Norwich’s gruesome past of disaster and disease

Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle - Credit: Archant

Most people think of Norwich as a fine city, but for Mark Mower the streets seethe with disease, disaster and death. ROWAN MANTELL reports.

Author Mark Mower with his new book about Norwich in the Bloody British History series.Picture: Jame

Author Mark Mower with his new book about Norwich in the Bloody British History series.Picture: James Bass - Credit: James Bass

Murderers, poisoners and swindlers stalk the city centre, witches are burnt by the river, burglars are hanged in the castle, and a dismembered body is picked up in the street, piece by rotting piece.

Model of Henry Cabell in Castle Museum in 1987. EN 7.8.09

Model of Henry Cabell in Castle Museum in 1987. EN 7.8.09 - Credit: Archant

Mark, who insists he is also very fond of Norwich, has gathered together many of the most gruesome episodes of the city's past. In this view of Norwich, rampaging from warmongering Viking invaders to the devastating Baedaker blitz of the second world war, the city and its surrounding villages are a terrifying place.

Dussindale, today a quiet modern housing estate, was literally a battlefield where more than 3,000 were slaughtered. Modern-day tourists wander beside the city centre river where once women were tortured. A pub stands on the site where people were burnt to death because they believed slightly different versions of the Christian faith.

But for all the slaughter of battles and menace of crime, Mark believes the very worst period of history to be a citizen of Norwich was during the Black Death.


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In 20 terrible years in the 14th century, the plague killed a quarter of the population.

Even so, Mark is able to find a trace of silver lining amid the stench of the plague-pits.

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'Out of that very grim episode came what was probably the making of Norwich and Norfolk,' he said. 'Labourers came in from the countryside to work and were able to agitate for better pay and conditions, so standards of living rose.'

Mark has written a book revealing the nastier side of Norwich history.

'I think people will often forget that Norwich has some very nice history but it also has some grim episodes,' he said. 'I wanted to cover the main things people would expect to see in any history of Norwich, about the Castle, the Norman rebellion, and some of the events between that they may not have heard of, like the terrible train crash in Thorpe which changed the way the railways ran, and the burning of Cicely Ormes in Lollard's Pit.'

In 1874 one of the worst head-on collisions in British railway history killed 25 and left more than 70 seriously injured. It led to new safety procedures and probably ultimately saved many lives, but there is no positive spin possible for the terrible death of Cicely Ormes.

Mark tells of how the Norwich weaver's wife was heard supporting a man and a woman being marched to their death for refusing to give up their religious beliefs. She was condemned to be burn at the stake at Lollard's Pit, just across the river from Bishop's Bridge – where the Lollard's Pit pub still stands. Cicely refused to become a Catholic during the reign of Queen Mary but the area was a place of execution from at least the 15th to the 17th century.

He has written several books about real crimes from the past, including a collection of murders in Suffolk, and was originally asked to write a book about Ipswich for the Bloody British History series published by The History Press.

'I said I'd much prefer to do Norwich. I have a love of Norwich. I used to work here and am a big Canaries fan,' he said.

Mark was born in Great Yarmouth, went to school in Beccles and lives just back over the border in Norfolk with his wife and daughter. Mark also runs a company called East Anglian Murder Mysteries, giving customers a scripted whodunit play based around historical periods ranging from the Roman Empire to modern corporate, and locations ranging from 1960s London (Dead Groovy) to outer space.

He also worked in Norwich as a management consultant but said delving into its darkest days for his new book is much more fun, although he has no desire to try time travelling.

'I think we are living in the best age at the moment,' he said. 'I have no doubt that the streets of Norwich are safer now than in the past. While the perception and fear of crime is always with us, we can generally walk around in relative safety. That certainly wouldn't have been the case in earlier centuries.'

• The Norwich book in the Bloody British History series, by Mark Mower, is published this month by The History Press.

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