One of the most iconic buildings in Norwich – the Bridewell – has a rather fascinating history…
It may or may not surprise you that Norwich, which began as a small Anglo-Saxon settlement to the north of the river Wensum, was by the early 14th century one of the richest towns in England. The ‘done thing’ during this period was for wealthy merchants to build big old houses for themselves, slap bang in the city centre, to show off their wealth to anyone who’d listen (or, in this case, look). A rich man called Geoffrey de Salle decided to do just this, and built a house near St Andrew’s Church; known to us today as the Bridewell, this building still stands and is one of only 18 late-medieval, secular houses still around in Norwich today. It is the site today of The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell – but it had many other uses over the years!
Image: The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell - to the left you can see some of the flint wall mentioned below.
In 1386 William Appleyard, who became the first Mayor of Norwich in 1403, decided to expand the Bridewell building, and in doing so changed much of the original building; in fact, all that’s left today of the original house is the north facing (and truly impressive) square-knapped flint wall, a stone arch inside the entrance and the huge group of undercrofts which run underneath the building. The aforementioned wall is commonly believed to be the finest example of its kind in Europe, so it’s worth going to take a look even if you’re not going inside the building!
By the late 16th century the house was sold to the local authority, and they used it for the city’s many homeless and poor residents; they converted part of the house into a ‘bridewell’ - a place where inmates would be put to work on various tasks such as cutting wood.
Image: Peter the Wild Boy, from a painting by William Kent at Kensington Palace
In 1751 the Bridewell was destroyed in a fire (the same fire in which Peter the Wild Boy did not escape by himself – see our story all about him here), so a new prison was swiftly built and remained in use until 1828, when inmates were transferred to a new, purpose-built prison in St Giles – where the St John Baptist Cathedral stands today, actually!
The Bridewell building was then sold and had various uses over the next hundred years or so – including a tobacco and snuff factory, leather warehouse and, in 1923, a shoe factory.
Image: the amazing pharmacy in The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell
In 1923 the building was given to the city as a complete museum featuring various local crafts and industries, and the Duke of York officially opened ‘The Bridewell Museum’ in October 1925. Today it has been re-branded as The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell and is a truly fascinating museum to visit, and to learn all about Norwich’s intriguing history. Inside the museum you will find an amazing pharmacy, which was donated in its entirety by a local pharmacist, plus memorabilia of Norwich City Football Club, the history of Norwich’s shoe and boot trade - and plenty more!
You’ll also notice, when you walk around certain parts of the museum, that there are some remains of the building from when it was a prison – for example, in what is today the Shoe Gallery, there are still bulges in the walls which show where the partitions were placed from the old cells. The courtyard also shows initials and carvings by prisoners, from when it was used as an exercise yard!
The Museum of the Bridewell is open Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 4.30pm. Admission: Adult £5.50, Concessions £5.20, Young Person (4-18) £4.40, Family Ticket (2 adults + all children) £18.70, Family Ticket (1 adult + all children) £14.00 and Twilight (1 hour before closing) £1.00. More details about the museum can be found here.
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