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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 [1].

“This year came Sweyne with his fleet to Norwich, plundering and burning the whole town.”  (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles).


From the bronze doors of Norwich City Hall. James Woodford 1938

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 [1] 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.


Sr Mary Unbrent (red star) and St Margaret In Combusto (yellow) were in the part of Norwich-over-the-Water ravaged by fire. The new French Borough changed the city’s north-south axis by expanding westwards from the new Castle. Map: ‘How the city of Norwich grew into shape’ by Wm Hudson 1896. Courtesy Norfolk Museums NWHCM:1997.550.50:M

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 [1]. The belligerent prior, William de Brunham, fled to Yarmouth and returned with barges of armed men who ‘fell upon citizens with fire and sword’ [1]. 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.


The tower of St George Tombland, in Princes Street, from which the townsmen hurled fire towards the cathedral spire.

Thirteen priory men were killed [2]. 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. 

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For burning the old Saxon church of St Ethelbert the king ordered the citizens to build the Ethelbert Gate (restored in the C19) to the cathedral precinct. While the presence of St George in the left-hand spandrel could be fulfilling a traditional protective (apotropaic) role it can’t help reminding us of the Tombland Riot.

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” [1]. 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 [2]. The first of the 1507 fires started on Easter Tuesday and, over four days, 718 buildings burned: Norwich was ‘almost utterly defaced’ [1].  

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The 1507 fire map. Redrawn from ©BS Veriod 1986 [3]

The fire is said to have started at The Popinjay Inn on Tombland, home to the Popinjay or Papingay family (popinjay = parrot) [1, 4]. 

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Site of the Popinjay Inn 1962, Number 27 on the SE corner of Tombland. The corner building was demolished to make way for an unsympathetic modern structure now occupied by All-Bar-One.  ©www.georgeplunkett.co.uk

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 [2]. IMG_1995.jpg

Britons Arms of 1347 [5] 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 [6]). 

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Paston House in Elm Hill, rebuilt by Augustine Steward after the 1507 fires. Blackfriars’ Hall is glimpsed at the end of the street.

Blackfriars’ Hall itself had been ravaged by fire in 1413 and was rebuilt over a 30 year period (1440-70) [7]. 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 [6]. 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’ [7].

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 [3]. 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 [8].

‘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” [9]. Cinema City is now an arts cinema with bar and restaurant.

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The pantiled great hall of Suckling House is at centre. Stuart Hall (left) was given to the city by the Colman sisters in memory of their sister Laura Elizabeth Stuart (see previous post). 

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’ [1]. 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’ [4].  ‘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” [11]. 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 [4]. The thatched St Augustine’s church had to have six buckets and a ladder, while St Peter Mancroft was a 30-bucketer [10]. 

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’ [3].


The Tombland Obelisk (and water fountain), erected in 1860 by JH Gurney on the site of the water cistern.

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 [3]. 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’.

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Norwich Union fire mark of the early 1800s. Such plaques marked which houses were to be rescued by the company’s own fire brigade

At that time, the insurance companies’ own trained fire brigades probably offered better fire-fighting than the parish.

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Note the fire engine and the Norwich City arms. Norwich Union header of the late 1700s. Courtesy: Aviva

The ‘fire timeline’ [3] 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).

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The Vinegar Works. Ordnance Survey map 1905/8

The presence of a gin distillery made for an explosive mixture and this was captured in a sketch by John Sell Cotman.


Fire at the Vinegar Works on the River Wensum by John Sell Cotman. Courtesy of The British Museum 1905,0520.2

Where Norwich goes, London follows: five years later JMW Turner had his own Vinegar Works.

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The Burning of the Houses of Parliament by JMW Turner ca 1834-5. Tate Britain, Creative Commons

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 [3]. 

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 [3]. 


Colman’s Carrow Works Fire Brigade at work on the Wensum. Jets of water from the steam engine could be used to propel the fire team along the river. Courtesy Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk 


A horse-drawn steam engine of ca 1881 used by Colman’s Carrow Works Fire Brigade until 1945. Now in The Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell

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. 

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The 1898 fire station in a yard off Pottergate. The Old Norfolk and Norwich Library is marked with a star. Ordnance Survey map 1905/7

The new fire station yard was accessed through an archway.

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The fire station sign marks the archway into the yard of 12-16 Pottergate. The firemen’s quarters were in a fine Georgian-fronted building opposite (No 17). The shop at the end of the street was a fish restaurant in 1933 and remains as such today – the Grosvenor Fish Bar. The near left side of the street was rebuilt after WWII. ©georgeplunkett.co.uk

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 [12]).


The Norfolk and Norwich Public Library in 1955. It was rebuilt following the major fire of 1898 and was until recently The Library restaurant. ©georgeplunkett.co.uk

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.  

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The new fire station in Bethel Street, six months before the official opening. The chimney pots to the left are in Lacey & Lincoln’s builders’ yard, once the Old Skating Rink, and now Country & Eastern. Far right are houses at the corner of Bethel and St Peter’s Street that were soon to be demolished to make way for the City Hall, opened in 1938. ©georgeplunkett.co.uk

Other cities may have had separate fire brigades but in Norwich, the Chief Constable remained in charge of ‘police/firemen’ until the late 1940s [3]. This explains the presence of both police and fire helmets carved above the original entrance to the police station in Norwich City Hall. 


A fireman’s and a policeman’s helmet mark the old entrance to the police station in City Hall (1938) before it was moved to the SW corner. Designer: H Wilson Parker.

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].


St Peter Mancroft (far left) separated by a car park from the Central Library – a part of which is glimpsed extreme right. Circa 1969. Courtesy Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk.

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.


The piazza forms a successful pedestrian space, shared between St Peter Mancroft and The Forum.

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

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Top row: Pykerell’s House C15, rebuilt after WWII, St Mary’s Plain; Thatched cottage C17, formerly the Hampshire Hog, St Swithin’s Alley off St Benedict’s Street; The Hermitage, 52-54 Bishopgate, dating from the C15. Bottom row:  Britons Arms C14, Elm Hill; 2-4 Lion and Castle Yard, C17, Timberhill; Waring’s Lifestore, late C16, formerly The Barking Dickey (Braying Donkey) Inn, Westlegate. Read more about these thatched buildings on the web page by Evelyn Simak, assiduous photographer of Norwich and Norfolk [13].

©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).


  1. 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/.
  2. Frank Meeres(2011). The Story of Norwich. Pub: Phillimore.
  3. Bryan S Veriod (1986). A History of the Norwich City Fire Brigade. Pub: BS Veriod, Norwich
  4. http://www.norfolkpubs.co.uk/norwich/pnorwich/ncpjy.htm
  5. http://www.britonsarms.co.uk/history.html
  6. https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/2017/12/15/the-pastons-in-norwich/
  7. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and the North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
  8. https://flemish.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/2013/12/13/crowsteps-in-fife-the-flemish-connection-part-2/
  9. 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.
  10. http://www.staugustinesnorwich.org.uk/Church_3.html
  11. Thomas North (1878). The Church Bells of Northamptonshire. Online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433075903801&view=1up&seq=9
  12. https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/2018/06/15/norwich-knowledge-libraries/
  13. https://www.geograph.org.uk/article/Thatched-buildings-in-the-city-of-Norwich

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.