Cherry Lane Chapel, Norwich

The first purpose-built Methodist chapel in Norwich

By Norma Virgoe

    The rented premises being used by the Methodists in 1768 soon proved to be unsatisfactory.

  When John Wesley was in Norwich in February 1769 he administered communion to 170 Methodists in the morning, but when he came to preach in the evening, he found that as the house would not contain one-third of the congregation, I was obliged to stand in the open air – a sight which has not been seen at Norwich for many years. [1]

    It was clear that with the rapidly increasing congregation, the need for larger premises was imperative and the Methodists began to feel that they were now strong enough to build their own chapel. John Wesley wrote to Charles, I am preparing to build at Norwich; for no place already built can be procured for love or money. [2]   However, hostility to their cause was still in evidence, fanned by their oblique association with James Wheatley and his shameful behaviour, and this made the search for a suitable plot extremely difficult.

    Eventually, a parcel of land was secured in the parish of St George, Colegate by John Perowne, one of the Norwich Methodists and a twisterer [3] and shopkeeper by trade. [4] It was situated in Cherry Lane, just off Pitt Street, between Pelican Yard and Adelaide Yard and was next to the Cherry Tree public house. The stone-laying ceremony took place early in 1769 with the foundation stone laid by the itinerant preachers then stationed in Norwich, Duncan Wright and Alexander McNab.  The chapel with galleries and box pews as well as a house for the preachers was quickly built. The house was of an unusual design, for a heavy central door at its front opened into a covered passageway leading to the chapel at the rear. This door could be closed at the times of services in order to protect the congregation from any disturbance.

Photo:The Preachers' house with its central door leading to Cherry Lane Chapel

The Preachers' house with its central door leading to Cherry Lane Chapel

    Wesley himself contributed £270 of the building costs whilst £73.5.9d was allocated from Connexional funds in order to reduce the remaining debts on the building.

    John Wesley travelled to Norwich at the end of October 1769 with a group of companions. He performed the opening ceremony at the chapel and then preached in the shell of the new house,crowded enough both within and without. [5] It seems that the building was not yet completely finished. 

    The chapel keeper was Mary Porter.  She had been one of the first members at the Foundery.  In 1777, she became chapel keeper at Cherry Lane where she was distinguished for her kindness and attention to the comfort of the Preachers, by whom she was respected as a mother.[6]

    Congregations fluctuated during the 1770s as a result of a series of disputes, but from 1777 the congregations grew once again and within two years, John Wesley was again complaining that the new chapel was far toosmall in the eveningI suppose many hundreds went away. [7]

    In a lecture given in 1876, Dr Thomas Stoughton described his memories of Norwich many years before.  He had attended Cherry Lane Chapel as a small boy and recalled that his mother had told him that in the 1770s, the congregation was sometimes disturbed by young fellows coming in to the evening service and bringing with them birds which they would let fly, that by the fluttering of their wings, they might extinguish the few tallow candles. [8]

    Members of the congregation at Cherry Lane were often troubled by disorder levelled against them. On Saturday 2 December 1775, for example, John Wesley recorded in his journal that,

in the evening a large mob gathered at the door of the preaching-house, the captain of which struck many (chiefly women) with a large stick.  Mr Randall, [the itinerant preacher] going out to see what was the matter, he struck him with it in the face.  But he was soon secured and carried before the mayor, who knowing him to be a notorious offender, against whom one or two warrants were then lying, sent him to jail without delay.[9]

    John Wesley visited the Norwich Methodists almost every year up to and including 1790, shortly before his death in March 1791. He usually lodged with the preachers in their house which was set conveniently just in front of the chapel.  He noted in his journal that when he preached at half past five in the afternoon, it was to as many as the house would contain; and even those that could not get in stayed more quiet and silent than ever I saw them before. [10]  

    The fortunes of the society fluctuated and Wesley felt it was badly neglected by its leaders.  William Lorkin, writing in 1825 of his memories of Cherry Lane chapel in the 1770s, described the bitter theological disputes which wracked the society with some bigoted and deluded leading members sowing discord and disunity amongst the congregation.  Numbers fell so low that contributions amounted to less than four shillings a week and it was feared that the chapel would be forced to close.

    The financial difficulties of the society cannot have been helped by the distress in the city.  Lorkin described the Methodists as mostly poor while Wesley, visiting the society in October 1772, found an ‘abundance of people were out of work and consequently in the utmost want (such a general decay of trade having hardly been known in the memory of man)...’ 40  

    Lorkin attributed the recovery of Methodist numbers to the arrival in Norwich of Joseph Pilmoor in 1777.  One of the two first itinerant preachers to go to America, Pilmoor had spent five years working there from 1769 and would return again in 1785.  Always a popular preacher, he attracted very many respectable citizens to Cherry Lane and enhanced its level of spiritual commitment.

    For the next few years, membership of the society continued to grow steadily although Wesley continually complained about their inconstancy - ‘such fickleness I have not found anywhere else in the kingdom.

   When Cherry Lane Chapel proved far too small for its congregation, a new chapel was built in Calvert Street in 1810-11.  The Cherry Lane Chapel complex was sold to the Baptists in 1818 who placed their own plaque above the passageway entrance, renaming the chapel ‘Providence’. The buildings continued in their possession until their demolition in 1936.

 

Extracts from The Heavenly Road: John Wesley’s Journeys in Norfolk and Suffolk by Norma Virgoe, 2011, The Larks Press; Through Cloud and Sunshine by Norma Virgoe and Albert Ward, 2002.

 


[1] Ibid., pp.302-3.

[2] The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. John Telford, London, 1931, vol. iv, p.277 (hereafter Letters).

[3] A twisterer was someone employed in the weaving industry whose job was to twist together the end of a new length of yarn with the end of that already woven.

[4] John Perowne also registered properties for worship in Winfarthing, King’s Lynn and Great Ellingham.

[5] Curnock, op. cit., vol. v, p.347.

[6] Wesleyan Magazine, 1822, p.225.

[7] Ibid., p.436.

[8] ‘Dr Stoughton’s Lecture,’ Jack Burton, in Wesley Historical Society, East Anglia Journal, 102, Summer 2005.

[9] Curnock, op. cit., vol.vi, pp.86-7.

[10] Ibid., p.133.

This page was added by Norma Virgoe on 26/11/2013.

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