Norwich Building Control Plans Indexing Project: a Volunteer’s Musings

As someone who loves studying twentieth century British social history (and has ambitions to become an archivist!), volunteering at the Norfolk Record Office was an opportunity I couldn’t resist.

Participating in the Norwich building control plans indexing project (NRO, N/EN 12/1) is both interesting and instructive. Each volunteer is assigned a box of building plans each week of the project. Predictably, much of the assignment deals with simply transcribing a street name, the architect or building contractor involved, and whether the application was ultimately approved or denied, and on what grounds. However, while doing the transcription work, there are occasions when the details in a given plan arrest my attention. Notations about the behaviour of some of the applicants, their premature and ramshackle erections and property amendments, their attempts (or lack of) to obtain approval for their new additions from neighbouring property owners were informative relative to the building regulation practices of the day. Also, when comparing the plans it is possible to detect some notable trends, for example the push towards greater sanitation and hygiene with the introduction of indoor toilets at the turn of the twentieth century.

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Correspondence from a neighbour criticising the untidy appearance of Mr Mutimer’s shed. NRO, N/EN 12/1/1/3519


I am often charmed by the intricate and precise architectural drawings that communicate the ideas and ambitions for the building project. Conventionally, these drawings are made in ink on tracing paper, coated linen or a similar material, and any additional copies had to be laboriously made by hand. The development of computer-aided design may have made manual drawing almost obsolete, but something quite beautiful remains in the complex geometry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sketches and drawings.

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Plan of the proposed houses at Unthank Road for R.H. Flood. NRO, N/EN 12/1/3525

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Plan for the proposed house and shop at Denbigh Road. NRO, N/EN 12/1/3509



This project has certainly enhanced my appreciation for building control and the many stages that an application must pass through before a building assignment can be considered for approval. I have had the opportunity to get to know directly and in a ‘special’ way an aspect of Norwich’s social and economic history, and become part of a project that will open up this compelling collection to users via the online catalogue.

Compiled by NRO Volunteer and Research Blogger, Hollie Wilson





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A Walker’s Guide to 19th Century Snowdonia

In this day and age holidays in the UK are taken for granted. The combination of high living standards, low travelling costs and easy access to the European mainland (at least for now!) has allowed for increasing number of British citizens to explore the world around them. In fact, the Office of National Statistics published records stating that 45 million people enjoyed a holiday last year; that’s 69% of the population.[1] It’s hard to think of a time when holidaying either abroad or locally was rare and reserved solely for those richest in society.

This diary of an unknown individual and his/her travelling partner, Eliza, gives us an insight into holidaying in its earliest formations (NRO, ENF/Z 1). Believed to have been written c.1809-1829 the two travellers took their trip in a time of booming seaside tourism.[2] However, this was not the case with the Northern Welsh lands they explored, which would not see a development in tourism until after the Chester to Holyhead Railway in 1848.[3] Instead what we have is a very in-depth, romantic description of the rural region that will persuade you to choose beautiful North Wales for your next holiday.

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Map created showing the outline of the travellers’ journey


Following the map I drew up from reading the entries, we can see the pair started off from the River Mersey and moved on through the Vale of Clwyd to Abergele. The first landmark they come to is Conwy Castle. As told by the narrator this is one of Edward I’s many Welsh castles (and is still a popular tourist site today). What is truly fascinating though, is the anecdotes that the writer includes in their journey. Either avid historians or lovers of stories, Eliza and her companion are certainly well-versed in the folk-tales of the region. The writer tells us Conwy Castle was besieged by Oliver Cromwell, who supposedly discovered a pipe that led up to (what is thought to be) Queen Eleanor’s dressing room. By cutting said pipe Cromwell was able to force the garrison to surrender and victory was his.

The pair carried on towards the town of Beddgellert which took them directly past Snowdon. Here the writer describes the ‘swampy plains’ and ‘beautiful vallies’, comparing their fertility to the ‘heathy barren and rocky’ mountains which seem like the ‘ruins of a vast amphitheatres’. The visual imagery is immense, almost transporting the reader to those very valleys. In one of these valleys lies Gellert’s grave. This legend tells of Llewelyn who came home one day to see his child’s cradle upturned, blood on the floor and Gellert (his dog) with blood on his mouth. In his rage Llewelyn drew his sword and killed Gellert, thinking he had mauled his child. Yet, hearing the baby’s cries, Llewelyn turned the cradle over to find the baby unharmed and a wolf lying dead beside it. A common legend still told today, yet somehow in context with the dynamic descriptions of the Welsh country it seems more magical.


The description of the famous Ladies of Llangollen


From then on the adventure continues with a week-long visit to Caenarfon for the birthplace of Edward II, and a pony ride up Snowden with a stunning view of the Sygun copper mines and Llanberris Lake. As shown on the map the couple move South, running into more ancient castles and beautiful landscapes until they reach their final location: Llangollen. The incident they describe here is actually an extremely important historical insight into women of the time. What they witness is two ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, proceeding through the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey with ‘wands’ of flowers. These women were the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ who had deserted their life in Irish society to live together in the late 1770s. Described as the ‘two most celebrated virgins in Europe’ they had completely upturned the conventional ideas of society life by opting to seclude themselves and to live together in which some have believed to be a lesbian relationship. However, instead of rejection from society the ladies enjoyed the attentions of curious philanthropists, politicians and, on one occasion, the Princess of Wales. Poets such as Lord Byron and Wordsworth even dedicated some of their works to them.[4]

What is clear from this diary is that these two travellers were living at a time of great cultural shift: the concept of family holidays were growing and, more importantly, a differing attitude towards women and social structure. In this short journey through the North of Wales they have seen evidence of significant historical events as early as Edward I right through to the famous Ladies Butler and Ponsonby, and tales of folklore along the way. This is the beauty of Britain: stunning views with a local history waiting to be told.

So the next time you decide to take the family away for a few days, think of Wales.

[1] Table 5.01 from 2016, ‘UK Residents Visits Abroad’, Office of National Statistics, (Last Accessed 04/07/2017)

[2] Fred Inglis, The Delicious History of the Holiday (London, 2000), p.16.

[3] Tim Gale, ‘Modernism, Post-Modernism and the Decline of British Seaside Resorts as Long Holiday Destinations: A Case Study of Rhyl, North Wales’, Tourism Geographies 7 (2005) p.95.

[4] Coyle, Eugene, ‘Lifestyles: The Irish Ladies of Llangollen: ‘the two most celebrated virgins in Europe’’, History Ireland 23, p. 18.

Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Sorrel Robertson


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From Medieval Churches to Victorian Railways: A Recap of the First Half of the Autumn Term

Hope everyone enjoyed their half term break and returned to school relaxed and refreshed.

We had a really good start to the school year, with a number of schools visiting The Archive Centre and staff going out to see some of you in your classrooms, including Woodlands Primary School and Happisburgh Primary School.

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Learning about the impact of the railway on Cromer


We have ran our first two Drawing Norwich’s Churches workshops. Year 5 and 6 pupils from both Hempnall Primary School and Shelton with Hardwick Community School and Year 6 pupils from Great Dunham Primary School spend their mornings working with two local artists in order to take inspiration from our current exhibition.

Pupils started by creating three ‘thumbnail’ sketches on anything in the Long Gallery. Many chose to sketch items in the exhibition, but other drawings included the Long Gallery itself and one of the fire extinguishers. Once they had completed the initial sketches the pupils used their detective skills to work out the theme of the exhibition. Pupils also spent some time considering the works of other famous artists before creating a number of other drawings. The workshop allowed time for the class and the artists to critique some of the pupils’ work before children moved on to their final drawing which was displayed in the Green Room.

The pupils had a great time during the workshop, and learnt a number of valuable lessons. Feedback included:

‘I learnt that not all art has to be complex’

‘[I learnt about] smudging the charcoal on my drawing and using different tones’

‘I got better at drawing’

‘[I learnt that] every picture doesn’t have to be perfect’

‘[I learnt] to concentrate more’

We look forward to welcoming the final two schools for their Drawing Norwich’s Churches workshops next week.

Hingham Primary School also visited The Archive Centre for a History of your Village workshop. As a start to their Victorian Hingham topic, the class found out about people in their village from the census and trade directory. Next they looked at original documents showing a variety of Victorian schools in Norfolk in preparation for looking at the history of their own school, which is a former Victorian Board School. The documents included an exercise book of Thomas R Salmon, c. 1865, a Plan of Narburgh and Narford School, 1870, and monthly attendance forms for Catfield School, 1899-1900. The pupils found the latter document particularly interesting, as it showed how many children were absent around this time of year in order to help with the harvest.

All our slots for school workshops for the remainder of this term are currently fully booked, but we are already taking bookings for Spring 2018. We look forward to seeing some of you over the next couple of weeks.


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‘An Infestation of Rats’ A History of Investigating Witchcraft in Norfolk

As Halloween approaches thoughts turn towards witches and ghosts. A number of references to both have been recorded in the archives. The parish register for Wells next the Sea (PD 679/1) records the burials of fourteen men in December 1583. According to the register these men

‘[Perished] upo[n] ye west coaste co[m]ming fro[m] spaine whose deathes were brought to pas by the detestable woorking of an execrable witch of Kings Lynn whose name was mother gable, by the boylyng or rather labouring of certayn eggs in a payle full of colde water’. The incumbent continues by stating that the case was ‘approved sufficientlye at the araignement of the saide witch’.

One document (C/S 3/box 41a) was used as evidence in the court case of Christopher Hall, in 1654. Norfolk Archaeology, volume 30 gives a transcription of the case. One witness, John Smithbourne, stated that ‘about 10 weekes since his wife [had] a very great sore upon her breast’. This had troubled her for two years and prevented her from working. In order to find a cure ‘he was perswaded by his sister… and others to go to Hall of Harpley a shooemaker who was reported to be a wise and cuning man to be advised by him concerning his wifes illness’.

Hall claimed the problem was the work of a witch. The next day he went to Smithbourne’s house and ‘desiring to see this informts wifes breast he says he could do her no great good butt gaue her a powder to use and send her a paper wch was written to weare about her’.

It is this piece of paper, containing circular symbols, which has found its way into the archives. The large number of pin holes in the document show Smithbourne’s wife must have followed the instructions and attached the paper to her clothes. However, whether she was cured remains a mystery.

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Extract from Norfolk Quarter Sessions Roll, 1654. NRO, C/S 3/box 41a


Ghost stories also crop up in the archives. In 1957, Revd Fourdrinier was asked to investigate ghostly activity recorded over 100 years earlier in Syderstone pasonage. His investigation (MC 5/6, 386X6) revealed that twice people had reported seeing the ghost of Revd William Mantle, the curate in 1797. Staff and house guests had also heard noises during the night. William Ofield described noises ‘resembling the dragging of furniture about the room accompanied with the fall of some heavy object on the floor’. Phoebe Steward ‘plainly heard the footstep as of someone walking from the sleeping-room door, down the stairs, step by step, to the door of the sitting room below;… she distinctly heard the sitting room door open and the chair placed near one the windows moved and the shutters opened, but on going downstairs found everything as she had left it.’ These noises apparently stopped for months before reoccuring.

Some felt the noises were the work of a hoax by household members. However, Revd Fourdrinier concludes the noises had been made by sudden infestations of rats, accounting for the stopping and starting. What do you believe?

Sleep well tonight!

First published in the Eastern Daily Press, October 2006

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‘Even some pressed seaweed’ – A historical student’s revelation.

This is the wonder of archives: you never know what you might find. I was lucky enough to study an early 19th century document which combined a variety of wonderful elements including diary entries, poetry, drawings, a butterfly fact file, and even some pressed seaweed! Although I enjoyed reading through this eclectic collection, it did make starting to create a blog post that much more daunting – where was I to start?

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‘Even some pressed seaweed’. NRO, BUL 7/20, 615×1


These papers were from a women named Mary Anne Lee Warner (NRO, BUL 7/20, 615X1). From flicking through her pages it is easy to see she had a very curious and creative mind. She was eager to study and explore nature as shown in her writings on the various types of butterflies and moths. It is also clear that she loved to express this passion for nature in a variety of original ways, in her poetry and – my favourite – in her pressed seaweed pictures.

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Butterfly Fact File. NRO, BUL 7/20, 615×1


It was extremely interesting to read this document, but looking at an early 19th century document from the perspective of a history student realised itself in an attempt to analyse and explain all elements about the life of Mary Anne Lee Warner and what this reveals to us about society at the time. Whilst reading this document I was eagerly scavenging for as much information as this document would reveal to me. It does show us a deeply personal snapshot into someone’s life, her personality and her interests, but I could not help myself wanting to know more. And then I discovered something to change my way of thinking.

Recently I was looking through my aunt’s house and her enormous collection of diaries, scrapbooks and notebooks. One such folder that I enjoyed immensely was a scrapbook of all her teddy bears. It was a hugely decorative document with detailed descriptions of each one’s appearance and origin all accompanied with various photographs, tickets and leaflets. It could also be described as a snapshot of her life but through her teddy bears- a collection of where she brought them, why and what was happening in her life at that time. It was looking at this marvellous collection that changed how I was to view the papers of Mary Anne Lee Warner. Previously, I was looking at the document wanting it to give me answers but now I realise it doesn’t necessarily have to have these answers. My aunt did not create this book for any other reason than enjoyment just as Mary Anne Lee Warner did not scribe down her musings for any other reason than her enjoyment. She did not write it in mind of a history student reading it 200 years later. She wrote it because it gave her pleasure, and that, perhaps, is the greatest reason of them all.

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Look at the handwriting! NRO, BUL 7/20, 615×1


The next time I looked through this document, I just enjoyed it. I marvelled at the huge difference in handwriting from then and now (and also struggled to decipher it!), enjoyed the range of poetry (especially the Valentine’s poem for a dear Frank), and amazed at her delicate drawings (and very much envied her artistic talent). Apart from struggling to read it, it was as if it was just a piece I’d discovered in my aunt’s collection, to be loved and enjoyed, and I thoroughly did. It did inspire me to try harder to do more things purely for pleasure and for intellectual curiosity and I would encourage others to do the same. Happiness is the best reason to do anything, whether that’s reading someone else’s works or creating your own collection of pressed seaweed.

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‘Love Blinding Innocence’. BUL 7/20, 615×1


Compiled by NRO Research Blogger Eve Staton

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John Bilby: Norwich’s Travelling Hairdresser

It can be suggested that autobiographical records are amongst the most personal and private forms of document available within an archive, this allowing researchers to obtain new information on the period in question. Therefore, it can be claimed that John Bilby’s handwritten notebook is no exception to this concept (NRO, MC 27/2, 501X4).

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Front page of John Bilby’s notebook. NRO, MC 27/1, 501×4


John Bilby, a self-titled hair cutter and dresser, was born on the 27th of October 1801 in the town of Great Yarmouth. His personal notebook follows his life story from the age of 12 months old, at which age his family first took up residence in Norwich on Ber Street (and later in King Street). Bilby appears to organise his own family history into a series of descriptive lists which focus on particular events such as the marriage and death of his parents and the lives of his siblings. It is within these explanatory lists that Bilby first references his transition to an apprentice haircutter from an errand boy to Mr Willement of ‘St Georges’.

 ‘On the 20th day of Augt 1815 = I was bound out Apprentice to Mr. Mason. Tailor and hair dresser of King Street in Norwich’.

 ‘I was with my master (Mr. Mason.) but two years before we disagreed’ ‘I was then turned over to one Mr. Hewett – hair cutter and dresser’.

In addition to these life events, Bilby also appears to include information on techniques and skills which have aided him in his apprenticeship as a haircutter and dresser. For instance, particular remedies for both cuts and bruises have been listed along with the accurate measurements and preparation techniques required. However, in contrast to the serious stance Bilby took towards his job title, it appears that in some cases he was able to find humour within the situation. For instance, a poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair In Norwich’ humorously describes how women often denied that they wore false hair even though Bilby often knew ‘Where She Bought It’.

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Short poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair in Norwich. NRO, MC 27/2, 501×4


In comparison to the personal and autobiographical nature of the opening entry of the notebook it appears that when reversed, the document begins to function as a travel diary in which Bilby is able to describe in detail the journeys he undertook during 1828. His excursions (and the activities which he participated in) are clearly noted in the ‘Contents’ page provided for the reader. One particular trip which appears to be discussed in its entirety is Bilby’s trip to Lincoln, a city situated within the East Midlands. The Hairdresser describes the nature of the city in depth, from the ‘very troublesome’ upper and lower streets which were considerably hard to navigate to the imposing cathedral which stands on a hill so high, that it can be ‘seen in six counties round’. 50 miles to the North and 30 miles to the South’. Observations such as these are also employed to describe the cities and towns of Nottingham, Peterborough and Newark which Bilby further travelled to during 1828.

Furthermore, a change in writing style can also be observed throughout the later entries of the journal. This appears to signify John Bilby’s passing whom the subsequent writer remarks on in an entry dated 1839.

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Excerpt referencing John Bilby’s death. NRO, MC 27/2, 501×4


Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Millie Sutton

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On your shelf – An Edith Cavell treasure?

Picture of Edith Cavell as a young woman

Edith Cavell as a young woman

Nurse Cavell was shot in Brussels in October 1915 for helping 200 allied soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium to neutral Holland.

Maltese composer Paolino Vassallo (1856-1923) wrote a three act opera on Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell which was performed in 1927.

Christina Gauci in Malta is researching Vassallo’s work and has sought our help in finding this opera’s score.

The Norfolk Record Office has leather- bound original manuscripts for the first two acts, pictured below. These were acquired in an auction in 1941 but no further details on their provenance are available.

Image showing Showing bindings and frontispiece NRO, MS 21153

Showing bindings and frontispiece of ‘Melodrama’ by Paolino Vassallo. NRO, MS 21153

Where is the third manuscript – the all-important act 3?

Is it on your library shelves, unopened for many a year? Contact the Record Office via if you can help us unravel this mystery.

Nick Miller, Keeper of the Cavell memorabilia for St Mary’s Church Swardeston

Image showing NRO, MS 21153 example of score from vol 1

Example score from vol 1. NRO, MS 21153

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The experiences of the Earl of Albemarle during the Boer War: Part 3

After visiting the wounded from the previous days, Albemarle and his men marched back to Pretoria where they were provided with fresh clothes. That day the Earl also caught a glimpse of Baden-Powell, the future founder of the Scouts, who had rode from Mafeking.  After leaving Pretoria, marching to Irene and then to the mining town of De Springs, Albemarle regretfully was forced to leave 122 exhausted men behind before marching again. ‘They are really trying us too high. Many of our men are completely done up and utterly collapsed’, he reported sadly, ‘They have toiled on until they could do so no longer, and some of the men had tears in their eyes on being left behind the Battalion’. By the time the battalion reached Heidelberg, Albemarle solemnly reported a dramatic drop in the amount of men accompanying him, ‘The strength of the Battalion is now 604 men and 22 officers. When we left London, it was 1,048 men and about 30 officers’.


Near Pretoria. NRO ACC Albermarle 2/6/69

As the men marched on, signs of what would define the agonising second part of the Boer War would come into play. ‘We burnt two farms on the way, one of which was a model one, belonging to a Heidelberg potentate, who was out on commando’. The practise of burning Boer farms became all too common in the latter stages of the Boer War and was known as ‘scorched earth policy’. This tactic had previously been used in the American Civil War to great effect but not to the extremes that the British army would resort to which included sending the inhabitants to what are regarded as the first concentration camps. Although they had a different purpose to those in Nazi Germany, the death toll was frighteningly high and news of such atrocities caused other nations to see the British as barbarians.

Like what became of many British horses in the Boer War Albemarle commented that his steeds were ‘little more than skeletons now’ yet was happy that his remaining men were better fed and that their health was ‘pretty good’. For three weeks the men were entrenched at Heilbron where the men were involved with garrison work, anticipating any Boer attack that may arise. During this time officers and men would often indulge in cricket or football whenever they could have a break from their duties. Suddenly however, the garrison was forced to leave Heilbron. During the evacuation the enemy watched the British from the hills. To avoid bloodshed they took Boer hostages alongside them, warning the enemy that if they they were shot at, the hostages would also be shot, ‘They were all mighty frightened’ commented Albemarle. Fortunately for the British and their scared prisoners, they were met with no disturbance from the enemy.

Upon arriving in Friedrichstad an unusual event occurred in which a Boer rode towards Albermarle’s men with a white flag, uttering the words ‘surrender’. At first the earl was flattered for he thought the enemy was offering their submission before realising that it was ‘we who were expected to surrender and not the Boers’. Quickly the man was blindfolded and confined under a guard. Before long the battalion alongside the Yeomanry came into contact with the man’s comrades. They were driven back by the British guns but not before two men were killed while attending to a wounded yeoman, one of which being a stretcher bearer. The British then burnt around ‘eight or nine’ farms in revenge for the ‘murder’ of an engineer and two Kaffirs who were mending the way close to the village of Buffelsvlei.

Albemarle and his men were greeted in the capital but not before tragedy struck when Private Fenton passed away in the presence of his parents, most likely from sickness and exhaustion. Albemarle solemnly remarked it was ‘doubly sad at a moment when his comrades were about to receive, at the hands of the citizens of London, their reward, and approval for their labours in a long and honourable campaign’. The scene that met Albemarle and his men on the streets of London was a stirring one and soon they were embraced by family and friends. The earl and his battalion had done their duty well in the eventful (and controversial) South African Campaign.


Portrait of Albermarle on horse. NRO MC 2615/2, 989×6

Although Albemarle was not perfect as a leader or a person, it is clear he displayed great sympathy towards his men and they appreciated that in return. His diary is evidence that he had a very strong bond with his men and he deserves to be credited in history for his amount of compassion towards the more dispossessed members of military society.

Compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger.

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