The Strangers who enriched Norwich and Norfolk life
PUBLISHED: 12:38 23 June 2018
They were Strangers who became friends – and their legacy lives on. This week sees the launch of an important new history book which tells a poignant story we can all relate to today. Derek James reports.
“This book is dedicated to those refugees who lost their lives trying to cross the seas to freedom, whether the North Sea in the 17th century or the Mediterranean in the 21st century. Their names are known only to God.”
The wise and moving words written by local historian Frank Meeres introduce readers to his fascinating new book taking an in-depth look at the arrival of the Strangers, Walloon and Huguenot Incomers to Norwich, 1550-1750.
Today we watch harrowing images of frightened men, women and children, many of whom have been forced to flee their own countries, desperate to find a new, more peaceful home.
Some die, others end up in camps. It can be a cruel and unforgiving world.
Turn the clock back a few hundred years and it was the people of Norwich who reached out a hand of friendship to refugees from the Spanish Netherlands escaping persecution by Roman Catholic authorities.
“The word Stranger is often taken by Norwich people to mean exclusively the Dutch- and French-speaking immigrants who came over from the Low Counties in the later 16th century,” explains Frank.
Medieval Norwich was famed for its weaving but by the middle of the 16th century times were bad. The decline of the worsted trade was said to be responsible for the decay of the city.
In 1566 Norwich invited 24 Dutchman and six Walloons over to kick-start the industry following the Duke of Norfolk urging Queen Elizabeth to issue a letter allowing the Corporation to approach them.
Slowly but surely they started to travel to Norfolk and start a new life, knowing they would be safe.
“One group of refugees who arrived in Norfolk together must have been in a desperate plight,” says Frank.
“They came from North Flanders, but arrived in Norwich in a boat from Dieppe in France, so the boat trip was the last leg in a lengthy flight – and they made the journey in winter! The group consisted of five women, 12 children and just one man. Such a group would be in immediate need of support from the community.
“At least they made it,” writes Frank, “Although there are no records, common sense says that there must have been some who, like refugees crossing the Mediterranean in the 21st century, died on the way.”
Of course, let’s not pretend everybody welcome these Strangers with open arms. They spoke different languages, they had a different culture and they worshipped differently but they, in the most parts, settled in well and contributed much.
Author Frank has gone into enormous detail, poring over ancient records and discovering much about the people who came to live in Norwich. He paints a vivid picture of life at the time and the impact the Strangers had on our city and county.
A visitor, Thomas Kendall, wrote in 1575 that: “The city is filled with strangers.”
By the 1570s, the Norwich community was the largest in England with more than 4,000 refugees in the city – compared with 3,500 in London. At least one in four, probably more, were immigrant refugees who had arrived in the previous ten years.
They were not all weavers but did a range of work. They included merchants, gardeners, farmers, medical men, preachers and schoolmasters, goldsmiths, clockmakers, bakers, and potters.
Thanks to Frank we can learn much more about these people and their families, how they settled into life in Norwich and across Norfolk. Intermarrying, taking on civic office and, while some later went home, others became English.
We have much to thank them for, not least the little yellow birds they brought with them. Yes, the Canaries. “Come on You Yellows!” is the roar whenever Norwich City play.
Frank’s bumper book - with many illustrations, nine maps and 11 tables - is based on fascinating and detailed documents held at Norfolk Record Office. He has many people to thank for their help and support.
Royalties are being donated to the Norfolk Archives and Heritage Development Foundation, partner charity of the Norfolk Record Office.
The Welcome Stranger: Dutch, Walloon and Huguenot incomers to Norwich, 1550-1750 by Frank Meeres is published by The Lasse Press at £16.99.