John Collins (or Collinge) was the vicar of St. Stephen‘s in the mid-seventeenth century and also served for a time as Chaplain to the Hobart family, who lived in what is now the Assembly Rooms. At that time many men in both church and parliament were demanding that the Church of England should abolish its structure of dioceses ruled by bishops and divided into parishes, and adopt the Presbyterian system, as in Scotland. Collins was the leader of Norwich‘s Presbyterians.
In Presbyterianism, each church is governed by a body of elders, usually prominent citizens, who appoint the minister. Churches are grouped into presbyteries and synods. At regular intervals national assemblies are convened. With Presbyterianism, the government has no say in religious matters but is simply expected to impose upon the nation whatever the church decides.
During the civil war period the Presbyterian party had a slight majority in parliament but were defeated because a small group of Independent (Congregationalist) sympathisers, which included Cromwell, held the balance of power. These men disliked Presbyterianism even more than they disliked the Episcopal (bishops) system.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 there was a strong expectation that a compromise could be reached. The King convened a conference to discuss these matters at the Savoy Palace in London and Collins, along with the Bishop of Norwich, Edward Fox, represented Norwich. However, a parliamentary election was held and because the parliament which was returned had an overwhelming majority of traditional Anglican members, violently opposed to any change, the conference was abandoned. Soon afterwards the infamous Act of Uniformity was passed and Collins was one of the Norwich men to be ejected from his church.
He gathered a group of committed followers and they proceeded to function as best they could as a Presbyterian church, in conjunction with similar groups in other towns. By 1672 they were using the old granary at the back of Blackfriars Hall and in 1687 they erected a building in Colegate. (The Old Granary is in the courtyard behind Blackfriars Hall and can be approached from St. George‘s Street). It has been used over the years as a sanctuary for Independents, early 1643; Presbyterians, 1672; Roman Catholics, 1686; and Baptists, 1689. The memorial tablet only mentions the Baptists. In 1754, many years after Collin‘s death, the Colegate building was replaced by the elegant Octagon Chapel, still standing today.
In addition to his ministerial duties Collins ran what is said to have been Norwich‘s first lending library, housed over the porch of the Blackfriar‘s Hall.
Although the Church of Scotland was, and still is, a Presbyterian Church, the English have never been keen on the concept. The ever-present elders and minister were thought to be more oppressive than the distant Bishop and frequently absentee vicar. "A Pope in every parish" was the verdict frequently expressed by English parishoners!
With permission from the author Ted Doe. See www.heritagecity.org/research-centre/churches-and-creeds/noncomformity-in-norwich.htm.
Many non-conformist groups used this area for secret worship.