The Great Hall, Oak Street, Norwich


Part One:   Early History

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Built in 1480

List of Early Owner/Occupiers


Medieval Features

C16 or C17 Conversion

What is a medieval Great Hall?

Layout    Appearance    Function

15th Century Building

Our building was first mentioned in the Norwich City records in about 1490, by which time it had already had at least 3 owners.   It may have been built around 1480.

The Great Hall, Oak Street, Norwich

Good Condition - 20 Careful Owners

The Great Hall has been occupied down the centuries by a whole series of working people - craftsmen, tradesmen, innkeepers.   From research carried out by the Centre for East Anglian Studies at the UEA, and reported in "Norfolk Archaeology" magazine, we know the names and trades of many of them.

Previous owner Cecily Fleshewer  
Previous owner William Martyn tanner
Mentioned circa 1490 Thomas Bristomer pewterer
To 1539 Thomas Horne worsted weaver
Co-owner by 1539 John Jakson worsted weaver
1539 - 1542 Richard Skotte and wife Margaret worsted weaver
1542 - ???? Stephen Rogers yeoman
???? - 1567 Richard Lucas butcher
1567 - 1569 John Turner and wife Beatrice dornix weaver
1569 - 1582 John Grimble innkeeper
1582 - ???? Thomas Staller, of London clerk

At this point the trail goes cold, but picks up again in the 17th century:

Mentioned in 1626 "Larke"  
To 1650 Mary Larke widow
Co-owner by 1650 Edward Bamford, of London linen draper
1650 - 1668 Henry Tompson and wife Martha baker
1668 - 1733 John Tompson dornix weaver
1733 - 1741 Hannah Miles (a kinswoman of JT)
1741 - 1751 Paul Miles gentleman
1751 - 1759 Thomas Utting worsted weaver
1759 - 1793 James Utting worsted weaver


1) "Norfolk Archaeology" vol XLI Part II (1991) pp 202-207.   Article on "The Great Hall" by G N Barrett.
2) "Pre-1830 Documentary Evidence for the Great Hall, Oak Street, Norwich" by Geoffrey Kelly (1987).

[Barrett 1991] includes an abridged version of [Kelly 1987], and gives further clues to the Hall's history based on features of the Hall's construction.  

[Kelly 1987] concentrates solely on the documents, is clearer on the details of what is going on, and is particularly valuable for identifying individual buildings within the group.

Medieval Doorway, The Great Hall, Oak Street, Norwich

The Medieval Features of our Great Hall

[Barrett, 1991] describes the Great Hall, Oak Street, Norwich, as follows:

The hall has the standard plan with opposing doors in the side walls adjacent to the service rooms.   It is constructed of flint rubble with brick and stone dressings.   The arch survives from the oriel window on the south side, originally looking out onto a small yard.   The hall was open to the queen-post roof   ...

In the building as it stands today, we are surrounded by reminders of Thomas Bristomer's 15th century house.

A blocked up medieval door (pictured left) stands in the classic position, at one corner of the great hall, hard up against the service wing.   The brick building on the left is modern, but stands within a few inches of where Bristomer's kitchens would have been.

The arch from the oriel window is still visible inside the building, though the new floor inserted in the 16th or 17th century has made a nonsense of the arch's proportions.

Downstairs, you wouldn't realise that it was an arch, though it's obvious once you've been upstairs.   Upstairs, the top of the arch now looks ridiculously low.   Anyone entering or leaving the alcove behind the arch has to remember to duck.

The stout medieval walls protect us from the extremes of heat in the summer.

The roof timbers are still exposed to view on the top floor.   "Queen-post" means that there are two vertical struts, left and right, between the tie-beam and the slope of the roof.

The Big Conversion

As first built, the Great Hall was open to the rafters, with a huge oriel window in one corner.

Sometime in the 16th or 17th century, someone made drastic changes to the layout, putting in an extra floor and a staircase, and adding the long frieze windows which are still a striking feature of two sides of the building.

Opinions differ as to when this was done.

Plunkett, arguing by analogy with another building, states:

"Like its contemporary, the old Rosemary Tavern on St Mary’s Plain, the Great Hall had had a floor put in during the sixteenth century, half way up the building, and a fireplace and chimney added."

("Disappearing Norwich", 1987, page 36)

The analogy with the former Rosemary Tavern (better known these days as Pykerell's House) is a good one, but there are several contradictory opinions about the date of their flooring-up, too.

[Kelly 1987], concentrating on the documentary evidence, speaks of:

"this 15th century hall-house, remodelled in the 16th century ...".   He devotes a lot of attention to a deed of 1542, which appears to show Thomas Horne up to something unusual in the period before 1539.

[Barrett 1991], focussing on the fabric of the building, states:

"The present fenestration reflects the flooring-up of the hall in the 17th century.   ...   These alterations probably took place during the long occupation by the Tompson family."

The Tompson Family

The Hall was seldom in one family for long, but from 1650 to 1733 it was owned by the Tompson family: Henry Tompson, a baker, and his son John, a weaver.

Nobody knows for sure whether the home improvements were done by the Tompsons, or by an earlier owner.   A weaver would certainly have appreciated the extra light.

Window Tax, 1696

Unfortunately for John Tompson, in 1696 some bright spark invented a Window Tax.   The weaver found himself in the top band, for houses with 20 or more windows.   Tax records show him being hit for six throughout the early 1700s.


1. Layout (example: Pykerell's House, Norwich)

Pykerell's House, just down the road from us, has a 15th century great hall similar in layout to ours.   Here is the Norwich local historian, John Kirkpatrick (1686-1728), describing Pykerell's great hall in the early 1700s:

"There is a handsome hall of the ancient fashion, open to the top of the roof, with two doors for buttery and pantry, as in college halls; and two large windows now in part stopped up."

One further element is that there are two doors giving access to the house from outside, facing one another on opposite sides of the hall.   (It seems there has to be two of everything, if you can afford it!)

You can see all these elements (2 bay windows, 2 outer doors, 2 inner doors) in George Plunkett's plan of Pykerell's House, on the web page:

We had most of these features.   Here is [Barrett, 1991] describing our great hall:

The hall has the standard plan with opposing doors in the side walls adjacent to the service rooms.   The arch survives from the oriel window on the south side...   The hall was open to the queen-post roof.

How to Impress the Neighbours ...

So here's how it all works:

There's a "posh end", with the two oriel windows facing one another, and a "business end", with two heavy doors to the outside world on either side.   The end wall at the "business end" has the two inner doors leading to the kitchen area.   The master of the house sits at his high table at the "posh end", with light from the oriel windows playing on his elbows, and watches as his servants scurry back and forth through the kitchen doors.

Meanwhile, any visitor to the house stumbles in through one of the side doors, to be confronted by a quite extraordinary sight.   These great halls are usually quite compact in area, but are as tall as a two storey building, and open to the roof.   Walking into one makes you understand what it feels like to be a paper-clip at the bottom of a cardboard box!

2. Appearance (example: the great hall within Strangers' Hall, Norwich)

Our great hall, and the one in Pykerell's House, have lost their oriel windows (except for the arch), and have had an extra floor inserted, making it difficult to imagine the full impact they would have had on the visitor.

But there is one house in Norwich which still has a medieval great hall intact, all the way up to the rafters:   Strangers' Hall.

Strangers' Hall on the Internet

See the website of the Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service:

Follow the links "Museums and Galleries", "Strangers' Hall", "A guide to Strangers' Hall" and finally "The Great Hall".   Needless to say, this is their great hall, not ours!

At the time of writing, the following direct link will take you to the page I'd like you to see:

This is the most vivid description of a medieval great hall that I know of.

A Good Picture of an Oriel Window

Notice the first picture on the web page cited above.

Ignore the clutter of stairs, cupboards and extra doors in the centre of the picture - the key features of the medieval great hall are the oriel window (right), the twin doors to the kitchen area (left), and one door (per side) to the outside world (take your pick).

Now here's the interesting bit - although the great hall in Strangers' Hall is much bigger and grander than ours, that oriel window in the picture is more or less the same size as ours would have been.

We still have the arch left from our oriel window.   I've paced this out at three long strides - and I tried the same thing at Strangers' Hall with the same result.   I'd estimate the height to be about 14 feet.

In our relatively restricted space, its dramatic impact must have been staggering.

The Medieval Great Hall is the Hub of a Larger Building

In medieval terms, a Great Hall is just one room in a larger house.

George Plunkett sums up the situation well, when he writes that the plan of most large houses of the late fifteenth century usually consisted of:

"a hall or general living room under a high open timber roof, with a two-storey wing at either end, one containing private rooms for the use of the family and the other housing kitchen offices."

See Plunkett's plan of Pykerell's House, on:

Example: Pykerell's House, Norwich

Pykerell's House is best approached from the south, strolling up Rosemary Lane.

As you climb the steps from St Miles Alley, you see a 16th century house straight ahead, painted light blue with cream weatherboarding.   Only as you draw close do you catch a glimpse of another building behind the blue one. This building is even older.   It's been much changed superficially, but if you know what to look for, you can still recognise the components of a 15th century house built around a great hall.

Right at the back, faced in flint rubble, is Pykerell's parlour.   Next along, partly faced in red brick, is his great hall.   You can still make out the position of his southern oriel window.   The original arch would have been in stone, but the line it once took is still visible at the point where brickwork from different periods meets.

The blue building stands on the site of Pykerell's pantry and buttery, with his kitchen further along the road.   It would seem that the three times Mayor of Norwich fed heartily!

The whole ensemble shows a medieval great hall in its true context, as the central meeting-point of a large house with a complex structure.   Our great hall, by contrast, has become cut off from its support structure, and has been converted into a compact building in its own right.

Pykerell's House on the Internet

The best material is to be found on "The Plunketts" web site, on the web pages cited above.   On the same page as the plan, you'll find a full description of Pykerell's House and 5 photographs.   But visit both pages, they complement one another.

Yet more pictures of Pykerell's House, which complement George Plunkett's photographs in interesting ways, can be found in the Library's collection of historic photographs.   Starting from the Norfolk Library Catalogue, take the link, "Picture Norfolk", and run searches using the keywords:

(1) "rosemary tavern",    (2) "pyrkrills house",    (3) "thatched mary".

You need to use the eccentric spelling "Pyrkrill" - a search on "Pykerell" will yield nothing.

(By the way, the variant spelling "Pyrkrill" solves the problem, how we should pronounce the gentleman's name.
Not "Pick - erell", but "Pike - erell", or better still, "Pie - kerell".)

Norwich Unemployed Support Trust, The Great Hall, 127 Oak Street, Norwich NR3 3BP.
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[ 30 June 2004 ]