Five centuries of civic pride are embodied in Norwich Guildhall. From the 15th to the 20th centuries the it has housed courts, a prison, council hall, a tourist information centre and now a cafe and the headquarters of an organisation devoted to safeguarding the city’s heritage. Many of the prominent characters in the history of Norwich have been involved in its story.
In 1404 Norwich gained its Charter of Incorporation. Before that officials were under the authority of king’s sheriff. The charter gave burgesses the right to elect a mayor, collect taxes, hold law courts and enjoy city status. Norwich was among the first in the country to win this honour, reflecting its large population – up to 10,000 at the time. The city fathers decided to construct a splendid building to house its civic government. It was to be the largest, and probably most expensive, outside London. Since the Normans had remodelled the city, the market place had been the centre of economic life, and it was fitting the guildhall should stand there.
The only public building existing was a toll house for collecting market dues, the brick undercroft of which survives in the present Guildhall. Space was at a premium; elections, for example, had to be held in Chapel Fields. Local government, then as now, has a habit of expanding. The city’s new charter meant it held two courts; one heard cases including land, property and debts, while the Mayor held a Court of Equity, hearing appeals from lower courts, cases on apprenticeship, trade regulations and byelaws. Space had to be found for Quarter Sessions as well as Royal Justices when visiting Norwich. Council meetings involved up to 100 members, so a separate chamber was needed, and there was the little matter of holding prisoners.
The city’s elite merchants took control. According to 18th century historian Francis Blomefield, “in 1407, John Daniel, Robert Brasier and 22 more were elected to consult how to raise money to build the guildhall”.
Master mason John Marowe was first to be hired, then Walter Daniel and Robert Dunston were elected to supervise. A total of 24 people were authorised to raise taxes and press citizens to work “every day from 5 o’clock in the morning to 8 at night”. This was not as draconian as it sounds – in medieval times there was a tradition of willing communal co-operation on major works. Progress was swift, with work soon starting on the second storey. Work began in 1407 to house courts and prisoners plus space for accounts, tax collectors and record storage. Within two years the roof was on; three years later the prisoners went in. Work went on until 1453. In all, it cost a pretty penny, paid for by taxes, gifts and legacies. Only the skilled craftsmen, masons and carpenters got a wage.
Four city Mayors were major suppliers of materials such as lead. These days that would be seen as a conflict of interests, but that did not bother medieval citizens.
It was made from flint rubble faced with knapped flints laid in mortar and packed with flint chippings. The Guildhall was so good it lasted for centuries. Magistrates sat there until 1977, and prisoners were housed as late as 1980. It had three chambers big enough for court rooms. Its design was influenced by the Low Countries, with whose great merchant cities Norwich was linked economically and culturally. For a century all was well, but in 1511 the roof of the Mayor’s court collapsed. Its design may have been to blame, maybe the undercroft of the old toll house was inadequate to bear the weight above it. It took 20 years before the energetic Augustine Steward, three times mayor of the city, began reconstruction, funded by private gifts and donations.
By the end of the 15th century the building comprised a large ground floor hall, known as the ‘free prison’
because occupants were unchained, with separate prisons for men and women. Less fortunate prisoners were chained at the lowest level. Down Gaol Hill was the pillory where criminals stood until at least 1679. Religious reformer Thomas Bilney spent his last night at the Guildhall in 1531 before being burnt at the stake. This being a religious age, a small chapel was used for chantries and prisoners with a priest appointed to lead worship daily. It was dedicated to St Barbara, patron saint of prisoners.
On the first floor were two main halls used for council meetings and court rooms. The larger assembly chamber had a long room with a dais at the end opposite the door and a private room behind. A porch stood on the south side of building, two storeys high. There were no kitchens – food was brought over from the nearby Common Inn. The Guildhall had few heating facilities, braziers were used even for council meetings. Space was still at a premium. A big brick fish hall stood until demolition 1915. In 1726 it was recorded that “the tanners lay their hides against the barbers’ shop at the end of the hall being a great nuisance” Most of the prisoners relocated to what became the public library opposite (now a restaurant).
The 18th century brought a new lease of life. Palladian columns were added outside the council chamber, and the city’s armoury was housed in the Sword Room. The Georgian interior stayed, but the exterior was rebuilt in the Victorian Gothic fashionable in the late 19th century. In 1911 the building had a narrow escape – a resolution to demolish it was defeated. The council stayed there until the new city hall was built in 1938. The ground floor housed the tourist information centre before its move to the Forum; today it is a restaurant. In 2005 Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART) moved to the Guildhall, describing it as one of the 12 ‘great and good’ buildings of Norwich