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The Legacy of Christian Education in Norwich

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

Over the past year I have been fascinated with the depths of the spiritual inheritance we have in the UK. Do you know the religious history of your city? Are you aware of the specific ways in which God has been at work over the centuries where you live?

I am afraid that our ignorance leaves us much disabled. How much more effective could we be if we knew what God has been doing in our city in the past? Imagine if we could stand on the shoulders of those Christain giants who had gone before us rather than beginning our own work from ground zero.

I feel God is calling those who have ears to hear to return to those wells of old, rebuild the ancient ruins that have long been deserted and submit ourselves to His story rather than imploring Him to bless ours.

'They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.' Isaiah 61:4

You may not know the Christian heritage of education in my own city of Norwich, but we have an incredible inheritance spanning from pre Norman conquest times up until the late 19th century. That’s approximately 1,000 years of church-run schools and schools set up through Christian philanthropy, with the state taking over the reins only in recent history. I believe that the church needs to reclaim its part in this vital sphere of society.

The earliest education in Norwich is believed to have been conducted before the Norman conquest at the Church of the Holy Trinity, located where the north transept of the Cathedral stands today. As the middle ages went on, song schools teaching reading and writing began in St Giles’ hospital (today the Great Hospital), St Peter Mancroft and at the Cathedral priory, whilst the Benedictine monks ran the Cloister school at the Cathedral from the 12th Century. Alongside this school ran the episcopal grammar school, founded in 1096 by the first bishop of Norwich, and later in 1311 the almonry school. So in the first half of the 15th Century, at least three main schools were running in the Cathedral vicinity.

Church led education dominated until the 18th Century, with Carrow Convent, just down the road from us here, showing evidence of having taken girls as borders, in which education was included with the price for a room and food.

The first Norwich charity school began in 1700 and was made up of four churches teaching children basic literacy and finding apprenticeships. A sermon preached on the 7th February 1721, encouraging the charitable education of poor children, stressed the value of the schools in training youth in ‘honest diligence and principles of virtue.’

In 1785, St Stephen’s was the first church to begin a Sunday School, which supplemented the work of the day schools. Many of the growing churches offering Sunday Schools taught subjects such as arithmetic and writing on weekday evenings with Sundays dedicated to the reading and reciting of Scripture. These Sunday schools also pioneered free education for those too poor to afford the fees of the other schools in the city.

During the 19th century, when there was much reform taking place across the country through the work of Christian philanthropists, Norwich saw three prominent non-conformist men- James Martineau (brother of Harriet Martineau- the abolitionist), Joseph Gurney (brother of Elizabeth Fry- the prison reformer) and James Jeremiah Colman- place an emphasis on the value of education in this city. A quote from an article recounting education in Norwich since 1750 states, ‘this development of education to 1970, largely driven by religious and charitable motives and organisations, was remarkable.’ By 1870, around the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, 80% of children aged 5-13 were attending a school in Norwich.

It was in 1870 that the government felt it necessary to begin their own provision of compulsory, non-sectarian primary and elementary schools. Stephens, in his book Education in Britain 1750-1914, states that over the course of 30 years from 1870-1902, 'elementary education became both free and compulsory, state elementary and secondary schools were established and central government control over education increased greatly.'

As you can see, state education is only a recent development on the history of education in this city. Despite only 150 years of state education, there is a fatalistic approach in much of the church that you send your children to government run schools, and hope and pray that they come out the other side with their faith in tact.

There remains the ancient ruins of church led education in this city. It is time that we, the people of God returned to Him and rebuilt those ruins. May we be Nehemiahs and Ezras, rebuilding what the enemy has plundered. May we be Ezekiels, rebuilding the wall and standing in the gap.

Adapted from Norwich since 1550, Carole Rawcliffe.


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