St James’: The Clock That Killed

When it happened, people were not surprised that it happened, but rather that it hadn’t happened earlier. Unfortunately for Mr Andrews it happened.

St James Union Workhouse, King’s Lynn, (after 1837)

In 1854 the people of King’s Lynn travelling along the town’s relatively new bypass (London Road had only been built for 50 years) noticed that the big clock on St James’ Workhouse had stopped. For most people it wouldn’t have mattered, but it must have annoyed some. How could you check how late your stagecoach was, or judge if you would be on time for that meeting with the solicitor? Eventually it was decided (we know not by whom) that it should be fixed, and a local clockmaker, Mr Andrews was despatched to do the job.

The Church At The Beginning

Very little of the St James’ building remains today. Local people may often wonder why there is a St James Road, a St James Park, a St James Swimming Pool, a St James Surgery but never know that a large building once dominated the area near the top of what today is The Walks.

The St James’ Building has an interesting history. It had been standing since the early twelfth century on the site in County Court Road, now occupied by part of the London Road Methodist Church, the old County Court Building, the Methodist School Room, and the large block of offices behind that. If you stand on the Methodist Church Car Park you can still see a few ruins of the original brickwork. A good view of an arch and window can bee seen from the Children’s Nursery side.

St James’ Chapel was built as a “chapel of ease”. Chapels of Ease were subsidiary churches to the mother church. The mother church, the main church in the area, was St Margaret’s (since 2011 The Minster) which had been built in 1101. St James’ was built in 1135, and a second chapel of ease, St Nicolas’, was built in 1146. The extra churches made it easier for the local congregations to attend without having to travel too far to the main church. And as attendance was necessary to help secure a favourable afterlife, and as the population was growing, the extra church capacity was essential. A petition sent to Pope Martin V in 1426 records that at Easter communion there were 1600 persons in attendance at St Margaret’s Church, 1400 at St Nicholas’ and 900 at St James’.

The original building was designed along Mendicant lines, with a nave, a chancel, and a central octagonal tower over a passageway.

Woman Banned From Church

Along with St Margaret’s and St Nicolas’, St James’ Chapel also features in the diary of Margery Kempe who was born in Lynn in 1373. Geoffrey Chaucer is plauded because he is the first writer of significance in this period to write in English (after 300 years of significant literature being written in Latin or French). Although not so well known, and although she could not read or write and had to dictate her work, Margery Kempe’s book is an important text from this period written in English.

Although she gave birth to fourteen children Kempe was called to a life of devotion. Her particular “gift” was tears and wailing (much to the annoyance of many). Whenever a particular Friar of Norfolk came to St James’ to preach, Kempe would attend and would be so overcome with raptures at what he was saying that she would roll on the floor sobbing. In the end she was banned from the church.

The incidents at St James’ Chapel are recorded in Chapter 61 of The Book of Margery Kempe. When the preaching friar became weary of her, many of the locals felt able to take against her.

“Some men said that she had a devil in her, as they had said so many times before, but now they were bolder, for they thought their opinion was much strengthened by the good friar. Nor would he allow her to hear his sermons unless she would leave off sobbing and her crying.”

“Than seyd summe that sche had a deuyl wythinne hir. & so had thei seyd mnay tymys be-forn, but now thei wer mor bolde, for hem thowt that her opinyon was wel strenghthyd er ellys fortifyed be this good frer. Ne he wolde suffyr hir to her hys sermown les than sche wolde leuyn hir sobbyng & hir crying.”

Repurposed

The nave was demolished in 1548 and parts of the building were systematically stripped. Lead, timber, and stone was to be used for the Town Corporation. In 1544 the ritual plate was sold to help build up sea defences. In 1550 its four bells were sold in order to purchase artillery to strengthen the town’s defences. In 1568 the Duke of Norfolk received twenty loads of freestone from the chapel.

The remaining crossing and chancel were converted into a workhouse in 1580, and this workhouse was rebuilt in 1680 (possibly to the designs of Henry Bell who was on the supervising committee). A rich gunmaker and clockmaker from St Margaret’s (Thomas Tue) gave the town three public clocks (two on St Margaret’s, and one on the new Workhouse Tower).

St James’ Workhouse (showing Clock Tower)

In 1699 the guardians of the poor of the parish of St Margaret’s took over the building, and 1823 it was recorded that it accommodated 170 inmates with a 40 bed infirmary. In 1837 it became the King’s Lynn Union Workhouse, and after an expenditure of £750 accommodated 200 people.

The Collapse

It was the clock given by Thomas Tue almost 200 years earlier that was to inadvertently kill Mr Andrews plus one.

In August 1854 Mr Andrews had been despatched to fix the stopped clock on St James’ Workhouse Tower. The clocktower had a cupola 80 feet above the ground. It contained a bell to strike the hours, and a clock beneath it. The front of the building had large stone buttresses, but their support was more apparent than real. When the nave had been pulled down in 1548 parts of the tower had almost certainly been damaged. As recently as 1824 it had been recommended that some rebuilding should take place. This was never done.

When it happened, people were not surprised that it happened, but rather that it hadn’t happened earlier. Unfortunately for Mr Andrews it happened. Cracks appeared in the wall of the tower and inmates fled outside. Mr Andrews continued his work. Then the whole tower collapsed, killing the clockmaker and one of the unnamed workhouse inmates who had stayed in bed.

A replacement workhouse was erected at Extons Road for 468 inmates in 1855. In 1858 London Road Methodist Church was built near the ruins.

The remains of the St James’ were finally removed in 1910.

There is a thread about the headstones moved when the St James Park was created on King’s Lynn Forum. There is a list of the headstones concerned here.

© James Rye 2022

Sources

  • Meech, S. B. & Allen, H.E. (1993) The Book of Margery Kempe, Oxford University Press
  • Windeatt, B. (Trans) (1965) The Book of Margery Kempe, Penguin

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