Norfolk Network stories

Eights stops at Colegate for Xmas

Jane Chittenden
Business Writer and Editor

For the Colegate Christmas celebrations, Lucy wanted a guided walk out and about in Colegate. But it’s winter, it’s dark, and lots of people were planning to join her at the Christmas party.

So instead I developed a little map, with the help of my son Joseph, concept designer and visualiser from JC3DVIS. We designed a short walk for Lucy’s party guests, covering eight stops along Colegate from Fye Bridge to Duke Street, and travelling through more than 1000 years of Colegate history. From Saxon traders to digital entrepreneurs, by way of Viking settlers, the Strangers and their canaries, shoemakers…

It’s a remarkable story. Over the centuries the people of Colegate have always been outward-looking, innovative and diverse. They were radical thinkers too, never afraid to stand up and “do different”. And they made our fine city fabulously wealthy.

So where does our Colegate story start? Not with the ancient British, although they were certainly here, nor with the Romans, also here – but they never made Norwich their city.

Our Colegate story starts with the Saxons, around 720 AD, at Fye Bridge. It’s the oldest river crossing in the city, and the streets all around are where Norwich’s story begins, in the heart of Colegate. The Saxons established a town here, with Colegate its main east-west street, parallel to the river, and a port on Quayside. They traded across the North Sea, importing – among other things – swords and millstones, wine and furs. And they traded with Norfolk farmers too. They were very successful and their town soon became big. They called it Northwic at first (the north market) and then Norvic.

All that wealth was bound to attract Viking raiders. They liked it so much that they settled here too, around 870. They built St Clement’s Church (our next stop), named for the patron saint of sailors (now home to a guild of stonemasons). Their place-names are everywhere (“gate” means “street” in old Norse). You can still see Colegate (Cole’s street) and Fishergate (the fishermen’s street) but there’s also Gildengate (the street of gold, now St George’s Street), Snailgate (now Calvert Street) and lots of others. The Vikings traded across the North Sea too, a much wider network than the Saxons. They weren’t here for long, though – driven out by the Saxons within 50 years, back to Denmark.

travelling through more than 1000 years of Colegate history. From Saxon traders to digital entrepreneurs, by way of Viking settlers, the Strangers and their canaries, shoemakers…

Our next stop jumps us forward a few centuries to a magnificent Georgian townhouse, built for the Harvey family in the 1730s: 18 Colegate. They were textile merchants – 10 members of their family became mayor of Norwich – and they made vast fortunes trading in “Norwich stuffs”, very elaborate woven patterns. Their houses weren’t just beautiful family homes with big gardens; they were business hubs, with showrooms, workshops and warehouses clustered around. This was a global business – Chinese mandarins wore them, and they were high fashion across Europe and much further afield. They set up trading partnerships with the East India Company, which gave them access to Far Eastern markets; and with Portugal and Spain, trading in South America. Their trading partners from Europe visited them at their fine houses. And they were wealthy enough to send their sons on the Grand Tour, bringing back all sorts of fine art to Norwich.

Just opposite 18 Colegate is a block of much smaller houses, Tudor and Stuart period, with distinctive dormer windows. These are weavers’ lofts (quite different from the long narrow weavers’ windows that you also see all round this part of the city). The Strangers lived and worked here, highly skilled weavers working for those wealthy merchants, large numbers of refugees from religious persecution in the Netherlands in the 1500s. They brought new skills, their canaries – and radical Non-conformist ideas.  Which takes us neatly to our next stop.

We’re back in Georgian times, but very much continuing the Non-conformist theme. Our next stop is the elegant Octagon Chapel, designed by Thomas Ivory in 1756 for the Methodist community. It’s at the heart of Non-conformist Norwich, with several other chapels and meeting-houses close by. Norwich’s radical thinkers worshipped here, people like Harriet Martineau. The Gurneys were textile merchants here before they became bankers: Elizabeth Fry was born in Gurney Court, just off Magdalen Street 2 minutes’ walk away. Enlightenment thinkers lived and worked in Colegate: hold that thought.

Continuing west, towards St George’s Street, you can see Friar’s Quay on the left, a modern housing development. Since Saxon times until very recently it’s been an industrial area, with as many as 130 different types of industry recorded in medieval times, very diverse. But mostly related to ironworks, textiles and leatherworking, and mostly noisy or smelly or both. The Norman conquerors were keen to keep this industry separate from their fine new borough with its castle and cathedral; they called this area “Norwich-over-the-water”.

Our next stop is Henry Bacon’s house, a Tudor merchant’s house, built around a courtyard, with a Great Hall along one side. It had its moment of high drama during Kett’s Rebellion. Just as Kett’s men had the upper hand, rampaging through the streets nearby in August 1549, the sheriff of Norwich Henry Bacon had a VIP guest here: the Earl of Warwick, planning how to crush the rebellion. And as we know, Warwick was successful – and Bacon was very lucky that his house wasn’t burned down by the rebels.

Our next stop is St George’s Church. Its lovely Georgian interior is well worth a look. It was built around 1450, and maintained for centuries with generous bequests from local merchants. But there was that Non-conformist influence and over time the locals were switching to the Non-conformist chapels. And that brings us to our next stop.

The Norvic Works, Howlett & White’s vast shoe factory, was purpose-built in 1896 and gradually expanded to fill the whole block. It was the largest shoe factory in the country, employing over 1000 people. Its most famous Chief Exec, Sir George White, was a champion of workers’ rights and educational reform, and Liberal MP for North Norfolk for many years, while continuing to lead the company to dazzling prosperity.

Sadly, the shoe industry faded away over the last fifty years. The factory is now home to Jane Austen Academy, the Last restaurant and various businesses.

Like the Norvic factory and several other large factories nearby, our final stop at St George’s Works was purpose-built. These modern airy factories must have transformed the lives of the workforce, used to cramped and dusty lofts – not to mention the insecurity of peaks and troughs, with no guarantee of regular work. New techniques meant that people needed training – and that’s when the Technical Institute (now part of NUA) was established by the city council (1891).

the people of Colegate have always been outward-looking, innovative and diverse. They were radical thinkers too, never afraid to stand up and “do different”

And now we’re seeing a new industrial revolution: collaborative working, customisation, high-tech – here in St George’s Works and all around this part of the city. It’s clear they’re doing well: look at all the businesses that have followed them here – cafes, bars and restaurants, the financial services people and solicitors.

The Colegate story continues.

Download Jane’s historic tour of Colegate here.

Further info: Museums: Bridewell Museum; Strangers Hall Museum

Further reading: Norwich, City of Industries; The Fabric of Stuffs: the Norwich Textile industry from 1565; A Norvic Century; Medieval Norwich & Norwich since 1550

Event photos: Joe Lenton Photography