The Value of Dissenters

Octagon Chapel, Norwich

One reason for the wealth of talent in Norfolk was its long record of harbouring dissent and Dissenters, right back into Elizabethan times. By 1676, one census suggested almost 50% of adults in the diocese of Norwich were nonconformists. Many of these early dissenters were Quakers or Presbyterians, the latter moving steadily towards embracing rational religion and becoming Unitarians. Norwich’s dissenting congregations and fine Octagon Chapel, still a Unitarian Church today, acted as a focal point for the intellectual activities of the latter group from the 1730s onwards.

Amongst Norwich’s Quakers, many families started as weavers or yarn merchants, grew rich, became bankers and added philanthropy and social action to their intellectual pursuits. The novelist Amelia Opie lived on Colegate, not far from the home of the Gurney family, which included Elizabeth Fry.

Equal Opportunities


These Dissenters placed a high value on learning of every kind, for girls as well as boys. Since they were excluded from the established universities, they set up their own Academies to teach higher education. Many of these included lectures on scientific subjects that Oxford and Cambridge ignored, as well as moral and theological interests. Dr. Joseph Priestley taught at the academies. John Taylor of Norwich was the first tutor in divinity and moral philosophy at the Warrington Academy, perhaps the most famous of them all.

When one of the characters in my book goes to Birmingham and falls in with the scientific and industrial giants of the Lunar Society, the fact that he hails from Norwich – even though he is not a Dissenter at that point – would have probably smoothed his path.

Huguenots, Dutchmen and Baltic Connections

After London, Norwich was host to the next largest group of Huguenot refugees from Elizabethan times until the middle 1600s. “Strangers” they were called and allowed their own churches and civic leadership until they disappeared into the local population as a whole. Trade with what is now Holland was always strong. Norfolk grew – and still grows – some of the finest barley in England and exported it into the beer-producing countries of Europe. The Dutch bought herrings by the ton. Cloth was sent as far away as Italy and North Africa. And much of the timber needed for every purpose – and especially fir for ships’ masts and planking – was imported via Norfolk ports such as King’s Lynn and Yarmouth.

My Capt. Mimms was not the first deep-sea sailor to retire to the Georgian market-town of Holt either. John Secker, a Quaker merchant seaman and ship’s master, who left us a wonderful diary of his many travels, did the same in 1760. He was not as wealthy as Mimms, but followed much the same path.

An Ideal Location

That’s why Norwich and Norfolk seemed such a good place to set my books. Not only was it a wealthy place for both gentry and ‘the middling sort’, it was open to new ideas of all kinds. Enough Dissenting families existed at the higher strata of society to make it acceptable for women to be educated and active in society in their own right. Its tradition of free thinking produced fractious local politics, fiercely contested elections and a good many disputes between workers and employers, but these make for a more exciting background than stable, conforming societies. Even in agriculture, Norfolk led the way in the latest methods of crop rotation, animal breeding and land improvement.

There were also more than enough villains. Smugglers all along the coast. Highwaymen. The pimps, whores and brothel-keepers to be found in large ports like Yarmouth or Lynn. Fishermen, seamen and master mariners of every kind and a good many naval ships at times in Yarmouth Roads. Even a Rector of Wiveton who stalked the Earl of Sandwich’s mistress, murdered her outside the Covent Garden Theatre in London, was sent for trial by the famous ‘Blind Beak’, John Fielding, and was hanged at Tyburn for his deed. The press gangs were active here. During war years with the French, there were periodic fears of invasion via the sloping shingle beaches and empty areas of the coast. Sea Fencibles and local militias recruited and paraded.

All in all, a great place for murder, mayhem and crime of every kind. Wonderful material for a historical mystery novelist!

My new mystery, ‘An Unlamented Death’, is now available on Kindle everywhere.



About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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