The church which rose from the ashes of war

THE building of the parish church of St Nicholas in Great Yarmouth from the 12th century, and its reconstruction after suffering severe damage in a 1942 air raid, was meticulous and painstaking, a labour of love in the true meaning of the term.

This mirrors the monumental endeavour expended by the author of a comprehensive new history of an edifice that has been ever-present here for nearly a millennium, overseeing the development of our town while offering a place of comfort, solace and worship for its inhabitants.

The book is The Priory and Parish Church of Saint Nicholas, Great Yarmouth, subtitled Foundation, Destruction, Restoration; the author, Michael Boon, describes it as “the fascinating story of the rise, fall and rebirth of England’s largest parish church.”

Its publication comes in the 50th anniversary of its reconsecration following its post-war rebuilding.

Those of us old enough to have witnessed the church in ruins - only its walls, tower and reredos (the ornamental screen behind the altar) survived the fierce blaze caused by a hail of German incendiary bombs - have never forgotten it.

The tower clock remained stuck at 2.35 for many years (“a sign that the march of time had ceased for the church building,” according to the vicar), an enduring reminder of that terrible night.

Similarly, when the bomb debris was cleared, the shell of the church remained as a potent symbol of defiance and courage while St Peter’s took over its parish role.

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As a young reporter, 13 years after that outrage, I was entrusted with interviewing the Vicar, Canon Gilbert Thurlow, when he announced that the War Damage Commission had agreed on the claim, thus allowing the rebuilding to proceed. I am sure many townsfolk uttered a heartfelt “Thank God” after reading my report, for the time had come to put the past behind and look to a new future with the ancient church resurrected to its former glory and status.

The book contains 234 pages, 151 photographs and illustrations and 34 appendices.

The author has assimilated a wealth of material charting the church’s long history into the context of the complex monarchic, political and religious factors that influenced its growth through the ages.

And the focal point – the post-war restoration – is enhanced by the inclusion of the complete order-of-service sheets for the services marking the 1959 blessing of the bells, the 1961 reconsecration and its golden jubilee reconsecration last May.

The tome appears to have covered all bases. Indeed, some might suggest there is an overload of detail, but it is a plus rather than a minus if a reader finds it difficult to devise a question not already answered in the text by the author, Yarmouthian Michael Boon.

He is an academic and a retired chief executive of the port who has written other local history books, and is well-known in amateur theatrical circles.

He began researching and writing this work only in January, but was smitten by very serious illness necessitating surgery and frequent hospitalisation, jeopardising his intended publication date.

Nonetheless, a mixture of dogged determination and the support of research assistants Bill Rayner, Pat Gregory and Barbara Smith resulted in his goal being achieved.

Moreover, his aim to produce a book about long-past centuries was benefited by modern computer technology: he emailed his uncorrected text to Barbara Smith who edited and retyped them ready for the printer, then emailed them back to him. . . all from her home in Canada more than 3500 miles away to which she emigrated nearly half a century ago!

Half an hour before he was wheeled down to the operating theatre for a major operation, he was dictating copy to her by mobile phone...

He acknowledges her in print as “my efficient amanuensis (literary assistant) in a trying time for the author.”

The church, which underwent many additions and enlargements, was founded by Bishop Herbert de Losinga who linked it with a small priory of Benedictine monks. The role of the church was not always a religious one, for in the 16th century its communion plate, vestments, ornaments and bells were sold to help pay for cutting a new haven channel to replace one choked by sand. At one time the church acted as a drill hall for the Norfolk Militia in wet weather.

A timber spire 186ft high was among those additions but, as a result of a lightning fire, it became crooked and “looked like that of Chesterfield church”. It was replaced by a second wooden one, albeit comparatively stunted, in 1807. When the post-war restoration was undertaken, it was decided not to include a spire a-top the tower.

Other points of interest that caught my eye included a 1287 flood “when the sea flowed into St Nicholas Church over the sands and the seawater was 4ft deep in the church and a great part of the town lay under flood water.”

Clergy in the 17th century were as liable to transgress as the ordinary townsfolk, and the book records their punishment for shameful misconduct like maliciously ravaging a layman’s wife, adulterous embraces, fornication, being “common vagabonds of the night”, house-breaking, “keeping and maintaining fornicators” and “night-walking”; a woman was fined because “she lay in the night with a chaplain.”

An architect reputed to be a ravager of more than three cathedrals in the 1800s submitted a plan to build a new church on Church Plain and let the existing one fall into ruin. His plan was ignored and St Nicholas’ continued to be the parish church – indeed, it had been the only one in Yarmouth until 1712 when St George’s was built as a chapel-of-ease.

Michael Boon mentions the body-snatching activities of 1827 when many graves were opened to check that they still contained corpses; altogether nine had been stolen by two men, Vaughan and Murphy, who sold them to anatomy students.

This erudite addition to the borough bibliography costs �30 from Palmers department store; The Novel Idea in Regent Street; or from the author (665862). All proceeds go to the St Nicholas Preservation Trust.