A Jewish heritage group has launched a bid to take over part of Wensum Lodge to use it as a museum which would highlight Norwich's dark past as a birthplace of antisemitism.

The site would be based in a part of the complex which has been associated with the city's Jewish community for 800 years.

As well as celebrating this link, however, the scheme would also focus on Norwich's role as an incubator of antisemitism, as the source of the 'blood libel' which triggered waves of persecutions and massacres.

The move comes after Norfolk County Council unveiled plans to sell the site on King’s Street in Norwich, which has been the base of adult education in the region for four decades. 

The proposal drew the fury of locals and councillors, who have called for the authority to reverse course and keep the base, which is used to teach courses in maths and English, as well as silversmithing and pottery. 

Eastern Daily Press: Wensum LodgeWensum Lodge (Image: Archant)

But now a local Jewish group, made up of academics and members of the community, has come forward with a plan to take over part of the site.

Their idea is to turn Music House, also called Jurnet’s House, into a heritage centre, museum, and place to study contemporary and historic antisemitism. 

Eastern Daily Press: Jurnet's bar under the Music House closed in 2022 Jurnet's bar under the Music House closed in 2022 (Image: Jamie HoneywoodArchantNorwichNorfolk)

The building dates back to the 12th century and is the oldest existing place of Jewish habitation in England, having been associated with a prominent member of the Jewish community in Norwich who was known as Jurnet the Jew.

READ MORE: Historic Jurnet's bar forced to permanently close

It is also the only secular building from that century to survive in the city.

While most of the Wensum Lodge site belongs to the county council, Music House was only leased to them by City Hall. 

READ MORE: Jewish community receives official apology for Norwich's 12th century blood libel

Oren Margolis, a lecturer in Renaissance studies at the UEA, said: “Jurnet’s House in the historic heart of Norwich is a building of national and international importance.  

“Jurnet of Norwich and his son Isaac were financiers and patrons of Jewish learning in medieval England and the house is amongst the earliest and best-preserved Jewish houses in the country.  

“The vaulted undercroft, lately used as the bar for the Wensum Lodge adult education centre, is little changed since the Middle Ages.” 

Eastern Daily Press: Marian Prinsley, second left, when she was the sheriff of NorwichMarian Prinsley, second left, when she was the sheriff of Norwich (Image: Copyright: Archant 2019)

Marian Prinsley, a former city sheriff and president of the Norwich Hebrew Congregation, said the plans were in the very earliest stages but stressed the building’s importance to the Jewish community. 

She said: “This building has an amazing history and over the years busloads of orthodox Jewish people have come to visit it.  

“We want it to be a place to celebrate Jewish heritage and culture, looking at the history of Jewish people in Norwich.” 

While Norwich is often considered a very welcoming place, Ms Prinsley said the city has a “dark” history of religious persecution. 

Eastern Daily Press: Former Sheriff of Norwich, Dr Marian PrinsleyFormer Sheriff of Norwich, Dr Marian Prinsley (Image: DENISE BRADLEY)

In the 12th century, Jews were falsely accused of murdering a 12-year-old called William. 

Years after his death in 1144, a medieval monk called Thomas of Monmouth claimed - with no evidence - that Jews had slaughtered the boy, whose body was reportedly found at Thorpe Woods, in a ritualistic killing. 

It was England's first recorded instance of a 'blood libel', which falsely accused Jews of murdering Christian boys to use their blood in religious rituals. 

Similar antisemitic myths spread and sparked widespread persecution and massacres across England and Europe.

Ms Prinsley added: “This is the home of the first blood libel and from here they spread across the country and into Europe. We want to show how things have moved on since then. 

“We feel that this dark history should be told by the Jewish people of Norwich. 

“The city has moved a long way – the appointment of me as sheriff in 2019 shows that.” 

Earlier this year, Dr Kevin Maguire, the then mayor of Norwich, apologised to the Jewish community for the blood libel.

A spokeswoman for the city council said if the county council gives up the lease it will find a new occupier to safeguard the site.

She added: “In view of the historical significance of the building and its association with the Jewish community in Norwich, we would be keen to be involved in further discussions about this in due course”.


The Jurnets

'Jurnet the Jew' and his son Issac were some of the richest Jews in England in the 12th century.

Both worked as financiers at a time when Christians were forbidden from lending money at interest, while Jews were banned from most other professions.

Isaac was the chief money-lender to the Abbot and monks of Westminster.

According to the National Archives, he took the monks to court to get interest on the money they had borrowed.

As a result of this, he became the target of opposition from the Bishop of Norwich, who wanted all Jews thrown out of the country.


A history of Music House

Music House was first built in the 12th century but the exact date is unknown.

It has long been associated with Jurnet the Jew, but it was actually his son Isaac who bought the property, in 1225.

Over the years the property has been added to many times, with the current King Street facade dating to the 17th century.

During the 18th century, the house was split up into separate units.

In 1954 the building was given Grade I listed status.

Since the 1960s it has been converted into an adult education and sports centre by Norfolk County Council.

The sports hall was closed in December 2010 after the county council claimed maintenance costs were too expensive to keep it open.

But it was saved after a campaign group formed to take it over and the Wensum Sports Centre Charitable Association continues to run it today.

Meanwhile, adult education courses continue at Wensum Lodge, although the popular Jurnet's Bar, situated in a medieval crypt, closed in 2020.

The undercroft would have been at street level when first constructed.