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 .
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 . 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’ .
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’ . This gentrification had begun in the mid-1700s when wool merchant Robert Rogers (Sheriff 1743, Mayor 1758) built Catton Place . In 1816 this was to become the home of Samuel Bignold, son of the founder of Norwich Union.
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 . 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.
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].
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 .
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 ).
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.
In 1896 the bank became amalgamated under the Barclays name and the present grand banking hall was built on the site in 1927 . 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].
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].
John Henry Gurney Snr was married to Mary Jary who ran off with one of the grooms.
… 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.
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.
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) . 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.
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 .
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.
Earlham Hall, just west of the city, is another Gurney residence now associated with education . 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.
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 .
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 . 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 . The Crown Point Estate was sold to JJ Colman and in 1955 it became Whitlingham Hospital, now private apartments.
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).
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 . Money served in the Army during the North American Campaign  where he was based at Fort Crown Point – “the greatest British military installation ever raised in North America.” . You may remember Major Money from a previous post  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.
Bonus track: The Harvey family portrait 
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  who gave his name to Harvey Lane; he also appeared in the Norwich School of Painters post in Stannard’s painting, Thorpe Water Frolic . 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 , together with his son Onley Savill Onley. (#7) And don’t forget that Onley became an Unthank name (hence, Onley Street) through marriage . These are just some of the unspoken connections 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 .
©Reggie Unthank 2020
- Frances and Michael Holmes (2015). The Old Courts and Yards of Norwich. Pub: Norwich Heritage Projects.
- David Clarke (2011). The Country Houses of Norfolk. Part Three: The City and Suburbs. Pub: Geo R Reeve Ltd, Wymondham.
- Roger Ryan (2004). Banking and Insurance. In, ‘Norwich Since 1550’ by Carol Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson. Pub: Hambledon and London.
- Old Catton Society (2010). Historic Houses of Old Catton. Pub: Catton Print, Norwich.
- AD Bayne (1869). A Comprehensive History of Norwich. Pub: Jarrolds, Norwich. Now available online:https://www.gutenberg.org/files/44568/44568-h/44568-h.htm
- 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.