A History of Norwich

By Tim Lambert

Anglo-Saxon Norwich

Norwich started as a small Anglo-Saxon settlement north of the River Wensum in Norfolk. In time it grew into a town, perhaps because of its situation on a river. (In those days it was much cheaper and easier to transport goods for sale by water than by land). It became known as North Wic (wic is an old word for port and Norwich was an inland port). The name Norwich first appears on a coin minted in the early 10th century.

By then Norwich was a large and important town (although it would appear no more than a village to us). It had a mint and would have had a weekly market. Norwich was probably also a burgh or fortified settlement. The town would have been surrounded by a ditch and earth embankment with a wooden palisade on top.

In the 10th century, Norwich grew rapidly. As the town grew the settlement spread to the south bank of the river. Gradually the settlement at Norwich shifted from north to south of the River Wensum.

Then in 1004 the Danes sacked and burned Norwich. (That was easy since the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs). However, Norwich was soon rebuilt and flourished once again. The Danes left many place names in this part of England. The street name ‘gate’, as in Pottergate, is derived from the Danish word gata meaning street. Potter gata was the street where potters lived and worked. The meaning of Fishergate is obvious. The street name Tombland is derived from a Danish word meaning empty space. Fingelgate comes from a Danish word meaning bend or elbow.

Norwich in the Middle Ages

By the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, Norwich was one of the largest towns in England with a population of about 6,000. Although that seems tiny to us settlements were very small in those days, a typical village only had 100 to 150 inhabitants. By the 14th century, the population of Norwich had probably grown to about 10,000.

In Norwich, as in most Medieval towns, the main industry was the manufacture of wool. First, it was woven then it was fulled. That means the wool was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in a mixture of water and clay known as fuller’s earth. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills. Afterward, it was dyed.

Another important industry in Medieval Norwich was leatherworking. In Norwich, there were tanners, saddlers, and shoemakers. there were also many goldsmiths in Norwich. There were also the same craftsmen found in any medieval town such as blacksmiths, carpenters, brewers, bakers, potters, tailors, and thatchers.

In Norwich, there were weekly markets. There was also an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a period of a few days. People would come from all over eastern England and London to sell at a Norwich fair. The main export from Norwich was wool. Imports included woad for dyeing, timber, pitch, wine, millstones, and fish from Great Yarmouth.

In 1094 the local bishop moved his seat from Thetford to Norwich. In 1096 he began building a new cathedral. Stone was brought from Caen in France and a little canal was dug to transport it from the river to the site of the new cathedral. However, the cathedral was not consecrated until 1268. The Normans also built a wooden castle in Norwich. In the early 12th century it was rebuilt in stone.

In 1194 Norwich was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From then on they elected a Reeve, an official who governed the town day to day. In 1265 there was a civil war between the king and some barons. In 1266 some rebel barons sacked Norwich but the town soon recovered.

In the early 13th century the friars arrived in England. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. There were 4 groups of friars in Norwich. There were Dominican friars (called blackfriars because of their black costumes). There were also Franciscan or grey friars and Carmelite or white friars. There were also Augustinian friars. There are still streets in Norwich called Blackfriars, Greyfriars, and Whitefriars. Different orders of friars once lived there.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only hospitals. The Hospital of St Paul was founded in the early 12th century. Great Hospital was founded in 1249. There were also 6 leper hostels around the town. (This dreadful disease declined in the 15th century and had disappeared by the 16th). In 1272 the monks of the Cathedral Priory provoked a riot when they attempted to charge tolls on the annual fair at Tombland. The rioters burned part of the Priory.

Cow Tower was built in 1278 for collecting tolls. It was rebuilt in 1399. Stone walls were built around Norwich from 1297 to 1334. The Bridewell was built around 1370. From 1583 to 1828 it was used as a prison.

During the Peasants Revolt in 1381, the rebels captured Norwich. They did not hold Norwich for long, however. The bishop mustered an army and the rebels retreated to North Walsham where they were easily defeated. Norwich School was founded in 1316. Also in 1316 Ethelbert Gate, Cathedral Close was built.

In 1404 Norwich was given a new charter and it gained a mayor. The Guildhall was built in 1407. Then in 1420, Sir Thomas Erpingham built Erpingham Gate in Cathedral Close. St Peter Mancroft was built in 1455 and in 1463 a spire was added to Norwich Cathedral. Strangers Hall was built in the mid-15th century. Meanwhile, Julian of Norwich lived in Norwich in the 14th and early 15th centuries.

Norwich in the 16th century

In 1500 the population of Norwich was around 10,000 and it was one of the largest towns in England. In 1505 Norwich suffered a severe fire. Two more followed in 1507. (Fire was a constant hazard because most of the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs). The Guildhall was built in 1513. The friaries were closed by Henry VIII in 1539 but some of the hospitals were taken over by the corporation.

In 1549 came Kett’s rebellion. Enraged by their treatment by landowners some of the farmers of Norfolk rose in rebellion. They took control of Norwich and camped on Mousehold Heath. The first attempt to crush the rebellion failed.

A small force led by the Marquis of Northampton entered Norwich and fought in the streets but was then forced to withdraw. The government then sent a much larger force under the Earl of Warwick. This time the rebels were driven out of Norwich. They withdrew to Mousehold Heath then to Dussindale. The earl’s men attacked and routed them. Afterward, about 300 rebels were hanged including Kett.

Then in 1579, there was an outbreak of plague, which may have killed 1/3 of the population of the town. However, Norwich soon recovered. In Tudor England, there were always plenty of poor people in the countryside willing to come to the town to look for work.

After 1565 many weavers came to Norwich fleeing religious persecution in what is now Holland and Belgium. They brought their canaries with them. Soon the native people of Norwich adopted rearing canaries as a hobby. By the 18th century Norwich was famous for its canaries and today Norwich football team is nicknamed the Canaries. The weavers may have boosted the population of the town to about 16,000 by the 1580s. In the early 16th century, Norwich seems to have suffered an economic decline but it began to prosper again in the late 16th century.

Norwich in the 17th century

The population of Norwich rose rapidly in the 17th century and reached about 25,000 in 1700. This was despite outbreaks of plague. It struck twice, in 1625 and again in 1665 but each time the town recovered. Meanwhile, a children’s ‘hospital’ (really an orphanage) was founded in 1621.

During the Civil War, 1642-46 most of the people of Norwich supported parliament. There was no actual fighting at Norwich during the Civil War. However, there was a riot in 1648. The mayor was a royalist and parliament ordered his dismissal. But the mayor was popular and his supporters rioted. They attacked the homes of well-known Puritans and then entered the Committee House where gunpowder was stored. Somehow the gunpowder exploded killing some 40 people. Afterward, 8 of the rioters were hanged.

A ‘hospital’ or almshouse for old people was built in Norwich in 1688.

Norwich in the 18th century

In the 18th century wool manufacturing was still the main industry in Norwich. Wool was exported to North America. There were many imports into Norwich including tea, silk, and porcelain from the Far East. Tobacco from North America. Sugar, rum, and mahogany from the West Indies. Fish was brought by ship from Great Yarmouth and coal from Newcastle. Leatherworking was still an important industry in Georgian Norwich. Brewing flourished in this century. In the late 18th century some silk was woven in Norwich.

Meanwhile, Bethel Hospital for the mentally ill was built in 1714.

For the well-off life grew more comfortable during the 18th century. The first newspaper in Norwich began publication in 1721. An Assembly House was built in Theatre Street in 1754 where people could play cards and attend balls. The first bank was founded in 1756.

In the years 1791-1801 the gates in Norwich town walls were demolished to ease the flow of traffic. Meanwhile, in 1780 Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, was born in Gurney Court in Magdalene Street, and in 1797 Nelson gave the city of Norwich the sword owned by a Spanish admiral, which was captured after the battle of Cape St Vincent.

Norwich in the 19th century

In 1801 Norwich had a population of 36,000. It was still one of the largest towns in Britain but it soon fell behind as towns in the North and the Midlands mushroomed. Nevertheless, Norwich did grow during the 19th century and by 1900 it had a population of over 100,000. In the early and mid 19th century skilled workers built houses at Heigham and around Vauxhall Street. The middle classes built houses along Thorpe Road.

However, like all 19th-century towns, Norwich was dirty, overcrowded, and unsanitary. There were epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, cholera, and diphtheria during the century. In 1819 there were 530 deaths from smallpox.

Nevertheless, there were many improvements to Norwich in the 19th century. In 1804 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. In 1806 an act of parliament formed a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners who had powers to pave, clean, and light the streets. The first police force in Norwich was formed in 1836.

As early as the 18th century there was a piped water supply in Norwich – for those who could afford it but the water was impure. In the 1850s the council built a pure water supply. In the 1870s they built a network of sewers. After 1877 they began slum clearance.

Life in 19th century Norwich gradually improved. The first public library opened in 1857. Chapelfields was opened as a public park in 1852. The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Norwich was built in 1884. Mousehold Heath opened as a park in 1886. The Castle Museum opened in 1894. The Royal Arcade was built in 1899. Meanwhile, in 1844 Norwich was connected to Yarmouth by train. From 1849 it was connected to London.

During the 19th century wool weaving and silk weaving in Norwich rapidly declined. However, leatherworking boomed. So did brewing. Norwich became famous for boot and shoemaking. In the late 19th century an engineering industry grew up in Norwich and flourished. There was also a mustard-making industry.

Norwich in the 20th century

From 1900 to 1935 electric trams ran in Norwich but they were replaced by buses. The first cinema in Norwich opened in 1912. James Stuart Garden opened in 1922. Bridewell Museum opened in 1925. A war memorial was erected in 1927. Woodrow Pilling Park opened in 1929. Waterloo Park opened in 1933. The City Hall was built in 1938.

The council built houses on the outskirts of Norwich in the 1920s and 1930s. Many more were built after 1945. They were needed partly because 3,000 houses had been damaged or destroyed by the German bombing.

Norwich University was founded in 1963. Anglia Square Shopping Centre opened in 1970. Castle Quarter opened in 1993. The Arts Centre opened in 1977. Riverside Leisure Complex opened in 1999. In the late 20th century the main industries in Norwich were printing, electronics, engineering, and finance. Tourism also became an important industry.

Norwich Cathedral
Norwich Cathedral

Norwich in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Norwich is still a thriving city. In 2002 a building called The Forum was opened. It includes the Millennium Library. Chantry Shopping Centre opened in 2005. In 2023 the population of Norwich was 144,000.

A Timeline of Norwich

10th Century

Norwich is a small town and inland port with its own mint


The Danes sack and burn Norwich


Norwich has a population of about 6,000


The bishop moves his seat from Thetford to Norwich


Norwich is given a charter (a document granting the people certain rights)


Great Hospital is founded


During a civil war, Norwich is sacked by rebel barons


Norwich Cathedral is consecrated


Riots in Norwich


Cow Tower is built


Norwich has a population of about 10,000. The main industry is making wool but there is also an important leather industry.


The Bridewell is built


During the Peasants Revolt, rebels capture Norwich


Norwich is given a new charter


A Guildhall is built


Erpingham Gate is built


A spire is added to Norwich Cathedral


Norwich suffers a severe fire


During Kett’s Rebellion, the rebels seize Norwich

1565 onwards

Weavers come to Norwich from Holland and Belgium


An outbreak of plague kills about 1/3 of the population of Norwich


Plague strikes Norwich


Riots break out in Norwich


Plague strikes Norwich again


The population of Norwich is about 25,000


Bethel Hospital is built


The first newspaper in Norwich is published


An Assembly House is built


The first bank is founded in Norwich


Norwich has a population of 36,000


A body of men called the Improvement Commissioners is formed to pave, clean, and light the streets of Norwich


Smallpox kills 530 people in Norwich


The railway reaches Norwich


The first public library opens


Slum clearance begins in Norwich


The Roman Catholic Cathedral is built in Norwich


Mousehold Heath opens as a park


Castle Museum opens


Royal Arcade is built


Electric trams run in Norwich


The first cinema opens


James Stuart Garden opens


Woodrow Piling Park opens


Electric trams cease running in Norwich


City Hall is built


Norwich University is founded


Anglia Square Shopping Centre opens


The Arts Centre opens


Castle Quarter opens


Riverside Leisure Complex opens


The Forum opens


Chantry Shopping Centre opens