Entries in Religion (1)

Tuesday
Feb082011

Familiar place, unfamiliar past

Having spent many an enjoyable evening with friends at Charles Wesley Court on Belvoir Street in Heigham, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken me a couple of years to research the origins of the Court.

 

In our part of the world, Belvoir is usually pronounced “Bell-voir” - not “Beaver” as an Belvoir Castle, Belvoir Brewery or the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire – we like to be different in Norfolk. As you might imagine, the street takes its name simply from ‘beautiful view’.

 

Being so close to ‘old’ Norwich, with its rich history of courts and yards, it might have been possible that Charles Wesley Court was, like many others - including Beckwith Court, Chestnut Court and Wright’s Court – a reinvention of an older residential area. The original yards and courts of Norwich grew within the cramped city of Norwich, where development was hemmed in by the old city walls. As rich merchants left their grand houses for the relative space in the earliest suburbs, less well off individuals crowded into the yards and courtyards that remained behind. For anybody with an interest in the Norwich Yards (and that will be a huge proportion of those with Norwich ancestry) I cannot recommend www.norwich-yards.co.uk enough – the site provides memories and information about historical and modern incarnations of the locations in question.

 

However, unlike most of the old courts, Charles Wesley Court is outside the city walls in Heigham, a parish which once was completely separate from Norwich itself. It has been a long while since the parish was separate however – by the middle Victorian era it was already an area bustling with workers and tradesmen in Norwich’s traditional industries. Little did I know, living just around the corner as a student, that I was residing just metres from where some of my ancestors lived. Many were shoe makers, silk factory workers and market gardeners, key trades in the area, but they tended to live in terraced houses rather than yard arrangements like many of their 'old city' peers. (Little did I also know that just another few hundred metres away, was another ancestor on a different line – the owner of what is now the Plantation Gardens and Lord Mayor of Norwich…but that’s another story!)

 

Looking at the 1905 map of Norwich it becomes clear that in fact the site of Charles Wesley Court was not residential at all. In fact, a chapel occupied the space now redeveloped. Further research shows this to have been the site of the Belvoir Street Wesleyan Reform Methodist Church and Sunday School. The site must have been somewhat cramped - surrounded by workers’ houses - and no graveyard accompanied it. The Church was used as a place of worship from 1869 until relatively recently in 1988 before the site was redeveloped. 

The picture above comes with kind permission for posting here from Jonathan Plunkett. His father George Plunkett took thousands of fabulolus photographs of 'Old Norwich' - you can see more at www.georgeplunkett.co.uk. This photograph was taken 1989 at the very end of the building's life.

Picture Norfolk also includes a couple of older photos - www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk (see Picture Norfolk on the left hand menu then search ‘Belvoir’) .

The Norfolk Record Office holds the Church’s records in FC 106, although closure periods of 30 years apply to the newer records. There are baptisms, marriages and meeting minutes from the choir, Sunday School, Church Committee and Council. The Roll of Honour for soldiers killed in WWI includes several men of the congregation, including the son of one of the church’s ministers. The roll of honour can be viewed at www.roll-of-honour.com/Norfolk/NorwichBelvoirMethodist.html

 

Now the previous use of the site becomes clearer, the naming in turn becomes clearer. Charles Wesley (18 December 1707 – 29 March 1788) was the younger brother of John Wesley - between them, the pair are widely credited with the founding of the Methodist movement in the UK.

 

Charles Wesley was born in Lincolnshire and followed his father and brothers into the church in 1735 having graduated from Oxford. Charles was a prolific hymn writer, credited with the words of over 6000 hymns and writing words to fit existing music for yet another 2000, including the popular carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. I have found no evidence to date that Charles himself visited Norwich, but given he travelled all the way to Georgia on a Mission, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. Charles died several decades before the church on Belvoir Street was built and indeed before the Wesleyan Reform Union split from the United Methodist Free Churches in 1859.

 

The Heigham area saw a huge amount of damage following the Baedeker Raids in 1942, but the chapel survived. It was not until very much living memory that the chapel was sold off by auction and the site redeveloped and named after a key figure in the history of the Methodist movement.

 

So, given the very interesting history of my friends’ home now I have spent time doing a little research, I intend not to leave it so long before researching other ‘ordinary’ places in Norfolk and Suffolk that I frequent on a regular basis. Watch this space!