Entries in Norfolk (13)


Familiar place, unfamiliar past

Having spent many an enjoyable evening with friends at Charles Wesley Court on Belvoir Street in Heigham, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken me a couple of years to research the origins of the Court.


In our part of the world, Belvoir is usually pronounced “Bell-voir” - not “Beaver” as an Belvoir Castle, Belvoir Brewery or the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire – we like to be different in Norfolk. As you might imagine, the street takes its name simply from ‘beautiful view’.


Being so close to ‘old’ Norwich, with its rich history of courts and yards, it might have been possible that Charles Wesley Court was, like many others - including Beckwith Court, Chestnut Court and Wright’s Court – a reinvention of an older residential area. The original yards and courts of Norwich grew within the cramped city of Norwich, where development was hemmed in by the old city walls. As rich merchants left their grand houses for the relative space in the earliest suburbs, less well off individuals crowded into the yards and courtyards that remained behind. For anybody with an interest in the Norwich Yards (and that will be a huge proportion of those with Norwich ancestry) I cannot recommend www.norwich-yards.co.uk enough – the site provides memories and information about historical and modern incarnations of the locations in question.


However, unlike most of the old courts, Charles Wesley Court is outside the city walls in Heigham, a parish which once was completely separate from Norwich itself. It has been a long while since the parish was separate however – by the middle Victorian era it was already an area bustling with workers and tradesmen in Norwich’s traditional industries. Little did I know, living just around the corner as a student, that I was residing just metres from where some of my ancestors lived. Many were shoe makers, silk factory workers and market gardeners, key trades in the area, but they tended to live in terraced houses rather than yard arrangements like many of their 'old city' peers. (Little did I also know that just another few hundred metres away, was another ancestor on a different line – the owner of what is now the Plantation Gardens and Lord Mayor of Norwich…but that’s another story!)


Looking at the 1905 map of Norwich it becomes clear that in fact the site of Charles Wesley Court was not residential at all. In fact, a chapel occupied the space now redeveloped. Further research shows this to have been the site of the Belvoir Street Wesleyan Reform Methodist Church and Sunday School. The site must have been somewhat cramped - surrounded by workers’ houses - and no graveyard accompanied it. The Church was used as a place of worship from 1869 until relatively recently in 1988 before the site was redeveloped. 

The picture above comes with kind permission for posting here from Jonathan Plunkett. His father George Plunkett took thousands of fabulolus photographs of 'Old Norwich' - you can see more at www.georgeplunkett.co.uk. This photograph was taken 1989 at the very end of the building's life.

Picture Norfolk also includes a couple of older photos - www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk (see Picture Norfolk on the left hand menu then search ‘Belvoir’) .

The Norfolk Record Office holds the Church’s records in FC 106, although closure periods of 30 years apply to the newer records. There are baptisms, marriages and meeting minutes from the choir, Sunday School, Church Committee and Council. The Roll of Honour for soldiers killed in WWI includes several men of the congregation, including the son of one of the church’s ministers. The roll of honour can be viewed at www.roll-of-honour.com/Norfolk/NorwichBelvoirMethodist.html


Now the previous use of the site becomes clearer, the naming in turn becomes clearer. Charles Wesley (18 December 1707 – 29 March 1788) was the younger brother of John Wesley - between them, the pair are widely credited with the founding of the Methodist movement in the UK.


Charles Wesley was born in Lincolnshire and followed his father and brothers into the church in 1735 having graduated from Oxford. Charles was a prolific hymn writer, credited with the words of over 6000 hymns and writing words to fit existing music for yet another 2000, including the popular carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. I have found no evidence to date that Charles himself visited Norwich, but given he travelled all the way to Georgia on a Mission, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. Charles died several decades before the church on Belvoir Street was built and indeed before the Wesleyan Reform Union split from the United Methodist Free Churches in 1859.


The Heigham area saw a huge amount of damage following the Baedeker Raids in 1942, but the chapel survived. It was not until very much living memory that the chapel was sold off by auction and the site redeveloped and named after a key figure in the history of the Methodist movement.


So, given the very interesting history of my friends’ home now I have spent time doing a little research, I intend not to leave it so long before researching other ‘ordinary’ places in Norfolk and Suffolk that I frequent on a regular basis. Watch this space!


"Historic Market Town? Not us, we're a Hanseatic Town!"

Many, many times on entering King's Lynn I have pondered just how many people, local or otherwise, know why King's Lynn's urban gateways are proudly branded "King's Lynn - A Hanseatic Town".

Recently, King's Lynn has had a somewhat unfair reputation in my own humble opinion. As a 'west area officer' for several years I grew to appreciate the fantastic contrasts in the west of Norfolk, stark beaches, fabulous architecture, 'big skies', rolling hills (yes, Norfolk has some hills!) and gorgeous villages. Look below the surface and the town of King's Lynn itself is packed with heritage, history and culture. One particular part of this heritage hitting the local press today is Hanse House, the only surviving Hansa building in the UK.

Between the 13th and 17th centuries the so called 'Hanseatic League' united cities and their guilds in Northern Europe trading largely along the northern coasts of modern Europe, but stretching as far as the Baltic and the North Sea. These cities enjoyed their own legal systems and protection and provided each other with mutual aid.

In addition to the major 'Kontors' (trading posts) individual ports had their own warehouses and merchant representatives. There were several of these 'subsidiary settlements' in the UK, including Ipswich, Bristol, Boston, Hull, Norwich, Yarmouth and York. Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn, since King Henry VIII took control of the town in 1537) was one of the latter, and celebrates it's connections in various ways - in 2009 with it's first Hanse Festival.

The town is now also part of the modern Hanse, and since 2005 has been actively linking with other historic Hanseatic league settlements in order to promote cross border working and strengthen social, economic and social connections.

The reason that the town's Hanse House has hit the local headlines is because of a campaign to 'save' the building. Dating from 1475, the warehouse was in use by the Hanseatic League until 1751, after which it moved into private possession. In 1970 the building was restored and is currently the home of a County Council register office. Following relocation of the register office in the relatively near future, it has been proposed that the building is sold off. Prince Charles' visit today will no doubt keep the building's fate in the news. Time will tell how far the cuts bite into our local heritage. 

I hope that somehow the building is retained for local peoples' use and enjoyment. It is after all a relic of a different King's Lynn, where even the name of the town was dissimilar. Despite the passage of time however, the town is not completely removed from it's roots. The docks are still central to the town and many of the landmarks remain in the (dare I say it) 'historic' town centre.

I would encourage anyone to take a wander around the town, or even better run around it in the annual Grand East Anglia Run, to discover hidden gems that even many local people are unaware of.

The more we recognise where we've come from, the more ideas we can have for the future.



The lives and loves of occupants of Rattle Row, Wymondham

A row of weavers' cottages in Wymondham was demolished in the late 1970s following a public enquiry in 1977. The cottages were replaced by retirement bungalows which remain to this day. While the street name has lingered, the houses are certainly very different to those they replaced.

The cottages made up 'Rattle Row' named after the racket of the handlooms operated by the inhabitants. 

In 1851, a household of ten lived in one of the cottages, headed by my 5xGreat Grandparents, James Gooch and Agatha Fisher. Seven of their children (Lucy (my 4x Great Grandmother), Maria, Rebecca, George, James, Mary Ann and Providence) shared their home, together with their three month old grandson, William Coman Gooch, the illegitimate son of daughter Lucy.

I have seen some weavers' cottages of Wymondham described as 'ruinous hovels'. Certainly, the family was poor - Agatha was noted as a pauper in 1851, while James, Lucy and Maria are all recorded as weavers, an industry which, by then, was in serious decline. George, at 13, was already labouring in the fields. Rebecca, otherwise old enough to work, is noted on the census as blind.

A hundred years before, according to Mr Cremer's Census of 1747, almost a quarter of families in the town were headed by a weaver - 155 of 686. By the late 1700s however, competition from the cotton producing north and loss of trade to America and France was having a negative effect on the Norfolk woolen industry.

By the time of the 1841 census the handloom industry was 'in crisis' but the industry still employed a sixth of the male population. The Wymondham Heritage Society's wonderful "Wymondham: History of a Norfolk Market Town" (2006) quotes the following from a local weaver:

"A parent tries to get his boy to anything rather than weaving. There are no boys learning to weave now, nor have been for some time past. Anything is better than weaving. Some boys have taken to agricultural employment"

This certainly fits for my own family - as we have seen, only the girls and their father were in the weaving industry in 1851, while George was employed on the land.

White's Trade Directory notes that there were less than 60 looms in Wymondham in 1845, while ten years earlier there had been 600. 

Twelve households are recorded on Rattle Row in 1851, two of whom are Coman households. The sharp-eyed among you may remember little William Coman Gooch mentioned earlier. Sure enough, William's father, also William, is living just five doors away from Lucy in 1851. William is also a weaver, this time in silk, as are all the other occupants of his home over 11 years old - just five of the 336 weavers recorded in the census that year in the town. The couple married on Boxing Day of the same year at Wymondham Abbey. 

Lucy and William had five more children, the last in 1865. Around the same time the family moved to Norwich, possibly as the weaving industry collapsed around them - 132 weavers remained in Wymondham in 1871 and just 23 in 1881.

It seems the hard life wasn't over for Lucy because by 1871 she is recorded as head of the household, scraping a living as a washer woman to support six children in the yards of Pockthorpe in North Norwich. It is not clear whether William accompanied them to Norwich or not. He disappeared between 1861 and 1871 - I hope one day to discover whether he died, emigrated or started a new life elsewhere, or whether he was imprisoned, transported....the possibilities are almost endless.

Lucy died in 1913 at the age of 82, working as a charwoman and laundress in Norwich almost up until her death. Sadly, she outlived her eldest son William, who died at Norwich Lunatic Asylum in 1905. 

My Great Great Great Grandmother Eliza's life mirrored her mother's to a certain extent. Like Lucy, she gave birth to a son before marriage, and lived next door to her son's father, who she later married, during 1881. This time, rather than Rattle Row, history played out on 'Sidney's Row' now somewhere underneath Sewell Park College's playing field.

Two years ago I moved to Wymondham -150 years after Lucy left with Eliza and her other children. No member of my direct line lived here in the intervening century and a half but in many ways I feel like I belong.

I cannot help but wonder, every time I pass Rattle Row, what life must have been like then. Were she and William happy together, or were they forced to marry? Where did he go? Did she choose to leave for the city? Although only a few miles distant, she could hardly have jumped on the number 13 bus back again if it didn't work out.

Depending on her memories of the place, perhaps most of all, I wonder whether she would have celebrated the demolition of the cottages or mourned their loss....



If you have connections to Rattle Row, or the Gooch and Coman families of Wymondham, please do get in touch.

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