Elm Hill Stories
An introduction to Elm Hill
Elm Hill today extends from the Church of St. Peter Hungate where the top of Elm Hill meets Princes Street, to the Church of St. Simon and St. Jude, sited at the bottom of Elm Hill on the corner with Wensum Street. It used to continue in a straight line past Britons Arms and intersect with St Georges Street but was re-aligned in the 15th century in order to permit the construction of St Andrew's & Blackfriars Halls which were originally the home of the Dominican friars.
Elm Hill acquired its name from the elm trees that have successively stood in the square since the first quarter of the 16th century when the Churchwardens of St Peter Hungate Church planted the first one. (The tree you see today is not an elm because of the presence of Dutch elm disease in the UK). The parish pump, though not the original, is sited near the tree.
There is no record of the date when Elm Hill first came into being, but there is some evidence for its existence around A.D. 1200. Very few buildings standing above ground in Elm Hill are of an earlier date than 1507, when a disastrous fire destroyed over 700 houses in Norwich. Britons arms may be older.
Although it may not be immediately apparent today, the North side of Elm Hill runs parallel to the river Wensum and in the past many of the Merchant houses had their own quays. During the 15th and 16th centuries Elm Hill and the river were important commercial thoroughfares. The river was the route from which raw materials were imported and finished products exported via Great Yarmouth. At this time there was industrial prosperity in Norwich due largely to the arrival of religious refugees from Europe and the settlement of a large number of weavers, dyers, goldsmiths and other skilled craftsmen.
Many wealthy merchants had their houses facing Elm Hill with their factories and workshops at the rear. Between them and the river were the homes of their workpeople.
Elm Hill has provided sixteen recorded citizens to serve Norwich as Mayor or Sheriff.
With the gradual decline of Norwich as a centre of the weaving industry in the 19th Century, Elm Hill lost its importance and slowly degenerated into a slum area. By 1926 where once stood the fine houses of the merchants there was only neglect and decay, and the areas leading down to the river, whilst still inhabited, were scenes of poverty and squalor.
It was in 1927 that the Norwich Society, carried out a detailed survey and report on Elm Hill, forwarding this, with their recommenda¬tions, to the Norwich Corporation for their consideration. The report made it clear that despite the shocking condition of the Elm Hill area there still remained much of historic and architectural value and that with a general clearance of the slums, and sympathetic renovation of some of the more impor¬tant buildings, it could once again become an important area of interest.
The Norwich Corporation wanted to demolish and build a swimming pool on the north side of the street but at the last moment was persuaded to adopt the ideas from the Norwich Society, and renovation work commenced in 1927. The Corporation purchased some of the properties, the slums were largely demolished and further purchases were made after the war. Today, with a few exceptions, Norwich City Council still owns most the buildings.
THE CHURCH OF ST. PETER HUNGATE
The tower is square, and built of black flints in 1431, by Thomas Ingham. Its unusual pyramid cap was put on in 1906, when the tower had become so unsafe that the battlemented belfry stage was demolished. Nicholas Ingham, who is buried in it, added the south porch in 1497. It has angle buttresses and a niche for a statue over the door. Its ceiling has four bosses –one for each Evangelist.
The nave and transepts were totally rebuilt, as ‘a neat building of black flint’, by John and Margaret Paston in 1458. A stone in a buttress near the north door records this – it shows a tree trunk without branches (decay of the old church) with a new shoot (the new building), together with the date of completion, 1460.
The chancel had been rebuilt in 1431 by Thomas Ingham and was rebuilt again in 1604 after it had collapsed: it is of rough rubble, plastered over, contrasting with the nave and transepts. Its windows are of an older pattern and have trefoil tracery in the heads. It is covered with peg-tiles, which date from the 1604 rebuilding. By the end of the century it was again in a bad way: in 1888, the tower was so dangerous an order was served on the churchwardens. In 1897 only a tarpaulin covered a large hole in the chancel roof.
Although restored in 1906, the church was in bad state again by 1931, and was threatened with demolition. The Norfolk Archeologically Trust raised money to repair it, and it was used as a museum of church art from 1936 until 1995.
In the 14th century a Geoffrey Curteys was a glass wright on this site. The mansion that included No 2 was originally built for Richard Mann in the 16th century. There was originally a first floor wooden balcony although at present it is unknown where the original entrance was located.
Perhaps the most famous resident was merchant Robert Bendish, Alderman, Sheriff (1663) and Mayor (1672). The communion plate of St Peter Hungate Church was donated by Robert’s wife in gratitude for her recovery from serious illness.
The shop on the ground floor was for many years a drapery establishment kept by the Sheddon family. It then became a bakers and confectioners before becoming a restaurant.
No 9 THE BRITONS ARMS
A 15th-century thatched building and possibly the only house in Elm Hill to escape the fire of 1507. The cellars are said to date from the 13th century.
A unique surviving example in England of an early 15th century ‘Beguinage’ which was the home of a small group of single women who devoted themselves to a life of prayer and charitable work within the community surrounding St Peter Hungate. Towards the end of the 15th century it was the home of the ‘Barbours’ or surgeons and later associated with the wool and the weaving industry. In 1760 the building became an Ale House called the ‘Kings Arms’ the licensee was a Timothy Gridley, wool comber. In 1804 it became the ‘Britons Arms’. Unlike the ‘Crown’ in Elm Hill there is only one record of a William John Cooper being convicted in 1937 of selling alcohol out of hours and fined £1! It continued as a public house until 1941 when it closed for the duration of the war. Later, the brewers sold it to the City for a nominal sum of £10.
Nos. 12, 14 &16
There is a record of a building on this site in 1249. In 1493 it was the property of the Prior and Convent of the Cathedral. It became a monastery in 1864 when an Anglican Churchman, the Rev. J. L. Lyne, the self-styled Father Ignatius, settled here and endeavoured to revive a form of monasticism. He named the building the Benedictine Chapel of the Priory if St Mary and St Dunstan and ceremonies were carried out there until 1886. He collected funds to build the red brick chapel at the rear of these buildings but never occupied it. The building attached to the rear was a rag pickers warehouse for many years.
Little is known of the house that once stood on this site. The first floor has been removed and the remaining ground floor is now a shop.
This is a late 16th century building, the second floor, being of slightly awkward proportions may have been added later. The house once possessed a fine ornamental porch spanning the pathway on Elm Hill. Its original side entrance remains in Dutton's Court, which had a fine Georgian pediment and surround, but this has now also been removed.
This house was the home of the de Hague family, father and son both becoming Town Clerk of Norwich, the former in 1774 and the latter in 1826. It became a shop in the late 20th century.
Nos. 20, 22 to 26
The passage known as Crown Court formed the courtyard entrance to a large house, which, in the 15th century, was the home of the Pastons and known as "Paston House", where some of the Paston Letters were probably written.
After the extensive fire of 1507, a new house was erected on this site by Augustine Steward, a well-known local merchant; his mer¬chant's mark and the arms of the Mercers Company can still be seen carved at each end of the oak beam spanning the entrance to Crown Court.
Among its many distinguished visitors was Queen Elizabeth I who, it is said, watched a pageant from a rear first-floor window of the building.
Augustine Steward was a prominent citizen who served as Mayor and Sheriff. He was also an outstanding civic benefactor, and it was he who obtained from Henry VIII a grant to the City, of St. Andrew's and Blackfriars’ Halls, together with the adjoining monastic buildings of the Dominican Friars. He also presented to Norwich the Silver Gilt Crystal Mace which has been described as "the most unique and valuable of its kind among British Corpora¬tion Regalia", and which may now be seen at the City Hall Regalia Room.
Number 20 is believed to have been rebuilt as part of Augustine Steward’s house in the 16th century. Well proportioned with attractive dormer windows, the ground floor walls are 15th century and a barrel vaulted under croft lies beneath Dutton’s Court. The ground floor has recently been restored exposing the Tudor fireplace and oak panelling. The windows are 17th century, the shop front having been added in the late 19th century.
In the 19th century, part of the building (Nos. 22 to 26) became the home of the learned society known as "The Fraternity of the United Friars of the College of St. Luke" (to quote from Browne's History of Norwich) "whose speculative researches were crowned by active benevolence". Its members were chiefly eminent Norwich citizens and among them were Sir William Beechey, the artist, whose portrait of Lord Nelson hangs in St. Andrew's Hall, and John Sell Cotman, pre-eminent among English water colourists.
The present building (Nos. 22 to 26) was reconstructed by the City in 1927, but sadly lost the top floor dormer windows and the Georgian windows on the first floor, which had earlier replaced the 17th century windows that matched those at No 20. The cement rendering was also removed and bricks inserted between the timber frameworks, many of the timbers also being replaced. All the windows were made at this time with an imported unusual twenty-light window facing the street. The first floor possesses a panelled room with a timbered ceiling.
However, the lack of originality doesn’t alter the fact that the building makes a fine contribution to the vitality of Elm Hill.
Nos. 29 & 29a
Originally a merchant’s house there is a record of it being occupied by a Stephen Besaunt in 1288. In the mid 18th century it became ‘The Crown’ public house, named after the Crown Court opposite. Samuel Cosburn, carpenter, and Richard Purdy, dyer, were licensees from 1760 to 1764. In 1881 Thomas Clarke was convicted of allowing consumption out of hours and fined 5 shillings plus 7 shillings costs. In 1909 Lewis hardwood was convicted of permitting drunkenness and fined £2 plus 8 shillings costs. It was clearly a ‘house of ill repute’ as an Arthur Warminger was in 1918 convicted for consumption out of hours and in 1924 for selling out of hours. The Licence was provisionally refused and finally closed under Compensation in 1927. Following the acquisition by the Norwich Corporation in the early 20th century it became the two shops and a flat above, which you see today.
Nos. 28 & 30
Another Merchant's house, probably dating back to the 16th century, with a central courtyard entrance, now known as Towlers Court, Successive renovations and alterations have obliterated much of its early structure. Francis Columbine, a well-known Huguenot merchant, who served as Mayor in 1776 lived here.
This building originally had a rear warehouse and was still in use as a factory until as late as 1885, manufacturing poplin and paramatta shawls. Note the early parish boundary plates on the front wall.
The upper storey of the front of this building may appear to be of grey brick, but on close inspection it will be noted they are not bricks but tiles, sometimes called mathematical tiles, and formed part of a style of one of the many restorations.
Nos. 37 and 39
Originally one house, dating from the 14th century with Norris Court as the entrance,. The name Norris Court was derived from a James Norris, cabinetmaker, who had his workshops at the end of the Court. A Simon Bowde, Thomas Lane and Richard Halman lived here and were Mayors of Norwich in the 16th and 17th centuries. The old parish boundary plate is fixed to the front wall.
Nos. 41 & 43
This half-timbered building is all that remains of a mansion that stood here. Originally the front of the house extended up to the nearby Church of St. Simon and St Jude and included what are now the adjoining Victorian cottages. The yard, known as Wrights Court, would have been the central courtyard entrance to the house, which probably would have extended back to Wagon and Horses Lane. The building was sympathetically restored by the Norwich Corporation in the 1960s and unusually includes a forge in the cellar.
The Pettus family lived here from 1590 to 1683 and included Thomas Pettus, Mayor in 1590, and Sir John Pettus, Mayor in 1608, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. The Pettus family monuments are in the Church of St Simon and St Jude further down the street. In Wrights Court can be seen a studded oak door, on the right, said to have been one of the original doors of the Pettus mansion. At the end of the passage is a splendid original 16th century first floor window.
It is said there was a house on this site in 1315. The present house on the site contains some 15th century arches and originally had a second storey, which was demolished in 1927. In the 17th century it was the house of William Gostling who became Mayor and who, during the Civil War, found himself imprisoned for his loyalty to the Crown.
Nos. 34 and 36
The flint-faced building originally comprised one large house with the existing central courtyard entrance, now known as Roache’s Court. It was erected in 1540. Alderman Richard Suckling and John Baker lived there, the latter serving Norwich as Mayor in 1584. The present buildings were renovated during the Georgian period and now are divided into two premises. No. 36 still retains its use as a private house, whereas No. 34 is now known as the Crome Gallery.
This small, attractive red brick building is of the Queen Anne period. At one time this property was the Rectory for St Simon and St Jude, before being converted into a shop.
This building, currently called ‘Olive’s’, is on the site of a house occupied in the 17th century by Richard Pettus. At one time it was also the home of the Countess of Lincoln. Later it was in use as a Public House until 1962 and was known as 'The Turkey Cock'. James fuller and John Warminger (both worsted weavers) were the licensees from 1760 to 1764. The name was changed to ‘The Peacock’ between 1868 and 1872 when it reverted to “The Turkey Cock”. In May 1879, the licensee was Maria Swash who was convicted of allowing consumption out of hours and received a 10 shilling fine plus 17/6d costs and 14 days detention. Regrettably little of the original 17th century building now remains.
ST SIMON & ST JUDE
A church of this dedication certainly stood on this site before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The style of the existing flint building suggests a late 14th or early 15th-century date. In 1892 worship ceased and the building fell into ruin. In 1911the tower partially collapsed. In 1913 it was renovated for use as a Sunday school, but after the Great War decay again set in until in the 1920s demolition was proposed. The Norwich Society successfully contested this. On the wall of the Nave is a plaque dated 1939 recording the repair of the building by the 'Norwich Amenities Society'.
In 1952, it was leased by the Church to the Boy Scouts Association for use as a shop. The Association's need for additional space led to the modern insertion of a concrete floor, cutting across the windows, for the full length of the building. The Chancel has been partitioned off from the Nave and stairs and other partitions have been installed. Some of these would almost certainly not be permitted today, but at that time they enabled the building to be used – and saved. They are independent of the historic structure and designed to be removed.
The recently restored Pettus family monuments are to the right of the blocked chancel arch. Thomas Pettus (Mayor 1590, died 1597) and his wife, kneeling at a prayer desk with their boys to one side and their girls to the other. North of the arch is Sir John Pettus (Mayor 1608, died 1614), reclining uncomfortably on one elbow, in full armour with gauntlet in hand. Above him are his two sons and four daughters. Higher still are his son, Sir Augustus Pettus, (died 1613) and his wife Abigail.
The Parish Register records “4 esquires were slain in the King’s army on Mousehold, Tuesday 26th August, 1549 in Edward V1 reign and were all buried in the chancel of this church in one grave”. (The result of conflict during Kett’s rebellion)
The continual struggle to preserve Elm hill
The Norwich Society were initially involved in the saving of Elm Hill when some properties were acquired by the Corporation in 1927 - at that stage they were very dilapidated. A Leonard Howes and Col Glendenning started to pressurize the Corporation to improve the fabric of the properties they had acquired.
In the mid 1930s there was a proposal to demolish part of Elm Hill for a traffic scheme. Leonard Howes, Col Glendenning, with the support of a R H Mottram, protested and camped out near the Britons Arms handing out leaflets - whether they stayed the night seems unclear but it’s known they lit a fire!
Leonard Howes who was by now a conservation pioneer, became a member of Norwich Council around 1934/5 and was determined to use this role to encourage the preservation of Elm Hill by the Council who were reluctant to buy further properties or to spend money on maintenance of those they already owned.
The Second World War intervened and Leonard Howes returned to the Council in 1946 and again started a campaign to keep and enhance Elm Hill.
He became the Chairman of the City Committee that looked after the Corporations estate, but he was alarmed when a post war traffic scheme again proposed the demolition of most of one side of Elm Hill. The scheme also involved, in other parts of the City, the demolition of the City Walls and Cow Tower!
Leonard Howes fought yet another campaign during which he refused to even: acknowledge the then City Engineer, Horace Rowley. In fact he publicly accused him of vandalism, which he said was "typical of a Welshman with no love of Norwich".
This caused a bit of difficulty in the Council Chamber but Leonard Howes won the day and the Corporation agreed there would be no considerations of any proposals for demolition of any part of Elm Hill then or in the future. They also agreed to buy more properties in Elm Hill and spend money on appropriate conservation of the properties they already owned.
In 1979 there was a problem with a drain at No 29a. The Council came to fix it but during the job one of the workman fell through the concrete at the rear of the building. Some minutes later he appeared at the front door of the shop, shaken, covered in dust but otherwise fine.
It transpired he had fallen through the concrete at the other side of a bricked up archway in the cellar. He had then followed the passageway and arrived at the cellar of the Britons Arms but didn’t like to enter and frighten the ladies who run the coffee shop there. The passageway continued on and he found himself in the storage area for the Blackfriars Crypt coffee shop from where he emerged and returned to number 29a.
So it seems an 18th century underground passageway linked a public house, a nunnery and a monastery!
Kett’s rebellion and fighting on Elm Hill
Robert Kett was the leader of around 20,000 Norfolk men who were determined to reform the local government in Norfolk. He attacked Norwich on the 22nd July 1549 and defeated a royal army led by the Earl of Northampton on the 1st August. He dominated the affairs of the county for six weeks.
On the 24th August the Earl of Warwick forced his way into Norwich to put down the rebellion and fierce fighting took place in the Elm Hill and Tombland area. The narrow streets, alleys, courts and churchyards put the royalist troops, unfamiliar with the area, at a disadvantage.
The Elm Hill churches of St Simon & St Jude and St Peter Hungate (also St Michael at Plea and St Andrews) were used as bases by Kett’s men for mounting their attacks on the royalist troops. “Some assembled also by the Elm and about the hill next the corner of the building, late the Black Friars, all in battle array”.
By the evening Kett’s men had been overwhelmed by the loyalists firepower and they were driven from the city. Kett was eventually hanged at Norwich castle on the 7th of December.
Acknowledgements and thanks to:
Norfolk County Council archives
Norwich Heritage, Economic and Regeneration Trust
Illustrated Guide to Elm Hill by Leonard Howes
Norwich Historic Churches Trust.
Plunkett’s Photographs of old Norwich
In Search of Robert Kett by Adrian Hoare
Norfolk Public Houses - a listing.