Do you remember Norwich’s old courts and yards?

Celebrating the Silver Jubilee of George V in Rose Yard, Norwich, in May 1935.

Celebrating the Silver Jubilee of George V in Rose Yard, Norwich, in May 1935. - Credit: Archant

Imagine being part of a large family living in a tiny dark home without power or water supply where a communal tap and a lavatory were at the end of an often rat-infested yard with an exotic name in the heart of old Norwich.

That was the way it was for thousands of people living in the city centre which was criss-crossed by hundreds of courts and yards less than a century ago.

But not all yards were slums – and not all slums were yards.

In these humble homes were proud, poor people struggling to survive and making the best of what they had. And they looked after one another. This was grassroots community spirit at its strongest.

The extraordinary story of the courts and yards and the mass exodus of men, women and children out of the city centre and into the new 'garden' suburbs such as Mile Cross, Heartsease, Lakenham and Earlham is told in a new book by Frances and Michael Holmes of the Norwich Heritage Projects, an independent non-profit-making organisation which simply aims to encourage an appreciation of a wonderful city.

It follows on from their popular and well-researched books on the market, the pubs and breweries and the shoe trade.

This time they have surpassed themselves, taking us on a journey back in time to discover more about the courts and yards of Norwich and meet some of the people who lived in them.

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For some they were hell-holes and needed to be razed. For others they contained historic buildings and vibrant neighbourhoods which should have been preserved. Some architectural gems were demolished along with the rest.

Who was right?

You can make your own mind up by taking a look at one of the best local history books for some time which is packed with illustrations, personal memories and the operation, planned like a military exercise, to remove thousands of men, women and children out of the city centre and into the expanding suburbs.

So what surprised Frances and Michael when they, together with a group of friends, first started their research into the courts and yards more than five years ago?

That the story could be told in such detail thanks to the amount and depth of information held at the Norfolk Record Office on the clearance schemes in the 1930s which give a deep insight into the sheer scale of the project to move so many people out of the city centre.

'It is astonishing to discover how much living conditions have improved since the 1930s when people lived without internal water supplies, power, individual loos – it is almost beyond our imagination,' say the authors.

They also found out that early attempts at clearing the yards were not done for the benefit of residents but for landlords, and that early houses were 'homes fit for heroes' and they were not to rehouse people living in the slums. They couldn't afford them while the middle class could.

'The yards played a large part in the history of the city and we considered that it was time to tell their story, and that of the people who lived in them, in more detail than has been done previously,' explained Frances and Michael.

'We have tried to distinguish between the fabric of the yards, over which the residents had no control, and the interior of their properties over which they did. It is quite humbling to hear how, despite having so little, people really did make the best of what they had. A lesson we could all learn from today,' said the authors.

What brings this book alive are the memories of the people who grew up in the yards. Some have sadly passed away before publication. Their memories are invaluable. 'Doing the research we met some lovely people,' they added.

People such as Joyce Wilson who lived in Fairman's Yard, Barrack Street, who said: 'People living in the yards did struggle, but it was funny – they had a certain pride. They were dark little houses with one door, but it was so strange... often the doorstep outside was whitewashed and the door knobs were Brassoed.

'So, on the outside you had a shiny door knob and a gleaming white doorstep, which we were told to walk over and not to stand on, we had to stretch over it so we didn't leave a footstep. But I think that the whitewashed step was a little bit of defiance; it was as if the women were saying, 'Look, it's not too bad after all,'' said Joyce, who passed away in January.

This book is a tribute to her and all the other people who lived in the courts and yards of Norwich.

The Old Courts and Yards of Norwich: A Story of People, Poverty and Pride by Frances and Michael Holmes is published by the Norwich Heritage Projects at £9.99 and is on sale now at Jarrold and City Books, Davey Place, Norwich.

Meet the authors at the Jarrold store in Norwich on Thursday, July 9, at 6.30pm when they will be combining anecdotes, images and memories to tell the story of the courts and yards and the people who lived there. Tickets costing £5 are available from Jarrold customer services.

Coming up: Discover more about life in the yards from the former residents... and find out how you can win a copy of the book.