Not only is Norwich incredibly lucky to have numerous fantastic museums and galleries, but we also have a lesser-known gem which many of us might not be aware of: the Norfolk Collections Centre, packed full of weird and wonderful items of real historical value!
Located on the site of another brilliant museum, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, the centre houses the museums’ reserve collections and is now open to the public on various days throughout the year – all thanks to the Shine the Light project, funded by Esmee Fairbairn, which was the initial project that re-organised the collections into a publicly-accessible site, so you can explore the many weird and wonderful items stored there yourselves!
Of course, if you don’t fancy driving out to Gressenhall (around 20 miles from the centre of Norwich), or don’t have the means to, then don’t forget that many incredible items can be seen in The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell and Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. They’re both wonderfully city-central - no car required!
Though there are hundreds of amazing items, we’ve selected a few of our favourites (a hard task, mind!) below:
Image: The Norfolk Collections Centre
For the ale-lovers among you, there are plenty of beer-related items to take a look at. Norwich has always had a long and interesting history associated with brewing; the city once had “a Church for every week of the year and a pub for every day of the year” (in fact in 1870 Norwich Gospel Temperance Union did a survey of drinking houses and found it had almost 2 pubs for every day of the year!) and the collection has various tools of the trade which were used in the beer-making process, including scales, hammers, thermometers, mallets, barrels, jars, glasses and much more! There’s also a great collection of pub signs, ashtrays, posters and much more, plus a great display all about Norwich’s brewing history can be seen at The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell.
Believe it or not, X-ray machines were popular with shoe shops in the first half of the 20th century as a way to measure foot size, and therefore work out what size shoe a customer would need. Of course, this wasn’t strictly necessary - more of a gimmick to draw punters into the shop!
If you look at the front of the machine you’ll notice a warning not to use it more than 12 times per year due to radiation, so manufacturers were evidently aware (to some extent) of the effects of radiation back in the 1950’s/ 1960’s, but once we developed a better understanding of just how dangerous radiation can be, and the harm it causes, these machines then went out of use – unsurprisingly!
Not just any bikes… whether you’re a bike enthusiast or not, you’re bound to be intrigued at some of the rare and unusual examples that reside in the Norfolk Collections Centre. They demonstrate the kind of bikes Norwich people would have used over the years and offer a fascinating insight into everyday life.
A must-see piece is the Coventry bicycle (image below) dating from 1876, which features wheels in an array of sizes – a bit intimidating, actually! There’s also a bicycle that’s been adapted especially for knife-sharpening (image below), for use by a knife sharpener to take their appointments, not for sharpening whilst riding… and a bike used to deliver goods from Bond’s department store, which later became John Lewis.
Image: Coventry Bicycle, part of the collection
Image: Bicycle adapted to serve for the purposes of knife sharpening; used by itinerant knife sharpener Charles Manes who worked mostly in the Norwich area.
The collection even has the dock and magistrates bench from the Guildhall in Norwich, which was used as the Magistrate’s Court until 1977 – surprisingly recently! The building’s undercroft was used from 1412 until 1597 to hold criminals who the courts deemed as particularly dangerous!
Benches such as the one in the collection were used in the 19th century and there are plenty of high-profile cases in which the accused would have stood in the same dock that you can view in the collection today.
Take a look at the timekeeping clock that was used by Van Dal’s shoemaking factory until 1970 for workers to clock in and out of shifts. Shoemaking used to be a key industry in Norwich until the second half of the 20th century, and there is plenty more information about this in The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell’s huge display and impressive in-house collection of vintage shoes.
Image: Timekeeping Clock, used in the Van Dal shoe factory
Don’t forget, if you want to take a look at the amazing Norfolk Collections Centre, it’s open to the public on certain days during the year – the next being Sunday 11 September as part of Heritage Open Days, when they’re throwing open their doors for visitors to explore the collections and learn more about the objects. And, of course, there’s so much to see all year round at The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell, Norwich Castle and Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse.
Many thanks to Norfolk Collections Development Assistant, Wayne Kett, for providing plenty of interesting information… too much to fit into one post, actually, so we’re hoping to include some more information on this great collection in the future – stay tuned!