The Norwich house owned by more than 5,000 local women

Thousands of Norfolk WI members (including a certain royal one) have had a stake in a very special building for 60 years. But the building has a longer history than that, as Sally Rod� reports

There is a house in the heart of Norwich that's owned by more than 5,000 women.

This year Evelyn Suffield House, or 45 All Saints Green, is celebrating 60 years as the home of Norfolk Women's Institutes – a Diamond Jubilee it shares with the Queen who, as a Norfolk WI member, is one of the owners.

Sally Paramour, chairman of the Norfolk Federation of WIs and an EDP columnist, said: 'To be able to work in this beautiful and historic house is a real privilege. The women who decided to buy the property in 1952 showed great foresight and the �4,000 purchase price was raised entirely by WI members. This is their house.'

But the house's story began back in 1788 when musician John Reeve bought the land on what was then known as Upper Surrey Street. It was an empty piece of land and it was becoming fashionable to build large homes with room for a garden. A number of comfortable homes were already appearing in the area, several designed by renowned architect Thomas Ivory.

Listed in the 1783 Norwich Directory as a Music Master, not a great deal is known about John Reeve. It appears that 18 years before he bought the land Mr Reeve was paid one guinea a week for writing 'musick whenever there shall be Occasion' according to the Committee Book of the Theatre Royal, Norwich.

Norwich was, even then, a flourishing cultural centre, with frequent newspaper advertisements for concerts in the Assembly Rooms and public gardens. There were four Pleasure Gardens in Norwich at the time and music was taught in schools or by private tutors to ladies and gentlemen of all ages.

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Certainly John Reeve made enough money to purchase the land and build his substantial home with 'yard, garden, outhouses, edifices and other appurtenances' as the estate agent's blurb recorded later. In 1798 the property was sold to carpenter James Dobson for �630. Mr Dobson died in 1822 and the estate was sold to John Athow, a stonemason. But it wasn't many years before Mr Athow died and the estate was sold to Thomas Bacon, iron founder, in 1834.

While the industrial revolution appeared to bypass Norwich in favour of the Midlands and the North, Mr Bacon had faith in steam power and alongside the house he build foundry buildings, workshops, warehouses and stables. He never really saw his dream come to fruition because he died six years after buying the property. His industrial buildings were demolished in the 1960s/1970s.

One of several owners of the land from 1841 to 1866 was Charles Evans, a barrister and Chancellor of the Diocese. He made a covenant stating that the land and house could not be used as a public house or beer shop 'or any noisy, noisome or offensive trade to be carried on' within 20 feet of the northern boundary!

From 1841 to 1902 the house was leased to solicitor Peter Day who used the ground floor front rooms as offices with his family living in the rest of the property. The 1841 census has Mr Day living in the property with Alfred Day (25) also a solicitor, Emily Day and four servants. Alfred Day is shown living at the house well into his 80s. The Day family owned 45 All Saints Green for 61 years, but the WI is approaching its 61st year of ownership – the longest custodians of an historic property.

Doctor Starling took over the lease of the house in 1902 and he bought the property in 1913 for �640. Dr Starling was a keen motorist because details of the sale show a garage and plinth for the parking and cleaning of automobiles.

The doctor, who because a consultant in 1939, died in 1950 and it was from his widow that the WI bought the property for �4,000.

Over the past 60 years WI members across the county have contributed to the repairs, maintenance and improvement of the house which is now used to showcase WI products and handicrafts, host meetings and training sessions or as a peaceful haven in the middle of the city where women can enjoy a quiet cuppa!

The house is named after Lady Evelyn Suffield who was chairman of the Norfolk Federation of Women's Institutes from 1919 to 1945.

Sally added: 'The WI is changing. We have new and younger members across the county and the organisation has already established itself as a campaigning force to be reckoned with. But amid this change the central hub of the WI in Norfolk remains the stable focal point for the WI where ideas are talked about and laughter is heard.'