspending and silencing of divers Godly ministers, and the persecution of Godly men and women by Bishop Wren and his instruments in Norwich, Yarmouth, and other places, caused divers of Godly people to pass over to Holland to enjoy freedom from superstitious human inventions in God’s worship.”



In two years Wren suspended fifty “Godly and learned Ministers,” one of whom was the Rev. William Bridge, M.A., Rector of St. Peter Hungate and Curate of St. George’s, Tombland. His chief offence was his refusal to read the Book of Sports, issued by James I., in church and later re-published by his successor Charles I. The aim of the Book of Sports was, “To counteract the too-religious observance of the Sabbath, by encouraging athletic games and dances after public service.” William Bridge fled to Holland and became the Minister of the Rotterdam Church in 1638. After two years he returned to this country with other exiles. Some settled in Yarmouth and some came back to Norwich, the two companies forming one church under the ministry of Mr. Bridge.


The Rev. William Bridge, M.A.

First Minister (1642-1646)



 On June 28th. 1643, William Bridge and the co‑founders of the church entered into the following covenant which is the foundation of the Old Meeting fellowship:

 "We, being desirous in the fear of God, to worship and serve Him according to His revealed will, do freely, solemnly, and jointly covenant with the Lord, in the presence of His saints and angels.

 "That we will forever acknowledge and avouch God for our God in Jesus Christ.

 "That we will always endeavor through the Grace of God assisting us, to walk in all His ways and ordinances, according to His written Word, which is the only sufficient rule of good life for every man, neither will we suffer ourselves to be polluted in any sinful ways, either public or private, but abstain from the very appearance of evil, giving no offence to the Jew or Gentile, or Churches of Christ.

 "That we will all love, improve our communion as brethren, by watching over one another, and as need be, counsel, admonish, reprove, comfort, relieve, assist, and bear with one another, humbly submitting ourselves to the government of Christ in His churches.

 "Lastly, we do not promise these things in our own, but in Christ’s strength; neither do we confine ourselves to the words of this Covenant, but shall at all times account it our duty to embrace any further light on truth, which shall be revealed to us out of God's Word."



 First. The divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and their sole authority and entire sufficiency as the rule of faith and practice.

 Second. The unity of God with the proper deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

 Third. The universal and total depravity of man in the sight of God and his exposure to eternal death as the wages of sin.

 Fourth. The incarnation of the Son of God, the sufficiency of His atonement for sin and free justification by faith alone in Him.

 Fifth. The absolute necessity of the Holy Spirit's grace and power for man's regeneration and sanctification.

 Sixth. The predestination according to God's gracious purposes a multitude that no man can number unto eternal salvation which in no way interferes with the use of means or man's responsibility.

 Seventh. The immutable authority of the law of God as the rule of human conduct.

 Eighth. The immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment when the wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.

 A memorial tablet to William Bridge will be found on the North wall of the church close to the pulpit.



 In 1644 the members in Norwich desired separation. They had been going to Yarmouth for worship every alternate Sunday, and they found the journey tedious and wearisome. In those days of civil war it was also probably far from safe. After some friendly conferences the one company became two churches. William Bridge was invited to Norwich, but he decided to throw in his lot with the Yarmouth fellowship (it was probably safer by the sea), and in 1647 the Rev. Timothy Armitage accepted the pastorate at Norwich.



 For fifty years the church in Norwich had no settled meeting place, being driven from pillar to post. We read of the members meeting for worship in private houses, in a brew-house in St. Edmund’s, and in a part of Blackfriars Hall. Throughout this very long period of difficulty, they never lost heart, keeping together and increasing in numbers. In 1693, after the passing of the Toleration Acts, the present building (which afterwards became known as the Old Meeting House) was erected during the pastorate of the Rev. Martyn Finch. Mr. Ian C. Harnah in his “Heart of East Anglia” writes:

 “Two noble monuments commemorate Norwich as the first cradle of Puritanism. One stands in her own midst, the quaint, picturesque Old Meeting in Colegate; the other is far away, in a bustling city in the New World. Close to where the Blackfriars first lived in Norwich stands the old brick Meeting House of the Congregationalists. It was erected in 1693; its sundial bears that date. Between Corinthian pilasters are two ranges of flat arched windows, a pantiled roof rises above. Round three sides is a gallery, the pulpit is in the centre of the fourth. The flat plaster ceiling rests on columns both above the galleries and below them. The fittings are of the plainest and their materials are of the best. Monuments of the simplest bear blazoned arms, and one or two inscriptions in Latin tell of the culture of those at rest. In its imposing austerity the old chapel speaks of the deep but simple faith of those by whose hands it was raised. The atmosphere seems so redolent of the New England that even in Norwich one instinctively looks round for the pine trees of the forest.”

 Architecturally the building is of special interest for it is undoubtedly the first important example of Free Church architecture. The definite Dutch feel in its composition and details clearly indicate the influence and association with the friends in Holland, and under the sundial there is, in the Dutch clinker paving a large stone vault recording the burial of a member from Rotterdam.

 The architect shares the fate of many if his contemporaries, for his name is unknown. The plan of the building is unusual, the pulpit being in the centre of the longest wall, the idea being that the minister shall be in as close contact with the people as possible. It is also noteworthy that, although the building runs lengthwise, East to West, the Communion Table is to the North.

 The main South Elevation demands the most attention, with its thin brick, and still thinner rubbed and gauged pilasters surmounted by Corinthian caps, and the heavy eaves, lead lined above and consul blocks below. The early sash windows (believed to be the first in Norwich) have finely worked brick dressings to the jambs and heads and massive sills of timber. The large flat canopies to the doorways are unusual. The simple sundial in the centre, with the date is a feature rarely associated with Free Church buildings.

 The paving in front of the entrance is formed with genuine Dutch materials. The walls of the Church are of much greater thickness than usual for this class of building. The roof, on Principals running from North to South, is covered with black glazed pantiles.



 A century and a half after the erection of the church the bi-centenary of the founding of the fellowship was celebrated. In that year (1842) the Rev. Andrew Reed B.A. (Minister 1841 – 1855) laid the foundation stone of the two-tier School Hall to the South-West of the church, and included in the bi-centenary celebrations was the sending of greetings, not only to the sister church in Yarmouth, but also to the sister church in Rotterdam. In addition to this building there was also during the last century an Old Meeting Day School to the West of the Church which later came under the control of the local education authority, but this has now long been demolished.



 In 1862 the freehold of the Chapel was purchased, and in 1866 we read of members meeting for worship in St. Andrew’s Hall owing to repairs to the Old Meeting House. In the late eighties the lease of the School Hall and caretaker’s house was purchased, and the house rebuilt.

 When the Rev. Lewis entered upon the pastorate in 1892 the seating accommodation consisted of the original box pews. A scheme of renovation and alternation was decided upon, which are made from the oak of the original ones. At the same time the vestibules were constructed.



 In 1907, during the ministry of the Rev. J.J. Brooker, the Minister’s Vestry to the East of the chapel was built on to the small vestry which was part of the original building. Additional class rooms were also added to the School Hall.

In 1930 the Rev. R.E.F. Peill, M.A., died suddenly in the first year of his ministry, and in 1932 the small building to the South-East of the chapel was erected as a memorial to him and for the use of the Primary Department of the Sunday School, known as the Peill Room. A small tablet on the North wall of the interior of the church commemorates the life and work of Mr. Peill.



 Throughout its long history the Old Meeting has been fortunate in its choice of ministers and in the length of their pastorates. In three hundred and fifty years the chapel has had only twenty-eight ministers, some of whom have enjoyed much more than local reputation. William Bridge was one of the signatories to the famous Savoy Declaration of 1658; the 4th minister was John Cromwell, a kinsman of the Great Protector. In 1839 J.H. Godwin resigned to become Resident Tutor at Highbury College, and was succeeded in turn by men whose names are still revered in Norwich, Andrew Reed, John Hallett, Robert Hobson, John Lewis, John James Brooker and Poy Peill. The names of all the ministers, with the dates of their pastorates, are inscribed on the front of the pulpit.

 The chapel has been equally fortunate in its laymen, and any list we might compile would leave out many worthy of mention – the monuments on the walls tell of their devotion and character.



 The Old Meeting abounds in interesting features.

  1. The organ is in the West gallery, together with the choir stalls
  2. The two memorials immediately on either side of the pulpit conceal two small oval windows, which can be seen from the exterior.
  3. On a panel on the South gallery next to the clock is the following inscription:

“In memory of four Clergymen ejected by the Act of Uniformity, A.D. 1662 who subsequently became Pastors of this chapel –

Rev. Thos. Allen, M.A., who died 21.9.1675

Rev. John Cromwell, B.A., who died April, 1685

Rev. Roby. Asty, who died 1686

Rev. Martyn Finch, during whose ministry the Old Meeting House was built, A.D. 1693, and who died 13th February, 1697."

  1. A door leads out of the chapel on the East side into the Deacons’ Vestry, which contains a fine old refectory table and many photographs and drawings of historical interest. Through the windows of this vestry may be seen part of the old disused burial ground which, midway in the 1930’s was converted into a garden. The grave stones were placed against the walls – in the centre of the garden a lawn was made and used for the ancient game of bowls. The whole area is currently being landscaped into a “Garden of Remembrance.”
  2. The chapel possesses a fine Communion Service of silver, bequeathed by Bartholomew Balderston about 1740. A photograph of this service hangs in the Deacon’s Vestry. Bartholomew also left a most unusual trust at the well-appointed Norwich Bethel. This permitted Dr. Wood, the then minister, and his successors from time to time, to put in two persons to be kept on the foundation with food, medicine and clothes and many have had the comfort over many years.
  3. Of the many memorial stones on the exterior perhaps the most interesting is the one on the North wall. It records the burial in 1713 of one of the ministers of St. Mary’s Baptist Church. The memorial has the following quaint couplet:

“Is William dead, that cannot bee,

Since dead in Christ so liveth hee.”



 The work today is carried on under vastly different conditions from past days when folk formed large queues to get into the Chapel services! At the beginning of the 19th century the Old Meeting was the only Congregational Church in the city but soon four others were formed. Colegate, in which the chapel is situated, used to be in the heart of a residential district. In the mid 1930’s it became a “down-town” chapel in an area considerably depopulated, with many factories close by. In later years, other commercial premises rose as houses were demolished and attendance at services diminished.

 In 1977 the chapel roof needed £20,000 for immediate repairs and this led to a repair lease being executed with the Norwich City Council and soon after the chapel “temporarily closed” although the final Church Meeting gave Mr. L.G. Willis (Norfolk Area Congregational Federation Secretary) authority to hold monthly services at the Old Meeting which has been carried on from that day to this.

 However, the circle has now “turned” in two ways. First of all five city chapels surrended their Congregational principles in 1972 to join the Presbyterians in forming the United Reformed Church structured on the Presbyterian form of government – in other words, as in the early 19th century Old Meeting is the only Congregational Chapel in the city. In the second place, Colegate is becoming a residential area again and, following the 1993 repairs and decorations we are trying our best to increase the number of services and build up the Church – after all, the Church is people – to maintain the very long witness of the Congregational Way in Norwich.



 Over the many years of its history, numerous special functions have taken place at the Old Meeting but space prevents us mentioning them all – here are just a few:

 1896 – A Civic Service of welcome was held at the Old Meeting for 50 descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers from America who stayed in Norwich (at the Maids Head Hotel) on a visit to the city – during the week they were joined by 450 Congregationalists at as Strawberry Tea at Carrow Abbey, the then home of the Colman family.

 1929 – The Autumn Assembly of the Congregational Union of England and Wales was held in Norwich and the Old Meeting hosted four subsidiary meetings. The main Assembly took place at Prince’s Street C.C. and there were public meetings and community hymn singing in St. Andrew’s Hall.

 1979 – The Congregational Assembly was held in St. Andrew’s Hall with subsidiary meetings at the Old Meeting. A group of young people from Long Stratton Congregational Church acted the part of separatist family, walking from Colegate via Wensum Street, Elm Hill and Prince’s Street to St. Andrew’s Hall where they were greeted by the Assembly.

 1989, 1992, & 1994 – Old Meeting hosted visits by American Congregationalists and provided lunch at the Maid’s Head Hotel.

1993 – Old Meeting hosted members of the Girls’ Brigade from Norwich and Norfolk for their Centenary Celebrations in the form of a special Carol Service.

 THE OLD MEETING HOUSE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH stands today, not only as a fine specimen of the architectural taste of the 17th century, but also as a worthy memorial to our fathers in the Faith. Let us who come within its walls spare time to offer this brief prayer:

 Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for this House of God and Home of men. Grant it increasing usefulness in the service of Your Kingdom. We thank You too, for those who, in times of darkness, kept the lamp of faith burning; for great souls who saw visions of larger truth and dared to declare it; for all who fought for truth and liberty; for the quiet and gracious souls who were a blessing to many; for preachers raised up to declare the message of God with power; and for all faithful witnesses to the life that is in Christ.

O God, to us may grace be given

To follow in their train;

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen



Midway during 1992 the Chapel Building was closed to a suspect ceiling; services were held in the Peill Room whilst investigations were made. However, the problem was not as bad as first feared but, all the same, involved a tremendous amount of preparatory work in so far as count-sacks of grime, accumulated over many years between the roof and ceiling, had to be removed by hand!

In January 1993 a major repair and decoration programme commenced. Much of the work undertaken between the roof and the ceiling cannot be seen – for example, strengthening of the ceiling joists, some 37 new trusses etc., etc.

Work that can be seen by the eye include installation of a new floor, repairs where necessary to pews, at least one replacement window sill, repairs to windows, new guttering and down pipes where necessary and a revamped drainage system complete with a new large brick soakaway at the rear of the Chapel and so on. During internal decorations a hidden Crucifix Window (boarded and covered by plaster) was uncovered in the Deacons’ vestry and now remains “on show” – this find strengthens earlier claims that the Old Meeting House was the first building to have sash windows in Norwich. It is possible that all present windows were originally of Crucifix type and that the sash windows were installed at the time when the Deacons’ Vestry was later added to the Chapel. On completion of the interior work, the Church purchased new carpeting and velvet curtains for the Deacons’ and Minister’ Vestries and the linking corridor between the two.

The Peill Room (detached Hall on the East side in front of the Chapel) has also received external decoration and repairs plus a new heating system.

A weekend of special events was held at the end of June, 1993 to commemorate the RE-OPENING OF THE CHAPEL, the 350th ANNIVERSARY OF THE CHURCH and the 300th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BUILDING itself. Events over this special weekend were:

Saturday, 26th June at 7.30pm – Music and Song for a Summer Evening by the Salvation Army (Norwich Citadel) Band.

Sunday, 27th June at 6.30pm – “Songs of Praise,” led by the Rev. E.D. Ritchie, with the bible reading taken by Miss Josephine Self (Methodist Church). Soloist: Leonie Pritchard. Organist: Mrs. Ivy Savory.

Tuesday, 29th June at 7.30pm – Thanksgiving Service led by the Minister (Rev. E.D. Ritchie) and attended by the Lord Mayor of Norwich, Councillor Roy Durrant, and the Lady Mayoress, Joyce Durrant. The bible readings were by Mr. George Eve, representing the City Council Departments and the Rev. Neils Waugh (Baptist). The prayers were led by the Rev. Michael Lithgoe (R.R.C.) and the Rev. Roy Ritchie of the Congregational Church. The address was given by the Rev. Canon Derek Morton (Anglican). Chorale items were given by the Anglian Singers under the direction of their conductor, Mr. Gerald Potts. The organist was Ursula Franklin.



In connection with the major repairs, renovation and decoration of the building, the Church wish to express profound thanks to the following for their co-operation, advice, dedication and help:


  • Mr. Ken Lord
  • Mr. Alan Wright
  • Mr. Mike Pewton
  • Mr. Alan Utting.


  • Mrs. Ann Rostron
  • Mr. Charles Carus
  • Ms Prue Smith


  • Mr. George Eve
  • Mr. Eric Neale


  • Mrs. Carol Marney (Structual)
  • Mr. Alan Plant (Electrical)




W.S. Lusher & Sons Ltd, and in particular

  • Mr. Mark Lusher
  • Mr. Brian Morton
  • Mr. Chris Loades

also, their Workmen/Sub Contractors.

 The whole project would have been impossible without the generosity of English Heritage who defrayed much of the cost. We are very grateful for their help and that of Mr. Richard Halsey and Mr. William Riba, both of the Heritage.



William Bridge, M.A.          1642 – 1646

Timothy Armitage, M.A.    1647 – 1655

Thomas Allen, M.A.            1656 - 1673

Robert Asty                         1673 – 1673

John Cromwell                    1675 – 1685

Martin Fynch                       1685 – 1697

John Stackhouse                1690 - 1709

Thomas Scott                     1709 – 1746

Abraham Tozer                  1747 – 1754

Samuel Wood, DD              1754 – 1767

Samuel Newton                 1768 – 1810

William Hull                      1809 – 1823

Stephen Morell                  1824

John B. Innes                   1825 – 1837

J.H. Godwin                      1837 – 1839

Andrew Reed, B.A.             1841 – 1855

John Hallett                      1856 – 1878

Robert Hobson                  1878 – 1891

John Lewis                        1892 – 1903

J.J. Brooker                      1904 – 1926

R.E.F. Peill, M.A.               1929 – 1930

S. John Bates                    1930 – 1936

P.J. Lawton, B.A.               1937 – 1945

E.T.D. James, M.A.            1946 – 1952

S.D. Gamson                     1954 – 1962

G.A. Johnson                    1964 – 1969

Jack Burton                      1970 – 1975

Roy C.P. Hunt                   1979 – 1986

Eilleen Ritchie                   1992 – 1994

John Clements, Th.D       1995 – 1997

Frank Little                       2000 – 2015

John Clements, Th. D      2015 - 



Dr John ClementsThe 5th Minister (John Cromwell) was a kinsman of the Great Protector; joint pastor with the 4th Minister (Robert Asty),

 The 7th Minister (John Stackhouse) was a colleague of the 6th Minister (Martin Fynch), afterwards sole pastor 1690 – 1707.

 Phillip Doddridge (1702 – 1751) a leading Congregational minister of his day, a prolific writer of sermons for special occasions and hymns (eg “Hark the glad sound the Saviour comes”, “O God of Bethel” (chosen for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in June 1977), “O happy day” etc) liked to come to Norfolk for his holidays and was a great friend of three of our ministers – Thomas Scott, Abraham Tozer and Smauel Wood. In fact Doddridge gave the charge at the ordination of Abraham Tozer in the Old Meeting House.

 The 15th Minister (Andrew Reed) published his own book of hymns – the best know being “Spirit Divine, attend our prayers.”

 As mentioned earlier, the Rev Peill (20th Minister) collapsed and died in our pulpit after pronouncing the Blessing on Easter Day 1930.

 Ministers still living are Jack Burton, Eilleen Ritchie, John Clements and Frank Little.



 The following memorial stone is placed on the rising bank of the River Wensum by Bishop Bridge which marked the boundary of the fortified City of Norwich in those days, Lollards Pit is but a stone’s throw away but, needless to say, “outside the City Walls” and about ¾ mile from the Old Meeting House.

 “To the Glory of God and in memory of

Thomas Bilney, M.A., LL.B

(Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge)

Burnt to death in the Lollards’ Pit

Norwich, August 19th 1531

for spreading the Gospel of free salvation by faith

in the atoning blood of Christ once offered on the Cross.

“Blessed Martyr of God”

Spiritual father of the Reformation in England.

Also of William White

A follower of John Wycliffe September 1428

and the following were burnt

in the reign of Queen Mary I (Tudor)

Cicely Ormes           1557   William Seaman       1558

Simon Miller                      Thomas Carman

Elizabeth Cooper               Thomas Hudson

Richard Crasefield              Richard Yeoman


“They loved not their lives unto the death” Rev. 12 v 11.

 These all died in the cause of Biblical Evangelical Christianity and in denial of the unscriptural doctrines of the Church of Rome.

Provided by the Council and supporters of the Protestant Alliance.”


Thomas Bilney, first named on the memorial was a friend of Latimer.

We know that the persecution long persisted in Norwich by the then National Established Church and only need to remind ourselves of the Lives of Robert Browne, John Robinson, William Bridge and countless others.

Robert Browne: He was a graduate of Corpus Christi, Cambridge and attacked the Anglican principle of “parish Christianity” and there was an inevitable collision! Norwich, in the middle of the 16th century was “forward in matters of religion” as the phrase of the time described it. The significance of Robert Browne is that he introduced into history, and is for all time identified with, a new conception of the Church – the gathered Church. Hence he was regarded as the “father of Congregationalism.”

Robert Harrision: He was also a graduate of Corpus Christi. He took up the headship of the Free School in Aylsham, Norfolk in 1574 but was dismissed after a few weeks because of his very pronounced puritanism. He was appointed Master of The Great Hospital, Norwich soon afterwards.



The Pilgrim Fathers were a group of some 60 Nonconformists (the name Pilgrim Fathers originated many years later) who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620.

For centuries there had been Christians who believed that the Church was moving away from its New Testament roots. They saw it as a power structure, existing by pomp and elaborate liturgy, and imposing itself upon the common people.  Anyone who made their own decisions regarding religion was called a heretic. (a Greek word meaning "chooser").  The reformation brought about some changes in the teaching about salvation, but the Reformed Churches were now imposing their doctrines and practices by force, instead of those of Roman Catholicism.

At that time Norwich was one of England's biggest and wealthiest towns, home to a large number of skilled, literate, independent minded merchants and craftsmen.  Such men wanted to take responsibility for their religious beliefs and practices.    Many of them objected to the rule of bishops and to having the Prayer Book forced upon them, and wanted more congregational decision making.  They often organised their own services and became known as Separatists or Puritans.   Some were fined, imprisoned or executed and others fled abroad.  In 1581 members of the congregation of St. Helen's at the Great Hospital, Bishopgate had fled to Holland for refuge.   Various other people from around the region were fleeing to different venues on the Continent.  (See article on "Robert Browne")

St. Andrew's was one of Norwich's most prominent churches and in 1604 John Robinson (1575-1625) became a member of its clergy, but within a year was forced to leave Norwich. He led a Separatist church in the Trent Valley until 1609 when he was again forced to flee, this time taking his congregation to Leiden in Holland where they were free to worship according to their conscience.

Although the Netherlands offered freedom to all, problems did eventually arise and they decided to emigrate to North America. The Virginia Company held the right to authorise settlements along the coast up to latitude forty-one north.  Robinson sent two men to London to negotiate with the Virginia Company, to ask King James to grant them a charter for a new colony, and to raise a company of shareholders to back their venture.

Only 50 of Robinson's church opted to make the first crossing so he decided to stay with the others and go later.  They sailed from Delftshaven in the Speedwell, on July 31st 1620.  At Southampton they joined up with Mayflower, carrying another 20 Separatists and about 50 other passengers.  Problems developed with Speedwell and it became necessary to return, first to Dartmouth and then to Plymouth for repairs, the result being that they disposed of Speedwell and crowded onto Mayflower, although some pilgrims had to stay behind.

Their final departure date from Plymouth was 16th September and because of an error they arrived at Plymouth Bay, far north of latitude forty-one, on 16th November. To the Pilgrims this was a happy co-incidence and they retained the name Plymouth which had been given by John Smith a few years earlier. The Separatists and the other emigrants stayed together although tensions were to arise.  Five of the original party had died on the crossing and forty five others died during the first six months.  More settlers from Leiden arrived over the next few years, one of Robinson's sons amongst them, but Robinson himself died in Leiden in 1625.  His church there eventually dispersed and integrated with the Dutch community.   The Mayflower returned to England in 1621 and was scrapped a couple of years later. Many buildings in England claim to incorporate timber from her, but there is little evidence to support these claims.

Norwich people involved    Desire Minter from Norwich had gone to Leiden and worked for the Carver family.  Desire was a young woman of about twenty at the time of the crossing (the average age was thirty-two) and she returned to England (Norwich?) in 1625.   William Holbeck was employed in some capacity by William White and went over with him, whether from Leiden or directly from Norwich is not known.  Edward and Ann Fuller were members of the Leiden Church and originated from Redenhall in Norfolk.  Their young son, Samuel, had been born in Leiden.   Thomas Williams had gone to Leiden from Great Yarmouth.   Edward and Elizabeth Winslow were from Chattisham in Norfolk.

Did the Pilgrim Fathers plant democracy in America?    No, they were not democratic and never claimed to be.   They believed that they had been chosen by God and that they had to preserve a particular way of life at all costs. If anyone didn't fit in, they were driven out of the settlement.   If the honour of establishing democracy should go to any one individual, Roger Williams is probably the man.   Williams is rarely mentioned in church history books but a short biographical note and extracts from his writings can usually be found in any comprehensive anthology of American literature.

The churches formed by the Pilgrim Fathers were usually self-governed by the members of the congregation and hence became known as Congregational Churches.  There were many such churches on both sides of the Atlantic, and although they have mostly merged with Presbyterian churches to become the United Reformed Church  (URC), Norwich's oldest Congregational Church, The Old Meeting in Colegate, still remains as a separate congregation.  American visitors who tour Europe on the "Pilgrim Trail" probably look on the Old Meeting, rather than St. Andrew's,  as their closest link to Norwich.

The part taken by the Eastern Counties in the Pilgrim movement required some explanation. Relatively they were in the 17th Century the most progressive part of the British Isles. The Eastern Association, of which Cromwell became joint-Commander, included Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridge and Huntingdonshire. It was from these counties Cromwell drew his Ironsides, “plain russet coasted captains, who knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.”

The proportion of the Mayflower Pilgrims from these counties is very striking: 6 came from Yorkshire, 9 from Nottinghamshire, 2 from Lincolnshire, 17 from London, 17 from Kent, 11 from Essex and 32 from Norfolk.



 Old Meeting House Church OrganThe interest shown in this organ over the years rests in the design quality, design, and antiquity of part of its case. That is, only the upper part of the front, displaying pipes in the form of three towers separated by two flats, with carved pipe shades, and the return panels extending back either side for some two feet and bearing an arrow like vertical motif. The late lamented Stephen Bicknell, after making a detailed inspection (BIOS reporter, Vol. 7 No. 1, 1983) declared that this was most likely the work of Robert Dallam, (1602-1665) but could find no pipe markings to confirm this. The markings uncovered recently certainly are those of Robert Dallam. Also visible were flower heads of five petals on the upper pipe lips and oak leaves on the pipe bodies together with scroll decoration. Could these be oak leaves and apple blossom, Oak Apple day being for many years the annual celebration of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. During Cromwell’s Commonwealth, which forbade the use of organs in churches, the Dallam family went to live and work in Brittany, and only returned after the Restoration in 1660. Robert Dallam’s skill was in great demand for the cathedrals of England, and he provided a new instrument for Norwich Cathedral in 1664. The Meeting House organ front is believed to be the “chair case” of that organ, (or possibly a temporary one), being the projecting part behind which the organist sat, and only a third of the original Cathedral instrument.

 The remainder of the Old Meeting House organ contains material from around 1750 to 1875, and is in itself a potted history of organ building over that period. After years of neglect and severe desiccation, it has been resurrected piecemeal to full playing order with surprising results and may be heard and inspected on Heritage Open Days.

 It has recently come to light that the OMH organ did not arrive until 1838 and came from the Bridge Street Concert room which stood in what is now St. Georges St. on the south side of the river on the site of the old technical college which became the Norwich Art School, opposite the former Gunton and Havers builder’s merchants. The Hall Concert Society was founded around 1786 but as yet it is not known when they acquired the instrument, or from where. The improvements made prior to its installation and reported at the time accord with the evidence revealed during the recent work.

  John Plunkett 2013



It is night, with shadowy figures in twos and threes picking their way through orchards and gardens and narrow streets. A door opens and closes intermittently, without noise and without light. More people have entered than can be accommodated in the house.

Newcomers go to the neighbouring houses, but the dividing walls have been pierced with holes, and they can at least hear one another. Soon there is quietness, and one voice is raised alone, raised in prayer, reading and preaching. There is a simple service of worship – no singing for fear it should be overheard by spies on watch for such sounds.

Outside at various corners are friends watching and waiting to give warning to the worshippers. At a later hour the preacher is secretly conveyed away, and the people depart as they had come, but with a glow in their hearts and a quite resolution and enthusiasm.

This is how the fathers of those who built the Old Meeting House, founded their Church in days when they were forbidden to erect a building, and were subject to all manner of penalties for the crime of being Nonconformists and Dissenters. Such enthusiasm founded the Church which has lived through more than  three and half centuries.