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Life in the Norwich slums of yesteryear

PUBLISHED: 14:25 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 08:39 02 July 2010

Ladies in Globe Yard, 37 - 41 Botolph St, which was demolished in the 1960s to make way for Anglia Square. Photo: Norfolk Library and Information Service.

Ladies in Globe Yard, 37 - 41 Botolph St, which was demolished in the 1960s to make way for Anglia Square. Photo: Norfolk Library and Information Service.

Kim Briscoe

It is hard to believe that a hundred years ago Norwich city centre was brimming with slums, but that was the reality for thousands of people who lived in the city's many yards.

Beckwith's Court/Yard was between Palace St (side of Cathedral) and Quayside/River Wensum. Named after John Christmas Beckwith (1750 - 1809) who conducted at Norwich Festival and was organist at Norwich Cathedral and St Peter Mancroft.Photo: Norfolk Libra

It is hard to believe that a hundred years ago Norwich city centre was brimming with slums, but that was the reality for thousands of people who lived in the city's many yards.

Homes were crammed into small yards leading off the major streets and behind ageing properties within the old city wall and in 1900 there were 750 of these yards, each of which could house up to 30 people, often in impoverished and unsanitary conditions.

Now a new project has charted the social history of Norwich's yards.

During 2009 Norwich Heritage Projects, a small of voluntary enthusiasts who combine local historical resource with modern technology, undertook work to collect information on the yards, interviewing people who lived in them or visited them, many on film.

On Thursday, March 18, Frances Holmes will be presenting the culmination of the research at a talk at Dragon Hall, in King Street.

Mrs Holmes, 48, from Cringleford, said: “We wanted to look at the social history of the yards and involve a bit of oral history too.

“The yards would often have a pump in the middle of them and all the families would share the loos and wash houses.

“Although the people were forced to live in poverty they had pride and the majority made the most of what they had.

“There was huge community spirit in the yards and they took great pride in keeping what little they had clean, well cared for and looked after.”

The yards were spread throughout the area within the city walls, although the largest concentration was found in the Coslany, Pockthorpe and St Martins districts. They also existed in large numbers in the King Street and Ber Street areas.

Mrs Holmes' husband Michael was also involved in researching the project.

His mother was born in Finch's Yard, off Pottergate, and lived there until she moved to Woodcock Road as part of the clearance of the slums and new council house building.

He said: “My grandfather went to war in 1914 and when he came back there were no homes fit for heroes so he moved in next to my great grandparents. It was fairly typical of the yards to have several members of the same family in one yard.

“My mother, Dorothy Howell, was born in the yard in 1921 and they lived there through the 20s which were desperate times for a lot of people in Norwich.

“There was a lot of unemployment, very severe poverty and medical conditions weren't so good, for example there was a lot of rickets in the yards.”

A massive slum clearance scheme was begun in the 1920s and 1930s to eliminate these Norwich slums as the families were re-housed in council estates which still survive today on the outskirts of the city, including Mile Cross, the first council estate in England.

Many of the yards that survived these clearances were bombed in the second world war but evidence of them can still be seen today, for example Labour in Vain Yard and the names of yards can still be seen across the city.

The talk, which costs £5 or £4 for Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust members, will start at 7.30pm.

Places can be booked by calling Dragon Hall on 01603 663922.

Do you have a story about a heritage project? Contact reporter Kim Briscoe on 01603 772419 or email kim.briscoe@archant.co.uk.

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