A History of Great Yarmouth

By Tim Lambert

Great Yarmouth in the Middle Ages

Today Great Yarmouth is a famous seaside town but for centuries it was an important fishing port. Yarmouth was famous for herrings.

Great Yarmouth was founded by the Angles. By the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, it had grown into a little town with a population of a few hundred. To us, it would seem tiny but Medieval settlements were very small.

In 1209 King John gave Great Yarmouth a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From then on Great Yarmouth was a self-governing community.

In the Middle Ages, the prosperity of Great Yarmouth was based on herring fishing and by the 12th century, a herring fair was held at Yarmouth. (Fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. Merchants came from all over Europe to buy herrings at a Great Yarmouth fair).


However certain ports in Kent called the Cinque Ports were given jurisdiction over the Yarmouth fair. That might seem surprising but ships from the Kentish ports fished off Great Yarmouth.

Furthermore, Great Yarmouth had not yet been given a charter and was not yet self-governing. So the Kentish towns ran the fair, which caused much resentment among the people of Great Yarmouth. In 1277 the King gave Great Yarmouth joint authority over the fair. However, the people of Great Yarmouth were not satisfied, and in 1297 ships from Yarmouth fought a naval battle with ships from Kent off Belgium.

However, the ports of Kent were declining as they silted up and Great Yarmouth continued to grow in prosperity. In the late 13th century stone walls were built around the town. The Old Tollbooth was also built at that time.

In the Middle Ages, the church was very powerful and its presence was everywhere. A Benedictine Priory (small abbey) was built in Great Yarmouth in the early 12th century.

In the 13th century, friars arrived in Great Yarmouth. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In Great Yarmouth, there were Franciscan friars (known as grey friars because of the colour of their costumes). There were also Dominican or black friars and Carmelites or white friars.

Great Yarmouth 1500-1800

In the Middle Ages, Great Yarmouth prospered. However, the harbour kept silting up. Several attempts were made to dig a new haven during the Middle Ages and the 16th century. The present one dates from 1614.

The Elizabethan House was built in 1596. It is now a museum.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Great Yarmouth continued to quietly prosper. The Old Merchants House dates from the late 17th century. In 1702 a Fishermen’s Hospital (almshouses) was built for poor fishermen. Also in the early 18th century, the Custom House was built. (It was originally a private house). St George’s Church was built in 1714.

Apart from fishing, there was also a shipbuilding industry in Great Yarmouth. Yarmouth was also an important port for trade with Europe due to its position near Holland.

Great Yarmouth in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, Great Yarmouth grew rapidly. The old town gates were demolished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries because they restricted traffic. Housing spread further and further beyond the old town walls.

Meanwhile, from the end of the 18th century, Great Yarmouth developed as a seaside resort. In those days people believed that bathing in the sea was good for your health. Spending time at the seaside became fashionable with the well-off.

Great Yarmouth developed still more when the railway reached the town in 1844. The railway made it easier for tourists to visit Great Yarmouth and so it boomed. Wellington Pier was built in 1854. (The pavilion was added in 1903). Britannia Pier opened in 1858. The first cinema in Great Yarmouth opened in 1908. During the 20th century, Yarmouth flourished as a seaside resort. The Marina was created in 1927.

Meanwhile, in 1811 a Royal Naval Hospital was built. (It is now St Nicholas’s Hospital) and a memorial to Nelson was erected in 1819. A new town hall was built in Great Yarmouth in 1882.

Great Yarmouth in the 20th Century

The herring fishing industry reached a peak at the start of the 20th century. However, it then went into a relentless decline. But during the 20th century, there was a food processing industry in Great Yarmouth and an electronics industry.

However, during World War I because Great Yarmouth was on the east coast it was a target for the Germans. There was a zeppelin raid in 1915, which killed 2 people. Furthermore, the German navy bombarded Great Yarmouth in 1916 and 1918.

During the Second World War, Great Yarmouth was a target for German bombers. St Nicholas Church was destroyed in 1942. Parts of the old town were also destroyed. There used to be many narrow streets in Great Yarmouth called Rows. Once there were 145 Rows. (They were so narrow goods were transported along them in two-wheeled carts called troll carts). However, most of them were destroyed during the Second World War.

Joyland opened in 1949. Time and Tide Museum opened in 1998.

Great Yarmouth in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, Great Yarmouth continued to be an important and flourishing resort (although it suffered bad floods in 2006). In 2008 the Market Gates Shopping Centre was extended and in 2010 a new deep water harbour opened. In 2023 the population of Great Yarmouth was 100,000.