ST. NICHOLAS CHURCH TOWER by
Article 7 in the St. Nicholas Loop
The Tower of St. Nicholas Church which collapsed in 1898 was examined by Mr. H. Green, A.R.I.B.A., Diocesan Surveyor, who reported serious defects. He pointed out that the Tower was not designed to receive the number of bells it now contains and said that not more than one should be retained for ringing purposes. He advised that the upper portion of the Tower, the Octagonal Belfry, should be entirety rebuilt and estimated the cost at £250. The necessity of rebuilding the Belfry was questioned by some of the subscribers, with the result that another architect was called in and his report accepted. The Tower collapsed while undergoing repairs, the workmen fortunately at the time being away at their breakfast. The noise made by the fall of the Tower was heard for miles around.
A newscutting tells us that at about 8.30 a.m. on 25th October 1898 a sudden collapse took place, the tower split in two, the greater portion falling with a terrific crash into the churchyard. Repairs had been in progress for some time and the tower had been surrounded with scaffolding. The report adds, "fortunately no-one was on the scaffolding as the workmen were having their breakfast, otherwise serious loss of life might have been caused".
A few days later the press carried a letter written by Herbert J. Green, a Norwich architect, disclaiming all responsibility for the collapse of the tower. In his report which had been made earlier in the year, and which had been rejected, he had recommended urgent repairs and the removal of four of the bells as "the weight of all five bells was too much for a tower which had never been constructed to bear the strain of such a peal".
I have made a number of enquiries about this unfortunate incident and find that the builders employed were Bardell Bros., of King's Lynn. Mr. Bert Willingham (now of 30, Hill Street) was only 5 at the time and was living with his uncle, Arthur Gathercole, in some cottages which used to stand at the rear of what is now Mr. C. Waterman's shop. One of Bert's daily tasks was to take a milk-can to Mr. Lambert's farm near St. Nicholas' Church to collect the milk before breakfast. On the 25th October, he had collected the milk and was on his way home when, as he reached the newsagent's shop (34 Hill Street), the tower crashed down. The noise frightened him so much that he dropped the can of milk and ran home crying. He gave as his excuse the fact that the church (as he thought) had fallen down.
He was given a hiding for telling lies and after breakfast was packed off to school. By the time he returned for lunch everyone had heard of the disaster and his uncle apologised for having spanked him. As far as Bert can remember, that was the only occasion on which he ever received an apology for a hiding.
Mr. Walter Beamis (now of Short Beck) was then a lad of 13 and lived with his father, William, in what is now known as "Manor Cottage" in Bell Street. That morning, William, having followed in his father's footsteps as a thatcher, was, with Walter's assistance, re-thatching Pear Tree Farm house. On hearing the crash, William dashed up the ladder and leaning over the roof, called Walter to join him. They could see what had happened and went immediately to the Chequers Hill to find out the extent of the damage. (Note. Pear Tree Farm house was demolished in the 1930's. It stood in Oak Street, and, had the houses then been numbered it would have been No. 13.)
Churches and their bells, among other things, were very close to William's heart and the sight of "his" tower in ruins was more than he could bear - he stood there on the green and wept. I say "his" tower for on the death of Daniel Spencer three years earlier, William had taken charge of the bell-ringing in both churches and was to ring St. Mary's bells for 32 years. Daniel Spencer had rung the bells for over 50 years and was buried only six feet from the base of the tower. A headstone for him had recently been erected and when the tower collapsed only one headstone was broken - Daniel's !
The newspaper report said that the workmen were at breakfast. Actually they had eaten their meal and had adjourned to the nearby (old) Chequers Inn to wash it down with a pint of beer. They left the "Chequers" and had almost reached the church gate when Florence Howlett, wife of the landlord, called them back for something. Had she not done so, they would have been back at work on the scaffolding.
For many years, the village lads, myself included, used to climb the ruins of the tower in search of birds' eggs. There is a story about two lads who did this about 1900. One held the legs of the other as he hung head downwards to reach a nest. Just as the lad had collected the eggs, he called to his friend, warning, "Hold tight, do you oo'n't git any o' them eggs"
The old tower was round at the base and had an octagonal turret. No doubt there have been, and are, many people who would like to have seen the tower rebuilt. For a number of years, Mrs. Upcher, who then lived at East Hall, organised a needlework group. These ladies used to meet frequently in each other's houses and from time to time the proceeds collected from their regular "sales of work" were added to the Tower Restoration Fund. I cannot discover what became of this fund and can only assume that it was used at some time for other repairs considered to be more urgent.
Continue on the St. Nicholas Loop or go to Written Records or Join the Tour