The plaque was unveiled on the Unitarian Church to mark its re-building and to highlight the importance of Great Yarmouth as a centre of religious dissent 400 years ago.
The refusal of some people to adhere to the tenets of Henry VIII’s Church of England has always been strong in East Anglia and particularly in Great Yarmouth. These people were not Roman Catholics, who wanted to return to the Old Religion, but Dissenters, who thought that church reforms had not gone far enough.
In Great Yarmouth, two Independent Congregations developed outside the Church of England. These were the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. For a time they shared St. Nicholas’ Parish Church, which was physically divided into three sections, each holding their own services in the same building.
When the Stuarts came to the throne, the Dissenters were subject to more and more persecution and eventually could receive a capital sentence for their beliefs, if tried and convicted.
Many ministers feared for their lives and fled to Holland, including the Rev’d. William Bridge, who sailed in 1636. He had been ejected from St. Peter Hungate Church in Norwich for his subversive preaching. Archbishop Laud wrote to Charles I informing him that Bridge had gone to Holland. The king wrote: we are well rid of him, against Bridge’s name. After Charles I had been executed, Bridge returned with a colleague named Oxenbridge. They founded Independent Congregations in both Great Yarmouth and Norwich. Oxenbridge soon left for Yorkshire. Bridge felt he had to decide where to set up the Non-Conformist Church and opted for Great Yarmouth, rather than Norwich, as the safer option. Bridge also became Preacher to Parliament and several of his sermons were printed and survive.
For a while, from 1646, the Presbyterians met in St. Nicholas’ Church in the north aisle, while the Congregationalists used the chancel for worship. The two groups of Dissenters worked in great harmony together, but difficulties re-emerged when, in 1661, the Dean of Norwich Cathedral sent bailiffs to demand the keys from Mr. Tooke, Bridge’s assistant, and nailed up the door. Tooke was driven out and the Congregationalists lost their place of worship. Plague then struck in 1665 and most activity in Great Yarmouth ground to a halt. William Bridge died in 1670, aged 70 years, well respected for his learning and integrity. His successors finally built their own Meeting House in 1673, on or near the present site of the Unitarian Church. It has been rebuilt several times, but has remained, on what is now Yarmouth Way, ever since.
The number of people actively engaged in dissent from the Established Church has reduced over time, as society has grown more tolerant. This has forced Unitarians to seek additional ways of generating income to maintain their Church buildings. The premises are available to hire for meetings and conferences. The longest local user is the Phyllis Adams School of Dance, who have been faithful and co-operative tenants for many years. Funds from many sources, both local and national, are contributing towards an ongoing programme of refurbishment of the Great Yarmouth building. These include the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Norfolk Community Foundation (Love Norfolk) and the John Gregson Unitarian Trust.