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Designers must be spot on

PUBLISHED: 16:01 26 February 2009 | UPDATED: 13:09 03 July 2010

RESTORATION COMING? King Street in Yarmouth as it looked in 1935

RESTORATION COMING? King Street in Yarmouth as it looked in 1935

IN the parlous period through which the nation is currently passing, items of good news are few and far between. That said, I find myself undecided as to whether or not to applaud or disdain the information that the King Street area of Great Yarmouth is in line for regeneration.

IN the parlous period through which the nation is currently passing, items of good news are few and far between. That said, I find myself undecided as to whether or not to applaud or disdain the information that the King Street area of Great Yarmouth is in line for regeneration.

This would be coupled with the long-overdue completion of the restoration of St George's, a move I am sure will be widely welcomed.

The borough is set to receive £3 million from a government programme designed to help coastal resorts and, if other potential donors contribute, work could begin to improve "the most historically important and attractive streetscape in Yarmouth, apart from South Quay", according to borough council director Peter Hardy. A keystone would be the St George's plan to fashion it into a flexible arts centre and community hub.

If official hopes come to fruition, King Street's 18th-century merchant houses would be restored and the St George's environs would blossom into a lively cultural quarter with galleries, artists' residences, street cafés and specialist shops.

Hmmm. Very ambitious. It cannot be denied that much of King Street could do with a make-over, although there is an interesting mix of small shops and those run by immigrants, but that old adage about “can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear” keeps nagging at me.

As for St George's, it is high time that the scaffolding was dismantled, the improvements completed and the building rejoined the list of our historic and useful assets.

If there is big money to be spent, and it has not come directly from the Town Hall coffers wherein lie out council tax payments, I hope those designing the King Street rejuvenation will get it just right, something of which to be proud. Only time will tell...

Every local historian and conservationist could, with justification, voice surprise when I confess that never before have I heard the tale about how the building of St George's Chapel-at-Ease was financed nearly two centuries ago. Well, we live and learn; indeed, we are supposed to acquire some new snippet of knowledge every day.

On the assumption that my readers might well include a handful as ignorant as I am about those antecedents, let me spread my new-found knowledge, culled from that impeccable mine of information, the Yarmouth Mercury, as I was scouring the 1959 files for news recorded exactly half a-century ago this year.

The Mercury reported 50 years ago that the last service had been held at St George's Chapel-of-Ease, the oldest church in the borough apart from St Nicholas' Parish Church, and had been in constant use since it was built in 1715. But St George's was never a daughter-church to St Nicholas' but “was built by the corporation and had always something of an independent role in the Church of England faith in Yarmouth.

“The corporation decision to build it arose from a bitter dispute in the 17th century between the corporation and the church authorities in Norwich over the appointment of ministers to parish church of St Nicholas. When the quarrel went to the courts, the decision went against the corporation whose nominee, named Brinsley, was as a result refused permission to preach at St Nicholas'.

“Later, he was banned by the Bishop of Norwich from preaching anywhere in the town.

“The corporation decided that a way out of the controversy was to build a church, and they were also encouraged by the fact that many inhabitants were complaining that St Nicholas' was not big enough and was situated in the furthest part of the town.

“Three hundred years ago there were no houses on the east (seaward) side of King Street, and the site chosen for the church was a mound that had been raised as part of the town's fortifications. Even then, there was some opposition to levelling the mound because Yarmouth's seafaring men said they would lose a valuable look-out point.”

The Mercury of 1959 continued: “Nevertheless, the scheme went ahead and in 1714 the corporation obtained an Act of Parliament for raising funds to build St George's. The money needed was obtained by a tax on 'chaldrons of coal, culm (dust and slack) and cinders' landed in the port.

“A chaldron was an old coal measure reckoned to be the equivalent of 25cwt. It was thought that the church would cost about £3000 but the bill actually came to £5869. The corporation accordingly obtained another Act of Parliament to finish the church, and relight some of the town's streets, by the same levy.

“The tax was subsequently abolished although the corporation continued to pay for the upkeep of St George's and contribute to the minister's salary out of the rates.”

The octagonal red-brick was designed on the lines of Wren's St Clement Dane's Church in The Strand/Fleet Street in London, today associated with the Royal Air Force. The Mercury added: “St George's is reminiscent in appearance of churches in America's Middle West, and there is a story that before the war a prosperous American citizen wanted to buy the building, dismantle it piece by piece, and ship it across the Atlantic.”

Originally it could hold 1100 worshippers, some in the gallery. There was a domed sounding-board above a handsome pulpit, and an organ built in 1734. A large east window was bricked up at the corporation's request in 1732.

Its 1959 closure came only eight years after the church anticipated a new lease of life after extensive war damage repairs. After it closed, St George's was mooted for conversion to a maritime museum but was later transformed into an arts and performance centre (latterly a theatre) but is currently disused, awaiting money to finish restoration and refurbishment.

For 150 years it was the main centre of Yarmouth religious life outside the parish church. A century ago it flourished, largely through the activities of its popular men's service whose work continued between the wars, its sporting and social activities rendering it one of the town's outstanding young men's organisations.

One season it fielded no fewer than six football teams.

The men's service ceased 1n 1950 through lack of support. Through its 244-year history as a church, 26 ministers served there.

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