Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham

You would be forgiven for overlooking Cowper church, which is located on the bustling high street of East Dereham. Somewhat overshadowed by the larger, St Nicholas church, it is easy to walk on past the flint facade sandwiched between the Co-Op on one side and a pharmacy on the other. But once you know it is there it would unforgivable not to take a look inside as it has the most striking interior of mint ice cream green. For me, this instantly took me back to memories of Miami’s South Beach and its famous art deco buildings painted in various pastel shades.

Another striking feature of the church is the organ which is unusually located at the far east end in the apse. Being sited beyond the alter inevitably makes it the focal point of the entire chancel. Partially hidden behind it are three windows of two lights, each with a multifoil head, and at the opposite west end there is a large, five light window topped with two quatrefoils and a multifoil. With this arrangement, it almost feels as if the west and east have in been installed the wrong way round, especially as in the west there is a gallery which you could imagine would have easily accommodated the organ.

In the south and north aisles are some lovely examples of 19th century glass that are at a very convenient height, making it possible to examine them in close detail. It’s a shame, however, that due to the close proximity of the buildings either side of the church the light isn’t always sufficient to illuminate them to their full potential.

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The building is sited on the former home of poet William Cowper, to whom the church is dedicated. Cowper was born in Hertfordshire in 1731 and was most known for his poems about nature and everyday life and for being a vocal supporter of the antislavery movement. Throughout his life, Cowper suffered from severe bouts of depression which, at one point, not only resulted in his institutionalisation but also led to several attempts to take his own life. Cowper sought solace from these dark periods through evangelical Christianity and famously wrote the poem, “Light Shining out of the Darkness” from where the well known phrase “God moves in mysterious ways” originates. 

In 1789, Cowper and his companion, Mary, moved to Norfolk to be nearer to his cousin and friend, Dr John Johnson, living in various locations within the county before finally settling in East Dereham. When Mary became paralyzed and subsequently died in 1896, Cowper never fully recovered from the loss and died just four years later.

The church was built in 1873 by Edward Boardman. Boardman trained as an architect with the London based company, Lucas Brothers, whose most notable works include the Royal Albert Hall and Covent Garden Opera House. From there, Boardman continued his training with John Louth Clements of Lowestoft before setting up his own practice in Norwich in 1860. Boardman works include the impressive red brick building of the Royal Hotel, which still stands today at the top of The Prince of Wales Road (albeit now converted into offices and a bar). He was also responsible for converting one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the castle, into a museum and for building the chapel at the city’s Rosary cemetery.

1. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
2. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
3. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
4. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
5. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
6. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
7. West window
8. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
9. Ornate radiator detail
10. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
11. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
12.Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
13. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
14. West gallery
15. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
16. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
17. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham
18. Cowper Memorial Church, Dereham