I could not tell you how long I have known of the Octagon Chapel in Colegate, Norwich, but I was very young when I first heard of it. I could tell you about the architect who designed it and the denomination of the worshippers who use it, and I have long been familiar with the place from the outside, but until I was 66 years old I had never been inside the building. The chapel has held a series of concerts in support of various charities for many years, and my wife Molly arranged to take me to a recital of songs with piano accompaniment as part of my birthday celebrations. These Songs of Love were by such composers as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and were excellently performed by Laura White, a young teacher from Hobart High School in Loddon, and her pianist. My birthday is St Valentine’s Day by the way, which explains the romantic nature of the concert.
The Octagon was built in 1756 as a Presbyterian chapel, but this branch of Protestantism, although the dominant faith in Scotland, never took root in Norfolk. The congregation of the chapel soon evolved into Unitarians. This has always been a liberal denomination, and popular with wealthy businessmen. The chapel is still home to a vibrant and growing community of Unitarians.
The architect was Thomas Ivory, originally a builder and carpenter in Norwich, who became the accomplished architect of many fine buildings in the city. It was a trail-blazing construction in the country, the first octagonal building designed for Christian gatherings. From a doctrinal point of view the nature of the seating is an important aspect of the chapel, and the feeling of inclusivity as you sit in the pews is very different from the ambience of a conventional church. The acoustics are excellent too. It was described by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley who preached here, as ‘the most elegant meeting house in Europe’.
I have a particular place in my heart for the work of Thomas Ivory, as for nearly 40 years I was deeply involved with a house he built in Surrey Street. The most famous resident of this building was Sir J. E. Smith, the leading botanist of the early nineteenth century on a national level and the founding member of the Linnaean Society of London. It so happens that he was a Unitarian and so was a regular in the congregation of the Octagon Chapel. As well as business people, scientists have long been well represented among Unitarians. Joseph Priestley, the philosopher and chemist whose speculations led to the discovery of oxygen, attended Unitarian services.
The elegant capitals on the Corinthian columns that support the roof of the chapel reminded me of the wood carvings on the fireplaces in the Surrey Street house. Many other touches made me feel quite at home in this Georgian building. On one matter I was a bit concerned, as I know only too well the trials and tribulations of the upkeep of a 250-year-old house, but I suppose that being under the special protection of a wealthy congregation it has never been neglected.
The chapel runs a club for sufferers from dementia called the Foreget-Me-Nots. The meetings are held in the church hall and Molly sometimes attends as a helper. If I attended it would be as one with a failing memory, as these days I find I am forgetting the simplest of words on a daily basis.
If you want to learn more about the house in Surrey Street I refer you to a series of my blogs “The Story of a House”, commencing on May 22 2012.