Norwich, City of the Plains



London has its famous residential squares, built to enclose green space and clean air against the awfulness outside. These enclaves mainly arose during the Georgian and Victorian periods and from the outset were part of the designed urban landscape.

Bloomsbury Square 1787. Image: English Heritage

Norwich, on the other hand, has very few formal, rectangular spaces. In this second post on Norwich Plains we try to define these irregular spaces by contrasting them with more formal squares.

The Anglo-Scandinavian marketplace, Tombland (meaning empty space), and the Norman marketplace that superseded it, are both rectangular but neither of these was called a ‘plain’ for they pre-dated the arrival of the Dutch who gave the name to our open spaces. And although we can point to several isolated Georgian gems there was never sufficient development within the confines of a medieval street plan (if ‘plan’ is the word) to add up to an eighteenth century square. The nearest thing to a London-like square is the Cathedral Close.

The Lower Close, looking east.
Georgian terrace on south side of the Lower Close

Before the word ‘close’ was appropriated by twentieth-century developers for their suburban cul-de-sacs, the name related more specifically to the area around an ecclesiastical building enclosed – cloistered – behind the precinct gates. It may never have been an appropriate name for the more casual, un-green places outside the cathedral walls. Norwich plains are irregular, rather tentative spaces that seem to have arisen where several medieval streets collide. Some plains have been so eroded by tramways, traffic-bearing roads, World War II and general ‘improvement’, that we may wonder whether they existed at all.

St Catherine’s Plain is one such open space. It was the land surrounding the pre-Conquest church of St Catherine that was given to the nuns at Carrow by King Stephen. Now it is one of Norwich’s lost churches and its demise can be traced to the plague that almost depopulated the parish; by the time of the historian Blomefield (1705-1752) it consisted of just one house [1].

Cuningham’s map of Norwich, 1558, showing the lost church of St Catherine, at centre

At the southern end of Queen’s Road, between the twentieth century junction with Surrey Street (formerly St Catherine’s Lane) and the following junction with Finkelgate, is a treed area still marked with an older-style cast-iron sign.

Finkelgate connects with the south end of Ber Street, which was once called St. Catherine’s Street [1]. The map below also shows a St Catherine’s Lane and a St Catherine’s Hill, emphasising that the district of St Catherine’s was at one time more extensive than we may now realise.

St Catherine’s Close, enclosing the church (purple star). Red line marks St Catherine’s Lane (now the continuation of Surrey Street); blue line marks St Catherine’s Hill. Green star = St Catherine’s Plain. Blue Star = St Catherine’s Close. Yellow star = All Saints’ Plain. Ber St runs along the right edge; modern-day Queen’s Rd to the left. Millard & Manning’s 1830 Plan of Norwich. Courtesy of Norfolk County Council
St Catherine’s Plain from the junction of Surrey Street with the widened Queen’s Road, which has absorbed some of the plain [2]

Walking down Surrey Street to the junction with All Saints’ Green we come to a fine building designed by local architect Thomas Ivory who is responsible for several of the high points of Georgian Norwich. This is his St Catherine’s Close (1780) – a name once given to the place where the parsonage had stood [1] . The Adam-style porch was damaged when the area was bombed during World War II and is a replacement [3].

St Catherine’s Close (or House) by Thomas Ivory, completed by his son William. Marked with blue star on the map above. Now the offices of solicitors Clapham & Collinge

Just east of this house is All Saints Green that, as marked by the yellow star in the 1830 map above, was once known as All Saints Plain. On Samuel King’s map of 1766 this open space is labelled All Saints Green – a name by which it is known today. It appears there was a fluidity in naming places. King’s map also gives the space the alternative name of ‘Old Swine Market’ but by 1806, when Blomefield’s History of Norwich was published, the hog market had moved to the castle ditches.

All Saints Green/Old Swine Market. Samuel King’s Plan of Norwich 1766

Born 1844 in Ludham, Robert Herne Bond owned a shop in Ber Street and bought adjoining properties that allowed him to extend through to All Saints’ Green [4]. One of these buildings started life as the Thatched Assembly Rooms before being converted to a ballroom then a cinema. Bond converted it back to a ballroom for his staff and it was also used as a restaurant and furnishing hall. The ‘Thatched’ was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1942. Immediately the war ended, Bond’s son, the architect J Owen Bond, replaced this collection of vernacular buildings with a Streamline Moderne department store. In 1982, Bonds of Norwich was taken over by John Lewis [5].

Bonds at 21 All Saints’ Green, photographed in 1935. ©

St Giles’ Plain. The provisional nature of some of the Norwich plains is apparent from Richard Lane’s book The Plains of Norwich. White’s Directory of 1845 does not, he writes, list St Giles’ Plain in the street guide despite several traders giving their address there [2]. Nor could I find it on the 1884 OS map, the Millard & Manning 1830 map, Cole’s 1807 and King’s 1766. This is not to say that the plain didn’t exist but that locals were more ready than mapmakers to use the local name for these open spaces.

St Giles-on-the-Hill with Upper St Giles ahead, Churchman House left. Cleveland Street cuts left-right across the plain.

The church stands at the intersection of Upper St Giles and St Giles Streets, Cow Hill and Bethel Street, with Willow Lane to the rear. The area outside the church would have looked more tranquil before the 1970s when Cleveland Street joined the plain, bringing traffic off the Grapes Hill roundabout and the Inner Link Road.

St Giles church, red star. Cleveland Road (yellow) was built in the C20. Samuel King’s map 1766

Until the Conquest, the settlement’s main axis ran north-south, from Magdalen Street, through Tombland, to King Street. The Normans changed this by developing the ‘French Borough’ westwards from their Castle and Marketplace. Two Norman streets from the market converged at St Giles: Lower Newport (now St Giles Street) and Upper Newport (now Bethel, formerly Bedlam, Street).

The church is situated on a hill, 85 feet above sea level. If you were to stand on top of the magnificent tower you would be 205 feet above the sea; not as tall as the county’s high point, Beeston Bump (344 feet), but still dizzyingly elevated for Norfolk. Two thirds up the tower the single clock-face points down St Giles’ Street to the Guildhall, next to the marketplace. With a diameter of ten feet the dial should have been easy to see although visibility was improved in the mid-C19 by the addition of a six and half feet minute hand.

St Giles’s single clock-face, from St Giles Street

Facing the south side of the church, across the plain, is Churchman House built in 1727 for Alderman Thomas Churchman and remodelled in 1751 by his son Sir Thomas. According to Pevsner &Wilson this is ‘the very best Georgian house in Norwich’ [3].


For two years (1875-7), Churchman House was the first home of the Norwich School for Girls before it moved to the Assembly House and then to its present location on Newmarket Road in 1933 [2]. After the girls moved out in 1877, Churchman House was bought by Dr Peter Eade, sheriff and three times mayor. Dr Eade was an eminent citizen, being Chief Physician at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, on St Stephen’s Road. He was also first President of the Norwich Medico-Chirurgical Society at a time when meetings would be held on the night of a full moon to help members return home safely.

Sir Peter Eade. Courtesy: Jarrold & Sons Ltd

Dr Eade was also embroiled in the affair of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, that I recently wrote about [6]. Physician and philosopher Thomas Browne, the city’s most famous citizen of the seventeenth century, was buried in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft. In 1840 his skull was stolen when his coffin was broken open during the burial of the vicar’s wife. After some years the skull was bequeathed to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum where, despite numerous requests for its return, it stayed until 1922. Peter Eade ‘must have been one of the leading figures behind the hospital’s refusal to return the skull’ [7]. At the time, skulls of the famous were used for phrenology, the pseudo-scientific name for ‘reading the bumps’ – the dubious procedure for deducing personal characteristics from the shape of the cranium. Yet while Eade the Physician fought against the restoration of the skull, Eade the Mayor championed the commission for Browne’s statue, which was installed in the Haymarket in 1905 [7].

St Mary’s Plain feels more of an open space than others in Norwich-over-the-Water, possibly because of the borrowed elbow room provided by the large churchyard.

St Mary’s Plain, off the north end of present-day Duke Street. Millard & Manning’s 1830 Plan of Norwich. Courtesy of Norfolk County Council

The plain takes its name from St Mary-at-Coslany, Coslany (or island with reeds) being one of the four original Anglo-Saxon settlements on which the city is based. On the belfry, the double openings with the recessed shaft reveal the church’s Anglo-Saxon origins. It is probably the oldest in Norwich [3].

St Mary-at-Coslany where John Sell Cotman was baptised in 1782

Until the late C19 the area consisted of ‘noxious courts and alleys’ [2] but all this was to change dramatically in the following century. Norwich-over-the-Water housed many light-industrial factories and was bombed several times during the Baedeker Raids. In 1942 the church was badly damaged by incendiaries.

From far left: St Mary’s Baptist Church; the thatched Pykerell’s House adjacent to Zoar Strict and Particular Baptist Chapel; the red-brick St Mary’s Works; and hidden by the tree, the tower of St Mary-at-Coslany.

Above, just visible to the left, is St Mary’s Baptist Chapel. It dates from 1951 although various versions had stood on this site since 1745. Below, is the chapel on the 12th of September 1939.

St Mary’s Baptist chapel, 12th September 1939 ©

War had been declared against Germany on the 3rd September 1939. A week later, fire swept through the Baptist church but this was not caused by enemy action – a hint of the damage can be seen on the roof. Rebuilt to the original design, the church was opened again a year later but in June 1942 was completely gutted, this time as a result of the Baedeker bombing campaign. The church we see today was opened in July 1951 (see [8] for the detailed history of this area and of wartime bomb damage).

The Baedeker raids of 1942 also claimed medieval Pykerell’s House, named after an early C16 Sheriff and three-times mayor. Extensively restored, it is one of only six thatched houses left in Norwich. Surprisingly, I can find no reports that its conjoined but unthatched neighbour – Zoar Strict and Particular Chapel – suffered any damage in the blaze. In evading the Luftwaffe’s incendiary bombs the church was echoing its biblical namesake, Zoar, one of the five cities of the plain (the Dead Sea Plain) to escape the fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

It is intriguing that Zoar, a small Baptist chapel, should be sited so close to the large, general Baptist Chapel further along the plain. This break-away branch of the Baptist faith is ‘strict and particular’ in allowing only those baptised by immersion to receive communion.

The shape of the plain as we saw it on King’s map of 1766 was further changed in the 1920s. Then, old slum dwellings were demolished to make way for St Mary’s Works, home to Sexton, Son and Everard, one of the city’s large shoe-making factories. But it, too, was extensively damaged in 1942 by the summer bombing campaign. The building was restored but the business closed in 1976 and now it awaits redevelopment.



In researching the city’s open spaces I came across an article that gave insight into the extent to which the cathedral’s brethren fulfilled their moral obligation to feed the poor [9].

Cathedral precinct. Upper Close outlined in red. Erpingham Gate (purple) and St Ethelbert Gate (yellow). Almary House leading onto Almary Green (blue star). 1885 OS map

Almary Green is not named for the Virgin Mary but because of its proximity to the Almonry. The Almoner’s House and Almonry Green are situated in the south-west corner of The Close conveniently near the paupers soliciting alms at St Ethelbert’s Gate. Here, the almoner had his own granary, distinct from the priory’s Great Granary. This separation ensured that the needy were fed mainly rye or ‘horse’ bread to accompany their soup or pottage based on pulses while wheat from the other store was used to make the white bread eaten by the brethren. From the accounts, the monks appeared to have eaten and drunk in ‘truly heroic quantities’. Bread and ale comprised about half their diet while fish and meat (but little dairy and no fruit and vegetables) made up the other half. Modern nutritional guidelines suggest the paupers had the better deal.

Almary Green and 1-4 The Close, Norwich Cathedral

In 1422, on Maundy Thursday, sufficient supplies were distributed to feed 5,688 poor. And on the anniversary of the death of the founder, Herbert de Losinga, around 10% of the annual allocation of rye, peas and barley was doled out in one day. It is not clear how the remainder was distributed throughout the rest of the year. In 1310-11, 33,000 loaves, 28,500 portions of pottage and 216,000 gallons of weak ale were given to the poor. If no food was distributed outside the charity season then the soup kitchen could have catered for around 1350 persons, possibly served by the monks. If, however, food was provided throughout the year then the almoner could have fed around 500 paupers a day [9]. Despite the fact that Norwich was a relatively wealthy city it is clear that a large part of the population required social care and it was the church that provided it before the Elizabethan Poor Laws.


  2. Richard Lane (1999). The Plains of Norwich. Pub: The Larks Press, Dereham.
  3. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk I: Norwich and the North-East. Yale University Press.
  9. Philip Slavin (2012). Bread and Ale for the Brethren. In, Studies in Regional and Local History vol 11. Pub: University of Hertfordshire.


The main source for this post has been Richard Wilson’s excellent book on Norwich Plains. As ever, I am grateful to Jonathan Plunkett for generously allowing access to his father’s collection of C20 photographs of Norwich.

The Plains of Norwich



I recently came across that quotation by Dorothy Parker about members of the Bloomsbury Group living in squares, painting in circles and loving in triangles. They couldn’t have done that in Norwich for although we have circles and triangles we don’t have squares. Instead, we have plains, an import from the Low Countries. 

In modern Amsterdam, a ‘plein’ is an open rectangular space surrounded by buildings

Plains aren’t restricted to Norwich for you’ll stumble across them in Norfolk and Suffolk; I came across this one in Great Yarmouth.

Hall Plain, just off the Quayside in Great Yarmouth

It was in 1566 that the Fourth Duke of Norfolk requested Queen Elizabeth’s permission to invite ‘thirty Douchemen’ to help revive Norwich’s flagging textile trade. The following year this trickle became a flood when Protestants from the Spanish Netherlands escaped the religious intolerance of Philip II of Spain [1]. But the word ‘plain’ for an open space predated these arrivals: Nicholas Sotherton’s eye-witness account of Kett’s 1549 rebellion refers to ‘the playne before the pallace gate’ [2] so the word was an earlier introduction, part of the city’s already long association with the Low Countries.

‘The playne before the pallace gate’. Looking out from the gate of the Bishop’s Palace towards St Martin at Palace Plain. Cotman’s house is the tallest of the red brick buildings, the churchyard of St Martin at Palace is to the right

St Martin at Palace Plain – now the site of the Wig & Pen pub and John Sell Cotman’s house – was the site of a pitched battle between the King’s forces and Robert Kett’s men.

St Martin at Palace Plain. The church of St Martin at Palace is marked with a cross. The gate to the Bishop’s Palace is marked with a star and a plaque marking the death of Lord Sheffield is further along the Cathedral wall (arrow). 1884 OS map courtesy of [3]

Lord Sheffield fell from his horse and, as was the custom, he removed his helmet expecting to be ransomed. Instead, he was bludgeoned to death by a butcher named Fulke. Sheffield and 35 others were buried in the adjacent church. 

In his book The Plains of Norwich, Richard Lane wrote that only five of the fifteen Norwich plains are officially marked by a street sign; St Martin’s at Palace Plain is one of them as is Agricultural Hall Plain, at the east end of Castle Meadow [4].IMG_2805

At one time the castle was ringed by various livestock markets for which the Agricultural Hall of 1882 provided formal focus. The sloping plain outside the Hall stands at the top of Prince of Wales Road, a wide, curving street.  It was built in 1865 to connect Norwich Thorpe Railway Station to the city; it was never finished as planned and is only graceful in parts.  However, the buildings on the plain at the top of the road ‘dignify the new entry to the city’ [5].  From the left (below) we see: part of Barclays Bank – a huge banking hall designed like a Roman palazzo by the local firm of E Boardman & Son with Brierley & Rutherford of York (1929); next, a monument to the Boer War – the statue of Peace sculpted by George and Fairfax Wade (1904); then the Royal Hotel, another local masterpiece by the Boardmans (1896-7), decorated in  moulded red brick from Gunton’s Costessey Brickworks [6]. To the right we get a glimpse of the Agricultural Hall itself. It was built in 1882 in local red brick and alien red Cumberland sandstone, again relieved with decorative Cosseyware.

The Agricultural Hall was inaugurated in 1882 by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, who was Patron of the Norwich Fat Cattle Show Association. This was the year that Oscar Wilde started his lecture tour of America where one of his topics was ‘The House Beautiful’. Two years later he came to the Agricultural Hall to deliver the same lecture, no doubt well received by cattlemen on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Agricultural Hall

Just visible to the left is the former Crown Bank of 1866 built by Sir Robert Harvey. As we saw in The Norwich Banking Circle, Harvey named his Crown Bank after the Crown Point estate, just outside the city at Whitlingham. The estate was bought from the aptly named Major Money – intrepid balloonist and someone who had served in the army at Crown Point fort in North America.

Harvey shot himself after his dubious investments discredited the bank. The crown carved into the pediment of the Crown Bank then doubled as an appropriate symbol for the Post Office until 1970

Before we leave Agricultural Hall Plain we should take some cheer from knowing that Laurel and Hardy stayed in the Royal Hotel in 1954.

Looking out from the Hall (now Anglia TV), across Agricultural Hall Plain, is its conjoined twin – Bank Plain.

Bank Plain, with the balcony of a Boardman building to the immediate left, the turreted Royal Hotel in the distant left, the Agricultural Hall ahead and the former Barclays Bank to the right.

On the site now occupied by the former Barclays Bank stood its predecessor, Gurney’s Norwich Bank, established in the late C18.

Gurney’s Bank and the adjacent Bank Plain. Courtesy of the Library at Friends’ House

At the time, the open space was called Redwell Plain but after Gurney’s opened it became known as Bank Plain. The well is still commemorated in Redwell Street, which runs between Bank Plain and St Andrew’s Street.

In 1899, E Boardman & Son designed this Classical building for the Royal Insurance Company. It stands at the junction of Bank Plain and Queen Street, where the Boardmans’ own offices were situated in Old Bank of England Court.
Edward Boardman’s sign, carved from Costessey clay. Old Bank of England Court, Queen Street

Today, it is possible to travel to St Andrew’s (Hall) Plain by following the bend in the road down the hill to Suckling House/Cinema City. But, as the map shows, this extension of St Andrew’s Street did not exist in 1884; it was created so that the new electric trams, which ushered in the twentieth century, could avoid the tight corner where Redwell Street meets Princes Street.

The curved line shows the approximate route of the new tramway constructed in 1900, joining Bank Plain to the plain outside St Andrew’s Hall. 1884 OS map courtesy of [3]

Garsett House – also known as Armada House since it was reputedly built from the timbers of a ship wrecked during the Spanish Armada – was bisected in the process.

The right-hand side of Armada House, also known as Garsett House (Sir Robert Garsett d.1611), was demolished to make way for the electric trams. Note the overhead wires.
St Andrew’s Hall Plain. This scene was prior to 1892 when a public lavatory was built in the curved piece of wall. ©Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk

St Andrew’s Hall is the nave of what was the Blackfriar’s or Domican church of Norwich – the most complete surviving medieval friary in England. Present-day Blackfriars Hall was formerly the friars’ chancel and, as the map above indicates, was also once the church of the Dutch-speaking community [1].

The engraving by Wenceslas Holler (1607-1677) shows the nave and chancel meeting beneath an octagonal tower that collapsed in 1712. Home to the ‘Order of Preachers’, as the Dominican Friars are known, the large internal volume of St Andrew’s Hall was designed for spreading the word [7]. Outside, St Andrew’s Plain was also used as a preaching yard but during Kett’s Rebellion it witnessed less peaceable activity for it was on the plains, rather than the tortuous medieval alleyways, that pitched battles could be fought. Sotherton saw the rebel bowmen let loose ‘a mighty force of arrowes’… ‘as flakes of snow in a tempest’ but Captain Drury’s band of arquebusiers, with their early versions of the musket, replied with ‘such a terrible volley of shot (as if there had been a storm of hayle)’, leaving about 330 dead [2]. St Andrew’s Hall was used as stables until the uprising was quelled.

Maddermarket Plain is one of the city’s smaller plains [4]. It is situated at the junction of St Andrew’s Street, Duke Street, St John Maddermarket (formerly St John’s Street) and Charing Cross. The latter two names provide a thumping clue to the history of this district. ‘Charing Cross’ is thought to be a corruption of ‘shearing’ – the process where the raised pile on woollen cloth was cut to a standard height with shears. ‘Madder’, of course, refers to the red/deep pink dye derived from madder roots and used to colour fabric the famous ‘Norwich Red’.

Maddermarket Plain at the end of the raised graveyard of St John Maddermarket. Charing Cross is circled; the red dot marks the site of Michael Stark’s dyeworks adjacent to Duke’s Palace Bridge. The church of St John’s Maddermarket is marked XIX. Millard & Manning’s Plan of the City of Norwich 1830

The Charing Cross/Westwick Street area was at the heart of the textile industry [4] and the river was where its waste products ended up. Just above Charing Cross on the map is Fuller’s Lane – fulling being a process in which cloth is cleaned. In a previous post [8] we saw that in the C19 the master dyer Michael Stark emptied his dye vats into the Wensum from his factory next to the Duke’s Palace Bridge but this kind of pollution had been happening for centuries. On his journeys through England in 1681 Thomas Baskerville noted that the duke’s great townhouse was ‘seated in a dung-hole place’, surrounded by tradesmen cleaning and dyeing cloth [9]. The palace was later abandoned.

At the beginning of the 1500s, Norwich had been devastated by two fires that destroyed over 1000 houses [10]. The extent of the damage was such that some 70 years later the mayor was discussing how to deal with unrestored plots. When Queen Elizabeth I visited Norwich in 1578 she commented on the number of derelict properties despite the steps taken to shield her from the worst. To convey her from the Marketplace to the Cathedral (centuries before Exchange Street was open) the east wall of St John’s Maddermarket was rebuilt in order to widen the street [4].

In 1671 John Evelyn noted that the city’s churchyards were filled to the tops of the walls. Today the wall, perhaps the one rebuilt for Queen Elizabeth I’s visit, awaits repair.

 In his book, Richard Lane [4] skips forward a few centuries to end with the last recorded plain of the twentieth century. This is University Plain, the site of the University of East Anglia where Sir Denys Lasdun built his 1960s paean to concrete. You might imagine the plain to be an open meeting space, such as the amphitheatre-like Central Court, but it appears to refer to the large site as a whole.

University Central Court and waterfall 1990 ©

The use of the word ‘plain’ continues into the twenty-first century. In 1771 William Fellowes, a wealthy and philanthropic squire, built in Shotesham (ca. eight miles south of Norwich) what is claimed to be the earliest cottage hospital in England. Benjamin Gooch was the first surgeon and he, together with Fellowes, went on to propose a new general hospital for the city of Norwich. Designed by local architect William Ivory, the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was built just outside the city wall at St Stephen’s Gate on land provided by the council at a nominal rent. Fellowes laid the foundation stone in 1771 and it was completed in 1775.

Memorial plaque to William Fellowes on the former N&N Hospital in St Stephen’s Road

In 2003 a new hospital was built on the outskirts of Norwich at Colney leaving the old N&N site to be developed for housing by Persimmon Homes on the newly-coined Fellowes Plain [11].

The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, refurbished in the C19 by Edward Boardman

The word ‘plain’, as applied to Fellowes Plain, seems to refer to the entire site although three open spaces within this are named ‘plain’ in their own right. The first is Kenneth McKee Plain, dedicated to Ken McKee CBE (1906-1991), orthopaedic surgeon at the N&N who pioneered the total hip replacement.

Kenneth McKee CBE, sculpted by his daughter in law, Gina McKee 1988. Courtesy racns website [12]

The second is Edward Jodrell Plain. Dozens of searches provide no insight beyond repeating the salient fact that he was a major benefactor. The Jodrell family of Bayfield Hall, near Holt, were known to have been benefactors to the N&N [13]. As far back as 1814 Henry Jodrell left £200 to the hospital in his will. His nephew Edward (1785-1852) and Edward’s son Captain Edward Jodrell have the necessary forename but it was Captain Jodrell’s youngest son Alfred who seems best remembered for his philanthropy. He sent baskets of fruit and vegetables each week to the hospital and at Christmas gave 40 oven-ready chickens and the same number of turkeys, underlining the Jodrells’ tradition of giving to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

The third plain on the site of the old hospital is the large green known as Phillipa Flowerday Plain.

Variously spelled ‘Phillipa’ or ‘Philippa’, the former is the spelling given in the UK 1881 National Census for Phillipa Flowerday, ‘sick nurse’.

Before being employed by Colmans at their Carrow Works, Phillipa Flowerday (1846-1930) trained and worked as a nurse at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. According to Rod Spokes, former Colmans manager, when the company’s dispensary was founded in 1864 a man was employed to visit male employees at home and report on cases of need. In 1872, Phillipa was employed to visit the families of the workpeople as well as assisting the doctor in the dispensary. She is therefore celebrated as the first industrial nurse in the country [14].

Phillipa Flowerday far right. Image courtesy of Norfolk Record Office at

To be continued

©2020 Reggie Unthank


  4. Richard Lane (1999). The Plains of Norwich. Pub; Lanceni Press, Fakenham.
  5. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk I. Norwich and North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.

Thanks: I was inspired to write this post by Richard Lane’s excellent book on Norwich Plains and I have drawn upon it freely. I am grateful to Clare Everitt of Picture Norfolk for permissions and the George Plunkett website for the use of photographs. I am grateful to Rod Spokes for information about the Colmans dispensary.

Twentieth Century Norwich Buildings


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The confrontation between the Classical Revival (based on Greco-Roman principles of symmetry and proportion) and the Gothic Revival (based on the pointed arches and pinnacles of  English medieval cathedral-building) dominated this country’s architecture in the nineteenth century. There is very little Victorian Gothic in Norwich but the Classical influence endured well into the twentieth century as the preferred style for temples of commerce. It took World War II and the post-war clearances before the modern took hold.

At the beginning of the century, George Skipper designed his masterwork for Norwich Union: “Without any doubt … one of the most convinced Edwardian office buildings [1].


George Skipper’s Surrey House for Norwich Union (now Aviva) 1904

In 1926, FCR Palmer and WFC Holden designed a ‘splendid’ building for the National Westminster Bank in London Street. Pevsner and Wilson wrote that it was modelled on a Wren city church: “One would assign a much earlier date to it [1].”


A Wren-like church in the first pedestrianised street in the country. Now the Cosy Club.

And as late as 1929 “a kind of Renaissance [1]” style was employed for the large Barclays Bank on Bank Plain that replaced the C18 bank of Gurney & Co, formed as an amalgamation of Quaker banking interests.


Designed for Barclays Bank by Edward Boardman & Son with Brierley & Rutherford of York, it was last used by the Open Youth Charity, now in liquidation.

Below, the Stuart Court apartments in Recorder Road show that the Arts and Crafts Movement also survived into the C20. These were built in the manner of almshouses by ET Boardman; he had married into the Colman family and designed the Dutch-gabled houses in memory of his brother-in-law James Stuart who had been concerned about the poor quality of housing for the elderly. The Dutch gables are a perfect example of vernacular revival in a city whose population at one time contained one third or more religious refugees from the Spanish Netherlands.


Stuart Court, designed by ET Boardman in 1914 but not completed until after the war

Behind the traditional facade the Stuart apartments were built around reinforced concrete but this material, and metal framework, had been used in the Boardman practice for decades. In fact a more forward-looking kind of architecture – neither Gothic nor Classical but proto-modern in the suppression of detail – had been introduced to the city by Boardman Senior with his factory buildings nearly half a century earlier.


Haldinstein and Bally shoe factory (1872) by E Boardman 2-4 Queen Street

In 1912, Bunting’s Drapers and General Warehousemen of St Stephen’s Street was constructed by Norwich-based architect AF Scott using non-traditional techniques. Here, an internal steel support was clad with stone curtain-walling but there was still a diffidence in giving it a more modern external appearance. Instead, the building was decorated in a genteel Classical Revival style, the stone panels beneath the windows carved with ‘Adam’ swags.

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Buntings Department Store, early C20. It was to be bombed in WWII.  ©Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk

The structure was topped by a cupola of the kind that George Skipper had used as a signature on his buildings around 1900 [3].

skipper cupolas2.jpg


‘Buntings’ site at the corner of St Stephens’ and Rampant Horse Streets is now occupied by Marks and Spencer, minus the dome. The more modern infill to the right is the former site of F W Woolworth.

After WWI the city’s priority was to build, in Lloyd George’s words, “homes fit for heroes”. This involved massive slum clearance followed by a programme of local authority house-building that led to 40% of the population living in council houses by the end of the 1950s [1]. The most notable of the municipal estates was at Mile Cross, north of the city centre (1918-20). This was the council’s first foray into large estate building, for which they engaged Stanley Adshead, the first Professor of Town Planning at University College London, who laid out the estate on Garden City principles [4].

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Mile Cross 1928. ©http://www.britainfromabove EPW021219

Variety was achieved by modifying standard house plans. Local architects such as George Skipper (a long way from his ‘fireworks’ of the turn of the century) and AF Scott (better known for his work on Methodist chapels) adapted these to reflect early C19 Norwich neo-Georgian housing; others incorporated Arts and Crafts details, such as pin tiles on the first floor elevation that seem more reminiscent of Kent and Sussex than Norfolk [4].

While social housing was adhering to the traditional, a revolutionary new international movement was evolving. In 1927 the Bauhaus, founded in Germany by Walter Gropius, began teaching a new kind of architecture in which reinforced concrete was used to produce sweeping layers, its minimalist horizontal lines emphasised by long runs of ribbon window.

1024px-thumbnail Gropius.jpg

The uncluttered International style of the Weissenhof estate housing designed by Le Corbusier in 1927. Photo by qwesy qwesy. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported licence

It would be some years before the International style took hold in Norwich. Diffident nods towards Modernism were provided by the rounded steel windows of the Streamline Moderne version of Art Deco: first at the former Abbey National Building Society offices in London Street …


Designed in the 1930s by FH Swindels of the Boardman office who also helped design Barclays Bank to the left

… and in the Pottergate Tavern.


The Pottergate Tavern, now The Birdcage, 1930s

Pevsner and Wilson [1] presumed the pub to have been designed by J Owen Bond, a protégé of George Skipper, possibly because of the much larger building he is known to have designed with similar Streamline Moderne influences. J Owen, third son of Robert Bond, designed this replacement for his father, whose department store was damaged by bombing in WWII. A follower on Twitter said that her neighbour could see the flames from Arminghall, to the south of the city.


Bond’s of Norwich (now John Lewis) designed by J Owen Bond. One of the first modern buildings to spring up after the war (begun 1946). 

By sticking with its medieval Guildhall throughout the C19, Norwich missed out on the grandiose Victorian town halls erected by its competitors in the industrial north. In the late 1930s Norwich did build a new city hall and Pevsner and Wilson [1] wrote that it “must go down in history as the foremost English public building of between the wars.”


Norwich City Hall designed by CH James and SR Pierce in 1931, completed 1937-8

The essentially plain style was borrowed from the Swedish Classical of Stockholm’s City Hall with the colonnaded portico of that city’s Concert Hall. But, because of these backward-looking references, architectural historian Stefan Muthesius felt that the term ‘modern’ didn’t quite apply to Norwich City Hall [5].

Instead, Muthesius awarded the accolade for the city’s first real International Modern-style to David Percival’s City Library, opposite the City Hall. Percival had come from Coventry in 1954, “then the hot-bed of civic-minded modernism”; as Norwich’s new City Architect he designed the new library, which was completed in 1962 and burned down in 1994.


Norwich Central Library destroyed by fire in 1994. City Architect, David Percival; Job Architect, Jim Vanston. ©Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk.

Percival was responsible for introducing mainstream Modernism into Norwich’s postwar public buildings though he strove to soften its hard edges with regional references, especially on domestic-scale projects. By tempering Modernism with the local spirit, Percival is credited with pioneering the Vernacular Revival style [6]. The impact of massed concrete panels on the library, for example, was moderated by pre-cast panels of split-flint cladding (although a glance at the nearby Guildhall shows just how far this was from vernacular techniques).

Perhaps the most famous example of Vernacular Revival in Norwich’s public housing is the Camp Grove scheme off Kett’s Hill. Here, Tayler and Green’s signature decorative brickwork and patterned bargeboards – combined with changes in roof pitch, four different pantiles and 16 types of brick and flint – provide an unexpected degree of variation [7].


St Leonard’s Road 1973-6.

In contrast to the City Hall, Norfolk County Hall – built in 1966 in the International Modern style – never attracted much praise. Pevsner and Wilson dismissed it as “an ordinary steel-framed office tower.” 


Norfolk County Hall 1966 by Reginald Uren. Photo: Keith Evans CC BY-SA 2.0

Other forays into the International Style, such as the eight-storey block to the right of Skipper’s building for Norwich Union in Surrey Street, were also poorly received. Never one for mincing his words, Ian Nairn thought it “a completely anonymous slab” [8]. Evidently not a style for an ancient county town.


The 1945 City Plan envisaged a post-war Norwich in which the car played a major part [9]. In 1971 the inner ring road split Norwich-over-the-Water: the two halves were to receive different treatments. The northern half was to be the site of the Anglia Square development with a large cinema, offices, multi-storey parking plus that symbol of the new age – a pedestrian shopping precinct. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office at Sovereign House was a key part of the scheme and it was this New Brutalist building that marked the rise and fall of the site as a whole – the HMSO pulling out well short of its 40-year lease, leaving the building derelict by the new millennium.


The raw concrete and glass of Sovereign House by Alan Cooke and Associates 1966-8. 

Currently, we await the outcome of a planning application to redevelop the entire Anglia Square site with 12-storey blocks and a 20-storey tower. The scale of the proposal shows that no lessons have been learned from the brief history of Anglia Square in which an ‘out of scale’ [10] development was imposed upon a historic site. For an appreciation of the Gildencroft area see [11].

There was no such grand project on the city side of the inner ring road and this part of Norwich-over-the Water fared better.


Inside the inner ring road, looking westward: in the distance, St Mary’s House; the glass and concrete St Crispin’s House; and the red brick of Cavell House. 

In this snapshot from the evolution of office building, the 1960s curtain-walling of St Mary’s House on the far side of the St Crispin’s roundabout was succeeded by the 1970s layers of concrete and glass in St Crispin’s House, built for HMSO when permission was denied for an extension to Sovereign House at Anglia Square. A starker contrast was between the Brutalist concrete of St Crispin’s House juxtaposed against the red brickwork of 1990s Cavell House. This was part of what has been recognised as a “welcome softening of approach since the late 1980s” [1] for, as part of the Postmodern credo, Cavell House reacted against Modernism by providing local context missing from Anglia Square. Here, the windows on the upper floor referenced the long through-light weavers’ windows once common in this, the heart of the city’s textile trade. The flat arches heading the lower windows were borrowed from Sherwyn House, an old brush factory (now renovated apartments by Feilden & Mawson) further down St George’s Street. (See [12] for more about this district).

Two windows1.jpg

C20 Cavell House above, C19 Sherwyn House below

There was no such confrontation between new and old at the University of East Anglia where Denys Lasdun in the 1960s (replaced by Bernard Feilden in 1969), and Rick Mather in the 1980s, were able to build on a green-field site without planning constraints [1]. A Teaching Wall snaked through the original scheme, separated from the residential blocks by a first-floor walkway. Lasdun’s residences consisted of a cascade of study/bedrooms forming the ziggurats that have become emblematic of the UEA.


 Denys Lasdun’s concrete ziggurats of 1966-7

As part of the second-phase of the masterplan, Rick Mather’s Constable Terrace echoed the serpentine form of Lasdun’s original layout but its smooth white rendering was a deliberate break from the hardline grayness of the earlier student housing.


Rick Mather’s highly energy-efficient Constable Terrace of 1991-3

Facing Constable terrace is the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (1974-8). Designed by Norman Foster and Wendy Cheeseman, the tubular steel exoskeleton represents what is probably this country’s first use of High-Tech industrial architecture applied to a museum or gallery. The superstructure encloses a magnificent open space, some 130 metres long, that accommodates Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury’s art collection, along with university teaching areas.


The High-Tech Sainsbury Centre by Foster & Associates. The glass bridge is a continuation of the pedestrian walkway that winds at first floor level along the university’s spine.

Just squeaking in at the close of the twentieth century The Forum, funded by the Millennium Commission, was begun in 1999. Designed by Hopkins and Associates the Forum replaced David Percival’s flint-clad Central Library of the 1960s, destroyed by fire. This ‘Son of High Tech’ building [2] houses BBC studios, a restaurant, a café and what has become the most popular library in the country. The  jaws of the horseshoe-shaped plan are closed by a glazed wall that – in a display of good manners – withdraws from, rather than confronts, the glorious St Peter Mancroft opposite.  IMG_2530.jpeg

©Reggie Unthank 2020


  1. Nikolaus Wilson and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and the North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
  2. Vic Nierop-Reading (2013). Twentieth-century Norwich in a nutshell. Norfolk Historic Buildings Group Newsletter No.25 pp 14-15.
  4. Mary Ash and Paul Burall (2019). Norwich leading the Way: Social Housing. Pub: The Norwich Society.
  5. Stefan Muthesius (2004). Architecture since 1800. In, ‘Norwich since 1550’ by Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson pp 323-342. Pub: Hambledon and London.
  6. John Boughton (2018). Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. Pub: Verso.
  7. Elain Harwood and Alan Powers (1998). Tayler and Green, Architects 1938-1973: The Spirit of Place in Modern Housing. Pub: The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture.
  8. Ian Nairn (1967). Norwich: Regional Capital.  Reprinted, with an introduction by Owen Hatherley, in Nairn’s Towns (2013). Pub: Notting Hill Editions.
  9. CH James and SR Pierce (1945). City Plan of Norwich 1945. Pub: Norwich Corporation.
  10. Charles McKean (1982). Architectural Guide to Cambridge and East Anglia since 1920. Pub: ERA Publication Board.

Thanks: to David Rimmer, Martin Shaw, and Clare Everitt of Picture Norfolk.

Thomas Browne’s World


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Knighted by King Charles II in St Andrew’s Hall, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was probably Norwich’s most famous inhabitant of the seventeenth century. He was born in London, the son of a silk merchant and, after being educated in Oxford, Padua, Montpellier and Leiden, settled in Norwich where he practiced as a physician until he died [1].


Sir Thomas Browne, from St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

He was famed as a polymath whose writings reveal an inquisitive mind that explored subjects as diverse as: the fault line between his training as a physician and the Christian faith (in Religio Medici, 1643); his debunking of myths and falsehoods (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646); the incidence of the number five in patterns in nature (The Garden of Cyrus, 1658); and his celebrated and lyrical musings about death, prompted by the discovery of funerary urns in a Norfolk field (Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, 1658).

This was at a time when modern science was in its infancy. The scientific method, promoted by Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), involved framing hypotheses based on observations viewed through the filter of scepticism.


Sir Francis Bacon 1561-1626. From Gainsborough Old Hall, artist unknown

Browne was appropriately sceptical in his examination of Vulgar Errors (Pseudodoxia Epidemica) like: Does a carbuncle give off light in the dark? and, Do dead kingfishers make good weathervanes? He even attended the trial in Bury St Edmunds of two women who were hanged for witchcraft. But the Enlightenment had barely got going and the proto-scientist Browne found himself straddling two worlds that had yet to drift apart – even Sir Isaac Newton sought the philosopher’s stone that would turn base metal into gold.

My first encounter with Sir Thomas was when I was trying to understand how plant cells and other solid bodies pack together [2]. I had gained some insight from another early scientist, Stephen Hales (1677-1761). By squashing a pot of pea seed then counting the number of flat faces impressed onto each seed by its neighbours, Hales came up with the number 12. You can make a dodecahedron by joining together 12 pentagons, making one of only a handful of ‘ideal’ solid bodies (another is a cube made of six squares). Plato knew this [3].  


Rotating dodecahedron. By André Kjell, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

But in real life, the shapes of plant cells are far from perfect and don’t pack together neatly like Platonic Lego. Instead,  they tend, on average, to be 14-sided and each side tends, on average, to be a pentagon [3]. Nevertheless, this idea of fiveness took me back a further century to fellow citizen Thomas Browne.


Frontispiece to The Garden of Cyrus (1658). The founder of the first Persian Empire, Cyrus, is believed to have based the optimal spacing lattice for planting trees on the quincunx.

In The Garden of Cyrus or The Quincuncial Lozenge (1658) [4] Browne developed his ideas about the quincunx – the X-shape with four points forming a square or rectangle with a fifth point in the centre.  IMG_2496

Browne saw this pattern throughout nature; he saw the quincunx on the trunk of the ‘Sachell palme’ and in the fruits of pineapple, fir and pine. In ragweed and oak he also noted that successive leaves followed a spiral, with every fifth lined up along the stem. These were, before the word, explorations into phyllotaxis or the pattern in which leaf buds emerge from the shoot tip (paired, alternating, spiral). Now, more than 300 years later, the spiral pattern is known to be far more complex than the quincunx. The number of intersecting left-handed-and right-handed spirals tend to be successive numbers on the Fibonacci series, usually 5 and 8, or 8 and 13. (Fibonacci’s series is 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 etc, where the next number is the sum of the last two). Browne may not have been correct but he was there in the first flush of modern science and deserves credit for offering a mathematical basis for patterns in nature.

Screenshot 2020-06-23 at 18.53.53

Left- and right-handed spirals in the base of a pine cone. Picture © Paul Garrett [5].


Many of the words from Sir Thomas Browne’s writings have found their way into the  Oxford English Dictionary; indeed, he stands 25th in the list of contributors [1]. Sadly, ‘retromingent’ – for peeing backwards – never made it into the OED but many others did, including:

electricity, pubescent, polarity, prototype, rhomboidal, archetype, flammability, follicle, hallucination, coma, deductive, misconception, botanical, incontrovertible, approximate, and an early example of ‘computer’.

Despite the scepticism required of a follower of Bacon, and ‘the scandal of my profession‘, Browne remained a convinced Christian who examined his spiritual beliefs in his most famous book, Religio Medici [6].


1736 edition of Browne’s Religio Medici. Courtesy of Glasgow University Library

He was surprisingly tolerant for his time. In the first unauthorised edition of Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) in 1642, Browne expressed unorthodox religious ideas including the extension of toleration to infidels and those of other faiths. When the authorised version appeared the following year some of the controversial views had been excised but this didn’t prevent its inclusion on the papal list of prohibited books.

Browne’s major works were written in Norwich, at his house near St Peter Mancroft, close to the Norman marketplace.


Browne’s world. Cole’s map of 1807 shows Thomas Browne’s house (red) and St Peter Mancroft (yellow) with the Haymarket between.


Thomas Browne’s House off the Haymarket, by AW Howlings 1907. This version is changed little from a drawing of 1837 when the pairs of windows either side of the corner pillar were bow-fronted. Norfolk Museums Collections NWHCM: 1907.33.2.  

inside house

The fireplace and overmantel from Sir Thomas Browne’s House by Miss Ellen Day and Mrs Luscombe 1841.Norfolk Museums Collections NWHCM: FAW19.

After posting this article, Wayne Kett of the Museum of Norwich informed me that this overmantel was in storage as part of their collection. One source had indicated that the coat of arms was that of James I but it seems to be that of Charles II, which makes mores sense since – as we will see – it was he who knighted Browne.

Dr Browne’s overmantel ©Norfolk Museums Service

In 1671, the royal court of Charles II came to Norwich. The diarist and gardener John Evelyn was part of the entourage and wrote, “His whole house and garden is a Paradise & Cabinet of rarities, & that of the best collection, especially Medails, books, Plants, natural things” … “amongst other curiosities, a collection of the Eggs of all the foule & birds he could procure … as Cranes, Storkes … & variety of waterfoule” [6]. What Evelyn saw was the first attempt at listing the birds of Norfolk.

The house was demolished in 1842 but we know – because a green plaque tells us so –that it stood approximately where Pret a Manger is now housed in Haymarket Chambers, at the junction with Orford Place. Historian AD Bayne confirms that ‘Sir Thomas Browne is supposed to have lived in the last house of the southern end of the Gentleman’s Walk, where the Savings Bank now stands’ [7]. But the bank stood in the way of progress.

Haymerket chambers norwich ribapix.jpg

Former site of Sir Thomas Browne’s house. Pret a  Manger currently occupies the ground floor of George Skipper’s Haymarket Chambers (1901-2). It was originally home to JH Roofe’s superior grocery store with the Norwich Stock Exchange above. ©RIBApix

To allow the new trams to turn the corner more easily into Orford Place, the Norfolk and Norwich Savings Bank was demolished and replaced with Skipper’s curved design. The corner-cutting is shown on the 1884 OS map that we’ll bear in mind while trying to figure out where Browne’s Garden House lingered on from 1844 to 1961.

Browne's Garden House

Green star = Green’s Outfitters; red Star = Star Inn; yellow line = Livingstone Hotel; purple line = Green’s Orford Place branch; blue circle = approximate site of Browne’s Garden House.  OS map 1884

According to George Plunkett, numbers 3-5 Orford Place (Little Orford Street on above map), which was demolished in 1956, had a stone inscription stating that this was the site (probably the side) of Thomas Browne’s house [8]. But Plunkett placed Browne’s timber-framed garden house a little distance from the main house, between the Livingstone Hotel (yellow line) and Green’s shop (green star). He said, ‘only the peak of its tall attic gable visible above the roof of the adjacent Lamb Inn’. So it couldn’t have been in Lamb Inn yard, adjacent to the former site of Browne’s house.

Orford Hill 16 Livingstone Hotel [1361] 1936-08-30.jpg

The Livingstone Temperance Hotel 1936 ©


Later, Green’s the Outfitters, whose main shop faced the Haymarket, opened a branch next door to the Livingstone in Orford Place and this will furnish us with an eye-witness description of Browne’s Garden House. In 1961, both buildings were demolished to make way for a Littlewoods Department Store, in turn replaced by Primark.


Green’s Orford Place Branch, post 1936. ©Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk

On the opposite (Haymarket) side of this block of buildings, Green’s main branch stood adjacent to Skipper’s Haymarket Chambers. The slight bend in the building line marks where, around 1900, Green’s expanded into the former Star Hotel.


Green’s in 1959. The upper floors of Skipper’s Haymarket Chambers are just visible, right, separated from Green’s by the entrance to the Lamb Inn. Photo courtesy of Archant Library.

Browne’s main house disappeared long before modern ideas of conservation, but the loss of his garden house in 1961 now seems an inexcusable loss. His botanical garden had been admired by John Evelyn and ‘Fellows of the Royal Society (thought it) well worthy of a long pilgrimage’ [7]. Our Protestant Dutch refugees – who held annual competitions called Florists’ Feasts [9] – imported a love of plant breeding and it would be surprising if, in such an environment, Browne’s garden was restricted to medicinal plants.

In 1950, Noël Spencer visited Greens when they ‘were using the Livingstone as a shop and, while making a purchase there (i.e., Green’s Orford Place branch), I noticed an ancient building in the yard behind, and obtained permission to draw it [10].’ This places the Garden House in the yard marked with a blue dot on the 1888 map.


Drawing by Noel Spencer, former Head of the Norwich School of Art, of Sir Thomas Browne’s Garden House before its demolition in 1961. From [10] ©Estate of Noel Spencer. 


Further confirmation for the location of Browne’s Garden House came after this article was posted. On Twitter, Bethan Holdridge – Assistant Curator at Strangers’ Hall Museum – replied, mentioning that two of Browne’s Garden House doors in the museum were listed as being given by ‘Messrs Littlewood’ 1961. Also, ‘lying behind former Livingstone Hotel, Castle Street; part of premises of Messrs Green, outfitter 9 and 10 Haymarket.’

To supplement his home garden Sir Thomas leased a plot of land from the Cathedral, known as Browne’s Meadow. In his Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, Hugh Aldersey-Williams writes that Browne ‘let it go’, to see what would grow if untended [1]. After Browne died, the ground was used to produce vegetables for the Cathedral, then used as allotments for residents of Cathedral Close. Now it is a car park.


‘Browne’s Meadow’ on the south side of the Cathedral Close 

In his book, Urn Burial (1658), Browne explored thoughts prompted by the discovery of funerary urns in a  field some 12 miles north of Norwich: ‘Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us’.


Frontispiece of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial 1658

This was in the parish of Brampton, near the Pastons’ Oxnead Park where Sir Robert Paston had dug up urns containing ashes and coins (perhaps to pay the ferryman). In the early 1800s the historian Blomefield visited the field where he observed that urns were buried close enough to the surface to have been skimmed by the ploughshare. He observed that this site was near a fortified Roman town and that the Roman name Brantuna meant ‘the place where bodies were burned‘ [11].

Sir Thomas Browne died on the 19th October 1682. One claim is that he died, having eaten too plentifully of a Venison Feast [12] but others believe this was out of character for such an abstemious man. He was buried in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft, some 200 yards from his house.


Sir Thomas Browne’s wall monument in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft. The lower panel records that he lies near the foot of this pillar.

In 1905, equidistant between his house and church, the city commemorated an adopted son by unveiling one of its rare statues. From his vantage point above the old hay market, Browne holds the base of a Romano-British funerary urn and meditates on death.

Browne asked,  “… who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracles of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered? … To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations [13].” This turned out to be a premonition.

Sir Thomas Browne lay undisturbed until 1840 when workmen are said to have broken the lid of the lead coffin with a pickaxe while digging the grave of Mrs. Bowman, wife of the then Vicar of St. Peter Mancroft. Mr Fitch, a local antiquarian, was suspiciously at hand and it is not clear whether the desecration was accidental or deliberate. Either way, the sexton, George Potter, removed the skull and some hair. The skull came into the possession of the surgeon, Edward Lubbock, upon whose death it passed to the old Norwich and Norfolk Hospital Museum on St Stephen’s Road (read various explanations of this dubious episode in 12-15). Despite requests from the church, the skull remained on display at the hospital and was only reunited with Browne’s bones in 1922.Screenshot 2020-06-25 at 15.31.29.png

At the time of the reinterral the registrar recorded Browne’s age as 317.Screenshot 2020-06-25 at 15.50.17.png

Sir Thomas’s coffin plate, which had broken in two during attempts to remove it, had also been ‘mislaid’. One half of this 7×6 inch brass plate lies with other Browne memorabilia in a glass case in the St Nicholas Chapel of St Peter Mancroft.

IMG_2477 2

The accompanying text makes interesting reading, stating that it was collector and antiquary Robert Fitch who further disturbed Browne’s peace by removing his skull. 

An impression of the coffin plate revealed an inscription probably composed by his eldest son Edward, physician to Charles II, and President of the College of Physicians [15].


Impression from the coffin plate of Sir Thomas Browne [14].


The inscription ends, ‘With the dust of this alchemical body he converts lead into gold’  –  something denied even the great Sir Isaac Newton.


Thomas Browne’s knighthood: Ambiguity surrounds the circumstances of Thomas Browne’s knighthood. In 1671 King Charles II and his court came to Norwich where he stayed at the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace off present-day Duke Street (causing the famous indoor tennis court to be converted into kitchens). The corporation paid £900 for a sumptuous banquet at the New Hall (now St Andrew’s Hall) after which the king conferred honours.


The New Hall, where Browne was knighted, once belonged to the Black Friar’s but was bought for the city from Henry VIII. The Duke’s Palace is to the left. From Samuel King’s map, 1766

According to some accounts Browne was unexpectedly knighted when the mayor, variously named as Henry Herne or Thomas Thacker, ‘earnestly begged to be refused’ and so the honour passed along the line. This played into the idea that a promiscuous monarch with several mistresses was as free in conferring honours as he was lax in his private life. Apparent confirmation of the king’s fickleness came within 24 hours when King Charles knighted 13-year-old Henry Hobart at Blickling. But Trevor Hughes picked out inconsistencies between various accounts, such as uncertainty about the name of the reticent mayor [16]. A more sympathetic  interpretation was given by historian Philip Browne who wrote: ‘After dinner his majesty conferred the knighthood on Dr Thomas Browne, one of the most learned and worthy persons of the age. The mayor, Thomas Thacker esq. declined the honour’ [17]. That is, the internationally famed Dr Browne was not accidentally knighted but honoured in his own right.

©2020 Reggie Unthank


Recently reprinted.  ‘Colonel Unthank and the Golden Triangle’ contains much more about the development of the Golden Triangle than covered in my blog posts, including photographs of the Unthank family. 

Available online. Click Jarrolds Book Store  or City Bookshop


  1. Hugh Aldersey-Williams (2015). The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century. Pub: Granta. Highly recommended.
  2. Clive Lloyd (1991). How does the cytoskeleton read the laws of geometry in aligning the division plane of plant cells? Development, Supplement 1, pp 55-65.
  3. Peter S Stevens (1976). Patterns in Nature. Pub: Peregrine Books.
  6. Ruth Scurr (2016).
  7. AD Bayne (1869). A Comprehensive History of Norwich.
  10. Noël Spencer (1978). Norwich Drawings. Pub: Noel Spencer and Martlet Studio
  11. Francis Blomefield (1807). An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk vol 6. Online at:
  16. Trevor Hughes (1999). Sir Thomas Browne’s Knighthood. In, Norfolk Archaeology vol XLIII, part 11, pp 326-331.
  17. Philip Browne (1814). The History of Norwich from the Earliest Records to the Present Time. Pub: Bacon, Kinebrook & Co.

Thanks: I am grateful to Chris Sanham, verger at St Peter Mancroft, for his assistance.


The angel’s bonnet



It started with a Tweet. Something cropped up on Twitter that led me a merry dance through the sub-species of medieval headgear. By the end, I felt I knew how many angels’ bonnets could fit on the head of a pin.

Five years ago, my very first post was on ‘Norfolk’s Stained Glass Angels’. In it I showed one of this county’s most beautiful glass paintings of an angel in a feather suit completed by a feather hat [1].


Harp-playing angel wearing a feather suit. All Saints, East Barsham, Norfolk. Painted by the workshop of John Wighton from c1450.

When I want to know about a Norfolk church my first port of call is Simon Knott’s site for the descriptions of the astonishing 912 churches he has visited in Norfolk [2]. In May, Simon posted a Tweet on this C15 angel from Feering in Essex.

Screenshot 2020-05-19 at 09.39.41

Simon Knott’s Tweet

The feather hat I’d seen in East Barsham and other Norfolk churches was virtually identical to one that Simon had seen in Essex so I asked him via Twitter if feather bonnets were East Anglian, rather than an exclusively Norfolk thing.

Angel redone

C15 painted angel from All Saints, Feering, Essex. Photo credit: Simon Knott 

In my first blog post [1], I found that it was possible to overlay the East Barsham head on top of other Norfolk C15 painted-glass angels. The exactness of the match suggested they were copied from the same template, meaning they were from the same workshop. One stylistic tic uniting glass from various Norfolk churches with the figures drawn in the great east window of Norwich’s St Peter Mancroft (the benchmark for Norfolk painted glass) was the double flap covering the entrance to the ear. I hope regular readers will forgive me banging on but this lug flap is known as the tragus. A double tragus is a developmental rarity, yet both the ‘Essex’ and the Norfolk angels share this distinguishing feature. Simon Knott pointed out that the glass in All Saints, Feering, Essex was a loose collection of English and Continental 15th to 18th century pieces brought together by Father Bundock, who died in 1989 [3]. So, the ‘Essex’ angel may well have been recycled from a Norfolk church and was almost certainly painted in Norwich. 

David King, the authority on Norwich School glass, detected the ‘hand’ of at least three artists responsible for painting the east window of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich [4]. The glass was made in the mid C15 in the Norwich workshop of Alderman John Wighton, who was succeeded by John Moundford of Utrecht (assisted by his wife), followed in turn by Moundford’s son John.


A C15 angel from John Wighton’s Norwich workshop. From the east window, St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

But I digress. What I was really interested in here was the Feering angel’s feather bonnet. Sally Badham, former President of the Church Monuments Society, suggested via Twitter (@SallyBadham), that the headgear was an orle of the kind she had seen on glass and monuments in Yorkshire. I had to look this up. One definition of an orle is a border set in from the edge of a shield, giving a clue to the heraldic origin of the name.


However, there is an alternative definition of orle that gets us closer to the angel’s bonnet. Wiktionary gives it as: ‘the wreath, or chaplet, surmounting or encircling the helmet of a knight and bearing the crest; a torse’.  ‘Torse‘ is an obsolete French word for wreath and appears to be synonymous with ‘orle‘.


Knight with an eagle crest at the Saracen Joust in Arezzo, Tuscany. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 Cavalieredicasata,  to which I added the arrow pointing to the torse. The knight’s squire also wears one for decoration while the knight himself probably wears one inside the helmet for comfort.

In heraldic terms, the torse – introduced in the late C14 – is described as the cloth circlet  intended to hide the join between the ornate tournament crest and the helmet [5]. The colours in the coil were the same as the wearer’s livery colours except, it seems, when the knight wore a lady’s favour. Such a makeshift torse could be a handkerchief, a ribbon or even the lady’s sleeve, twisted into a rope and worn around the helmet.

This twisted rope – the torse or orle – also applied to something that the knight originally wore in combat. For comfort, he would have worn a padded, circular orle beneath the heavy helm to lift it away from the head and eyes. With the development of lined, padded helmets the orle became redundant but was retained for decorative purposes. Below, on the effigy of Sir Richard Vernon, a highly decorative orle is worn outside the helmet [6]. The sculptor has carefully depicted the roll of fabric studded with beads or even jewels and pearls. So, by this stage, not a utilitarian thing.


The effigy of Sir Richard Vernon, St Bartholomew’s Church, Tong, Shropshire (d.1451) Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA/2.0. Photo credit: Sjwells53

Below, the two celestial beings appear to be wearing stuffed orles around their heads, in which case the material billowing out of the hollow doughnut could be a caul or crespine – a bag-like net  of gold, silver or silk thread.


In the tracery of SS Peter & Paul, East Harling, Norfolk


In the tracery of St Margaret’s, Paston, Norfolk. The doughnut-shaped headdress of this female saint is decorated with bosses. 

Another item – the chaperon – plays a key part in the development of medieval headgear. This gets quite technical but, basically, the chaperon seems to have evolved out of Marty Feldman’s hood from the film, Young Frankenstein.

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Marty Feldman as Igor in Mel Brooks’s ‘Young Frankenstein’. He wears a hooded cape with a long tail – the cornette or liripipe – at the back. It ends in a pom-pom glimpsed beneath his left hand.

By wearing the face-opening of the caped hood around the top of the head – not the face – and tying it up with the long tail, the cape evolved into a hat that was worn throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.


Place the face-opening of your wife’s sweater over your head then wrap the loose arms around your head (or, in the case of a medieval hood, the long cornette hanging at the back).

The chaperon became ‘the most commonly worn piece of male headgear in Early Netherlandish painting’ [7]. And it is this form, with the long hood tied up on top, away from messy paint, that is being modelled in this probable self-portrait by Jan van Eyck (d. 1441). Sometimes titled, ‘Man in a Red Turban’ it should really be called ‘Man in a Red Chaperon (tied up with its Cornette or Liripipe)’.


Probably a self-portrait by Jan van Eyck 1433. National Gallery, London. Known to have been in the collection of the 1st Earl of Norfolk ,’The Collector Earl’ (1585-1646), when he was exiled in Antwerp. 

Van Eyck was one of the first (Vasari said the first) artists to paint with oil, using thin translucent oil glazes to build up luminous flesh. In this, the painters of the Northern Renaissance were ahead of the Italians. Based in Bruges, the Italian Giovanni Arnolfini spent most of his life in Flanders; van Eyck painted his portrait wearing another complicated headpiece of red woollen fabric, this time the flaps are down and the loosely-twisted roll is clearly visible.


Portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck c.1435. Gemäldgalerie, Berlin

The earliest of van Eyck’s portraits to survive shows a man in the same three-quarter profile pose. Here, the chaperon appears to have developed into a more formal version, pulled over the head like a mob cap or Scotch bonnet, instead of something wound around the crown.

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Portrait of a Man with Blue Chaperon by Jan van Eyck c1430. Brukenthal National Museum

These examples of men’s headwear suggest how fashions from heraldic dress worked themselves into everyday life. They also transferred to female fashion: a C14 chronicler (quoted in [8]) described how ladies riding to a tournament would affect a masculine appearance by wearing short hoods that were wrapped about their heads by the liripipe. 

Again on Twitter, Sally Badham suggested that the angel’s headpiece could also be based on the bourrelet.  Like chaperons, bourrelets appear to have originated by rolling up a hood around the head but by the mid-C15 they had developed into a more formal, doughnut-shaped padded roll [7].  Now, however, the doughnut-shaped bourrelet had undergone a further transformation into a ring of fabric folded around a framework, possibly made of wire [9].  


The very large bourrelet of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy c1450. After Rogier van der Weyden

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The doughnut-shaped bourrelets of ‘The Tax Collectors’, late 1520s by Quentin Massys. The Collections of the Prince of Liechenstein, Vaduz-Vienna

Planché [8] suggests that the turban-like headgear worn by European men and women in the mid C15 evolved out of the chaperon – the hooded cape, twisted into fanciful shapes. On the other hand, both the stuffed or hollow bourrelet and the twisted torse have been likened to the turban that crusaders had seen in the Middle East. Separate influences or convergent evolution?

The bride in the Marriage Feast at Cana, from SS Peter & Paul East Harling, was said by Norwich-glass expert Christopher Woodforde to be wearing a good example of a ‘turban head-dress decorated with a large jewelled ornament’ [10]


C15 Norwich School glass by the Wighton workshop. SS Peter & Paul East Harling, Norfolk. 

Clues to the kind of headwear fashionable in mid-to-late C15 Norfolk can also be found in this county’s outstanding painted rood-screens. For instance, St Cecilia is illustrated (below) wearing a wreath of lilies to symbolise her virginity (the purity of which has been sullied by political emblems: the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York – two houses united by Henry Tudor in 1485). The copy of the floral wreath she holds in her hand reveals it to be made of two twisted strands. This perhaps tells us more about wreath-making than contemporary fashion but I’ll show this fine portrait of sorrowful Cissy anyway, since it is so different from the usual stereotypes.


St Cecilia with her wreath of virginity, from St Mary’s North Elmham, Norfolk.

The remarkable series of screen paintings in St Michael and All Angels at Barton Turf, painted in the late C15 [11],  illustrates three Saints and nine Orders of Angels. This figure is a protective Principality from the Third Order of Angels. Ignoring the gold crown, this appears to be a twisted bourrelet or turban encircling a conical cap.


One of the Principalities (First Order of Third Hierarchy), incidentally holding a flask of urine. St Michael and All Angels, Barton Turf, Norfolk

Again from Barton Turf, Archangel Michael in late C15 armour (below) wears a hat that encircles the head. This floral headwear, seen against the background of the halo, could be a hollow bourrelet studded with foliage.


 Archangel (Second Order, Third Hierarchy) in late C15 plate armour. St Michael and All Angels, Barton Turf, Norfolk. 

The Cherubim below, from the Second Order of the First Sphere of Angels, wears a crown encircled by a red, doughnut-shaped wreath – the dabs of white suggestive of feathers.


A Cherubim with two pairs of wings, its omniscience symbolised by the all-seeing eyes on the wing feathers; the cap seems to be covered with smaller contour feathers. St Michael and All Angels, Barton Turf, Norfolk

The leader of the Powers, Archangel Raphael, is seen below thrashing the devil. His headgear is comprised of a helmet encircled with overlapping feathers decorated with a central badge.


Archangel Raphael, usually depicted in armour. St Michael and All Angels, Barton Turf, Norfolk

Similar feather hats are depicted on painted glass.


From St Mary’s, Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk

An angel in the tracery of the east window at SS Peter & Paul, East Harling also wears a feather bonnet. If made at the same time as the superb main panels then this glass was painted around 1480 by John Wighton’s successors in his Norwich workshop. Angels were often depicted wearing feather onesies that ended neatly at neck, cuff and ankles, reflecting the outfits worn by actors in medieval mystery plays [12]. In this case, the angel’s feather hat could simply be the natural accompaniment to these outfits. However, there is evidence that by the late fifteenth- early sixteenth century, caps and bonnets were also in great vogue in secular life, ‘ornamented with a profusion of feathers‘[8].


From Saints Peter and Paul, East Harling, Norfolk 


After posting this article, photographer Paul Harley (whose site contains superb images of Norfolk angels ) sent me this photograph of a harp-playing angel from Weston Longville.


From All Saints, Weston Longville, Norfolk. ©Paul Harley

It is a beautiful painting. Not only does the angel wear a very similar bonnet to the one worn by the East Barsham angel, but the overall pose is identical – the angels sharing many details, including that double tragus in the ear.


Left: East Barsham; right: Weston Longville (©Paul Harley)

Paul also sent images of two ‘Powers’ from the Order of Angels, set in the tracery of the east window at Salle. Note the decorative orles worn around their helmets.


The Powers hold chains and bundles of birch to vanquish evil, around their heads are suns representing the heavens. ©Paul Harley

©2020 Reggie Unthank

Thanks: I am grateful to fellow Tweeps: Simon Knott (@last_of_england) and Sally Badham (@SallyBadham), for their readiness to help and for starting me out on this trail, and to Sue Roe (@SueRoeGardener) for the mugshots. Thanks, too, to Paul Harley for sending photos from his collection of Norfolk Angels.


  4. King, D. J. (2006) The Stained Glass of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, CVMA (GB), V, Oxford.
  5. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1909). A Complete Guide to Heraldry. A project Gutenberg e-book (2012).
  7. Paul F Walker (2013). The History of Armour 1100-1700. Pub: The Crowood Press Ltd.
  8. James Robinson Planché (1876). An Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Costume: from the First century BC to c1760. Reprinted by Dover Publications Inc in 2003.
  10. Christopher Woodforde (1950). The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century. Pub: Oxford University Press.
  11. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk I: Norwich and the North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.


Suleiman the Magnificent by Titian c1530

After the Norwich School


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Influenced by the Dutch Realists, painters of the Norwich Society of Artists depicted Norfolk’s flat land and tall skies in a largely naturalistic way that avoided the religious or mythological themes that had dominated Italian and French landscape painting [1].  Although this society only lasted as a formal entity from 1803 to 1833, the succeeding generations of Cromes, Cotmans, Stannards and their followers ensured that the Norwich School of Painters continued  into the Victorian era. But by the end of the nineteenth century the influences of Impressionism could no longer be resisted and new groupings evolved.

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‘Haddiscoe Church’ by Sir John Arnesby Brown RA. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery NWHCM 1949.129.5

Sir John Arnesby Brown R.A. (1866-1955), born in Nottingham, was never part of even a late continuation of the Norwich School. After he and the Welsh painter, Mia Edwards, married in 1896, the Arnesby Browns split their time between St Ives, Cornwall, and Haddiscoe to the south-east of Norwich [2]. ‘AB’s’ admiration of Corot’s and Millet’s Impressionist landscapes [3] was reinforced by his visits to Cornwall where the Newlyn School were painting rural scenes in an impressionistic manner. 


‘Cattle on the Marshes’ by Sir JA Arnesby Brown R.A. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery NWHCM: 1948.99. Brown became known for his painting of cattle, suggested by impressionistic flicks and dabs

Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959), the son of a Suffolk miller, came to Norwich when aged 14. For six years he was an apprentice lithographic artist at Page Brothers printers; he also found time to attend the Norwich School of Art where he painted in the room below.

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‘The Painting Room at the Norwich School of Art’ that won 19-year-old Munnings a National Bronze medal in 1898. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery NWHCM : L2001.4.1. Elsewhere, this room was called the Antique Room, reflecting the Greco-Romano statues that students were expected to draw ‘from the cast’.

This would have been in the old School of Art, built as a third floor extension of the Free Library formerly at the corner of St Andrews Street and Duke Street.

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The School of Art occupied the third floor of the Norwich Free Library, opened in 1857. It was always an unsatisfactory arrangement: the floor needed reinforcing, the lavatories stank [4]. Photo 1955 ©


In 1901 the School of Art moved into the newly-built Norwich Technical Institute, occupying the upper two of its four floors.


A stone portico fronts the building made from red Gunton Bros’ bricks

We have previously seen young Munnings’ early commercial designs, including the Jolly Brewer for Bullards’ Brewery and the art nouveau-influenced illustrations for Caley’s chocolates and Christmas crackers [see 5].


Munnings’ illustrations c1900 for the Norwich firm of Caley’s, makers of chocolate and Christmas crackers. Courtesy Norfolk Museums Collections. 

Sir Alfred Munnings took on George Stubbs’ mantle as the country’s leading equestrian painter. He would paint working, hunting and racing horses – even maintaining a studio in Newmarket.  


‘Gravel Pit in Suffolk’ c1911 by Alfred Munnings. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NWHCM : 1928.108

President of the Norwich Art Circle 1932-4, Munnings was knighted in 1944, the year he was made President of the Royal Academy. In a notorious retirement speech broadcast by the BBC, a sozzled Munnings lashed out against modernism and accused Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso of adulterating art.

There must have been something in the East Anglian air for, 53 years earlier, similarly reactionary views had been expressed by a critic from the Eastern Daily Press when he attacked Catherine Maude Nichols (1847-1923) for daring to introduce elements of French Impressionism to the Norwich Art Circle. Miss Nichols was well able to fight her corner for she had travelled to Barbizon near Paris, and Newlyn in Cornwall to familiarise herself with painting outside the East Anglian bubble [see previous post on CM Nichols].


‘Lime Pit Cottages, Ipswich Road, Norwich.’ NWHCM: 1917.1

Edward Seago (1910-1974) was born in Norwich, the son of a regional manager of a Norwich coal merchant. From his sixteenth birthday and ten years after, Seago exhibited with the Norwich Art Circle . The Circle had formed in 1885 but Alfred Munnings and Arnesby Brown were still contributing when Seago joined. Although Munnings took a personal interest in the young man’s work [6], and Arnesby Brown is said to have given him tuition [7], Seago is generally thought of a self-taught artist with influences ranging from East Anglian artists like Constable, Cotman and Crome to the Dutch Realists. From 1947 he lived on the Broads at the Dutch House, Ludham, and in the decades that followed he was to enjoy enormous success, with collectors queueing down Old Bond Street to make sure of buying a Seago at one of his annual exhibitions at the Colnaghi Gallery. 


‘Winter Landscape, Norfolk’ by Edward Seago. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NWHCM : 1963.253

Despite his enormous popularity with the public, Seago did not achieve enduring critical success, probably because his instincts were derived from East Anglian tradition instead of the avant garde.


‘The Haystack’ by Edward Seago. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NWHCM : 1976.77

Mary Newcomb (1922-2008) was born in Harrow-on-the Hill but spent most of her painting life in East Anglia, including farmhouses at Needham, in South Norfolk, and Newton Flotman, ten miles south of Norwich [3]. She exhibited at the Norfolk and Norwich Art Circle from 1951 to 1963, was a member of the Norwich Twenty Group, and  was a visiting tutor at the School of Art in the 1980s. As someone trained in science, Mary Newcomb had a clear idea of how nature worked, yet as a self-taught artist she remained unbothered – perhaps deliberately so – by the traditional spatial concerns of setting down the countryside on canvas. Perspective, depth, recession seem to play little part in her paintings, which can be read as mood boards in which ideas float in a shallow picture plane. These poetical works were often enlivened by descriptive titles: e.g., ‘Lady defying advancing waves and hot driving sand (she is quite safe).’


‘Moths and Men with Hay, August’ © estate of  Mary Newcomb (1960). Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NWHCM: 2002.2.1

Jeffery Camp (1923-2020) was born in Oulton Broad, south of the border, down Lowestoft way. In the 1950s he taught at the Norwich School of Art and it was during this period that he won a competition run by the Eastern Daily Press to paint a reredos above the altar of St Alban’s – a beautifully-detailed interwar church in the Norwich suburb of Lakenham.

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‘Christ in Majesty above Norwich’ by Jeffery Camp 1955

It was in London that Camp made his reputation. In the 1960s he taught first at the Chelsea School of Art then at the Slade. In 1961 he had been  elected a member of The London Group, which had been set up in 1913 by metropolitan artists such as Walter Sickert and Wyndham Lewis to ensure that contemporary art, of the kind not supported by the Royal Academy, would have a voice. In 1984 he became a Royal Academician [8].

In some ways comparable to the London Group (although not composed exclusively of artists), the Norfolk Contemporary Art Society was founded in 1956 to suggest contemporary art to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery that would counterbalance its fine collection of Norwich School painting. In 1959, an exhibition that included works by Lucian Freud and Jeffery Camp raised enough money for NCAS to purchase a painting by Camp and to loan it to the museum.


‘Golden Clifftop 1959’ © estate of  Jeffery Camp. NWHCM: 1960.30

In the 1950s, Sheffield-born Derrick Greaves (b. 1927) achieved early fame as one of the four Kitchen Sink painters (along with Ed Middleditch, John Bratby and Jack Smith). In the post-war years their work focused on everyday lives. But by the time Greaves set up the Printmaking Department at the Norwich School of Art (1983-1991) Pop Art had made incursions and his own style had undergone a radical change: ‘I made attempts to form a pictorial language which would be easily accessible to all who cared to look’ [9]. His paintings became highly stylised, involving abstracted outlines of objects often set in intense fields of colour. He still lives and works in rural Norfolk.


‘Irises’ © Derrick Greaves. Courtesy of Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich

The enterprising Mandell’s Gallery of Elm Hill is holding an online exhibition of Derrick Greaves’ recent work. Click here for further details.

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Edward Middleditch R.A. (1923-1987) – another member of the Kitchen Sink School – came to the Norwich School of Art as part-time Head of Fine Art (1964-1984) before becoming Keeper in charge of ‘Schools’ at the Royal Academy.  After the early fascination with social realism his work, too, become more stylised, although he retained his love of flowers and landscape throughout.


‘Cow Parsley'(1956) by Edward Middleditch. ©Estate of Edward Middleditch. Photo credit: Walker Art Gallery

Michael Andrews (1928-1995) was born in what would become known as Norwich’s Golden Triangle. He was born in 142 Glebe Road at a time when older residents could still remember the site as open fields belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral. His association with the Norwich School of Art began in the Sixth Form, when he attended Saturday morning painting classes held by Lesley Davenport.

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© Estate of Lesley Davenport, self-portrait. Member of the Norwich Twenty Group

In the early 1950s, Andrews was taught at the Slade School of Fine Art by the Principal, William Coldstream; later, he taught at the Slade himself. In 1976, RB Kitaj wrote about ‘The School of London’, conjuring up a loose group of ‘world class’ painters who were adhering to figurative art in the face of abstraction. Michael Andrews was one of this group, along with Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin and Francis Bacon.


Taken in Wheeler’s Restaurant Soho 1963, The School of London artists: Tim Behrens, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews CREDIT: JOHN DEAKIN / GETTY

Despite being included in a cohort that represented the human form in a largely figurative way, Andrews himself painted very few portraits [10]. However, his painting showing him teaching his daughter to swim sold for over a million pounds in the 1980s and is one of the favourites hanging in the Tate Gallery.


‘Melanie and me swimming’ by Michael Andrews 1978-9. ©The estate of Michael Andrews

In 1981 he returned to Norfolk to live at Saxlingham Nethergate, about 10 miles south of Norwich. Michael Andrews was a member of the Norwich Twenty Group. 


‘The Lord Mayor’s Reception in Norwich Castle Keep on the eve of the installation of the first Chancellor of the University of East Anglia’ (1996-9), by Michael Andrews. Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery NWHCM: 1968.820

In the second half of the C20, in an age of abstraction, life drawing was increasingly abandoned and Life Rooms closed down. To counteract this loss of essential skills the Head of Fine Art at the Norwich School of Art, Edward Middleditch, recruited the ‘Two Johns’,  John Wonnacott (b.1940) and John Lessore (nephew of Walter Sickert), to develop the Life Room. wonnacott.jpg

 ‘The Life Room (Norwich School of Art)’ © John Wonnacot (1977-1980). Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NWHCM : 1981.92. The plaster casts were still there when I attended life drawing classes in the mid-1980s.

Between 1978 and 1986, Wonnacott taught the traditional skills necessary for figurative painting: looking, measuring, seeing the relationships between objects, the negative shapes, looking again. Wonnacott’s own work is characterised by a wide-angle view.

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‘The Norwich School of Art’ (1982-4). © John Wonnacott

Colin Self (b.1941), born in Rackheath and living in Norwich, is firmly rooted in East Anglia and can trace his Norfolk ancestors to the Domesday Book. He studied at the Norwich School of Art where he was encouraged by Michael Andrews, but it was after his time in London, at the Slade School of Fine Art, that he emerged as a major figure in the Pop Art movement [3, 11]. Pop Art took its cues from supposedly ‘low’ culture – movies, pop music, consumerism – but Colin Self’s early work was influenced by Cold War politics and thoughts about the nuclear threat. This work, which depicts a battery of Bloodhound missiles, was influenced by staying on a Norfolk farm near a US airbase [12].


Guard dog on a missile base, No1′ by Colin Self 1965 ©Colin Self. Photo Credit: Tate

‘The landscape in some ways is my visual script’ (Colin Self) [13].


 ‘Large Harvest Field with two Hay Bales at Happisburgh, Norfolk, Wednesday, 19th September’ © Colin Self 1984. NWHCM : 1998.505.9

As far back as 1885, ‘Schools of Art turned out droves of talented academic female artists’ who, at least in Norwich, were winning most of the major annual prizes [4]: women were not to head those departments until a century later. In 1985 (to 89), Brazilian-born Ana Maria Pacheco (b.1943) succeeded Edward Middleditch as Head of Fine Art at the Norwich School of Art, becoming the first female to hold such a post in the UK.


‘Perils of Faith’ © Ana Maria Pacheco 1990. Etching. Photo credit:

Pacheco, also a printmaker and painter, is primarily known for her sculptures. These involve slightly larger than life-sized figures carved from single lime trees. Two main themes in these dark and thought-provoking works are the imposition of power and the tension between the Old World of her birth and the New.


‘Shadows of the Wanderer’  ©Ana Maria Pacheco. Exhibited in Norwich Cathedral (2008). Photo credit: Pratt Contemporary Art

Gerard Stamp (b. 1955), who lives in Norfolk, was educated at Norwich School where he was taught painting in a room above the cathedral’s Ethelbert Gate [14].


‘St Ethelbert’s Gate’ by John Sell Cotman 1817. The upper chamber, where Stamp was taught art, was once a chapel that figured in the riots of 1272. The gatehouse has been restored since Cotman’s day.

Gerard Stamp does paint landscape though he is better known for his ethereal watercolours of Norfolk’s medieval churches. His experience as an illustrator and designer is part of his painting but it never dominates; the overriding impression is of the kind of mystery and stillness that Cotman imparted to his own unpeopled churches. To achieve this, Stamp makes a pencil drawing that he completes in watercolour as a first stage. ‘Then (when it’s bone dry) I wash over the entire painting with copious quantities of water, sometimes with a sponge. That removes pretty well everything (including pencil) but leaves the stained paper (which looks a bit like an image seen through tracing paper). Then I rework the entire painting again.’


‘Salle Choir Stalls, 2005’ © Gerard Stamp

Cotman thought that St Michael Coslany in Norwich-over-the-Water provided one of the nation’s finest examples of flintwork [15]. Here, Stamp captures the beautiful tracery flushwork that echoes the lacework of stone in the upper part of the window.

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‘St Michael Coslany’ by ©Gerard Stamp. 


‘St Michael Coslany’ by John Sell Cotman 1814

The influence of the Norwich School of Painters continued to be felt throughout the C19 but, by the end of that century, Impressionism had arrived and local art became open to the many art movements that followed. As we have read, it wasn’t until the latter part of the C20 that women occupied positions of influence in the art schools and from 2001-2008 Susan Tuckett became Principal of the Norwich School of Art and Design. Of course, many of Norwich’s female artists work outside any formal or academic grouping. Here are two personal favourites:

Zheni Maslarova Warner, born in Bulgaria in 1954, has lived in Norwich since obtaining her degree in Fine Art in her early twenties. At the Norwich School of Art she studied under Ed Middleditch and Derrick Greaves and later taught life drawing at the NSA. Since then she has migrated from the figurative to the abstract, producing canvases reminiscent of the colourist Howard Hodgkin. The titles of her works seem playful rather than descriptive for Warner is motivated largely by colour, building up depth and luminosity with rich layers of paint. After a viewer at a gallery looked at the back of one painting, convinced it was lit from behind, Warner started to use light boxes and neon, embroidering her paintings with illuminated wire as a further play with colour and light.  

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‘Show us the caskets of your rich memories/Those wonderful jewels of stars and stratosphere’ © Zheni Warner (2008). Photo credit:

 Jayne Ivimey’s (b.1946) artistic connection with Norwich runs deep: her great-great-great-grandfather was one-time President of the Norwich Society of Artists, James Stark. Ivimey went to the High School, studied art at The Sorbonne before returning to Norwich for her Master’s degree at Norwich University College of the Arts (one of the Art School’s various incarnations). Like her friend Mary Newcomb, she is fiercely observant of the natural world. She seems as much an investigator as artist with works including: a study of the effect on salt meeting fresh water; the Beaufort wind scale; coastal erosion; and the grim drop in the number of bird species.  

The Red List makes shocking reading for it numbers the endangered bird species that have declined by at least 50% in the last twenty five years. In response, Jayne Ivimey visited Norwich Castle Museum and other collections to see the preserved bird ‘skins.’ These were then sculpted in stoneware clay that was fired to matt bisque, which – in contrast to shiny ceramic – confronts us with the ghostliness of things we are about to lose. In her words, ‘a material that remains a material rather than an art form.


‘The Red List’ 2016 © Jayne Ivimey

This is a personal look at art in Norwich and I am only too aware of the many fine artists I’ve omitted. Apologies.

©Reggie Unthank 2020


  3. Ian Collins (1990). A Broad Canvas. Pub: Parke Sutton Publishing, Norwich.
  4. Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton and John Stevens (1982). A Happy Eye: A School of Art in Norwich 1845-1982.  Pub: Jarrold & Sons Ltd., Norwich.
  8. Adrienne May and Brian Watts (2003) Wide Skies Pub: Halsgrove.
  14. Ian Collins (2010). Watermarks: Art in East Anglia. Pub: Black Dog Books, Norwich.

Thanks. For discussions, I am grateful to Keith Roberts, John Allen, Gerard Stamp and Jayne Ivimey. Ian Collins’ books were invaluable. The Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery was the source of many paintings in this post; explore their treasures on!/home.





A few of my favourite buildings


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This was going to be something quite different but in this fifth week of isolation I haven’t been able to take new photographs, the library and record office are closed, so I’m revisiting a few of my favourite buildings to remind us of life outside this bubble.IMG_1317.jpg

Possibly my favourite building, the Pantheon in Rome was completed around 126AD by the emperor Hadrian. The generous classical portico leads into a rotunda of staggering beauty. The coffered (sunken) panels reduced the weight of the roof, helping it remain the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome for nearly 2000 years. On our visit, no-one seemed to mind when the rain came in.IMG_1927.jpg

Local pride compels me to mention that Norwich had its own Pantheon [1], although with a modest diameter of 74 feet – about half the Pantheon’s – it would have caused proportionately fewer jaws to drop.


The Pantheon in Ranelagh Gardens, just off the St Stephen’s roundabout, became the booking office of Norwich Victoria Station (1913). Courtesy Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk

Another stunner is the great dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, its diameter only marginally less than that of the Pantheon.


To construct what was, in AD 537, the largest building in the world, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I commissioned a geometer/engineer (Isodore of Miletus) and a mathematician (Anthemius of Tralles). Literally, their task was to square the circle: how to support the circular base of the dome on top of a square base? To make this transition they made innovative use of pendentives – curved triangular segments that allowed the weight of the dome to be spread over the four supporting pillars.


 Image courtesy of


Hagia Sophia at sunset

Another sunset. Approaching Ely from the south, one of the great sights of East Anglia emerges as you crest the brow of a hill and the ‘Ship of the Fens’ rises up.


Ely Cathedral, with the octagonal Lantern at the central crossing. (The taller tower is at the West Front) ©Andrew Sharpe/Geoff Robinson

In 1322 the Norman tower at the central crossing collapsed and when it was realised that it was unfeasible to rebuild in stone the King’s Carpenter, William Hurley, was drafted in [2]. The 70 foot span was beyond the capacity of available timbers so, first, he erected an outer wooden octagon, which was painted to resemble the eight stone piers on which it stood. Then, at the centre of this platform, he constructed a lantern around a vertical octagon of eight timbers. Each a prodigious 63 feet long, these beams were obtained from Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire [3].


The central light well, the lantern, is based on an outer octagon of wood painted to look like stone. Photo credit: David Ross and Britain Express

King’s College Chapel Cambridge – another East Anglian treasure – also gives joy. John Wastell built the beautiful fan-vaulting, giving the chapel the unified appearance of a building completed in a single campaign, but it was started by a Plantagenet (Henry VI) and completed by a Tudor (Henry VIII), with the Wars of the Roses in between (1446-1515).

The chapel has ‘the largest fan vault in the world’. (‘world’ meaning England, for fan vaulting was a native invention). The skin of the stone fans is surprisingly thin and their radiating ribs largely decorative. The main work of supporting the prodigious vault is performed by the transverse arches and tapering external buttresses topped with heavy stone finials to counteract the outward thrust [4]. This external support – no flying buttresses here – creates the illusion of internal lightness, a single space tented with a delicate lacework of something less than stone.


The world’s largest fan vault, King’s College Chapel Cambridge. Creative Commons Licence BY-SA 4.0 by ‘Cc364’


King’s College Chapel. CC BY-SA 3.0 by Dmitry Tonkonog

Even closer to home is the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the UEA campus, a bike-ride away. Here there is no illusion, for the superstructure that supports this vast open space is in plain view. Fascinated by the fibres that wrap around plant cells I remember looking up to the SCVA’s tubes and struts, waiting (unproductively, as it happens) for architectural inspiration.IMG_9854.jpg

All these buildings offer solutions for enclosing and defining large spaces. This negative space is a fundamental element of architecture that Rachel Whiteread captured in her sculpture ‘House’ (1993). She made a concrete cast of the inside of the house in East London then demolished the skin brick by brick. Jonathan Jones of The Guardian said it was: ‘The solid trace of all the air that a room once contained.’


‘House’ by Rachel Whiteread, 1993. It was decided to demolish the sculpture the day she won the Turner Prize. Photo: Apollo Magazine

The first building to make an impression on me was Cardiff Castle, a Gothic fantasy built on the profits from Welsh steam coal.


The Clock Tower, circled with figures representing the planets

The designer William Burgess restored the castle for the Third Marquess of Bute at the height of the Gothic Revival. On his last visit (1881), Burges worked on the Arab Room with its fabulously intricate ceiling lined with gold leaf. ‘Billy’ Burges built this room in homage to the influence of Moorish art on medieval design. It is considered to be his masterpiece [5]. 


The Arab Room, Cardiff Castle. 

If Rachel Whiteread were to cast the space inside this room it would resemble a Victorian jelly.


Victorian jelly mould. Credit:

After the Muslims conquered Spain they used the site of a shared Muslim/Christian church to build and extend (C8-C10) the Grand Mosque in Cordoba. When Christian rule was reestablished a Renaissance cathedral was constructed in the middle of the Muslim complex.

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The Mihrab Dome, Grand Mosque Cordoba. ©José Luiz Bernardes Ribiero/CC BY-SA 3.0

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the mosque is the enormous space punctuated by 856 columns rescued from Roman buildings. The innovative double arches allowed for a greater ceiling height above the relatively short columns.IMG_1345.jpg

Of the three buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, the one on the left fascinates me most.


The Baptistery, Duomo and Leaning Tower, Pisa

The Baptistery was begun by Duotisalvi in 1153 but wasn’t completed for over 200 years, allowing us to see the transition between the rounded Romanesque and the pointed Gothic.  


The immense interior is surprisingly plain.


Photo: Tango7174. CC BY-SA 4.0

I last saw Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece in 2012, before the disastrous fires of 2014 and 2018.


Glasgow School of Art, 1896. The compositional asymmetry of the Renfrew Street entrance, pictured here in 2012


Photo: Robert Perry/TPSL/Camera Press

Mackintosh’s unique buildings were filtered through a range of influences.  For example, the parade of window frames on the north front are reminiscent of Elizabethan ‘prodigy houses’ with their runs of rectlinear windows …


Hardwick House, Derbyshire, 1590-7. Photo: chachu207. Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0

… while the sheer planes on the east and west elevations echo the high defensive walls of the Scottish Baronial Style [6].

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Mackintosh made sketches of this baronial tower-house, Maybole Castle, Ayrshire. ©South Ayrshire Libraries

Mackintosh’s reputation was highest in Austria. When he and his wife Margaret Macdonald were invited to design a room for display at the 8th Secessionist Exhibition of 1900 [7] students paraded them through Vienna on a cart garlanded with flowers, and architect and designer Josef Hoffman– co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte – described Mackintosh as the leader of the modern movement. This high point contrasted starkly with the latter part of his career when commissions declined and he descended into alcoholism.


The Secession Building designed by Josef Maria Olbrich, Vienna, 1898. Locals refer to the dome as the golden cabbage.

Back in Norfolk, King’s Lynn possesses ‘one of the finest late C17 buildings in provincial England’ [8].  The beautifully proportioned Customs House was commissioned by a local wine merchant, Sir John Turner MP, and designed by local architect, Henry Bell. It was built as a merchants’ exchange at a time when the town was one of the nation’s busiest ports and a hub for trade with Europe.


The Customs House, 1683

On the opposite side of the county, the ‘only one remarkable building’ of Great Yarmouth, (according to Pevsner and Wilson [9]) is Fastolff’s House. I have written about it previously [10] but it is a neglected gem, one of few buildings in the art nouveau style in this country, and I have been back a few times since.


Fastolff’s House, Great Yarmouth. Designed by RS Cockrill 1908

The building is made of red brick but what transforms it is the facade of white faience. Fastolff’s House is elevated by its applied decoration just as the exterior of Norwich’s Royal Arcade was transformed by WJ Neatby’s Carraraware tiles. Carraraware was developed in Doulton’s Lambeth factory by the head of their architectural department, Neatby, as a weatherproof facade resembling marble. It is not known who made the Yarmouth tiles but the panels of leaves and fruit are in the restrained form of art nouveau – as opposed to the sinuous variety favoured on the Continent – illustrated on the front cover of The Studio around the end of the nineteenth century.

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Above, the art nouveau frieze in white faience (red rectangle) echoes, below, the cover design of The Studio from a dozen years earlier.

To lose one spire may be regarded as a misfortune but to lose two looks like carelessness. In 1362, the wooden spire of Norwich Cathedral was blown down in a gale; in 1463, its replacement was struck by lightning. The ferocity of the resulting fire destroyed the wooden roof of the nave and turned the Caen stone pillars pink. Bishop Walter Lyhart – whose rebus of a hart lying on water is dotted around the nave – replaced the roof with a stone vault decorated with short lierne ribs. Completed in 1472, the result was a remarkable 14-bay-long vault designed by Reginald Ely not long after he had finished working on King’s College Chapel. Where ribs intersected he placed 255 stone bosses depicting biblical scenes, from the Creation to Doomsday [11].


The lierne vault of the nave. Beneath it, the massive Norman piers had been turned a pinkish colour by the fire


Norwich Cathedral from the cloisters

©2020 Reggie Unthank


  2. John Harvey (1988). Cathedrals of England and Wales. Pub: Batsford
  3. EC Wade and J Heyman (1985). The timber octagon of Ely Cathedral. Proc. Instn. Civ. Engrs, vol 8, part 1: 1421-1436.
  5. Rosemary Hannah (2012). The Grand Designer: Third Marquess of Bute. Pub: Birlinn Ltd.
  6. James Macaulay (1993). Glasgow School of Art: Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Pub: Phaidon Press Ltd.
  7. Jackie Cooper (ed) (1984). Mackintosh Architecture. Academy Editions, London.
  8. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1999). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 2: North-West and South. Pub: Yale University Press.
  10. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1999). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
  11. Paul Hurst (2013). Norwich Cathedral Nave Bosses. Pub: Medieval Media, Norwich

James Minns, carver


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I’ve mentioned James Minns, ‘Carver’, a few times in these pages, always as an appendage to well-known local architects like George Skipper, Thomas Jeckyll or Edward Boardman, but I keep stumbling across his work and felt it was time that ‘Norfolk’s Grinling Gibbons’ [1] had a post of his own. 


James Minns. From the East Anglian Magazine [1]

James Benjamin Shingles Minns – son of Sarah Shingles and James William Minns, cabinetmaker – was born in Lakenham, Norwich, at the beginning of 1825. ‘Minns’ is not uncommon in East Anglia and can be traced back to the Protestant Dutch ‘Strangers’ who brought the name here in the C16 , when it was Mins [2]. The 1841 census shows that James had two sisters; he also had two brothers, both of whom shared their father’s trade as cabinetmaker. Young James had woodworking in his blood.

E.C. LeGrice tells us that Minns lived in a house on Westlegate [1]. This house was ‘demolished – with several others – to make room for a modern block of shops’ but an old shop in that cluster ‘still remains … under the very shadow of the tower of All Saints Church’ [1]. That remaining building sounds very much like the thatched building below. 

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Westlegate 1939, under the shadow of All Saints tower. The thatched building was once The Barking Dicky PH, now Waring’s Lifestore. The adjacent building (left) was demolished to make way for Westlegate Tower. ©


(Just after this article was posted, David Vincent sent this photograph of Westlegate in 1890, as Minns would have known it before the street widening)

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Westlegate 1890, courtesy of David Vincent. Minns’ house is top left, beneath the church tower.

The census gives no clue to when Minns lived here but in 1851 he was living as a ‘visitor’ in the house of dressmaker Frances Scales (widow) at 180 Kensington Place, near the junction of Queens Road and City Road. Genealogical records show that Minns married Elizabeth Emily Thompson in 1858 and, according to the 1861 census, was living at The Steam Packet public house. Confusingly, three Norwich pubs shared the name of the Steam Packet (a small boat regularly plying between ports) but, since a William John Shingles Thompson is listed as a proprietor of The Steam Packet in King Street [3], it would appear that this is where James Minns was living with his Thompson in-laws.

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The Ferry Boat Inn (1936), formerly The Steam Packet. 191 King Street ©

Papers at the Record Office indicate that in 1864, James Minns – listed as ‘wood and stone carver’ – bought two ‘recently erected cottages, part of a row of eight’, for £150 from the builder Edward Burton [4] . Numbers 9 and 11 were in Arthur Street, a cul-de-sac off Mariner’s Lane, which at that time connected Ber Street on the high ridge down to King Street on the riverside. So Minns moved up the hill from his in-laws’ riverside pub

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Mariners Lane once connected Ber Street (red) with King Street on which the Steam Packet is marked with a star. Minns lived in a block of 8 new houses on Arthur Street (purple). 1907 OS map courtesy of

Amongst Minns’ conveyances in the Norfolk Record Office there is an interesting aside: in 1876, the Norwich and Norfolk Provident Permanent Benefit Building Society turned out not to be so permanent and went into liquidation. Minns was allowed by the liquidator, Samuel Gulley, to redeem his mortgage for £20-8s-5d.

From 1851 to 1901 Minns described himself in public records with the plain English word ‘carver’: ‘carver in wood’, ‘wood carver’ and ‘wood and stone carver’. In 1881 there was a lapse when he used the Frenchified ‘sculptor’ but by 1891 and 1901 he was a  ‘carver’ once more. This down-to-earth description of his profession was consistent with E.C. LeGrice’s description of a ‘shy and diffident woodcarver (who) had great difficulty in courteously excusing himself from being presented to his royal admirer, King Edward the Seventh’ [1].


Minn’s unflowing signature. Courtesy of Norfolk Museums Service [4]

James Minns was evidently no scholar, his only formal instruction being ‘a little general training which he received at the old (Norwich) School of Art when he was a youth’ [1]. An article in the Eastern Daily Press of 1904 confirmed, ‘He was no laborious school-product.’ [5]. It must have given him deep satisfaction, therefore, to have returned in his mid-sixties as Instructor in Wood Carving [6]. This was about 1890, at a time when the School of Art had rooms in the Free Library on St Andrew’s Street. In 1857 an extra storey had been added to accommodate the School: ‘On the third floor are two large rooms for the School of Art, with domed roofs and ample skylights, and four smaller apartments for classes are also provided [6].’

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The Norwich Free Library at the junction of St Andrew’s Street and Duke Street. James Minns gave instruction on the third floor. (From ref [7])

This arrangement proved unsatisfactory, for a few decades later a student committee of six men and four women petitioned for a  separate School of Art. One of the petitioners was J.W. Minns. This was James’ son John William who, like his father, became a Norwich Freeman in his twenties; he also described himself as ‘carver’ (1887) [8].

Despite his retiring nature James Minns was confident enough to instruct students in technical matters – after all, he had about 50 years of experience to pass on. He also had sufficient belief in the artistic merit of his work to submit – successfully – a carved panel to the Royal Academy’s 1897 Summer Exhibition.


11 Mariner’s Lane is suggested to have been his workshop [9]. (2017 is the catalogue number)

The Royal Academy has no photograph of this entry and for some time I had no idea of the delicacy of his work until I came across this example in LeGrice’s brief essay on Minns [1].


James Minns’ Bullfinch panel, undated. © 1958 E.C.LeGrice. 

Could this be the same bullfinch panel listed in the Norfolk Museums Collections? There is no image of that panel on the site but Samantha Johns generously tracked it down and photographed it for me, revealing this to be quite a different bunch of bullfinches (for which the collective noun is, surprisingly, a ‘bellowing’).


Bullfinch Panel by James Minns. NWHCM 1897.55. Photo courtesy of Sam Johns.

In 1958 LeGrice [1] mentioned that several Minns panels were in the possession of the Colman family. Several still are and I was kindly shown the following three panels of intricate, deeply undercut birds and foliage (although the curved glass posed problems for this amateur photographer). Amongst them was the superb bullfinch panel featured in LeGrice’s article [1]. 

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Birds nesting amongst the larch. The Bullfinch Panel. Courtesy of James Colman

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Bird panel, courtesy of James Colman

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Woodcock, courtesy of Matthew Colman

Norwich Castle Museum holds a further Minns bird carving under glass.

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‘Pigeon’ by James Minns 1877. Norfolk Museums Service NWHCM: 1924.9

Minns’ success at the Royal Academy was not an isolated one for, as an obituary noted, ‘In competitions both at home and on the Continent he carried off some of the chief trophies of his time’ [5]. The carvings under glass quite likely represent his exhibition pieces. These high points of his artistic output contrasted with his bread-and-butter work at Gunton’s brickyard in Old Costessey. Over a long period – perhaps decades – he made moulds for decorative bricks that were turned out in their hundreds (see previous post on ‘Fancy Bricks’ [10]). 


Cosseyware chimney bricks. The rose and shamrock are from the Patriotic range. Provided by Andy Maule.

However, one-off terracotta panels, like those at  St Bennet’s – a private house in Cromer (1893) – gave Minns the opportunity to be more creative.IMG_4152.jpg

James Minns’ best known panels decorate the red brick building, part of Jarrold Department Store on London Street. Until 1946 this housed the offices of the architect, George Skipper. Although Skipper wasn’t supposed to advertise his architectural practice he installed a panel illustrating himself with three of his Norwich buildings in the background: The Daily Standard Office of 1899 in St Giles Street; The Norwich Union Building of 1904; and Commercial Chambers in Red Lion Street, 1901 [11].Skipper.jpg

In this tableau, a top-hatted Skipper points to a shield presented by a bearded workman in a dust coat, with younger carvers to the rear. The older man presenting the shield would have been the senior craftsman and, as such, is likely to be James Minns himself.

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The head craftsman (left) and James Minns (see below)

Richard Barnes informs me that the terracotta panels on the front of Skipper’s office were being completed around the time (1904 [12]) that work was starting on another of Skipper’s projects – the building of Jarrold Department Store, literally next door. Because James Minns died in 1904, Richard wonders if much of the work might have been done by Minns’ son John. We cannot know for sure but it could explain the rare sighting of this shy carver.

As we saw in a previous post, father and son were both associated with the Costessey brickyard [10].


Workers at Gunton’s brickyard ca 1900 named by Peter Mann. James Minns (red dot) and John Minns (white dot) were labelled ‘Carvers of Norwich’,  Photo courtesy of Paul Cooper

In his capacity as builder, George Gunton renovated the church at St Michael the Archangel, Booton, about six miles from Costessey. Minns carved the huge whirring wooden angels flying in the nave.IMG_2207.jpg

I haven’t been able to find objects sculpted by Minns in bronze although the St Michael over the door at Booton church is tentatively assigned to him. One specialist suggested that the sculptor was uncomfortable working with bronze [13] – perhaps someone like Minns, more used to subtractive carving than building up a maquette for casting?


Minns’ relationship with Guntons was sufficiently accommodating that he could work on his own projects for local architects and designers in materials other than baked clay. For example, Minns worked with Thomas Jeckyll [14] on the Norfolk Gates – an exhibition piece by the Norwich foundry of Barnard Bishop and Barnards (1862) that was then given as a wedding gift by the people of Norfolk to the Prince (later, King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales at Sandringham [15]. Hand-wrought ironwork dominates but the piers and their base panels were cast and this is where Minns made his contribution, bringing him to the attention of the future king. 

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Left: The Norwich coat of arms, cast iron, from the Norfolk Gates. Image © Right: carved wooden panel being sold by A similar wood carving of the Norwich coat of arms, labelled “pattern for cast iron”, which is held in the Norfolk Museums Collections (NWHCM: 1969.59.1), is attributed to James Minns. 

Over the years, Jeckyll worked extensively for the Boileau family at Ketteringham, including house, church, farmhouses and the estate in general. Minns is known to have carved the figures on the church tower [17] and he is likely to have provided other touches around the village.

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About 1850, Jeckyll designed the well outside ‘Wellgate’ in Low Street, Ketteringham; it bears the Boileau arms. 

James Minns also designed this logo for Colman’s mustard.Colmans Duo.001.jpeg

 The bull’s head, from LeGrice’s article on Minns [1]. ©E.C.LeGrice

He also did much of the carving in the Colman’s home at Carrow House. Helen C. Colman reminisced:

“My Father and Mother returned to Carrow House on June 7th 1861 though it was still more or less in the hands of workmen … but the wood carving in oak in the Library … was for the most part done during the ‘sixties … it was nearly all carved locally, and much of it by James Minns.” [16].

Dated 1862, the fireplace in the Old Library at Carrow House is richly carved with birds, flowers and foliage. The four human heads, however, were said by Helen Colman to be ‘carved by someone from a distance’ [16]); i.e., not Minns.

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Mantelpiece in the Old Library at Carrow House carved by James Minns, except the four small heads. Photos courtesy of Sam Johns, Norfolk Museums Service

The remodelling of Carrow House is thought to have been carried out by Edward Boardman [17] (whose son was to marry into the Colman family) and he would have been familiar with James Minns. Indeed, a footnote on Boardman’s plans for the 1891 renovation of the Manor House at Catton specifically names the Minns family of carvers [18, 19].

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The cat and tun (barrel) rebus, carved by the Minns family, on the south door at Catton Manor House, copies the older carving on the east side. Courtesy of Robert Radford. Photo: Ray Jones, Old Catton Society

Although the Colman family were Nonconformist they supported church-going amongst their workers; at St Andrew’s Trowse – a short walk from Colman’s Carrow Works – they donated a reredos of the Last Supper. It is said to be ‘a copy of an Italian masterpiece, carved by James Minns of Lakenham’ and was dedicated in 1905, a year after Minns died [20].


The Last Supper is often depicted with all figures aligned on the far side of the table, school-photograph style. Here, a second row of figures at front increases the depth. I can only find similar versions in Northern European panels. Can you identify the original?

George Skipper’s masterwork was Surrey House, headquarters of Norwich Union (now Aviva) in Surrey Street, and was completed in 1904. A 2008 conservation plan for Aviva states that H.H. Martyn & Co of Cheltenham, who specialised in woodwork and panelling, were assisted by James Minns of 11 Arthur Street, Norwich, “including the carved figures over the main doorway” [21]. The use of Minns’ correct address lends credibility although large carvings of women lolling on the pediment aren’t the usual Minns territory.IMG_2116.jpg

More in keeping with the skilfully carved foliage we saw in his bird panels are the baroque swags of  fruit and flowers hanging on the mahogany panelling. These are reminiscent of Grinling Gibbons’ work and Le Grice did, after all, confer the title of ‘Norfolk’s Grinling Gibbons’ on Minns. On the other hand, reproductions of Grinling Gibbons carvings were a speciality of Martyn’s of Cheltenham [22] so we await corroboration that James Minns was the actual carver. 

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Left: Intricate carving from the boardroom, Surrey House. Right: Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) Hampton Court Palace (by Camster2, Wikipedia, Creative Commons licence).

James Minns died on the 6th of August 1904. His death certificate gives the cause of death as cardiac syncope; he also had senile decay, which makes one wonder if this affected the quality of his work in the latter years and whether his son had to do work on his behalf. James Benjamin Shingles Minns left £200 to his son John  plus ‘effects’ – perhaps his tools. A few days later, the Eastern Daily Press wrote this tribute: “There passed away this week in Norwich a brilliant practitioner of a delightful form of art. As a wood carver Mr Minns was in the utmost sense of that term a genius [5].” 

©2020 Reggie Unthank

If you know anything about the life and works of James Minns, especially previously unrecorded carvings, please get in touch via the Contact link. Comments will not be published without your approval.


  1. E.C.LeGrice (1958). James Minns: Norfolk’s Grinling Gibbons. East Anglian Magazine vol 18, No2, December.
  4. Norfolk Record Office: N/TC/D1/100/5-12
  5. Under ‘Local Topics’, an article written in the week of Minn’s death. Eastern Daily Press 12th August 1904.
  6. Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton with John Steven (1982). ‘A Happy Eye’: A School of Art in Norwich 1845-1982. Pub: Jarrold & Sons Ltd, Norwich.
  7. George A. Stephen (1917). Three Centuries of a City Library.
  12. David Bussey and Eleanor Martin (2012).The Architects of Norwich: George John Skipper, 1856-1948. Norwich Society publication.
  16. Helen C. Colman (1922) “Carrow House Past and Present”. In, Carrow Works Magazine pp51-54.
  17. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (2002). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
  18. Ray Jones of the Old Catton Society, personal communication.
  21. 2008 Aviva Conservation Management Plan mentions ‘H.H. Martyn & Co. Ltd., of Cheltenham – specialist woodwork and panelling, assisted by James Minns of 11 Arthur Street, Norwich (boardroom and committee rooms woodwork including the carved figures over the main doorway)’. Courtesy of Aviva Archivist Thomas Barnes.

Thanks. I am grateful to: Peter Mann, Paul Cooper and Brian Gage who provided  information on the Costessey brickyard; Richard Barnes for information on Jeckyll; Thomas Barnes, Archivist at Aviva for access and information; Robert Radford, owner of Catton Old Hall and Ray Jones of the Old Catton Society; Sue Roe for genealogy; Hill House Antiques & Decorative Arts Ltd; Byron Cooke and Mary Perrott for access to Carrow House; Samantha Johns of Norfolk Museums Service, for photographing Minns’ work; and Matthew Colman and James Colman for allowing me to photograph three superb examples of Minns’ framed bird carvings. Evelyn Simak provided James Minns’ death certificate.

The Norwich Banking Circle


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From the C16 onwards, when an influx of religious refugees from the Low Countries swelled the population by up to third, Norwich became a crowded city and those who had grown rich on the worsted industry began to move out. By moving to their grand houses in the country the wealthy not only marked their new social status but also escaped the epidemics of cholera, smallpox and typhoid that swept the city. They left behind urban space that became colonised by the poor who lived in hundreds of speculative shanties. These insanitary ‘yards’ or ‘courts’, accessed down an alleyway, were a defining feature of this city that lasted until the slum clearances of the C20 [1].

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In the heart of the former textile industry, Burrell’s Yard, off Colegate, 1937. ©


To see where the rich had fled I drew a circle around the city with a radius of a comfortable 30-minute carriage ride. In doing this I found I was merely following David Clarke who, in his third volume of The Country Houses of Norfolk, catalogued the mansions ringing Norwich, most of which are now being subsumed by the urban sprawl [2]. I had expected to see a greater diversity of trades but what we will see is a circle of wealth maintained by families who had become rich from weaving. ‘Master weavers’ managing dozens of looms made money directly from the woollen trade but the more successful made money by handling funds and extending credit to their fellow weavers. The most successful – like the Gurney and Harvey families – formed ‘country banks’ [3].

Old Catton was convenient for those who had business north of the river in Norwich-over-the-Water and what was once an agricultural village had, by the early C20, become ‘the best residential suburb adjoining Norwich’ [4]. This gentrification had begun in the mid-1700s when wool merchant Robert Rogers (Sheriff 1743, Mayor 1758) built Catton Place [4]. In 1816 this was to become the home of Samuel Bignold, son of the founder of Norwich Union. 

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‘The Firs’, formerly Catton Place, in 1935. ©


Probably the most important house in the village was Catton Hall, built on a rise that afforded a view of Norwich Cathedral now challenged by the Anglia Square development. The wealthy worsted weaver Jeremiah Ives, moved here from No.1 Colegate [5]. In the city he had lived within hailing distance of his relatives, the Harveys, and he joined them in Catton as a fellow landowner. Here is Ives, portrayed by an artist with the improbably apt name of Catton. 


Portrait of Jeremiah Ives, Mayor of Norwich 1769, 1795, by Charles Catton. Presented by the yarn-makers of Norwich in gratitude for his opposition to an Act allowing the export of English wool [5].


It isn’t clear whether Ives purchased Catton Hall or whether it was inherited by his wife; either way, it was more than just ‘a house in the country’ for in 1778 Ives gave Humphry Repton his first paid commission to transform the surrounding 45 hectares into Catton Park [2,6].

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‘Park Scene – View of Norwich – View in Catton Park’ by Humphry Repton (1752-1818). The cathedral spire can be seen between the trees. Courtesy Norfolk Museums Collections NWHCM : 1936.32.2

The Harveys had a considerable presence in Old Catton: Thomas Harvey built Catton House but there was also Robert Harvey at The Grange and Jeremiah Ives Harvey at Eastwood [4].

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To the north of Norwich on Faden’s map of 1797 ©Andrew Macnair. The land of J Ives Esquire is underlined in yellow. Mr T Harvey’s house in parkland is starred while Mr R Harvey and Mr Harvey owned land to the east (underlined). 

But the Harvey who built Catton House was the one who married Ann Twiss – daughter of an English merchant from Rotterdam – and whose collection of Dutch paintings had a formative influence on the co-founder of the Norwich Society of Artists, John Crome (see recent post [7]). 

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Catton House post-1945. Courtesy of the Old Catton Society

The Gurneys also had a presence in Catton: in 1854 Catton Hall was bought by the seriously rich John Henry Gurney Snr who had inherited the bulk of the fortune accumulated by Hudson Gurney (1775-1864) of Keswick Hall (see below). The Gurneys were Quaker weavers who, through an ‘extended cousinhood’ of alliances and partnerships, formed the country’s largest banking network outside London [3,8]. 

Financial intermediaries in the Norwich woollen trade, John and Henry Gurney established Gurney’s Norwich Bank in 1770. In 1778, Henry’s son Bartlett inherited the bank that he ran with the help of  two cousins, Richard and Joseph Gurney. Their premises were in a former wine merchant’s whose cellars proved useful for housing the safes, protected by a mastiff and a blunderbuss. Gurneys Bank was near the red well on Redwell Plain, which was renamed Bank Plain. 

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Gurneys, Birkbeck, Barclay and Buxton Bank on Bank Plain Norwich in the 1920s, here re-badged as Barclays Bank. ©Barclays Group Archives. Astonishingly, the same ornate lamp-post on the left still stands in the same spot  (see right). 

In 1896 the bank became amalgamated under the Barclays name and the present grand banking hall was built on the site in 1927 [8]. In the C19, their London branch became ‘the world’s greatest bill-discounting house’, allowing a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to sing, ‘I became as rich as the Gurneys‘. Nevertheless, in 1866 they went bust with £11,000,000 liabilities. Although this ruined several Gurneys the Norwich branch escaped significant damage [3,8].


The ‘new’ Barclays Bank built 1927, now housing ‘Open’ Youth Trust

Influenced by the Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace, Gurney extended Catton Hall with a cast-iron Camellia House designed by local architect Edward Boardman and manufactured in Boulton & Paul’s Norwich factory. The fine cupola was removed in WWII to prevent enemy planes using it as a landmark on the way to RAF St Faith’s (now Norwich Airport) [2,4].


Catton Hall. The original cupola on the Camellia House is illustrated in the old postcard below, courtesy of the Old Catton Society.

John Henry Gurney Snr was married to Mary Jary who ran off with one of the grooms.

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Courtesy of ‘Hethersett Heritage’ by the Hethersett Society

… and, to compound JH Gurney’s woes, the bank in which he was a major shareholder (Overend, Gurney & Co.) went bust in May 1866. This triggered ‘Black Friday’ in the City and led to him selling the Hall to his cousin, Samuel Gurney Buxton, a banker at Barclays [3,4]. In 1896, Gurneys Bank was to join 10 other private banks controlled by Quakers, to form Barclays Bank. 

Mary Jary Gurney had come from Thickthorn Hall, a few miles south of Norwich at Hethersett. She had lived in this early C19 house that passed to Richard Hanbury Gurney when the owner defaulted on his mortgage. It stayed in the Gurney family until the 1930s when Alan Rees Colman, director of Colmans and second son of Russell Colman of Crown Point, bought the hall.

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Thickthorn Hall. Courtesy of Cathie Piccolo

In addition to Catton and Thickthorn the wider Gurney family also had country houses ringing the city – at Colney, Earlham, Easton, Keswick Hall and Sprowston.


Clockwise from Catton Hall (Gurney) at 12 o’clock, banking families were associated with: Sprowston Hall (Gurney), Whitlingham Hall (Harvey), Crown Point (Harvey), Keswick Hall (Gurney), Eaton Hall (mistakenly labelled Easton Hall by Faden; Easton Lodge was briefly owned by a Gurney but is actually a few miles west), Earlham Hall (Gurney) and Colney Hall (Barclay). From Faden’s Map of 1797 ©Andrew Macnair.

The mid-C16 Sprowston Hall was acquired by the Gurneys in 1869 – bought by John Gurney, the eldest son of John Gurney of Earlham Hall (see below) [2]. Gurney employed Wymondham architect Thomas Jeckyll to re-design it in an Elizabethan Revival style. Jeckyll, however, could not resist inserting an of-the-moment gate in the Aesthetic Style that he helped champion.

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Jeckyll’s ‘japonaise’ gate at Sprowston Manor. See previous post.

But if we’re following the money it’s impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of Keswick, south of Norwich. The worsted weaver Joseph Gurney came to Keswick Old Hall in 1747 but when the fabulously wealthy Hudson Gurney (who inherited brewing as well as banking money) took over the estate in 1811 he built a new Keswick Hall in the Regency style [2].

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The ‘dashing smart’ Hudson Gurney in an etching by Mrs Dawson Turner from a painting by John Opie RA. Courtesy of Norfolk Museums Collections NWHCM: 1832.39.1

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Keswick Hall, south front in 1990. ©


When Hudson Gurney died in 1864 his estate passed to his nephew John Henry Gurney of Earlham who had been tainted by the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co Ltd. Much later, Keswick Hall was to become the new home of trainee teachers who had been displaced from their training college in Norwich’s College Road when it was bombed in the Baedeker Raids of 1942.


The 1892 Diocesan training college for school mistresses on College Road, Norwich, was bombed in WWII and the students moved to Keswick Hall

Earlham Hall, just west of the city,  is another Gurney residence now associated with education [2]. For over a century the house was rented from the Bacon family during which time it was occupied by the banker John Gurney (1749-1809) and his family. Not all of his 13 children survived but Samuel, Daniel and Joseph John lived on to become bankers. Joseph John Gurney was also a Quaker minister and, like his sister Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney), was active in social and prison reform.


Earlham Hall as it was in the early C19. Now, much changed, it houses the UEA Law School. Courtesy landscape.uea

The easternmost house I underlined on Faden’s map is Whitlingham Hall on the Crown Point Estate. The Hall was built for Sir Robert Harvey Harvey 1st Baronet by architect H E Coe, a pupil of Sir George Gilbert Scott. The local practice of Edward Boardman and Son supervised the building of this large Elizabethan-Revival mansion with its spectacular ornamental conservatory [9]. 


Whitlingham Hall, which superseded  Crown Point Hall. ©Rightmove

Five years later, as one of the proprietors of what began as Hudson and Hatfield’s Bank, Harvey was to build the grand Classically-styled Norwich Crown Bank; this was on Agricultural Hall Plain, within sight of Gurneys’ (later, Barclays) Bank on Bank Plain [10]. Unfortunately, Sir Robert had been speculating on the stock exchange and tried to disguise his heavy losses as debts owed by fictitious customers. When the scandal broke in 1870 Harvey shot himself. Somewhat ironically, in view of their own recent financial uncertainty, Gurneys Bank bought the goodwill of the Crown Bank in order to quell local panic [3]. The Crown Point Estate was sold to JJ Colman and in 1955 it became Whitlingham Hospital, now private apartments.

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Norwich Crown Bank

The name ‘crown’ associated with this building is sometimes thought to be associated with its later use as the city’s Head Post Office (until 1969).  IMG_1918.jpg

The name, however, traces back to Major John Money who built Crown Point Hall, which was torn down when Sir Robert Harvey built Whitlingham Hall [2]. Money served in the Army during the North American Campaign [2] where he was based at Fort Crown Point –  “the greatest British military installation ever raised in North America.” [11]. You may remember Major Money from a previous post [12] that describes his perilous balloon flight of 1785 when he took off from Quantrell’s Pleasure Garden (near Sainsbury’s on Queens Road); he landed in the sea off Yarmouth from which he was rescued several hours later. 1024px-Major_Mony's_Perilous_Situation_When_he_fell_into_the_Sea_July,_23,_1785,_off_the_Coast_of_Yarmouth_NASM-745A8AFD32D22_001.jpg

Bonus track: The Harvey family portrait [13]

You know that dream where you meet all your ancestors in some celestial picnic spot; you know, grandparents, distant aunts and uncles and a posse of strangely familiar faces? Well, here it is, several blog posts rolled into one. There’s Robert Harvey who founded the family bank (#3 in the portrait). And there’s John Harvey (#5) from the Street Names post [14] who gave his name to Harvey Lane; he also appeared in the Norwich School of Painters post in Stannard’s painting, Thorpe Water Frolic [7]. There’s even Charles Harvey MP (#6) who took the surname of his uncle Savill Onley in order to secure an inheritance, as we saw in Street Names [14], together with his son Onley Savill Onley. (#7) And don’t forget that Onley became an Unthank name (hence, Onley Street) through marriage [15]. These are just some of the connections implicit in the portrait by Norwich School artist Joseph Clover – a friend of Amelia Opie’s husband John who we encountered  in the previous post, Behind Mrs Opie’s Medallion [16].

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The Harvey Family of Norwich, by Joseph Clover c 1821. Courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum and At Gallery  NWHCM: 1985.435. 1= Robert Harvey ‘Father of the City’ (1679-1773); 2= Sir Robert Harvey Harvey; 3=Genl Sir Robert Harvey b.1785, founder of Harvey’s Bank; 4=Robert Harvey of Catton and St Clements ?1730-1816;  5= John Harvey of Thorpe Lodge 1775-1842; 6= Charles Harvey who took the name of Savill Onley 1756-1843; 7= Onley Savill Onley d.1890; 8= Roger Kerrison of Brooke House, Norfolk. Father-in-law of John Harvey (#5) and bank owner 1740-1808.

©Reggie Unthank 2020


  1. Frances and Michael Holmes (2015). The Old Courts and Yards of Norwich. Pub: Norwich Heritage Projects.
  2. David Clarke (2011). The Country Houses of Norfolk. Part Three: The City and Suburbs. Pub: Geo R Reeve Ltd, Wymondham.
  3. Roger Ryan (2004). Banking and Insurance. In, ‘Norwich Since 1550’ by Carol Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson. Pub: Hambledon and London.
  4. Old Catton Society (2010). Historic Houses of Old Catton. Pub: Catton Print, Norwich.
  10. AD Bayne (1869). A Comprehensive History of Norwich. Pub: Jarrolds, Norwich. Now available online:
  13. Andrew Moore and Charlotte Crawley (1992). Family and Friends: A Regional Survey of British Portraiture. Pub: London: HMSO and Norwich: Norfolk Museums Service.

Thanks to David Clarke of City Bookshop, Norwich, for his advice; his Country Houses of Norfolk is the standard work. I am grateful to Dr Giorgia Bottinelli and Jo Warr of Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for providing the information on the Harvey portrait. Thanks also to Ray Jones, archivist to the Old Catton Society for providing images and to Cathy Piccolo for information on, and the photo of, Thickthorn Hall.

Behind Mrs Opie’s medallion


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Few women in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century were able to achieve national celebrity, but Amelia Opie did [1]. As a young Norwich woman she became a well-known author, publishing several novels and works of poetry. Her luminous friends included Lady Caroline Lamb, Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Sir Joshua Reynolds, JMW Turner, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Fry; and in later life, when she became a Quaker, her name headed the list of 187,000 women petitioning for the abolition of slavery [2].

On a recent visit to Norwich School I was shown a medallion of Amelia Opie in her high Quaker bonnet. I wrote briefly about her in Three Norwich Women [1] but I’m revisiting because the medallion – or at least the back of the medallion –  opens a small window on Norwich in Amelia’s time. I call her Amelia because that’s what her biographer, Ann Farrant [2], called her but, still, I hesitate since she was a stickler about forms of address:

… do not call me Mrs Amelia Opie. I am not Mrs Amelia Opie but Mrs Opie or among friends Amelia Opie … Mrs Opie, Norwich is my lawful and proper designation’ [2].


Mrs Opie’s medallion. Courtesy of Norwich School

The name ‘David’ is inscribed beneath the sitter’s shoulder. Napoleon was known by the single name but the only artist with sufficient celebrity to be known by a single name was Jacques-Louis David, the foremost painter in revolutionary France. The ‘Opie’ David, however, refers to the sculptor Pierre-Jean David, from the town of Angers, who made medallions of more than 500 well-known figures. When Pierre-Jean entered the studio of Jacques-Louis David he differentiated himself from his patron by adopting the name of David D’Angers.

After Britain and France declared peace in 1802 Amelia travelled to France. As the granddaughter of a Dissenting minister, daughter of a doctor with radical sympathies, and travelling with companions who supported the French Revolution, there seems little doubt that Amelia intended to see France’s new society for herself. In the group was her husband, John Opie RA, one of whose attractions as a suitor was that he’d agreed to live in the Opie household if Amelia proved averse to leaving her beloved father [2].


John Opie self-portrait 1789. His wife was to outlive him by 46 years

Amelia had been taught French by her great friend, the Reverend John Bruckner from Leiden in The Netherlands, who was pastor to the city’s French-speaking Protestants at St Mary-the-Less in Queen Street (and, later, to the Dutch Strangers in Blackfriars’ Hall). She is said to have insisted that John Opie paint a portrait of Bruckner as a condition of their marriage. 

Amelia had an ‘almost obsessive interest in Napoleon’ and once, when she contrived to see him passing by, ‘saw him very near us, and in full face again.’ But two years later Amelia became an unbeliever when Napoleon snatched the crown from the Pope, placed it on his own head and declared himself Emperor; as she said, ‘the bubble burst’ [2]. 


Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David (1801)

It had been thought that Amelia met David D’Angers on this visit but her biographer, Ann Farrant, makes it clear that it wasn’t until 1829, when Amelia was a widow and a Quaker with a high Quaker bonnet, that she first met David D’Angers in person [2].

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Portrait of David d’Angers ©British Museum. 1006,U.2424

When Amelia revisited France she formed a strong friendship with David D’Angers. She was pleased her portrait on the medallion was ‘like’; she also noted that he’d managed to make the Quaker bonnet look a little like the classical Phrygian cap that the French revolutionaries wore as their bonnets rouges [2].

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Left: the Phrygian cap worn by Attis, second century AD. Right: a French revolutionary with bonnet rouge, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson. The Phrygian cap is said to have been worn by liberated slaves in Greece and Rome. 

The back of the frame is equally interesting. IMG_2012.jpg

Freeman’s of London Street was founded by Jeremiah Freeman but the Freeman in the time of the Opie medallion would have been his son William (1783-1877). He is listed as proprietor of a ‘General Furnishing Warehouse and Repository of Arts’ at Number Two London Street.

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William Freeman, Mayor Norwich 1843-4, Sheriff 1842. By Frederick Sandys, dated 1848. Courtesy Norfolk Museums Collections NWHCM: 1949.102

Describing Freeman as a proprietor of a general furnishing warehouse seriously underplayed his business for he employed 63 men, women and apprentices producing  furniture and gilt frames of the highest quality. As a frame-maker he would have been in competition with Norwich School artist James Thirtle who also made picture frames, notably for his brother-in-law, John Sell Cotman [3].


Early C19 Rococo Revival composition mirror by William Freeman of Norwich ca 1825. Courtesy Farrelly Antiques, Oxon


The label on the mirror gives Freeman’s address as ‘London and Swan Lane’. The wording implies the existence of a London branch but may simply mean his London Lane shop not the capital. Swan Lane is off present-day London Street. Courtesy Farrelly Antiques, Oxon

Freeman made furniture for Norfolk’s grand country houses, including Felbrigg  Hall and Blickling Hall.

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Gilt and gesso console table with an Italian marble top, by Freemans of Norwich 1825-1850.  ©BlicklingHall@National Trust/Sue James

Three generations of Freemans were embedded in the artistic life of the city. Jeremiah (1763-1823) was President of the Norwich Society of Artists in 1818 – a post held by William himself two years later. William’s son, William Philip Barnes Freeman (1813-1897), went to Norwich School with John Crome’s son and was taught drawing by John Sell Cotman. In 1854 the first meeting of the Norwich Photographic Society was held on their premises [4].

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The River at Thorpe Reach by William Philip Barnes Freeman (1813-1897), a late member of the Norwich School of Painters. Courtesy Norfolk Museums Collections NWHCM: 1969. 301.3

In addition to Freeman’s label on the reverse of the medallion, a faded inscription has been preserved: Amelia Opie cast from a macet (i.e., maquette or preliminary model) by David of Paris during her visit in April (and here the original paper is torn). Presented by Wm Freeman Magistrate to the N …” but this and the following tangle of letters are difficult to decipher. The final line has just the date,“1851”, two years before Amelia’s death.



My first impression was that the difficult-to-decipher word beginning with ‘N’ was ‘Noverre’. This turns out to be incorrect but, as my old maths master insisted, I’ll show my workings, if only for the glimpse they give into contemporary Norwich society.


The Noverres were a Swiss-French Protestant family who lived in The Chantry adjacent to the Assembly House. Augustin had been ballet master at Drury Lane Theatre London, with David Garrick while brother Jean-George, back in France, had been dancing master to Marie-Antionette. One evening, just as he left the stage, Augustin was caught up in an anti-French fight. He mistakenly thought he had run an assailant through with a sword and fled to Norwich where he is said to have been sheltered by French Huguenot silk weavers [5].

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Augustin Noverre (1779-1854) by Norwich School artist, Joseph Clover. Norwich Assembly House

Augustin’s son Francis (1773-1840) – who had been born in Britain – came to Norwich to teach dance, deportment and aspects of cultural refinement required in polite society. He built the west wing of the Assembly House for his ballroom. Long before she became a Quaker, the adolescent Amelia was an enthusiastic dancer; a friend recalls dancing ‘from seven to eleven’ at a reception for Prince William Frederick held at Amelia’s father’s house [2]. Amelia certainly knew of the Noverres since her husband John painted a portrait of the two Noverre children.

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Augustin and Harriet, children of Francis and Harriet Noverre. Painted by John Opie ca 1805.

Public assemblies in the Assembly Rooms weren’t all stately minuets and cotillions for at the end of the evening the ladies would retire to remove the hoops from their skirts in readiness for country dancing. ‘At Assize Week in Norwich, the double doors between ballroom, card-room, and tea-room were opened up, and country dances danced along the length of the three rooms’ [6].

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Country Dance, by William Hogarth. From, The Analysis of Beauty Plate 2. Wikimedia Commons

At some stage, the original inscription on the reverse of the medallion was glued to a new backing without closing the horizontal tear that runs along the penultimate line. On a print, I cut out the tear and joined the original edges. What I’d unconfidently construed as ‘Noverre’ can now be seen to be part of ‘Norwich’; however, the short final word (4-5 letters, florid italic capital) defeats my crossword-solving app and leaves Mr Freeman’s intention opaque.

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After excising the gap (above) the two halves of ‘Norwi-ch’ could be rejoined (below).

The Norwich School medallion resembles the bronze plaque by David D’Angers in the National Portrait Gallery. The profile reappears on the marble bust by David D’Angers  that forms the centrepiece of a display of anti-slavery artefacts in Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. Amelia’s support for the abolitionist cause originated with her mother who, after her parents had died, became very attached to her black nurse [2].

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Left: The Opie medallion ©National Portrait Gallery, London. Right: Marble bust of Amelia Opie by Jean-Pierre David D’Angers, Paris 1836. When the bust was delivered to Amelia from Paris she didn’t dare open it for three weeks in case it was frightful [2].  Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

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In 1825, in her mid-fifties with both husband and father dead, Amelia joined the Society of Friends. Now, she worshipped in the Friends’ Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane instead of her father’s chapel, the Octagon in Colegate [1]. Her high Quaker bonnet made Amelia a distinctive figure amongst those who attended the 1840 Anti-Slavery Society Convention.

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A key to ‘The Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840’ by JA Vintner, based on the painting by BR Haydon. ©National Portrait Gallery

There is a description of a lost photograph of Amelia: ‘in her Quaker dress, in old age, dim, and changed, and sunken, from which it is very difficult to realise all the brightness, and life, and animation which must have belonged to the earlier part of her life…’ [7].  Some of this youthful spark was captured by John Opie just after he and Amelia were married.


Amelia Opie 1798, painted by John Opie RA. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons Licence.

This was the painting on which Mrs Dawson Turner based her etching of Amelia in 1822. Mary Turner was the wife of Dawson Turner FRS (1775-1855) – banker, botanist, art collector – who had employed JS Cotman as drawing master to his family in Yarmouth. This etching of Amelia, which prettifies the Opie portrait, was made towards the end of Cotman’s time at Yarmouth by which time Mrs Dawson Turner would have been familiar with his etching techniques [3]. 

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Mrs Opie, 1822. Etching by Mrs Dawson Turner from John Opie’s painting (above). Courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Long before she renounced fashion and adopted plain Quaker garb the 21-year-old Amelia had published an anonymous work on the Dangers of Coquetry. It therefore comes as a surprise to learn that she asked the Norwich School painter Joseph Clover to ask Mrs Turner to modify the likeness. To achieve this to Amelia’s satisfaction Mary Turner went through five iterations [2]. 

With its emphasis on the elaborate hair style the Turner etching may well have been the model for Amelia Opie on a new mural in Norwich Market. One hundred and sixty six years after her death it is this image of a vibrant, unbonneted woman that endures.

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From a mural on the shutters of a stall in Norwich Market, by Lucie Knights for Norwich Norwich Business Improvement District (BID)

©Reggie Unthank 2020

This post is respectfully dedicated to Amelia Opie’s biographer Ann Farrant, who died in 2019.


  2. Ann Farrant (2014). Amelia Opie: The Quaker Celebrity. Pub: JJG Publishing, Hindringham, Norfolk.
  3. Josephine Walpole (1997). Art and Artists of the Norwich School. Pub: Antique Collectors’ Club
  5. Tom Roast (2018). Ten Musical Families from Norwich. Pub: Gateway Music Norwich.
  6. Marc Girouard (1990). The English Town: A History of Urban Life. Pub: Yale University Press.
  7. Miss Thackeray (1883). A Book of Sibyls. Pub: Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig. Mentioned in Anne Farrants biography.

Thanks to Cheryl Wood, archivist Norwich School, for showing me the Opie medallion. I am grateful to Victoria Nieto Felipe of Norwich BIDS for information on the mural of Amelia Opie in Norwich Market