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GUIDED

TOUR

OF

NON-CONFORMIST

COLCHESTER

QUAKERS, BAPTISTS. METHODISTS, INDEPENDENTS, ETC.

 

The 16th century was a time of huge religious upheaval. Henry the Eighth, in his desire to produce a male heir, found himself at odds with the catholic church of Rome when he wanted a divorce. This led to him declaring himself the head of the church of England, breaking with the Roman Catholics. Protestantism was the new state religion. Out of this a freedom to worship brought about much new theological thinking, broken down as conformists (the Anglican Church of England) and non-conformists (Quakers, Methodists, Independents, etc.). The conformists took over our ancient churches and became known as Anglicans. The non-conformists either met at people's homes or they built their own chapels.

This web page attempts to inform you about some of the history of the non-conformists in Colchester; in particular their churches and chapels and graveyards that can be seen today.

QUAKERS

The following is based on the leaflet produced by Colchester's Quakers.

Quakers, both men and woman, were imprisoned in the Moot Hall which once stood on the site of our present day town hall. They were held for offences such as refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance or teaching without a licence. Some were beaten, one elderly man dying from the attack by 'cruel troopers'. One of the first to be imprisoned was Stephen Crisp who became a leading member of the Quakers (or Society of Friends, as they were known) in the early days.

Quakers with a special calling travelled the country visiting meetings to contribute to their worship. The RED LION HOTEL in the High Street, shown below, provided stabling for their horses in the early eighteenth century, until the Meeting hired its own stable.

Inside the TOWN HALL you can see the plaque commemorating the COLCHESTER MARTYRS at the top of the second flight of stairs. The last two of those listed, James Parnell and Edward Graunt, were Quakers.

Outside the Town Hall is West Stockwell Street (previously Angel Street). Halfway down is ST MARTIN'S CHURCH. The alley that runs alongside the church is known as QUAKERS ALLEY.

In 1663, just seven years after the arrival of James Parnell, Quakers bought a plot of land to the left of the alley (opposite the churchyard), together with a rambling collection of buildings which they converted for their own use. At this time worship was permitted only in Anglian Churches; to get around this difficulty one part of the building used for worship - the Great Meeting House - was leased to a poor Quaker as a dwelling and workshop, thus avoiding seizure of the place as a Conventicle, or illegal place of worship. However this did not stop the Quakers from being harassed by armed troops when they met for worship and on two occasions the Mayor caused the Meeting House to be 'planked up' so they had to worship in the street.

When in 1689, worship outside the Church of England was permitted, the Great Meeting House was registered at the Quarter Sessions in the Moot Hall. It was thus exempt from Church Warden and Poor Rates. The buildings were enlarged, repaired and partly rebuilt through the eighteenth centuries. The Great Meeting House could seat more then 700 and was used for the Quarterly Meetings, when Quakers came from other parts of Essex and Suffolk to conduct the business necessary for the national Society of Friends. However the local congregation had declined to less than sixty by 1851.

The Great Meeting House burned down in 1871; the cause was the overheating of a flue in the timber roof. The unobtrusive site had served them well in the early days of persecution but Quakers were now playing a full part in the life of the town so it was time to move into the centre.

Passing through QUAKERS ALLEY, you arrive in East Stockwell Street (previously named Bear Street). Turning left and then right you come to St Helens Lane. The building on the right hand side with the pointed arch over the door is the old National School. In 1683, Quakers bought a plot of land on the right hand side, probably that now occupied by the National School, to use as a burial ground. Within forty years more land was needed, so an adjacent plot was purchased.. Complaints were made that people were straying on to the land, and later were hanging linen there! The last of some 300 burials was made in 1770 and the plot was sold in 1802.

They also bought the 11th century ST HELEN'S CHAPEL which stands further along the lane. It was used for women's business meetings, as an extra committee room on Quarterly Meeting days, and as the worship area when the Great Meeting House was being repaired. It was sold in 1800. The view above is from Maidenburgh Street (previously known as Tenants Lane).

The grassed area by the Chapel was bought in 1777 for a burial ground and remained in used until 1854 when the Secretary of State ordered that no more burials be made on grounds of public health. More than 200 Quakers had been interred there. A plaque on the wall records that the area was given to Colchester Corporation in 1952 for use as an open space. The remaining grave stones were moved to the side walls.

At this point there is an alley which leads you into the Castle Park. Walking to the right, to the front of the castle, cross the wooden bridge and through the Norman archway of the castle.

Between 1655 and 1689 eighty Quakers from different parts of Essex are known to have been imprisoned in the Castle, which served as the County Gaol. Three died here, the most well-known being James Parnell. A plaque in the hollow of the wall on the left, just before the glass doors, commemorates his life.

Parnell was born in Retford in 1636 and grew up during a time of religious upheaval. He came under the influence of Quakers and travelled north to meet George Fox (the founder of Quakerism). In 1655, aged only eighteen he travelled south, first to Cambridge and then to northeast Essex, to preach this faith. He was allowed to address the congregation in St Nicholas Church, Colchester, after the sermon, and later addressed a large crowd outside. He made several converts, the first Quakers in the town.

In Coggeshall Church some days later Parnell's interpretation of the scripture was challenged by a priest; as he left he was arrested for causing a disturbance and speaking blasphemy, and brought to Colchester Castle. The jury at Chelmsford Assizes found him not guilty of the charges, but the judge fined him forty pounds for contempt of the magistrates and the ministry. Parnell refused to pay so was returned to the Castle. Here he was ill-treated by the warders, and denied the help which was usual for prisoners. After some nine months of imprisonment, a fall further weakened him and he died.

FROM THE BRIDGE, WALK THROUGH THE PARK PAST THE FRONT OF THE CASTLE, BEAR LEFT BY THE POOL, KEEPING THE GATES, MUSEUM AND PLAYGROUND ON YOUR RIGHT. GO THROUGH THE HOLE IN THE BRICK WALL TO THE CAFE, ALSO ON YOUR RIGHT AND CONTINUE DOWNHILL TO THE GATE IN THE ROMAN WALL. TURN RIGHT ALONG THE TARMAC PATH AND AFTER ABOUT 100 YARDS GO THROUGH THE ARCHED HOLE IN THE WALL TO THE STREET. CONTINUE LEFT TO THE END OF THE GREEN BANK TO THE QUAKER BURIAL GROUND.

In the early nineteenth century this area held the Botanic Gardens but it was offered for the development in the 1850's. Quakers needed as new BURIAL GROUND, so bought four plots. The first three were used for burials. The fourth plot, initially intended for a room or cottage, was let as a garden; (eventually it was sold in 1959 in order to help finance the new Quaker Meeting House at Clacton). Later the piece of land in the corner of the Roman Wall was purchased and planted with trees (the change in the wall indicating the extension).

The Burial Ground is still in use today. The grave stones are all alike, inscribed only the name and dates, to 'guard against any distinction being made in the place between the rich and poor'.

AT THIS POINT YOU HAVE A CHOICE OF TWO ROUTES: A SLIGHTLY LONGER ONE PASSES THE SITE OF A BURIAL GROUND IN PRIORY STREET WHILE THE SHORTER ONE GOES DIRECTLY TO ELD LANE.

WALK UP ROMAN ROAD TO THE T-JUNCTION AND CROSS TO THE CHURCH. TURN LEFT AND, AFTER A SHORT DISTANCE, RIGHT INTO PRIORY STREET (ONCE KNOWN AS MOOR LANE). WHEN YOU CAME TO THE CAR PARK WALK BESIDE THE ROMAN WALL TO THE FIRST BASTION, OPPOSITE FENNINGS CHASE.

Here, next to the site of the Ale House, Quakers had their first BURIAL GROUND, the gift of Thomas Bayles in 1659. It was used until 1713, by which time there had been more than 360 interments and a new ground was needed. It was sold in 1802.

CONTINUE TO THE END OF PRIORY STREET. CROSS THE MAIN ROAD BY THE PEDESTRIAN CROSSING ON YOUR RIGHT AND CONTINUE ALONG SHORT WYRE STREET WHICH SOON BECOMES ELD LANE, WHERE THE TWO ROUTES COME TOGETHER.

WALK UP ROMAN ROAD AND TAKE THE FIRST RIGHT TURN INTO CASTLE ROAD. CONTINUE AHEAD INTO THE PARK, TOWARDS THE CASTLE; BEAR LEFT TO RETRACE YOUR STEPS PAST THE FRONT OF THE CASTLE TO THE WOODEN BRIDGE AT ITS ENTRANCE. LEAVE THE PARK BY THE GATES AHEAD. AT THE END OF THE SHORT STREET, ACROSS THE HIGH STREET AND CONTINUE ALONG ST NICHOLAS STREET (SITE OF ST NICHOLAS CHURCH WHERE JAMES PARNELL PREACHED). GO DOWN LONG WYRE STREET AND TURN RIGHT INTO ELD LANE WHERE THE TWO ROUTES COME TOGETHER.

PAUSE BY THE OPEN SPACE BELONGING TO LION WALK URC, JUST BEYOND THE BAPTIST CHURCH.

After the Great Meeting House had burned down, Quakers hired the YMCA, which stood about three quarters of the way along Lion Walk on the left (where there are now shops) for their meetings for Worship.

CONTINUE ALONG ELD LANE AND PAUSE BY THE ROW OF SMALL SHOPS ON THE RIGHT, ONCE THE D'ARCY ALMSHOUSES.

Quakers bought the plot of land now occupied by the Almshouses in 1667. By 1711, sheep were grazing there, but two years later, when the first Burial Ground was full, it was used for interments. The last of some 300 burials was made in 1770 and the plot was sold in 1802.

CONTINUE ALONG ELD LANE, WHICH BECOMES SIR ISACC'S WALK AFTER TRINITY STREET, AND TURN RIGHT INTO CULVER SQUARE.

Before the development of Culver Square, the building which many remember as Rebow Chambers stood on what is now the entry to the square. Originally it was the Quaker Meeting House, built and opened eighteen months after the Great Meeting House had burned down. It was large enough to accommodate Quarterly Meetings and public gatherings, and also housed a Sunday School (known to Quakers as the First Day School). Later a piece of land behind was purchased for an Adult School Room. Classes for adults had begun a few years earlier in one of the buildings at the Great Meeting House, but with purpose-built facilities, they were able to expand. Classes for those over 18 were held on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings (First and Fourth Day); instruction was given in bible study, writing and other secular subjects. In the first three years, about 500 men benefited from the provision.

Although the Meeting House was improved in various ways, it was expensive to run, and universal education led to the demise of adult work, so it was sold to Lexden and Winstree Rural District Council.

A new Meeting House was opened in 1938 in Shewell Road. It stood in what is now the southeast corner of the square, near what was the Public Library (today occupied by a bookshop). It contained a Meeting Room and other smaller rooms. By 1970, plans for the Culver Street development were underway and it was clear that the Meeting would have to move again.

The FOUNTAIN in the square was designed and cast by a member of Colchester Quaker Meeting.

RETURN TO SIR ISAAC'S WALK AND CONTINUE TO THE END; CROSS THE MAIN ROAD AND TAKE CHURCH WALK, THE NARROW ROAD AHEAD. AT THE END GO THROUGH THE GRAVEYARD BY THE RIGHT HAND PATH TO THE PRESENT MEETING HOUSE ON YOUR RIGHT.

ST MARY'S HOUSE, built in 1803 for John Constable's lawyer, came on the marker in a run down state. It was purchased and extensively renovated to provide Meeting Room, other rooms and accommodation for a resident warden, while preserving the original facade. Opened in 1974, it continues to serve the Quaker Meeting today, as well as providing a venue for many groups in the town.

If the Meeting House is open, you are welcome to go into the foyer (the surrounding rooms may be in use). Please help to maintain the peaceful atmosphere of the building.

 

SITE STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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last updated

221107