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Weird Norfolk: A hidden world underneath our feet, a secret door that hundreds of us pass every day and the dark story of the city's Bridewell

PUBLISHED: 18:30 18 February 2019 | UPDATED: 10:00 20 February 2019

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2019

Weird Norfolk takes a tour of the Bridewell's Undercroft, where fascinating stories of merchants and misery await.

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

It’s a subterranean world in the heart of Norwich that was once a holding cell for criminals, “lewd women”, beggars and those fighting their own private demons and a place where children who were whipped and salted by a cruel master were brought to safety.

A hidden world underneath our feet and the secret door that hundreds of us pass in Norwich every day without noticing

The stone steps lead to a honeycomb of underground rooms that snake out beneath Norwich’s Bridewell, the thick walls filled with the secrets of hundreds of years.

The undercroft at the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell is the largest of the 60 that have been discovered beneath city buildings – at 300m square, it harks back to the prosperous days of merchants who traded from the houses where they lived, opening up spaces underground to sell their precious wares.

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft. Graffiti dated 1945, probably from when the undercroft was used as an air-raid shelter. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft. Graffiti dated 1945, probably from when the undercroft was used as an air-raid shelter. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Early documents reveal that the site was once lived on by Thomas de Strumpshaw, rector of next-door St Andrew’s Church, in 1302 but, as Norwich blossomed to become one of Britain’s largest towns with a population of 6,000 and a thriving wool trade, by 1325 the Bridewell was the site of a fine townhouse with its own undercroft.

Wealthy merchant Geoffrey de Salle needed a fire-proof, impressive space in which to display the goods he had to sell and Bridewell Alley, as it is called today, had already become the vibrant shopping area which it remains today.

Many undercrofts in Norwich were used as cloth merchants’ store rooms and would have been airy spaces filled with light from ground level and approached via stairs – when potential buyers stepped underground, their eyes would have met an Aladdin’s Cave of woven riches, jewel-like colours, intricate patterns, the best that the Norfolk weavers could create.

By 1386, the townhouse was owned by city bailiff William Appleyard who extended both the above-ground property and the undercroft, adding rooms below ground to make six chambers, possibly in two building phases. When Norwich was given self-government in 1403, Appleyard became the first city Mayor, a post he held six times.

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft, found underneath the flint building. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell undercroft, found underneath the flint building. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Today, the only remains of the original house are a handful of stone arches, the undercroft, the stunning square-knapped flint north wall and a mysterious medieval door on nearby St Andrew’s Hill which used to be an entrance to the Bridewell – you may have passed it hundreds of times without a second thought.

In 1583, the City of Norwich bought the townhouse for use as a correctional facility, or Bridewell. The name reflects the first such institution of its kind, which was built in London as a response to the increasing numbers of destitute people in the mid-16th century.

When King Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, he effectively removed the support system which had been in place for those unable to look after themselves. Swiftly, a solution was required, the first stage of which was to categorise the poor on whether or not they were “deserving”.

With the ‘welfare system’ in disarray, common land being seized by the wealthy and a series of bad harvests, there were growing numbers of people in desperate need of help.

In the Parish of St Brides, close to St Brides’s inn or well in London, Henry VIII had built a palace that had become known as the Bridewell Palace and which was one of his homes early in his reign for eight years. It was later given to the City of London Corporation by his son King Edward VI for use as an orphanage and ‘place of correction’ for wayward women.

Like an early workhouse, it was used to hold the “thriftless and destitute” poor and when similar institutions were set up across the country, they took the same name.

By the 1570s, a fifth of Norwich’s population was dependant on charity – a figure that didn’t take into account the vagrants living unofficially in Norwich. When the city gained its own Bridewell, it was a building at a hospital close to the modern-day Puppet Theatre, but it was swiftly outgrown by demand – so it moved into the city.

Provision was made for the poor so that they had somewhere to eat, sleep and work – a huge emphasis was placed on people earning their keep with women trained in millinery, spinning and carding fleece for wool or prepared for jobs in service while men learned how to grind malt and cut wood.

Life at the Bridewell was hard: residents worked from 5am to 8pm during the summer and from 7am to 6pm in the winter and refusal to do so led to punishment – there were stocks, whipping posts, a chair for “unruly persons”, two pairs of manicles and two pairs of shackles, much of which was kept in the undercroft.

Many found themselves in the Bridewell for ‘crimes’ such as being mentally ill, living ‘in sin’ or having illegitimate children (only women were punished) while others were taken there for their own safety: in 1587, three children apprenticed to Christian Aston were brought to the establishment after their master “grievously beat them and salted them after their beatings”.

In 1621, Margaret Caley was brought to the Bridewell after a row with her landlord in the marketplace: records reveal how she “did revile and miscall Christopher Gyles, and often clasped her hand on her backside, and badd him kiss there”. When it comes to insults, the old ones are the best.

When a fire destroyed the majority of the building in 1751, the undercroft was untouched. Above decks, the Bridewell was rebuilt and opened as a prison and then closed again in 1828 when the inmates were transferred into the new City Gaol, now the site of the Roman Catholic Cathedral on Earlham Road. The building became a tobacco and snuff factory, a leather warehouse and, finally, a Bowhill’s shoe factory until 1923.

The last industrialist owner, Henry Holmes gave the building to the city, to be used for a different purpose, it opened as a museum in 1925 that showcased local crafts and industries – the undercroft did see people crowded inside in the dark once more: it was used as a private air raid shelter during World War Two.

Tours of the undercroft are run three times a day on the last Saturday of each month. The tours are free with museum admission and last around 45 minutes – book on 01603 629127. The tours are unsuitable for children under the age of eight and due to steep steps and uneven floors, also unsuitable for people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility.

With thanks to Susie Childerhouse with Norfolk Museums Service for additional information.

The Merchants’ Vaults at The Museum of Norwich is an interactive escape game held in the undercroft

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