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Polluted water and squalid conditions, life in Norwich’s old courts and yards

PUBLISHED: 08:20 16 June 2020 | UPDATED: 16:23 16 June 2020

Doing the washing in Catherine Wheel Opening at St Augustine’s. A picture taken in 1950 from the Philip Armes Collection

Doing the washing in Catherine Wheel Opening at St Augustine’s. A picture taken in 1950 from the Philip Armes Collection

Philip Armes Collection

We often talk about the “good old days” – well for some they were but not for others who lived in appalling poverty.

Another of the yards off St Augustine’s from Philip Armes. This one was taken in Nicholds Yard in 1939Another of the yards off St Augustine’s from Philip Armes. This one was taken in Nicholds Yard in 1939

In the countryside many suffered in grim tumbledown cottages with few amenities while Norwich was riddled with crumbling courts and yards comprising of communal toilets and outside water supplies.

Our recent story about the first female councillor in Norwich, Mabel Clarkson, who campaigned tirelessly for better living conditions for families, brought back memories of the yards which criss-crossed the city centre where most people lived at the time.

It was in 1897 when Norwich Council formed a “Courts and Yard Committee” in an effort to improve conditions for thousands of families.

At the same time a reporter from our Norwich Mercury visited Reeves’ Yard (Bett’s Yard) off Oak Street.

The way it was in Baldwin’s Yard off Oak Street in 1936. George Plunkett.The way it was in Baldwin’s Yard off Oak Street in 1936. George Plunkett.

The report paints a vivid picture of life:

“The conditions of life in this yard must be hard indeed.

“An open channel runs in front of the houses containing sewage, slops and rainwater. The smell was neither imaginable or describable.

“One battered pump, made in 1808, supplies water to the entire yard, or rather three yards in one.

The way it was in Bells Yard off St Mary’s Alley in 1937. Photo: Philip Armes CollectionThe way it was in Bells Yard off St Mary’s Alley in 1937. Photo: Philip Armes Collection

“The water from this is said to stick around the cups and glasses like glue, and sometimes more resembles soapsuds than water.

“Nearly all the houses are uninhabited and in those that are occupied the doors are almost off their hinges.

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“Some of the garret windows have not a pane of glass and, as an inhabitant remarked, you might as well lay down outside.”

A look at life in Blakey’s Yard, Pitt Street in the 1930s. Photo: Philip Armes CollectionA look at life in Blakey’s Yard, Pitt Street in the 1930s. Photo: Philip Armes Collection

The report in our old sister paper went on:

“There is no light and inhabitants expressed the view that it wasn’t safe after dark, adding the view that sometimes it was ‘as black as your hat.’

“Five landlords provide just one pump for the tenants. One of the dwellers commented that the smell in summer was enough to knock you back. Draughts and rats were two of the nuisances named.”

And imagine this.

Children playing in Lamb Yard off Ber Street in 1938. Philip Armes CollectionChildren playing in Lamb Yard off Ber Street in 1938. Philip Armes Collection

Back in 1850 the Norfolk Chronicle reported that people taking water from the River Wensum near the dye works knew what colours were being dyed as well as the dyers: “They think the brown is best; they say that the black soils their tea, and so does the scarlet.”

Following the end of the First World War a report by the Medical Officer of Norwich said there were at least 4,000 dwellings in the city which were in very poor condition with outside water facilities and shared toilets. Some put the figure far higher.

Whatever the state of the homes there was a great community spirit amongst the people who lived there. Door knobs were polished and doorsteps whitewashed…and they tended to look after each other. They still had their pride.

It was between the wars when the council announced plans to build hundreds of homes on estates surrounding the city centre. They had gardens, bathrooms with hot water and inside toilets…times were changing.

In the Second World War much of the city was bombed and then in the 1950s and 60s many more houses, good-looking terraced homes, which could have been improved, were destroyed 
and the face of the city changed again.

Some stood in the way of new roads while others just…stood in the way.

What will the 21st century bring? Time will tell.

For more details and information about how to get a copy of The 
Old Courts and Yards of Norwich and other great local history 
books by Frances and Michael Holmes go visit: www.norwich-heritage.co.uk

Currently they are researching the story of the trams in Norwich and how it impacted on the way the city looked, to find out more click here.


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