Norwich is famously a medieval city. Although the city itself is about 15 ½ square miles, the majority of its Medieval charm lies in an area of just less than two square miles, comprised of winding streets, ancient architecture and cobbles that can be uniquely treacherous when in stilettos or possession of a wheeled suitcase.
In the heart of this ancient part of the city is the former Norwich Bridewell, now The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. The Bridewell began life as a rich merchant's house in 1325, but in the 1570’s it was purchased and turned into ‘A House of Correction’. Essentially, a place for ‘lewd’ women and beggars, where inmates could be sent – without formal trial – to work in prison conditions until they were deemed fit for release.
Imagine what it would have been like at the time. The city was a tense place to live during the Tudor reign: poverty levels were increasing, and the government line on unemployment – that it ‘didn’t exist’ – meant there was virtually no help for those who needed it. Although there was reform in the middle of the century, this still wasn’t enough and a census in 1570 showed that a fifth of Norwich citizens were living on charity, and that two thirds of this figure were women. Years later, the Norwich Bridewell opened, and believe me you didn’t want to end up there…
The Bridewell was meant to encourage industry, honesty and sobriety, so life inside its walls was deeply unpleasant. Prisoners were expected to work from 5am until 8pm in the Summer, and 7am to 6pm in Winter, with a 30 minute break for lunch and 15 minutes for prayers in between. If inmates refused to work they could be restrained, whipped, sent to the stocks, or worse - the bleak undercroft (which you can get a tour of, if you fancy creeping yourself out in time for Halloween). In the inventory for the opening of the Bridewell, you can see evidence of a few grim relics: ‘Two whipping posts’, ‘post and chains’ and rather mysteriously, ‘one chair for unruly persons’. Prisoners were paid for their work, but would only eat if they had ‘earned’ their food, and there were house rules too: all prisoners has to wash first thing in the morning, alcohol was forbidden, and if you were there long enough you had to clean linen once a week. And on top of all of that, you might have had to share your bed with an infestation of Ticks… lovely.
The Bridewell saw many people come and go, for all manner of reasons. It housed a variety of people, and saw men, women and children all living together, performing tasks such as rasping wood (for the men) and cloth weaving (for the women). You can find a whole booklet on the Bridewell inmates at the museum, but here are a few notable cases:
Sentenced to whipping at the Bridewell in 1588, after he 'did go up and down the fayre with a pair of ram's horns around his neck', apparently getting progressively more drunk and shaking his horns and telling everyone they were his ruff.
Retained in the Bridewell in 1630 after a variety of offences, including swearing four oaths on a Sunday, beating his wife, striking the parish constable and then - in the presence of 11 people - 'turned down his hose and did his business'.
This is a sad story. Jane was in and out of Norwich Bridewell for 8 years from 1623, for offences such as being 'found idle', 'running away' from her master, and 'stealing stockings'. Jane also had an illegitimate child, who was cared for at a cost of 16 shillings per week while she was awaiting trail. In 1631 after entering the house of Elizebeth Abell and stealing pillowcases, a diaper napkin and a tunic (amongst other linen), Jayne was sentenced to death by hanging. Nobody knows where she was hanged or buried, or what became of her child.
On the 22nd of October 1751, the Bridewell saw a great fire - 'more terrible' than the city had seen in many years, according to witnesses. In the 6-hour blaze, much of the building was destroyed, leaving only two medieval arches, the undercroft and a long flint wall. The turnkeys had to release the inmates, however one refused to leave, instead remaining in the Bridewell, apparently fascinated by the flames. This large, hairy middle-aged man had to be 'removed with force', and it later transpired that this was Peter the Wild Boy. You can find out more about Peter here - he was found as a child in the woods in Germany, around 1724, living completely wild, walking on all fours and unable to speak. He was brought to England as a curiosity for King George the 1st, but eventually interest in him waned and Peter was sent to work on a farm in Hertfordshire. Nobody knows how Peter - now an adult - made his escape and ended up in Norwich, but the fire in Bridewell led to his discovery. In 1751 Peter was sent back to the farm where he worked until he died, then in his 70s.
Outside the Museum of Norwich there is a bollard dedicated to Peter, which can be seen in between the museum and the church.
After the fire the prison was rebuilt and remained in use until 1828. After that it was used as a tobacco factory, then a leather warehouse, and finally a shoe factory. In 1923 the building was purchased, restored, and granted to the city as a museum of local industry. Finally, the Bridewell opened its doors to visitors in 1925, and in 2012 was completely refurbished into the fantastic museum we have today.
There is so much more information about Norwich Bridewell than I've been able to write about here. The Museum is utterly fascinating, and as well as being able to find out all about the history of the people that lived (and sometimes died) at the Bridewell, you can find out all about how Norwich became the unique place it is today. There are so many stories to discover here: some touching, some funny, some utterly relatable - if you haven't been yet it's definitely worth a visit!
Greater Anglia has Advance fares from £10 one way between London Liverpool Street and Norwich. Trains run every 30 minutes. Greater Anglia also serves Colchester, Ipswich and Diss on the Norwich line. Direct trains also run from Cambridge.
East Midlands Trains runs services from Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.
Flights into Norwich served from Edinburgh, Manchester, Exeter, Aberdeen, Jersey*, Guernsey* and Amsterdam.
To plan a trip to Norwich check out our website www.visitnorwich.co.uk