Zaks Waterside: The former Norwich mortuary on the river where a ghost has stayed to keep watch
PUBLISHED: 13:59 31 October 2020 | UPDATED: 15:44 31 October 2020
Once the city’s morgue, the building that now houses Zaks Waterside diner is infamous as one of Norwich’s most haunted buildings – Stacia Briggs and Siofra Connor of Weird Norfolk investigate.
Shadow figures seen in an old boathouse, objects moved by invisible hands, voices appearing from nowhere: something strange is afoot at Zaks Waterside.
On Barrack Street in Norwich, opposite Cow Tower and on a bend in the River Wensum is Zaks Waterside Grill and Bar, a bubblegum pink building which has been doing a lively trade in burgers and American-style food since 1988. Filled with neon signs, American memorabilia, a cheerful jukebox and cosy booths, Zaks Waterside is as far from the normal concept of a haunted house as you can imagine: but staff have reported a host of ghostly sightings.
“No one has ever been frightened and nothing unpleasant has ever happened but there have definitely been some strange things that have happened here,” says Chris Carr, co-owner of the Zaks chain with business partner Ian Hacon. Chris himself has (almost) met the in-house ghost: while working alone at the restaurant in the heart of lockdown earlier this year, he heard his name called.
“I assumed that someone had seen my car outside and come to the door. I was working at the back of the building, close to the boathouse which we use as a storeroom and I heard my name called. It was as clear as day.
“I made my way to the main door and there was no one there. There was no one anywhere because it at the time when everyone was staying indoors unless they were working. It was very odd.
“I wasn’t frightened, but I immediately thought of the ghost because it was the first thing that anyone said to me when I told them that we’d taken over at Waterside: ‘have you heard about the ghost?!’”
Staff members have reported glimpses of figures they cannot explain, objects being moved and in one case a jug “exploding” on a shelf – and hearing their names called and responding…before realising they are working alone. One staff member told Weird Norfolk that he had seen a very smartly-dressed, tall figure of a man with a top hat and shiny shoes, wearing what looked like Victorian clothes but what could have been traditional undertaker’s garb, close to the boathouse.
And then there’s THAT urban legend about the autopsy table still being in-situ at the restaurant, a rumour that Chris is VERY happy to put to bed.
“No!” he laughs, “that is most definitely not the case and never has been! In fact, the part of the building where the kitchen is now is an addition so was never part of the mortuary at all.
“All the strange things that have happened here seem to be in the boathouse, which isn’t used by the public at all. Part of it is obviously over the water, so it’s far colder than the rest of the building and it’s where most of the sightings have been.”
The restaurant is based in a small area – just outside the city walls – which was once known as Pockthorpe and which in the 18th century was notoriously rough, filled with foul-smelling yards and lined with pubs of ill repute, a place where riots were commonplace and fights frequent. But it was also an area with a huge amount of heart and pride – in the 19th century, the people of Pockthorpe would elect their own mock mayor and even have their own parades at which a Pockthorpe Snap Dragon would walk the streets. And it has, as far as records stretch back, boasted its own legion of ghosts.
After the Norman conquest, the area where Zaks is now was owned by the church and there was a large monastery and after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, it was reworked to become Laythe’s Hall and then Hassett’s Hall, owned by Thomas Blennerhassett. Built on raised ground with stone steps and a high stone wall enclosing the house and yards, a fragment of the wall that enclosed the hall remains to this day, at the site of Kett’s Hill roundabout. Beyond the wall were gardens and a boathouse: it is here that Zaks stands.
In a ghostly tale written by David Gurney in 1858, he records: “A strange tale ran that old Hassett often rode in his coach and four over Bishop Gate and when his whip cracked, flashes of fire came out which illuminated the whole city.
“A like tradition exists at Barsham in Suffolk where it is believed old Blunderhaard drives out every Christmas Eve just before midnight in a coach…to visit Hassett’s Tower (Cow Tower) at Norwich and to return to Barsham before…morning.”
And more ghostly stories are linked to this tiny corner of Norwich. A witness was recorded by Gurney as having seen “…an apparition of a dead body roll across the room” while there was reported to be a room in the hall which had been plastered shut: when opened, the two people breaking through the seal were struck blind.
After Hassett’s Hall was demolished in 1792, a cavalry barracks was built on the site of the house, the echoes of which can still be seen in road names on the 1960s housing estate that now occupies the place where it once stood. Gurney added: “Soldiers working in the cavalry barracks hospital, built on the site of Hassett’s Hall, often complained of strange, spiritual manifestations.”
In 1841, William Petch was publican of The Horse Barracks public house which stood where the St James’ Meadow riverside flats development is now. Between the pub and the river was a boatyard, which is first recorded under Petch’s name in 1845 and was where wherries were built: it became known as Petch’s Corner. Petch ran the business until 1865 and commercial river transport continued in Norwich until 1957 – in 1962, a three-storey late-Georgian terrace block called The Generals’ Buildings at Petch’s Corner collapsed after a fire (the alcoves of the houses can still be seen in the wall).
It’s not entirely clear when the city morgue was built – it appears likely it was built during the Second World War, as it boasts a bomb-proof concrete core – but the boathouse is listed on a 1907 map of the area. Used for many years as a mortuary and morgue, it became a place where children would dare each other to clamber up the walls and the roof to try to peek in for a glimpse of what lay within. After the opening of new facilities at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, the building on Barrack Street closed, reopening in April 1983 as the Jubilee Water Centre – by January 1984, it had closed. Before Zaks, which started operating in 1976 and now has three venues at Waterside, Poringland and Mousehold in Norwich, took over in 1988 the building housed Hippos restaurant.
Chris has invited a paranormal investigation team to visit Zaks Waterside for a private evening of careful study. Members of staff will attend the event alongside the investigators and Chris.
“I have an open mind,” he said, “too many people have reported seeing something close to the vicinity of the boathouse to rule out the idea that it’s all in their mind. But then again, it could just be the heating system!
“The investigation is the first of its kind that I am aware of and it will be really interesting to see if anything comes of it.
“All I can say is that I have spent a long time in here on my own and I have never felt scared even for a moment, even when I heard my name. I think that if something is here, it likes us!”
Weird Norfolk asked members of the Norwich Remembers Facebook group about their memories of the building which is now Zaks Waterside
John Hook: “It’s reputed to be haunted, we knew a guy who worked there in 1975. I remember him saying he went there for a job and lasted one night. He wouldn’t go back as things kept moving to a point he didn’t want to sleep in the dark.”
Julie Russell: “My dad helped convert it from a mortuary. He said it was haunted too! I just spoke to my sister who remembers it more. My Uncle bought it and turned it into Hippo’s. While they were doing this there was definitely a ‘weird’ feeling.”
Kenney Williams: “The Police launch was moored under the building, until it closed. In the 1980s it was going to be used as a Norwich water sports base. We, the Eastern Counties Sub Aqua Club cleared the riverbed up to Bishop’s Bridge and about 100 yards upstream. We had the keys to the building. And inside the tiled autopsy slabs were in still in situ, very spooky inside. It was the main mortuary for all deaths that required an autopsy, until the mortuary at the Norfolk and Norwich was built.”
Victoria Hopkins: “My great-grandfather was an undertaker, his workshop was on Bishopgate behind the big flint wall (now the Lower School playing field). My nan drove for him as he didn’t. She recalled collecting people from Barrack Streeet and definitely those who died from the bombings were taken here. Great-grandad had an old Austin and had taken the passenger seats out front and back so they could open the boot and use it as a hearse.”
Laurence Burton: “In the early 1980s my Scout group used it. Very spooky in there on your own when the mist came in!”
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