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4. Strangers, Weavers, Quakers and Dissenters

Something of the character of St Augustine's parish in the mid-16th century can be gauged by William Cunningham’s panoramic plan of Norwich of 1558 (see right), the earliest known printed map of any English town. While much of the parish is still open land partly enclosed by the city wall, the church is shown clustered about with houses, which extend the whole length of St Augustines Street and Botolph Street.

Little of use can be gleaned from Cunningham’s depiction of the church, which seems to be on the wrong side of the street, except to say that the original, pre-1677 tower is represented as square, battlemented and surmounted by a cross. At this time, the character of the parish’s population began to change. From the mid-16th century until the late 17th century, a great number of Protestant religious refugees and economic migrants, known collectively as the Strangers, came to live and work in Norwich. Most came from France and the Low Countries and they brought valuable new textile manufacturing skills with them, including innovative techniques for weaving and dyeing that greatly helped to revitalise the local worsted trade.

Many Strangers evidently settled in St Augustine’s parish, where rents were generally cheaper than elsewhere in the city. In 1576 the Assessment of Subsidy – a form of local taxation – listed eighty-two alien or ‘Stranger’ householders in the parish. Although the products of their labour created considerable wealth, the majority of them were quite impoverished and the parish itself was assessed the third poorest in the Ultra Aquam leet. By the close of the 16th century, with fewer and fewer wealthy parishioners able to endow the church, it began to fall into disrepair once more. During Bishop Redman’s Visitation of 1597, it was noted that ‘The parsonage houses are greatlie ruinous and redie to fall downe’. It was not only church property that had become neglected. The rector, John Staller, who also held the living at Drayton and resided there, seems hardly ever to have visited St Augustine’s, sending instead his curate who rode over from Drayton twice every Sunday. Ironically, Staller was probably a local man. Members of the Staller family, prominent worsted weavers, had held property in the parish since at least 1555 and a part of St Augustine';s Street was once known as Staller's Lane.

The Norwich Rate Book for 1633–4 showed that St Augustine’s was still one of the poorest parishes in the city. Among its poorest rate payers were several with Stranger names such as Delatat, Castell, Decurry and the curiously named William Cucko. In time many of the Strangers’ descendants made their fortunes and became some of Norwich's leading citizens, as may be gauged by the names of Flemish or Walloon origin to be found on 18th- and 19th-century monuments inside and outside the church (see section 7). Although these well-to-do descendants had become Anglicans, most of their forbears had preferred to follow their own form of Protestant worship at St Mary-the-Less in Queen Street (for the French-speaking Walloons) and in Blackfriars’ Hall (for the Dutch-speaking Flemish).

Fifty-two years after Bishop Redman’s Visitation, the rectory’s property, which was now owned by the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral, was still in a state of decay. The Parliamentary Survey in 1649 found
‘a personage howse adjoyning to the church yard, very old & ruinous’, as well as ‘Another ruinous decayed howse neare the said church’. Significantly, the rectory was not occupied by the rector; the previous incumbent, Joseph Reading, having been removed from the parish about three years earlier in about 1646 ‘as scandelous’. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say what character of scandalous behaviour he was accused of, though this was during the upheaval of the English Civil War, so he may simply have not been Puritan enough for the prevailing authorities. In the meantime the parish had had to employ its own minister.

Given the established Anglican Church’s neglect of the parish and its parishioners it is perhaps hardly surprising that by the late 17th century, various non-conformist sects began to impact on the character of worship in the area. The parish had in fact already become an important focus for the Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, following their purchase in 1670 of an acre of the Gildencroft known locally as the Dutch Garden or Buttercup Field as their burial ground. The land seems to have been previously used by local Flemish weavers for drying dyed cloth on frames known as ‘taintors’. As non-conformists, the Quakers were not allowed to bury their dead in consecrated Church of England churchyards. A meeting house, made of bricks very much like those of St Augustine’s new tower, which was completed in 1687, was built beside the Quaker burial ground on what had been a horse paddock in 1698. This was badly damaged by enemy bombing during the Second World War. The rebuilt, though much diminished building (now used as a kindergarten) and its adjoining burial ground can be seen in Chatham Street. The graves of innumerable Gurneys are here, as is that of the unjustly neglected Norwich-born author, Amelia Opie (1769–1853). Later, in 1813, another, smaller piece of the Gildencroft was leased to the city’s Jewish community as a burial plot.

The parish also provided sanctuary for adherents of evangelicalism. In 1752, following riots near the Bell Inn in Norwich, partly instigated by a local branch of the Hell Fire Club, James Wheatley, a Welsh Methodist preacher, took shelter in the house of Henry Jermyn in St Augustine’s. Here he converted two of Jermyn’s garrets for use as ‘conventicles’ (unlicensed religious meetings held without permission of the established Church). It later emerged that Wheatley was not quite as pious and pure as he had made out. Before coming to Norwich he had quarrelled and fallen out with the leader of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, and been formerly expelled from his congregation in 1751. In 1756, after a lengthy ecclesiastical court case, Wheatley was found guilty by Norwich Consistory Court of embezzlement and fornication with a series of young unmarried women. The salacious details of the case were reported in the Norwich Mercury. Jermyn’s next-door-neighbours in St Augustin'es, James and Sarah Chapman, gave evidence that they had seen Wheatley ‘misconducting’ himself with an unknown woman over their garden wall. Wheatley is thought to have given up preaching after this and turned instead to practicing ‘physick’, peddling quack medicines and cures. Some years later he is said to have repented his sins and returned to preaching under the protection of that noted defender of the Methodists, Lady Huntingdon.

Such Dissenting activity did not go unchallenged by the parish’s Anglian clergy. Charles John Smyth, rector of
St Augustine’s from 1795 to 1824, published a number of tracts promoting such controversial subjects as the conversion of the Jews, anti-Catholicism and anti-evangelicalism. He was also interested in church music and the science of acoustics. His Six Letters on Singing, from a Father to a Son, published in 1817, contains this piece of fatherly advice:
‘When you are singing, stand erect; hold your head high; do not tuck your chin into your cravat’!

The slump in the price of cloth after the Napoleonic Wars was felt particularly hard in Norwich where weaving was the principal or sole livelihood of many workers. In January 1830, the Poor Law Guardians decided to erect looms in the St Augustine’s workhouse, using its occupants as cheap labour. Soon after this an angry mob of weavers wearing masks attacked looms in William Springhall’s house in St Augustine’s. In the confusion, a pistol was discharged and Springhall was wounded. A little later another loom owner was attacked and blinded in the street. The self-confessed ring leader, Richard Nockolds, was later hanged for rick burning.

The age of weaving being carried on in individual weavers’ homes was passing. Increasingly, workers were being employed in local mills and factories. When the slump ended the increased demand for labour led to overcrowding in the gloomy and insanitary yards off the area’s main streets. Between 1801 and 1851, the population of the parish almost doubled. However, while the population of the parish increased, St Augustine’s congregation continued to fall. During this period Thomas Charlton (1796–1866), a Wesleyan preacher, opened the Norwich's first Primitive Methodist chapel, in Rose Yard off St Augustine's Street. This sect, sometimes called the Ranters because of their loud and fiery sermons, had previously met for religious meetings on Mousehold Heath. With their emphasis on salvation and self-help such non-conformist sects were more welcoming and appealing to the working-class poor than the Established Anglican Church with its rigid social hierarchy. In 1842, the departing rector of St Augustine’s, the Revd Samuel Stone, published A Few Parting Words to the Parishioners of St Augustine’s, exhorting them to observe the Sabbath and attend church. It does not seem to have worked, for a census of religious worship in 1851 found the number of adults attending Sunday afternoon service to be about 130, which was only about 6 per cent of the parish population. There would not have been space for many more, in any case, so cluttered and muddled had the church furnishings become by this period.

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Above: St Augustine's parish in Cunningham's Plan of Norwich of 1558














Below: St Augustine's church, drawn by James Sillett in about 1819 

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