Fire has been a potent force in shaping where we live – a lick here, a conflagration there – especially when buildings were made of timber and thatch. In the period before the Conquest, near a low river crossing, a defended Anglo-Scandinavian settlement evolved on the north bank of the River Wensum. This was the North Wic whose name is recorded on coins minted there during the reign of the first English king, Athelstan (925-939). But in 1004 the Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard, took vengeance for the death of his sister during the St Brice’s Day Massacre by burning the northern settlement .
“This year came Sweyne with his fleet to Norwich, plundering and burning the whole town.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles).
Two ‘lost’ churches on the north bank, in the Magdalen Street area of Norwich, had suffixes referring to fire: St Mary’s Unbrent (unburnt) and St Margaret’s in Combusto or, in Combusto Loco. The qualifier, ‘in combusto loco’, identifies them as survivors of a conflagration but by the Reformation both had disappeared. The local historian Blomefield  avoided blaming the Danes for this fire; instead he suggested it was ‘in the time of the Conqueror’, although it is hard to get a definitive answer. Whether the north wic was too devastated to be rebuilt as a regional capital or whether they preferred to be inside the protective loop of the Wensum, the Normans radically transformed the topography by re-settling Northwic on the south of the river. Here, they built their cathedral, castle and marketplace from which the new French Borough pushed westward.
In August 1272 a quarrel erupted at the annual Tombland Fair over whether stall-holders should pay fees to the city or the priory. The prior’s armed men claimed that the old Anglo-Scandinavian marketplace outside the cathedral gates was under their jurisdiction, not the city’s, and in the ensuing fight a citizen was killed with a crossbow . The belligerent prior, William de Brunham, fled to Yarmouth and returned with barges of armed men who ‘fell upon citizens with fire and sword’ . While the priory men barred the monastery gates and fired crossbows at passing citizens, citizens on the tower of St George Tombland shot slings of fire that set the monastery ablaze, destroying much, including the library.
Thirteen priory men were killed . When he heard about this, King Henry III – who was attending his parliament at Bury St Edmunds – condemned 34 young townsmen to be drawn by horses around the city until dead. Others were hanged, drawn and quartered and their bodies burned, according to the old Anglo-Saxon penalty for arson. The woman who set fire to the gates was burned alive. Though the prior was acknowledged to have instigated the riot he got off lightly: he was committed to the bishop’s prison and the priory’s manors were seized by the Crown.
A century and a half before the Great Fire of London, much of Norwich was to be devastated by its own Great Fires. First, in 1505, “was grete part of the cyte of Norwich brent” . Two years later, two more fires consumed the city centre, helping to explain why so few timber-framed and thatched medieval buildings survived into the modern period . The first of the 1507 fires started on Easter Tuesday and, over four days, 718 buildings burned: Norwich was ‘almost utterly defaced’ .
The fire is said to have started at The Popinjay Inn on Tombland, home to the Popinjay or Papingay family (popinjay = parrot) [1, 4].
On Ascension Day – the fourth of June 1507 – a second fire started in the house of a French surgeon in the Colegate area; it raged for two days and a night, destroying a further 360 houses. Stone-built churches survived but very few timber-framed and thatched houses did (the city’s remaining thatched buildings are shown at the end). Almost half the city’s houses were destroyed. In Elm Hill, the Britons Arms stood alone .
Britons Arms of 1347  was originally a beguinage that housed lay sisters associated with St Peter Hungate (in the background). Now it is a coffee house and restaurant.
After the fires, Augustine Steward – sheriff, mayor and wealthy wool merchant, whose wonky house is around the corner in Tombland – rebuilt much of Elm Hill. This included Paston House, now home to the Strangers’ Club (see previous post ).
Blackfriars’ Hall itself had been ravaged by fire in 1413 and was rebuilt over a 30 year period (1440-70) . The family of Sir Thomas Erpingham – whose kneeling effigy still supervises entry through the cathedral’s Erpingham Gate – paid generously towards the restoration of the Blackfriars’ buildings while the Paston family paid for the hammer-beam roof in the nave now known as St Andrew’s Hall . After the Reformation, Augustine Steward bought St Andrew’s Hall on behalf of the city and it comes down to us as ‘the most complete English friars’ church’ .
In 1509 the city authorities eventually decreed that all new buildings should have roofs of thaktyle (tile) and not thakke (thatch) [3,2]. Curiously, this ordinance was repealed in 1532, allowing houses to be roofed in ‘slatte, tyle or reeyd’ but sense prevailed and in 1570 Norfolk-reed thatch was again forbidden, changing the roofscape of Norwich at the stroke of a pen . In The Netherlands and Flanders, thatch had already been banned in favour of pantiles that were now being imported all along the east coast of England and Scotland .
‘Pan’ is Dutch for ’tile’ but it also refers to the pan you put on the stove, so ‘roof tile’ in Dutch is ‘dakpan’.
Another survivor of the 1507 fires was the C14 Suckling House, named after the mayor of 1564. In 1923 it was bought by Ethel and Caroline Colman. They added Stuart Hall as a cinema (to the left) and presented a renovated Suckling House to the City of Norwich, “for the advancement of education … in its widest sense” . Cinema City is now an arts cinema with bar and restaurant.
Decades later, the city still hadn’t risen from the ashes. To hasten the resurrection an Act of Parliament in 1534 declared that if the properties were not rebuilt or at least enclosed within two years: ‘the chief lords of the fees (or ‘the mayor &c’) may enter upon them, and rebuild or enclose them in one year’s time’ . In 1578, in readiness for the visit of Queen Elizabeth, the mayor repaired and beautified the streets although this didn’t stop the monarch from commenting on the number of derelict properties.
The city ordinance of 1570 that specified tiled roofs represented an important turning point for it also outlined steps to fight fires. For instance, every carrier and brewer had to be prepared to convey vessels of water until a fire had been extinguished.
For a fire alert the carriers and brewers were to be called by a peal of bells rung ‘auk’ or ‘auker’ . ‘Auker’ is an elusive word (awkward?) but an inscription on the 7th bell at St Ives, Cambs provides an explanation: ” When backwards rung we tell of fire/Think how the world shall thus expire” . That is, the call to action was a peal rung backwards.
There was also an inspection regime to ensure that church wardens and aldermen maintained sufficient buckets and tall ladders, or else be fined . The thatched St Augustine’s church had to have six buckets and a ladder, while St Peter Mancroft was a 30-bucketer .
In 1577 the city had its first supply of pumped water, from New Mills, although it took until 1742 for the entire city to have access to water from cisterns. In 1720 a mechanism was installed that raised water into a cistern known as ‘The Tombland Waterhouse’ .
In 1668, just two years after the Great Fire of London, Norwich had its first fire engine, kept in St Andrew’s Hall; by 1750 the other city parishes had these manual appliances . After the Great Fire, insurance companies sprang up as a hedge against financial loss but it wasn’t until 1797 that Thomas Bignold was to set up the ‘Norwich Union Society for the Insurance of Houses, Stock and Merchandise from Fire’, later the ‘Norwich Union Fire Insurance Company’.
At that time, the insurance companies’ own trained fire brigades probably offered better fire-fighting than the parish.
The ‘fire timeline’  for Norwich in the C19 presents a catalogue of fires in commercial premises: Hubbard’s the cabinet makers (1815); Neal’s coachmakers (1820); St James factory (later Jarrolds’ print works, 1846); the Steam Flour Mills (1855); Tilyard and Howlett’s Shoe Factory (1862); JJ Colman’s Carrow Works (1881) etc etc. In 1829, there was a major fire at Squire & Hills Vinegar Brewery on the Wensum – a large factory of 125,000 square feet (11,600 sq metres).
The presence of a gin distillery made for an explosive mixture and this was captured in a sketch by John Sell Cotman.
Where Norwich goes, London follows: five years later JMW Turner had his own Vinegar Works.
In 1835 Norwich City Council was allowed to levy a rate to pay for combatting fire, and in 1840 they formed their own fire brigade. Norwich Union’s fire brigade disbanded in 1858 and passed on their equipment to the city .
But large companies still maintained their own fire brigades. In 1876, by the time the City Fire Brigade arrived at a fire in Albion Mills (now apartments) in King Street, JJ Colman’s fire brigade were already in attendance. Later that year they were again first attenders when a large fire devastated Boulton & Paul’s factory, further upriver at Rose Lane .
The city’s fire station had originally been in the medieval Guildhall but in September 1898 a new station was opened in Pottergate. It may have been financially favourable to convert council-owned property but it meant that horse-drawn (and later, motor) fire engines had to negotiate their way through narrow medieval lanes.
The new fire station yard was accessed through an archway.
One month before the Pottergate station was opened, a fire broke out in the premises of Hurn the rope and sail maker in nearby Dove Street (see map above). The municipal fire brigade was assisted by brigades maintained by two of the city’s big four breweries (Bullards and Steward & Patteson) but they were unable to prevent the spread of fire to the warehouse of Chamberlin’s the drapers, which occupied most of the block, nor to the Norwich Public Library. (For the history of Norwich libraries, and their fires, see ).
In 1935 the fire station moved to Bethel Street, in purpose-built premises designed by Stanley Livock of London Street. Its style is akin to the ‘Post-Office Georgian’ employed on public buildings of the inter-war years. Its subdued decoration complements the Scandinavian-influenced City Hall, designed in 1931 but not completed until 1938.
Other cities may have had separate fire brigades but in Norwich, the Chief Constable remained in charge of ‘police/firemen’ until the late 1940s . This explains the presence of both police and fire helmets carved above the original entrance to the police station in Norwich City Hall.
In 1994, with a horrible symmetry that recalled the 1892 library fire, the new Central Library (1960-2) burned down, one hundred yards from the fire station [see 13].
Housed in The Forum the new Millennium Library (2001), designed by Sir Michael Hopkins, is claimed to be the most visited in the country. This building relates to St Peter Mancroft, across a piazza, far more successfully than its predecessor did across that cheerless car park.
In 2013 the fire station became Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form and the city was served by three stations, not in the historic centre but on the perimeter at Carrow, Sprowston and North Earlham.
Bonus track: the six remaining thatched buildings
©2019 Reggie Unthank
A suggestion for the Christmas stocking: some copies of the fourth – and probably final – printing of the Unthank book remain. They can be bought from Jarrolds Book Department or the City Bookshop in Davey Place. (“An ideal companion for the fireside”. The Norwich Mardler).
- Francis Blomefield (1806). An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 3, the History of the City and County of Norwich, Part I. Originally published by W Miller, London. Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/.
- Frank Meeres(2011). The Story of Norwich. Pub: Phillimore.
- Bryan S Veriod (1986). A History of the Norwich City Fire Brigade. Pub: BS Veriod, Norwich
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and the North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Ethel M Colman and Helen C Colman (1961). Suckling House and Stuart Hall Norwich. Pub: Trustees of the Laura Elizabeth Stuart Memorial Trust, Suckling House.
- Thomas North (1878). The Church Bells of Northamptonshire. Online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433075903801&view=1up&seq=9
Thanks: to Eva Kleiweg for correcting my Dutch for ‘pantile’; Jim Mearing for the booklet on Suckling House; Clare Everitt of Picture Norfolk (https://www.norfolk.gov.uk/libraries-local-history-and-archives/photo-collections/picture-norfolk) and Jonathan Plunkett (https://www.georgeplunkett.co.uk) for permissions.