In 1505 and 1507 great fires swept away the majority of Norwich’s early medieval buildings and a new city – still largely timber-framed – arose on the old street plan . Two centuries later, as historian Marc Girouard noted of the country in general, Georgian buildings were raised, ‘on medieval plots and incorporated a medieval, or at least Tudor, structure behind their new facades‘ . Grafting new faces onto old frames was therefore not peculiar to Norwich; however, the lack of stone, in what was still the nation’s second city, meant that new classically-influenced buildings based on proportion and balance would be of red brick or plasterwork masquerading as stone. The straitjacket of a medieval street-plan, encircled for much of the Georgian period by city walls, meant that no new squares and crescents would be laid out, as in London, Bath, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Bristol. There would be no Georgian new town in Norwich.
There was a good example of Georgianification in last month’s post . Where Norwich architect Cecil Upcher had restored the centre house above (No 24) by stripping it back to its Elizabethan bones, the house next door (No 26) had already been modernised by the Georgians who had inserted sash windows (although the timber-framed construction is betrayed by the jettied [jutting] first floor). That other trademark of the Georgian makeover – the Classical door surround – is out of shot but a stroll around old Norwich produces numerous examples of Georgian doorways – many retrofitted to older buildings [4,5].
Not long before the first George acceded to the throne in 1714, Celia Fiennes visited the city on her travels by side-saddle. She commented on the lack of brick buildings in the city centre, noting that what few she saw belonged to rich merchants in Norwich-over-the-Water.
‘… but all their buildings are of an old form, mostly in deep poynts and much tileing as has been observ’d before, and they playster on Laths wch they strike out into squares like broad free stone on ye outside, wch makes their fronts Look pretty well; and some they build high and Contract ye roofes resembling the London houses, but none of brick Except some few beyond the river wch are built of some of ye Rich factors like ye London buildings’ .
This house, with rusticated plaster-work designed to look like stone, was built about 1619  and appears on James Cobridge’s ‘Mapp of the City of Norwich’ (1727). Subscribers who wanted their house to be depicted in the margins were asked to pay seven shillings down and three on delivery. Mr James Reeve should regard this as ten bob well spent since his house at the corner of Elm Hill and Princes Street is the only one that can still be recognised (although most churches remain) .
Paradoxically, Mr Reeve’s house is the least grandiose of the illustrated buildings and we can only mourn the number of large C17-18 houses that we have lost. During the eighteenth century, most of the houses in Norwich-over-the-Water were remodelled or rebuilt , no doubt on profits from a thriving textile industry. An example of contemporary remodelling is provided by 27-29 Colegate, ‘ … a seventeenth century timber-framed house raised a storey in the C18’ .
St Giles Street is one of the most imposing Georgian streets, full of houses either built in the Georgian period or brought up to date with a new facade (usually involving an increase in height) .
Focussing on newly-built brick houses of the 1700s, Pevsner and Wilson  noted that none retained the old courtyard plan. Abandoned by the rich then filled with the shanties of the poor, numerous ‘courts’ or ‘yards’ were to become insanitary slums that lasted well into the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the wealthy either retreated to their country houses surrounding the city or lived in their brick-built townhouses (stone being famously scarce in these parts). The wealthy master-weaver Thomas Harvey did both. He built a mansion just north of the city, Catton House, while maintaining a town house in the heart of the weaving district. This was number 18 Colegate, built in the early eighteenth century . Thomas Harvey was the man whose collection of Dutch paintings influenced the co-founder of the Norwich Society of Artists, John Crome, who lived off Colegate .
Pevsner and Wilson considered 18 Colegate to be ‘(one) of the best early C18 houses in Norwich’ and awarded a similar accolade to Churchman’s House on St Giles Plain – ‘one of the finest houses in Norwich’ . The imposing front we see today was added in 1751 by Sir Thomas Churchman in the course of remodelling his father’s house. Both this and Harvey’s house are seven-bayed but the pediment above the central three bays of Churchman’s House adds a more elegant top note.
In 1746, Churchman Jr planted a triangular walk of elms on nearby Chapel Field that he leased from the council .
This was the age of the promenade in which polite society paraded itself in the evening, or the afternoon in winter. In the provinces, polite society was mainly composed of the rising middling sort who looked ‘to register a cultural claim to gentility rather than one solely based on pedigree.’ Promenaders would take the air in their finery but, in this Second City passeggiata, as elsewhere around Europe, this could be read as a display of tribal affiliation in which a warm greeting or a curt nod betrayed your position in the social order .
In 1777, Parson Woodforde [13, 14], whose diary tells us so much about Georgian Norwich …
‘… went and drank tea this evening … with Mrs. Davy in St. Stephen’s Parish, with her, Mrs. Roupe, her mother-in-law and a very pretty young Lady from the boarding School. We took a walk afterwards in Chapel Field etc.’
In addition to drinking tea or coffee with friends, the leisured class could visit one of the several coffee houses around the marketplace [12,15]. There, they could read newspapers, gossip and – as unwitting participants in the English Enlightenment – discuss ideas that might have been considered seditious in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An Act of Parliament that restricted printing to London, Oxford and Cambridge had been allowed to lapse in 1695  and Norwich was first to publish a truly provincial newspaper. By 1707, when only about six newspapers had established themselves in the provinces, Norwich had three of them. This was accompanied by a surge in the number of booksellers, which rose to 17 by the end of the Regency (1820) .
The east side of the marketplace was where the fashionable came to gaze into the specialist stores along Gentleman’s Walk – an early shopping parade. This print is a little later than the Georgian period but the discernible names give a sense of the shops along the Walk: Lammas Bros (tea dealers); Potter & Co (furrier); Sidney & Ladyman (also tea dealers); W Ringer (Berlin [wool embroidery] and fancy repository). Other shops from this period on the Walk include: confectioners; glove makers; coffee roasters; china dealers; mercers specialising in lace; hatters, and booksellers.
From 1724, advertisements in the local newspaper invited Members and ‘Clubbers’ to listen to professional musicians at the Musick Night in Mr Freemoult’s Long Room .
There was also music and dancing at assemblies, especially during Assize Week in early August, when county society came to town. The genteel could visit pleasure gardens, country cousins of London’s Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens (read  for the fascinating story of Norwich’s pleasure gardens). At Quantrell’s pleasure garden, for instance, the interval at concerts could be filled with humorous dialogues and songs, the evening completed with a celebration of military victories animated with illuminations, transparencies, capped off with spectacular fireworks.
But the days needed filling too. Visiting lecturers would expound on a range of advances in the natural sciences for this was the Age of Reason and the enlightened were hungry for Knowledge as well as Diversion. In one day in 1785 Parson Woodforde explored the two poles: he attended a lecture at the Assembly House on astronomy aided by a large mechanical orrery but in the afternoon he ‘went and saw the learned Pigg at the rampant Horse in St Stephens’ . It was claimed this animal could spell, using letters and numbers placed before him. Could the paperweight I bought a few years ago be a souvenir of the Learned Pig?
I was prompted, in part, to write this post by a book on ‘Georgian Norwich: Its Builders’ by local architect, Stanley Wearing . Before focussing on ‘the genius of Thomas Ivory’ he says a few words about the Norwich-born Brettingham brothers, Matthew (d.1769) and Robert (d.1768). During the building of Holkham Hall in north Norfolk, Matthew was assistant to William Kent – the man who introduced Palladian architecture to England – and managed the project for some years after Kent’s death.
There is a small piece of Cow Hill, Norwich, that is forever Holkham Hall: this is Holkham House, built in the mid-eighteenth century. A green plaque states it was designed by Matthew for his brother Robert but Pevsner and Wilson are unsure which brother designed it .
Provided they pledged an oath of allegiance, nonconformists were extended the freedom of worship by the Act of Toleration (1689). In the following century a new nonconformist chapel arose on Colegate – a manifestation of the strong current of dissent that ran through the city. Initially, Robert Brettingham was engaged as architect and surveyor but seems to have been discharged by a select committee. Thomas Ivory (1709-1799) then competed with a Mr Lee for the contract but it appears that Ivory’s ‘Moddle’ for an octangular building swung it for him . Commissioned by the Presbyterians, Ivory’s new chapel of 1754 was said by John Wesley to be the most beautiful meeting house in Europe.
In 1751, six years after purchasing his freedom as a carpenter, 42-year-old Thomas Ivory was appointed to do ‘all the carpenter work’ in the medieval Great Hospital on Bishopgate. Ivory leased land from the hospital in order to build his own house, where he lived from 1756 until his death.
Ivory imported and exported timber from his business premises on Bishopgate; it was on this street that he also built what was probably his first major project in the city – the Methodist Meeting House or Tabernacle. His client was the Reverend James Wheatley, an Independent Methodist who had been expelled by Wesley from the Methodist movement for immoral conduct. Wheatley saved the money for his church, partly one feels, for his own protection; as an itinerant preacher he had been assaulted for his views .
Wheatley’s Tabernacle was diagonally opposite the Adam and Eve pub, the oldest in Norwich.
The three high points of Thomas Ivory’s building career are illustrated in the border of Samuel King’s plan of the city.
Ivory’s two buildings dedicated to entertainment were on the Chapel Field Estate, perhaps the closest in Norwich to a Georgian enclave. Ranging from local aristocracy to merchants and manufacturers there were about two dozen proprietors of the estate, their aim being to create ‘a superior neighbourhood for leisure in the mid eighteenth century’ . Along with a new bowling green, the remodelled assembly rooms were opened in 1755, adjacent to Churchman’s triangular walk . The Assembly House was built on the vestiges of the ancient College of St Mary-in-the-Fields and Sir Henry Hobart’s mansion, already used for occasional assemblies. This was the town house of Hobart of Blickling Hall, who had been Steward of Norwich in 1595 and went on to become Attorney General. An anonymous tourist in 1741 had pronounced, ‘the buildings which have anything of grandeur in them are all Gothic’ but the Assembly House is a Georgian building of which Norwich could be proud, for – with the exception of Bath – no other city of its size could match it . Due to lack of funds Ivory was unable to remodel the attached wings but this didn’t prevent the connecting doors from being thrown open so that dancers could form a line 143 feet long.
The sculpture in the centre of the fountain is of a female putto made in the late 1930s by sculptor James Woodford, the man who designed the roundels on the great bronze doors of the City Hall (1938) and is thought to have made the two flagpole bases in the Memorial Garden outside City Hall .
In 1757, on an adjacent plot, Thomas Ivory built the 1000-seat Theatre Royal, purportedly based on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. As proprietor, he engaged the Norwich Company of Comedians to perform plays. To get around the inconvenient fact that only London theatres could be licensed to perform plays, he renamed his enterprise The Grand Concert Hall and presented free plays in the interval between the paid-for concert . Norwich became the second provincial theatre to receive royal assent after an Act of 1767 allowed the licensing of theatres outside the capital.
The theatre was modified by William Wilkins in 1801 and rebuilt by in 1826 by William Wilkins Jr., better known as architect of the National Gallery. Wilkins’ theatre burned down in 1934.
In the 1760s, Thomas Ivory built a four-storey terrace in Surrey Street. Numbers 35/33 and 31/29 were completed in 1761 while 27/25 were built around ten years later, with the possible involvement of Ivory’s son William. Outside number 29 is a plaque recording that this was once home to Sir James Edward Smith, son of a wealthy Norwich textile merchant, who founded the Linnean Society and brought the Linnean collection to this city. The collection was comprised of Carl Linnaeus’s own ‘type specimens’ – the standards for each species. This was at the height of the world-wide collecting and gathering of plants and animals whose classification into groups paved the way for Darwinism. Smith also had what must have been a fascinating garden and, as a former plant scientist, I twitch each time I read that the garden was bought in the 1930s by the Eastern Counties Bus Company to build the new bus station .
In 1939, another red brick, four-storey building was raised on St Andrews Street, giving us the opportunity to look at the Georgian legacy in the twentieth century. This was the nine-bay Telephone Exchange built in the ‘Post Office Georgian’ style favoured by His Majesty’s Office of Works between the two world wars. The Georgian references are minimal (only three of the windows are encased in a stone architrave with a triangular pediment – and these aren’t real sash windows) but they are sufficient to disguise a high-tech building in comfortable traditional garb when it could (perhaps, should) have been clothed in a more challenging modernist style.
Around the corner from the Ivory terrace on Surrey Street, Thomas built a house for himself at the west end of All Saints Green, but immediately let it out in 1772 at £60 per annum to a Miles Branthwayte. From 1860, the house was to become the Norfolk Militia Artillery Barracks with sufficient land to provide for a parade ground and stables.
In 1779, Thomas Ivory died of heart disease and is buried in Norwich Cathedral. Echoing Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral (If you seek his monument, look around), the Norwich Mercury wrote, Let his works speak for him .
And if we seek a secular memorial there is St Catherine’s House. Thomas Ivory designed this building on All Saints Green but died during its construction. His son William completed it the following year .
©Reggie Unthank 2021
For your Christmas stocking. Published this year, my latest book is a collection of short, richly illustrated articles on the history of Norwich, including Mrs Opie’s medallion, angels’ ears, random walks, a half-size Pantheon and golden balls. Click here for a look inside.
Derek James of the Eastern Daily Press generously wrote, ‘It must rank as one of the finest books in recent times on the Fine City.’
The book is available in Jarrolds Norwich and City Bookshop Norwich. Click the underlined links to go straight to their mail order pages. It can also be bought in: The Bookhive, Norwich; Waterstones, Castle Street, Norwich; the Holt Bookshop; Ketts Bookshop, Wymondham, and ‘Bear’ on Avenue Road, Norwich.
- Marc Girouard (1990). The English Town. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Celia Fiennes (1698). Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, Being the Diary of Celia Fiennes. London: Field and Tuer, The Leadenhall Press, 1888. Available online: https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/fiennes/saddle/saddle.html
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (2002). The Buildings of England. Norfolk 1: Norwich and North-East. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Raymond Frostick (2002). The Printed Plans of Norwich, 1558-1840. Pub: Raymond Frostick, Norwich, England.
- Angela Dain (2004). An Enlightened and Polite Society. In, ‘Norwich Since 1550’ (eds. Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson). Pub: Hambledon and London.
- William Chase (1783). The Norwich Directory. Online at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/62333/62333-h/62333-h.htm
- Trevor Fawcett (1979). Music in Eighteenth Century Norfolk and Norwich. Pub: Centre for East Anglian Studies, UEA.
- Stanley J Wearing (1926). Georgian Norwich: Its Builders. Pub: Jarrolds, Norwich.
Thanks. I am grateful to Roland Harris, Norwich Cathedral Archaeologist, and Clare Everitt of Picture Norfolk.