Inside Norwich’s 100-year-old secret garden
- Credit: Archant
It’s one of Norwich’s hidden gems. A green oasis in the middle of the city, guarded by an imposing gate and cherished by the community that love it.
Just a stone’s throw from one of Norwich’s busiest night-time streets, Prince of Wales Road, the James Stuart Garden is about to celebrate its 100th birthday on July 19.
And on that date, there will be a special event to mark the garden’s century milestone, as the Friends of the James Stuart Garden invite the community to celebrate with them.
Dr Lilian Hodgson, one of the Friends, explained the group aimed to protect and enhance the environment of the garden, which lies between St Faith’s Lane and Recorder Road, as a place of peace and enjoyment.
“Where I live overlooks the garden and during lockdowns I think we all realised how important it was to be able to access green spaces, particularly in the city,” she said.
She explained that the group was formally recognised by Norwich City Council in the summer of 2021 and offered funding via its Start Up Fund.
“We have a good working relationship with the council which has helped us with advice, gardening activity outside our scope and donations of cherry trees, snowdrop plants and bulbs for the garden,” Dr Hodgson added.
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The group has started planting and improvements with further plans for biodiversity projects with pupils from the nearby Charles Darwin Primary school and residents from the St Martin’s Housing Trust, which are based on Recorder Road.
It meets regularly in the garden for gardening activities and picnics and members have noticed more and more people are coming to enjoy the space, which is free to visit.
“It really is a hidden gem in the middle of housing,” said Dr Hodgson, “and a little bit difficult to find if you’ve never been before. The first thing you’ll see is the lovely gates which lead into the garden and then you’re in the middle of a really unexpected, charming space.
“You can see the delight on people’s faces when they walk through the gates and discover the garden – so many people tell us they had no idea it was here.”
Dr Hodgson said the group was proud to be working in a garden named for James Stuart.
“He was a much-loved adopted son of Norwich who was renowned for his academic intellect and was, with his wife Laura Colman, a benefactor for the poorer people living in the city,” she said.
“He was someone who cared about people of all ages and from all walks of life and that’s what we’d like to reflect in the garden: we are trying to encourage people of all ages and gardening abilities to come and help us and for everyone to come and visit.”
Born in Fife in 1843, the son of a wealthy mill owner, James Stuart went to St Andrew’s University and then to Cambridge where he was a Fellow at Trinity.
He was the first professor of mechanism and applied mechanics at Cambridge, and a man who firmly believed in equality, but when he pushed for women to be allowed to take part in courses, he fell foul of his employers.
He left to become a Liberal MP in London and then a journalist, launching a newspaper for the Liberal Party, and made it his business to campaign for equal rights and an education for everybody.
He once spent a week living with a miner and his family in a tiny pit cottage in Northumberland to find out just how tough life was for the poor.
When he moved to Norwich, he found the love of his life, Laura Colman, herself a remarkable woman: the first female J.P for Norwich and a member of Norwich City Council. The pair married in 1890 in Norwich.
The EDP reported at the time: “Rarely, if ever, has a domestic event awakened such a widespread and kindly interest among the residents of Norwich, and indeed, far beyond.
“Naturally, everyone desired that the heavens should smile on the wedding day of a pair who have shown practical sympathy with various movements beneficial to the community.”
Thousands of people lined the decorated streets as the bridal party arrived at the church and they waited to wave them on their way to the wedding breakfast at Carrow Priory.
The couple lived at Carrow Abbey and were popular with everyone who knew them: King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra dined with them when they opened the new Jenny Lind Hospital in 1900.
Stuart was a backbench MP from 1884 to 1900 and from 1906 to 1910 and was a staunch supporter of votes for women and the reform of the House of Lords.
Appointed a Privy Councillor in 1909, he took over management of Colman’s in 1898 and worked hard to set up the pension scheme for the workers.
He reached out to those who needed help and Lord Cozens-Hardy described him as a man of great tenderness, deeply sympathetic and the possessor of one of God’s greatest gifts: a natural talent for making friends.
Stuart became ill in 1909 and faced a difficult illness with great courage.
His suffering ended on October 12 1913 and he was laid to rest following a private funeral service at Carrow Abbey.
Along the route from Carrow to the Colman family plot at Rosary cemetery, flags were flown at half-mast in a public display of mourning.
After his death, Stuart’s family rallied to ensure his name was never forgotten in Norwich.
His brother-in-law Edward Thomas Boardman designed the distinctive Stuart Court apartments in Recorder Road which have stepped Dutch-gables and were created to offer homes to those in need.
The almshouses were opened in 1915 by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Cozen-Hardy and then, in 1922, the James Stuart Garden nearby – also designed by Boardman - was officially opened by Lord Mayor Sir Henry Holmes.
Stuart’s sister-in-laws Ethel Mary Colman and Helen Mary Colman created the Stuart Court Memorial Trust as a tribute to a man who always thought of others and fought for fairness.
It was 'dedicated in perpetuity for charitable purposes as alms-houses for the deserving poor', in the words of the original deed of foundation.
The building was entrusted to the Norwich Housing Society in 1996, and is now used by the charity as housing for the over 60s.
Laura joined her husband at Rosary Road Cemetery in 1920, dying two years before the memorial garden to James opened: but she left provision in her will for the project.
Inside the garden’s entrance is a plaque, which notes: “The building of this gateway delayed by the Great War was completed in 1922 under a bequest of Laura Elizabeth Stewart OBE, a member of the Norwich City Council and the first woman JP appointed for the city.”
At the Centenary Celebration at the James Stuart Garden exactly 100 years after it opened, once again Norwich’s Lord Mayor will be in attendance to mark a great man and a beautiful space tended by the people of Norwich he so loved.
Join the event on July 19 from 2pm to 6pm, bring a rug and a picnic, a coffee van will be in attendance. Everyone is welcome. For more information about the Friends of the James Stuart Garden, email email@example.com.