In two recent posts [1,2] I wrote about Norwich’s ‘plains’, a loan-word from the Dutch for the city’s open spaces that were largely established before the fashion for urban squares. Only five of the 15 Norwich plains identified by Richard Lane in his book, The Plains of Norwich  are recognised by a formal street sign, some of the others don’t appear on early maps and some of this final six may not seem to you like defined spaces at all.
The 1884 Ordnance Survey map appears to show St Margarets Plain occupying much the same space as it does today, although Richard Lane  notes that Westwick Street ‘used to widen slightly at this point until pre-war demolition and German bombs altered the northern side completely.’ The demolished houses to the west of St Margarets churchyard are marked with the red star.
In general outline, a similar open space appears on King’s map of 1766 but I wonder if this northern end of the churchyard was lost to pedestrianisation.
St Margaret is purported to be the figure carved in the left hand spandrel above the porch.
The crossroads in the main shopping area, dominated by Marks and Spencer, and Debenhams, is St Stephens Plain. St Margarets Plain was treated kindly by history but St Stephens’ Plain has been pulled hither and yon by planners, trams and the Luftwaffe.
Here is St Stephens Plain on Braun and Hogenberg’s map of 1581.
When Queen Elizabeth I came to Norwich on one of her royal progresses she entered at St Stephens Gates. Here she was met by the Mayor and a demonstration of Norwich weaving featuring religious refugees from the Low Countries whose immigration had been supported by the queen. The area was badly damaged in the bombing of WWII. Some buildings survived but the opportunity was taken to demolish the entire south side of St Stephens Street – including The Boar’s Head – in order to widen the road.
Red Lion Street, the road on the north side of St Stephens Plain, had already been widened at the very end of the nineteenth century in order to accommodate the new electric trams, whose city hub was in Orford Place. Built in 1900, the south side of Red Lion Street was comprised of buildings designed by Edward Boardman and Son or by George Skipper.
Looking down Westlegate towards St Stephens Plain we come to Marks and Spencer, a department store built for Buntings in 1912 by local architect AF Scott . It was badly damaged in WWII but, probably due to its steel-framed construction, it survived and was rebuilt without its attic storey and corner cupola. Opposite is Debenhams department store and one wonders about the fate of purpose-built department stores now that the occupiers are in receivership.
To see what the plain looked like at the end of the nineteenth century we rotate ourselves 90 degrees clockwise so that, below, we walk down St Stephens Street with Buntings (now Marks and Spencer) on our left. The red star marks The Peacock pub at 1 St Stephens Plain. The narrow street straight ahead is Red Lion Street before it was widened to take the new electric trams.
The ‘Debenhams’ site was originally occupied by a collection of buildings that became the Curl brothers’ department store. As the 1884 OS map shows (above), the site once contained The Rampant Horse Inn, which gave name to the street.
Curls was badly damaged in the 1942 air raids and was rebuilt from 1953 to 1956. In the 1960s the store was bought by Debenhams but still traded as ‘Curls’ until the 1970s. Below, we look across the building site to the south side of Red Lion Street designed by Boardman and Skipper in the early 1900s.
Walking westwards, Rampant Horse Street merges into Theatre Street, the site of Theatre Plain. An advertisement placed by Francis Noverre gives the address of his first annual ball as being in the Assembly Rooms on Playhouse Plain. Neither Playhouse Plain nor Theatre Plain seem to refer to the theatre immediately west of the Assembly House.
Millard and Manning’s map of 1830 shows Theatre Plain occupying the forecourt of the Assembly House.
Somewhat ironically for a city claiming to have plains instead of squares, White’s Directory of 1845 refers to the space as Theatre Square . This may be because we were now in an age when squares – unlike the irregular medieval spaces where streets collided – had been made fashionable by the development of polite Georgian London.
The Assembly House occupies a site established around 1250 as the College of St Mary-in-the-Fields. After the Dissolution, the church itself was demolished and in 1573 the remaining buildings converted by Sir Thomas Cornwallis into a town house, second only in size to the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace . In 1609 the mansion was bought by the Hobart family who, in 1753, leased the building for public assemblies, for which purpose it was converted the following year by Thomas Ivory, the architect of Georgian Norwich. Rather than demolishing the old house, as once thought, it appears that he used a significant part – its central part and wings – in remodelling the ‘House of Assemblies’ .
In contrast to the popular entertainment offered in some of the larger inns around the marketplace, the Assembly House was where the gentry could come for a game of cards, a glass of wine and sometimes dance the minuet in polite surroundings. However, in Assize Week ‘the double doors between ballroom, card-room and tea-room were opened up, and country dances danced along the lengths of all three rooms’ . Some scorned country dances as half an hour of standing still as long lines of paired dancers took their turn to run the gauntlet. But imagine the fun of galumphing the whole 143 feet beneath candle-lit chandeliers.
St Paul’s Plain no longer exists; it could have been restored after being damaged in the Blitz but was marked for destruction by the City Engineer’s 1944 plan for the inner and outer ring roads. The church was founded in the twelfth century as a hospital for poor strangers. It was also recorded in the sixteenth century being used as a bridewell (prison) before William Appleyard’s house took over that function in what is now Bridewell Alley .
The octagonal top of the tower, rebuilt with white bricks around 1819, survived the incendiary bombs in 1942. Had it been been saved it would be the largest of the city’s five round towers (just as St Benedict’s tower stands alone) but it stood in the way of post-war improvement and the site was cleared in preparation for the St Crispin’s Road flyover and the Barrack Street roundabout.
The site is now a small public garden and children’s play area. The evidence, though, for calling the space ‘St Paul’s Plain’ is slim. White’s Directory of 1845 describes it as ’the square called St Paul’s plain’  and – surrounded by streets on four sides – it does look on Samuel King’s map of 1766 more like a square, albeit somewhat on the huh. ‘Square’ may work in this instance but is a poor definition of the other variously irregular open spaces we have seen. George Nobbs’ explanation comes closer: ‘In Norwich the term Plain is usually used to describe the area of a meeting of streets’ .
In his short book on Norwich Plains, Richard Lane  generally found White’s Directory of 1845 to be a useful source of addresses as supplied by trade subscribers but he found no mention of St Benedict’s Plain. He wrote that one unnamed author mentioned it as the square where Pottergate, Willow Lane, Cow Hill and Ten Bell Lane met; ‘others’ defining it as the widening of Pottergate from Ten Bell Lane westwards. These two spaces are conjoined in the map below.
However, the National Archives records that the Norfolk and Norwich Eye Infirmary stood on St Benedict’s Plain from 1823-1854 . And there is an early C20 watercolour entitled ‘St Benedict’s Plain’ by a local painter .
The Norfolk County Council’s Picture Norfolk site has a photograph labelled ‘St Benedict’s Plain/Pottergate’.
This photograph looks down to the plain from the junction of Cow Hill and Willow Lane …
… while this shows where Pottergate widens to the west of Cow Hill.
The legitimacy of St George’s Plain is beyond question for it is enshrined in Pevsner . It is a part of Colegate, on which the Late Medieval and Georgian houses of the rich wool merchants still stand. On the 1886 OS map the plain appears as a widening of the road between a block labelled ‘Boot and Shoe Manufactory’ and the churchyard of St George’s Colegate.
The ‘Boot and Shoe Manufactory’ was Howlett and White’s factory, once the country’s largest producer of footwear under one roof. Viewed from the west end of Colegate, the seven bays up to the tower were built by Edward Boardman in 1876; left of the tower is Boardman’s extension of 1894, making a facade of 200 feet . In 1909 the company introduced the brand name Norvic and in 1935 the business itself was renamed the Norvic Shoe Company Ltd . Norvic, short for Norvicensis, is the address adopted by each Bishop of Norwich but it can be traced back to a time before the Normans raised the cathedral. In the preceding Anglo-Scandinvian period, this defended trading settlement, or wic, on the north bank of the river was sufficiently stable to mint its own coins and to stamp them Norvic. Colegate is part of that north wic.
That carved brick canopy, probably by Guntons of Costessey, contains an upright anchor not to be confused with the tilted anchor of Bullards Brewery across the river. The expansion of the factory absorbed two lanes that had led down to the riverside; the upright anchor commemorates Water Lane, marked on the OS map above.
On the north-east corner of this expanded area of Colegate, adjacent to St George’s churchyard, is a piece of street furniture that we’ve seen before – a public water fountain with a marble basin for people and troughs below for dogs .
The red brick wall to the left of the fountain marks the junction between Muspole Street and St George’s Plain. A little way up Muspole Street, on the opposite side, is a pub whose various names relate to the wool that made Norwich wealthy: Crown and Woolpack (1740s); Wool Packet (1760s); Old Woolpack (2016) and The Gatherers (opened 2020). This was once the site of the town house of the Augustinian Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham, conveyed to John the Prior in 1298. The present building is Georgian with a nineteenth century pub front .
From the late nineteenth century, the employment provided by factory-based shoe-making took over from the more fragmented weaving industry that had sustained the city for centuries but by the early 1800s our textile trade was being outcompeted by the power mills of the north. Below, the two trades are represented by the pub and its association with wool, and by the saw-tooth roofline of the Norvic-Kiltie shoe factory that overlooks it. Howlett & White had bought the business from local shoe manufacturer SL Witton Ltd. , completing their domination of this part of Norwich-over- the-Water.
St George Colegate (c1459) is a fine church with austere Georgian furnishings. It was one of the few things in the city that architectural commentator Ian Nairn could persuade himself to like. John Crome, co-founder of the Norwich School of Artists, is buried here.
Postscript After this was published, a reader informed me that the space outside The Forum in the city centre is named Millennium Plain – a latter-day plain to add to University Plain and the three on the old Norfolk and Norwich Hospital site.
©Reggie Unthank 2020
Something for the Christmas stocking? ‘Colonel Unthank and the Golden Triangle’, which describes the development of south Norwich by the Unthank family, has been recently reprinted and can be ordered by mail by clicking these links: Jarrold’s Book Department (email@example.com) and City Bookshop (citybookshopnorwich.co.uk).
- Richard Lane (1999). The Plains of Norwich. The Larks Press, Dereham.
- Marc Girouard (1990). The English Town. Pub: Yale University Press.
- George Nobbs (1978). Norwich: City of Centuries. Pub: George Nobbs Publishing, Norwich.
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England: Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Frances and Michael Holmes (2013). The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Trade. Pub: Norwich Heritage Projects.