“There are houses on each side, both of which you can touch with the fingertips of each hand by stretching out your arms to their full extent”. So wrote Charles Dickens in 1848 of Yarmouth’s Row houses.

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Bit of a tight squeeze then.

Yarmouth developed as a port from the 11th century on. Its space for housing development was restricted by the walls surrounding it on three sides and the river on the fourth. Thus houses were built in tight, narrow rows. Eventually there were up to 160 rows of houses built, as Dickens suggests, cheek by jowl. By the 20th century they were dismissed as slums, but some of the quayside houses were first built by wealthy merchants. In the towns 16th and 17th century heyday, when a new harbour opened the port up to new trading wealth, those built near South Quay were very desirable residences. Within 200 years the salubrious open space was built up, and the claustrophobic situation described by Dickens became common. Two of the rare survivors of this era Row 111 and the Old Merchants House have been rescued from demolition and tell us much of ordinary life in Yarmouth.

Where did the money come from?

Herrings, timber and corn were the cornerstones of Yarmouths wealth. It also benefited from Royal Navy ships using the port; Horatio Nelson was no stranger to South Quay. Both houses were built in the early 1600s. At that time each was a single entity, on three stories with attic rooms for servants. Over 400 years they have been altered inside and out, divided and sub-divided as tenants came and went. Wartime bomb damage was the final nail in the coffin for the Rows, and when the area was rebuilt the original street pattern was largely destroyed. We owe much to local enthusiasts who saved the Merchants House from demolition in 1936, when slum clearance began, and also a Mr DM Rosie. He was an employee of the Ministry of Works forerunners of English Heritage who worked on the site after the war. Realising the value of the heritage being cleared away he gathered up oncecommon items such as a handcart, fire grates, doors, hinges, window frames etc dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries. You can see some of these items in the houses today. Characteristic of both houses are the Dutch-style exteriors, a feature of a town with such strong trade and cultural links to the Low Countries.

What about the people who lived there?

Before 1841 we have little material on the inhabitants. But census returns from that year on has enabled historians to piece together the inhabitants stories. At the Merchants House the lives of two sets of 1871 tenants the Rope and Atkins families have been re-created to reflect Yarmouths Victorian history, by which time it was in economic decline. Nine members of the Atkins families were living there, the men involved in fishing while the women worked as dressmakers. Mr Rope was also a fisherman. Meanwhile at Row 111 the large house was converted into three parts, lived in by the 1930s by the Lee, Hook and Rainer families, and the displays reflect life in the that decade and during the second world war. Although not well off, these families enjoyed a reasonable standard of living but worked hard to make ends meet.

What was life like?

Although the houses look bright and airy, they were hemmed in by neighbours, so people lived cheek by jowl. They threw their rubbish out into the dark and dingy pathway where it would drain into the river. Just opening your door could be a problem hinges had to open inwards rather than outwards. The division of the houses was piecemeal. Passages have been knocked through, some staircases blocked up, others added. Kitchens, parlours and bedrooms are clearly identified, with displays tracing development over several hundred years of habitation. Some evidence of an elegant past remain colourful Dutch tiles, the fine plasterwork ceilings with a 1603 James I coat of arms but it is clear these properties were going down in the world.

What about the Dutch influence?

Most noticeable are the metal wall ties or anchors. These were common in Holland as a way of stabilising houses built on reclaimed land. In Yarmouth they were mainly decorative. They are particularly useful for the historian, as many of them display the date a house was built. This decorative fashion spread to colonial North America in the 17th century. There are also the familiar brick gables a triangular wall at the end of a roof that can be seen all over East Anglia. The patterned brick and flint walling are another Dutch feature.

What happened in the second world war?

Yarmouth suffered from German aircraft targeting the docks and from dumping unused bombs on the way home. In 1942 an incendiary bomb hit the roof of Row 111, causing terrible damage. The roof was rebuilt after the war using original timber and traditional building methods, such as wooden pegs rather than nails. This attic space, originally servants quarters when the house was built, was rented out by the Rainer family during the 1930s to Scots herring girls. They followed the migrating fish shoals around the country in search of work. It was a hard way to make a living; as the fish were landed they had to gut and clean them and put them in barrels. Smelly work too they had to paste newspaper and brown paper to the walls to try to absorb the fishy odour and grease. A rented bedroom has been re-created, complete with a display of evocative pictures of the Scots at work and the fragments of a letter from a mother in Aberdeen. Next door a childrens room has been modelled. Recorded voices and models illustrate daily life using peoples recollections of the times when they were young.

Great Yarmouth Row Houses, just off South Quay, telephone 01493 857900
or log on to www.english-heritage.org.uk

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