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Hidden church nobody notices falling into disrepair

PUBLISHED: 10:00 21 June 2018 | UPDATED: 14:18 22 June 2018

St Mary the Less, as seen from Tombland. PHOTO: Sophie Smith

St Mary the Less, as seen from Tombland. PHOTO: Sophie Smith

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Heritage organisations are concerned for the condition of a privately owned church almost invisible to passers-by.

St Mary the Less, as seen from Queen Street. PHOTO: Sophie SmithSt Mary the Less, as seen from Queen Street. PHOTO: Sophie Smith

Wedged between the shops and restaurants on Queen Street and Tombland and St Michael at Plea flats, only the tower and porch of St Mary the Less are easily seen from the street.

St Mary the Less, also known as the French Church, has been in private hands since 1989, having previously been a store and warehouse for furnishers Robertson and Coleman from 1959-85, but Norfolk organisations are keen to ensure the building is cared for properly.

Almost 30 years later, the Grade I listed building is falling into disrepair, with graffiti around the Queen Street entrance.

Historic England’s webpage for the church said: “The building is in need of repair, especially the roof. Tower masonry viewed from adjoining building and appeared to be in reasonable order. No action/strategy has been identified or agreed.

George Plunkett (1913-2006) captured a rare view of St Mary the Less in 1956 when two bomb-damaged buildings were demolished on Queen St leaving a brief open view of the church.George Plunkett (1913-2006) captured a rare view of St Mary the Less in 1956 when two bomb-damaged buildings were demolished on Queen St leaving a brief open view of the church.

Condition: Very bad.”

Historic England and Norwich City Council staff were last able to gain access in 2014, and the last record Heritage Open Days (England) have of the church’s participation is 2010.

Several organisations, including Norwich Historic Churches Trust and Heritage England have said the owner is extremely difficult to contact.

Cathy Eden, project 
coordinator of The Forum’s Open Heritage Days said: “Lots of people are very interested in visiting the church of St Mary the Less.

St Mary the Less, as seen from Queen Street. PHOTO: Sophie SmithSt Mary the Less, as seen from Queen Street. PHOTO: Sophie Smith

“It’s definitely one of Norwich’s hidden treasures. We’d love to be able to include it as part of the Heritage Open Days festival in the future.”

Trudi Hughes, heritage risk surveyor at Historic England East, said: “Historic England are concerned about the condition of the building and we would very much like to gain access with Norwich City Council to carry out an assessment.

“There’s no blame attached to that.”

Stella Eglinton, executive officer at Norwich Historic Churches Trust, said: “Every so often we make approaches to the owner but so far he has not answered our calls.

St Mary the Less, as seen from St Michael at Pleas. PHOTO: Sophie SmithSt Mary the Less, as seen from St Michael at Pleas. PHOTO: Sophie Smith

“We would love to get in and do it up but we obviously are a charity as well so it would mean a lot of fundraising on our part.

“We’re hoping someone can do something about it.”

St Mary the Less when it opened for Norwich Heritage Cycle Ride in 2003. PHOTO: Keith WhitmoreSt Mary the Less when it opened for Norwich Heritage Cycle Ride in 2003. PHOTO: Keith Whitmore

Let out to the Dutch Strangers, St Mary the Less has an adventurous history of ownership.

13th century - The original building is built.

1542 - The church closes and its parish is united with St George Tombland.

1544 - The church is leased by the diocese to the Corporation of Norwich for 500 years at 4d (4p) per year.

1564 - Leases end, and the City lets it to the refugee Strangers as a cloth hall. They use it until 1631.

1637 - The French-speaking Walloons get a 40-year lease from the City to use it as a church. They stay for almost 200 years.

1832 - Trustees are set up, and the church is sub-leased to the Swedenborgians.

1852 - Swedenborgians move to Park Lane, the church is sub-let to the Catholic Apostolic Church.

1959 - Robertson and Coleman, furnishers, take it on as a warehouse and store, closing in 1985.

1989 - The church is sold to the current owner.

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