Strangers, Refugees and the Making of Norwich

by | May 2, 2024

Strangers’ Hall is one of the reminders in Norwich of our past of immigration.

England is a land of immigrants. The very first human beings set foot here from Doggerland to hunt 10,000 years ago. With the mighty Ice Age glaciers retreating, the land was perfect for hunting large elk and mammoth. People have been coming from other lands to settle here ever since. With the Beaker People, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Anglo Scandinavians, Normans and many other cultures coming here from other countries, we have always been a mix of peoples. Norwich is no exception. Our own immigrant settlers have appeared in Norwich since the Normans arrived in the 11th Century. They brought French Jewish communities to help with finances. In the 1500s, from mainland Europe, came Protestant refugees. They brought Norwich large sums of money, to the point where our city became second only to London in terms of wealth. These people became known locally as The Strangers. Like any new settlers, they received a sizeable amount of xenophobia, as seems to be an unfortunate common theme among those less accepting. Despite this, they made such a mark on our city that we still celebrate them today.

Who were “The Strangers?”

The term “Stranger” was coined before the arrival of the European Protestants with whom the name is associated today. Originally it was to refer to anyone outside of Norwich who was in the city, even if they were only from Wymondham or Diss! It came to mean “foreign settlers” with the arrival of the Protestants but the word “alien” can also be seen to describe them in documents.

The story of “The Strangers” starts in the 14th century in mainland Europe. Many people, living under the Catholic church, were unhappy with several aspects of the religion. Mainly, the amount of money demanded of the people by the church through taxation, the hierarchy of the church that put some people above others and the fact that the Bible was only available in Latin. This meant that interpretation of the Bible lay with only the church, meaning they could essentially make it up as they went along. This element of control was seen as elitist and to many, like a violation of the original sanctity of Christianity.

Many across Europe started speaking out against the church. Here in England, a theologist named John Wycliffe started openly teaching against Catholicism in the 1340s and his teachings were echoed by several others across the Christian world. Wycliffe’s teachings are thought to have helped lead to The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. The Catholic Church decided it had to act against this “dissent” and started to label those who took a stance against them as heretics. In several parts of Europe, this led to war. In others, heavy persecution of these new “protestants.” In several countries, the punishment for heresy was to be burned at the stake. A harrowing and surprisingly slow death. Although Wycliffe was dead from natural causes at this point, his body was exhumed, burned at the stake and his ashes were hurled into the River Swift. His followers were dubbed “Lollards” from that moment on. A word meaning “to mumble” as an insult at their intelligence and they were rounded up and executed.

Into the 16th Century, there were further rumblings against the church. This time not just among the people, but in England, the King himself was unhappy with Catholic dominion. King Henry VIII was upset with the idea of being instructed by a religious leader in a different country, especially when that religion dictated that he couldn’t divorce his wife. In response to this, Henry had it announced that England would no longer be subject to papal law and instead, the King would be the new religious leader over this new branch of Christianity named “The Church of England.” This Protestant breakaway caused chaos in England and in Europe, with the King sending his army to strip away the “idols and wealth” found in the many churches around the country, in favour of a more humble church environment (and much of the stripped wealth ended up in the King’s possession to fuel his war with France.)

Under Henry and his children (despite a brief return to Catholicism under his daughter Mary) The English church continued to develop its Protestant faith. With refugees escaping persecution under their own, Catholic monarchs in Europe in favour of England, Protestant numbers were swelling. In England, they might be able to live a life of relative peace. It was under Queen Elizabeth I that the real influx of Protestant refugees started coming into the country. A mixture of Dutch Protestants, French speaking Walloons from Flanders and the surrounding areas of the Spanish Netherlands and Huguenots from France were invited by the Queen to come settle in England to boost the weaving trade, as the vast majority of these people were accomplished weavers.

The Weaving Trade in England and East Anglia

16th Century England had based its important weaving trade in East Anglia. With large amounts of farmland for cultivating the crops necessary for the dyeing process and for the keeping of sheep, mixed with good sea trade routes and rivers that aided in the movement of produce, Norwich was becoming the centre of a trade that would result in a local financial boom. The wool cultivated before the arrival of the Europeans was Worsted Wool from the area of Worstead in Norfolk. It made for strong, hardy and warm clothing but in other places in Europe, they had access to an array of different materials including silk and the knowledge and skill to make it into clothing. Among the middle and upper classes, those who could afford different forms of clothing, fashion trends became the thing to follow. With European fabrics and colours becoming popular, there was more of a calling for their production here in England.

Looms became larger, more complicated and more efficient with designs being brought over by the strangers.

The increasing number of foreign weavers coming into Norwich meant that we now had everything from lace makers, to dyers, needlemakers, silk twillers, wool merchants and many more bringing their different range of expertise into one place. With their arrival, money started to flow into the city as the gentry and, indeed even the royal family, started to come to Norwich for their clothing. With the trade growing, locals became interested in getting involved and so the Strangers started to take on local apprentices to teach them the trade. The records show to what extent this was taking place. A tailor named Richard Whitterel sent both of his sons to become apprentice weavers and pinmakers. In 1581 a Dutch man named Nicholas Beoscom was hired by the city to the Great Hospital to teach orphans the art of pin making. A local lad, Thomas Bucke, is also recorded in 1573 as being assigned as an apprentice to a Dutch weaver to learn “the mysteries” of lace making.

The arrival of the “Strangers” also helped to rebuild Norwich’s population which had been utterly ravaged by the plague on several occasions. At the time of the first few arrivals in the early 1500s, the population of Norwich is thought to have stood at around 12,000 people. By the 1580s it is thought that at least one third of Norwich’s population were immigrants from Europe and the population stood closer to 20,000. The weavers brought their own architectural style with them as well, with Flemish gables, dutch roof design and weavers windows still visible in many areas of Norwich today, (including in our own Weaver’s cottage hidden in our Hidden Street below Castle Meadow!)

Flemish Gables (the rounded section toward the top) brought over as a design by the Strangers!

The Strangers became one of three weaving guilds within the city, each with their own symbol printed onto their work to show the maker. For the weaving made by local norwich weavers they printed the symbol of a castle, for the county, it was a lion and the work by the Strangers displayed the symbol of a ship. The trade started to attract many wealthy mercers (cloth merchants) and as a result of the wealth accumulated, they started construction on many impressive, large merchants houses, some of which survive today such as Bacon House at the end of Calvert Street or Suckling House known today as Cinema City. The money started to be used to construct many churches around the city as well. There was no better way to show off your wealth and standing with a permanent mark than to pay to build a church (and to many of these merchants, it was a “sure” way to guarantee yourself a place in heaven.) The Mercers of Norwich accumulated so much wealth that it is estimated that an individual cloth merchant would have over ten times the movable wealth (any wealth that isn’t based in property) of the city of Rochester!

The Difficulty of Living as a Foreign Settler

Coming over to live in a foreign country is no easy thing, especially if the people you are to be living with have prejudices against you. Sadly, Xenophobia has always been the ugly troll squatting under the bridge of multiculturalism. As far back as during the Norman conquest, with French speaking Jewish families being brought over, there has been hatred among those less accepting locals. One of the biggest challenges to the Normans during their conquest was injecting money into their new economy through loans. Unfortunately for the Christians, it was against their faith to lend money and so the Jewish people, who had no such laws, were brought in to work as money lenders.

They settled in what is today the Haymarket area of Norwich in an area known at the time as the Jewry. They started work and of course started to make a fairly sizable profit from the business. They built a synagogue, jewish school and a grand hall (Abraham’s Hall) in their quarter and started to prosper. Sadly though, by the 12th century, antisemitism had already become a big problem. Christians, jealous of the now prospering Jewish people, or simply harbouring hate through ignorance, started to call for their removal from the country, and even their imprisonment.

In 1144AD, a young christian boy named William was found murdered in Mousehold Woods. The murderer was a mystery but four years later, a monk named Thomas of Monmouth visited Norwich. Thomas was an antisemite and said that the murder of young William was because the local Jewish population had sacrificed him as part of some religious ceremony. This was, of course, nonsense, especially considering Thomas hadn’t even been near Norwich when the crime took place. Despite this, his words inspired the ignorant parts of Norwich’s population and attacks and even murders of the Jewish people started in a bloody campaign to push them from the city.

In 1190AD, just before setting off for the 3rd Crusade, a group of Christian soldiers took it upon themselves to attack the Jewish Quarter. The massacre was brutal, and a large part of the Jewish population were slaughtered. In 2004, while building Chapelfield shopping centre, a medieval well was discovered on the site. Inside were the skeletons of six adults and 11 children. They were discovered to be the bodies of some of Norwich’s Jewish people, the adults having been killed in the riot and thrown down the well and their children were thrown down after them, possibly still alive, before the whole thing was sealed. This chilling find was a hideous reminder of the horrors that xenophobia can result in. Thankfully the bodies were removed from the site and interred into the Jewish section of the Earlham cemetery where they could finally rest in peace.

Even for The Strangers, although they faced less violent persecution, life was pockmarked with cruelty from locals and unfair restrictions from the city. In 1582, three local men broke into the Orchard of Dutch man Giles Vanderbrook and stole large amounts of apples and pears. They were made to pay only half the fine that would have been paid to a local orchard keeper. As well as fairly hefty taxes, the strangers were also forced to pay for their own churches, to support their own poor and were forced to remain in only certain areas of the city for some years. Their names were also kept on a register with any deaths or births being registered by law. During a severe outbreak of the plague in 1578, the Strangers were blamed for the spread of it as they were seen “washing their cloth in the river,” ironically something which was preventing the spread of plague as it washed away the flea eggs. New restrictive rules and fines were placed on the settlers as a result of this. They were forbidden from bringing their cloth near the river, they were not allowed to have furniture or tools left on the street and they were given a separate waste area to the rest of the city. Despite this, it was actually the settlers themselves who suffered the most losses during that particular outbreak, potentially as they were the ones accepting and handling the imported cloth and materials containing the infected fleas.

Quayside in Norwich where the imports and exports from the weaving trade were brought in.

The Legacy of The Strangers

Today, Norwich still holds many clues to the amazing prosperity brought to us by these generations of weavers. Firstly, the name “Strangers” can be found in the names of many local businesses such as Strangers Coffee and in our buildings such as Strangers’ Hall. We still retain many of the grand churches and merchants’ houses built thanks to the wealth brought by their weaving. Much of the architecture around the city such as the Flemish Gables on some of the historic buildings were also a result of the settlers and even names around the city such as Conisford come from the Dutch language.

Even our local football club mascot, the Canary, is a symbol of the Strangers. To contend with the boredom of weaving day in and day out, many of them brought Canaries from their home countries to sit in cages by the looms. The rhythmic sound of the loom would prompt the Canary to sing and they sang in a variety of different songs. Almost the equivalent of an early radio! It couldn’t have been much fun for the poor birds themselves though. Because of the popularity of the songbirds, an extensive Canary breeding programme started in Norwich that continues even today. There are even specific breeds of Canaries known as Norwich Canaries. It is because of this successful industry that the football club used the image as its logo!

What we can take from this is that, immigration, although currently a very controversial subject, can bring wonderful things to a city and a country. Not only does it help the economy, but the merging of cultures can lead to some fantastic and long lasting benefits. Although the media, government and some ignorant people seem to demonise those looking to escape the horrors of war, poverty and tyranny from their own leaders, we need to remember, we are only one bad national incident from being in the same position ourselves. Today, many people local to East Anglia excitedly talk about how they are related to the Dutch weavers who came here, but without those immigrants coming over, those people and indeed, possibly our entire city, wouldn’t exist today! 


Museum Service Strangers Article

Norfolk Record Office Blog

History Today

The Huguenots

Britannica Flemish and Walloons

Norwich’s Medieval Churches

Elizabethan Strangers

Medieval Antisemitism in Norwich

Blood Libel

The Skeletons in the Well

Norwich Canaries