The Courts and Yards of Norwich

by | Dec 12, 2022

Are you aware of Norwich’s hidden back alley courtyards and yards? Maybe you are familiar with the hidden spaces but wonder about the history behind them? It might surprise you that these quiet, seldom-visited spots used to be hives of activity, filled with families and all of the emotional dramas, personal triumphs and failures that we experience on a daily basis ourselves. It is true that they are becoming increasingly more difficult to find and recognise, with the modernisation of the city overtaking and, sadly, burying some of these hidden historical gems. But what do we mean when we talk about these yards and courts within the city?

What was a Norwich Yard and where did they come from?

Wright’s Yard off of Elm’s Hill 1937. Photo courtesy of George Plunkett

Well, the definition of a court or yard in Norwich is the enclosed or narrow space, clustered with houses, existing behind an older building that faces onto a main road. These dwellings were often ramshackle and of a far poorer quality than the merchants’ houses and gentry’s manors they were hidden in the shadow of. They came about as a result of the city walls built between 1294AD and 1343AD and the limitations on space they created. Once you take into account the huge portions of land taken up by the Cathedral grounds, the Castle grounds, any churchyards and monastic lands and the markets and the large, dominating buildings such as the Guildhall and Agricultural hall, it doesn’t leave a great deal of space for your normal, everyday homes for the working people. So when it came to building large numbers of workers’ houses, long before we could build high rise flats or terraced properties (and remember, no one could build residences outside the city walls until 1789, any buildings outside tended to be religious or industrial) the only spaces available were the spaces in between and behind the larger buildings such as alleyways and yards. As such you had rows and rows of very narrow, ramshackle buildings being put up, at speed, around any available space and this, of course led to those already small spaces becoming even narrower with jettied upper floors and leaning roofs blocking the sunlight and the only way in being down alleyways sometimes only a couple of feet across. As time progressed into the 18th and 19th centuries (even the beginning of the 20th Century!) these yards became a point of contention within the city, with the council and upper classes viewing them as slums and the strong tenant communities growing within the yards themselves trying to protect their pride and place within the city.

Wright’s Yard 2022

What was life in the Yards like?

Alongside the lack of space, came other problems for these poor residents. For one, there were no paved paths or street lights in order for them to navigate the winding routes and after a few hours of rain, most became unnavigable quagmires filled with slick, stinking mud. The urban maze that started to appear beyond the main streets also became impossible to provide proper sanitation for. There was no plumbing or pipes running under the ground so filth, rubbish and quite often human excrement and the innards of slaughtered animals were left in piles that sometimes blocked off the tunnel-like alleys. Toilets themselves consisted of outside spaces, quite often no more than a pit in a shed. The smell was “controlled” by a bucket of ash that would be thrown over it after use and that was dug out by a “Scavenger” (someone with a shovel and wooden barrow, ironically called a “honey cart”) about once a week. Mix that with a lack of ventilation (the wind wouldn’t make it down most of the yards) and you had a putrid and overwhelming smell that became the signature of these cramped spaces.

The yards were often in poor repair. (Baldwin Yard Oak St) Image courtesy of George Plunkett.

As for the residents? Well quite often they were the poorest members of Norwich society. The factory workers and labourers and their families (quite often consisting of up to twelve children) would share these spaces with sometimes up to ten families sharing a single privy (toilet) and waterpump. There was no running water in the homes themselves and quite often, you were not allowed light either with the buildings being mainly timber and no electricity being available at the time so, as well as being cold in winter, these spaces were constantly in the dark. So now imagine what it was like trying to wash yourself in the morning! One old resident of the yards, Chris Baker, recollected this in an interview in 2011:

“The houses were very basic. All water was supplied by taps in the yard. The men of the house used to strip to the waist and go and wash under the tap in the middle of the yard and have a good sluice under the cold water.”

The Old Courts and Yards of Norwich (Frances and Michael Holmes)

Now imagine trying to do that in the middle of January! As you can imagine, life was very uncomfortable for a lot of people. But these shared experiences of hardship did create a very powerful bond between the residents of these places and, although the exterior of these buildings were often difficult to behold, the interiors were usually kept meticulously clean by the residents of the houses. Although of shoddy quality and often riddled with architectural problems, the people took great pride in what they did have. Scrubbed tables and sides, strict washing regimens and orderly cupboards were commonplace. It was also important to get on with your neighbours. After all, everyone was sharing the small spaces around and, of course, with a single toilet and washing area, queues were inevitable. So to avoid conflict, unwritten rotas would end up being put in place. As Joyce Wilson remembered:

“The women didn’t stand about a lot, there wasn’t the time, but especially in the yards where they had to share a copper to do their washing, and there’d be Mrs Jones waiting for Mrs Bernard to get her washing done, they had to get on. It was almost like the wartime spirit. When you’re all in it together, you have to make the most of a bad job.”

The Old Courts and Yards of Norwich (Frances and Michael Holmes)

What happened to the Yards?

The housing situation in Norwich was exacerbated in the 19th Century with the death of the weaving industry. The agricultural industry around the city was also taking a huge hit and that led to large numbers of previously rural people moving into the city to look for work, of which there was little. Workers in Norwich were paid below the national average and Norwich had the largest reliance on women’s labour in the country with 43% of the workforce being made up of women (the national average being 31%). This meant that the demand for housing was increasing but only amongst the poorest sections of the population, quite often a group of people that could not afford much in terms of rent. As a result, the use of the old yards increased and the conditions worsened.

Many of the modern alleyways of Norwich once led to the yards. Historical features are still visible in some of them!

In 1872, The Public Health Act was passed and, for the first time, Norwich City Council had to be aware of the link between poor housing and the poor health of the residents and therefore had to think about taking action on the “slums” The implementation of this meant that the 1880s epidemics of scarlet fever and typhus were directly linked to the overcrowding and dirty conditions in the yards. However, little action was taken until 1889 when, in a bid to clarify a mass of confused legislation, The Norwich Corporation Act was passed by the council which regulated every aspect of public administration including sewerage, drainage and the control of infectious diseases.

In 1897, The Norwich Courts and Yards committee was set up to monitor and advise on the yards of Norwich and their condition, reflecting on whether they needed improvement, development or demolition. Yards were dealt with on an individual basis rather than under a general order applicable to every yard. Generally speaking, owners of the properties in the yards were asked to pay for the improvements with The Norwich Corporation completing the works. By the time WWI started, most workers in Norwich were still living in city centre yards. Only surface level improvements had been made, with nothing being done about the issues arising from their basic structure, being airless and dark.

Many of the old yards are still nestled in the back areas of Norwich, but they are simply residential alleys.

Right up until WWI public sympathy for the situations with the slums in the yards and courts seemed to lie with the landlords of the properties rather than the poor tenants who were suffering as a result of the conditions. However the war did much to undermine the long established class and gender barriers. With the working classes giving their lives on the front during the war, and with this being exposed to the public eye through the arts, poetry and the news, it was becoming harder for local councils and the government in general to ignore working class demands for improved domestic conditions.

In 1919 The Housing and Planning Act was passed which required councils to provide council housing for families, many of whom were suffering from all of the repercussions of the war. However, Norwich city council found itself without the resources to reach these new requirements, with a report saying that over 4000 homes in the slums were insufficient and needed to be replaced with council housing. By 1923, only 293 of the planned replacements had been built. To make matters worse, Norwich City Council was also still refusing to move tenants from the yards into these new houses, preferring, much like the private landlords before them, to house tenants they believed to be more ‘secure’ such as teachers and clerks thanks to their fixed income.

By 1925, financial incentives were being given to local councils and far more effort was put into the scheme with Mile Cross becoming one of the first council estates. More effort was put into making the streets aesthetically pleasing and the houses themselves were subject to the 1919 act meaning they included facilities almost beyond the imagination of the old tenants of the yards. Each had a separate parlour and piped water and by 1924, each contained a gas or electric stove, baths were included although hot water had to be taken from elsewhere in the building, with “fixed” baths and boilers being put in during the late 30s.

By the 1930s, it was now becoming accepted that the function of public housing was to rehouse the poor and not to aid the landlords, leaving the private market to supply the rest of the population. However, with 80% of the families of Norwich being rehomed consisting of less than 4 people, around 70% of the new housing being built were flats due to the lack of allocated space for building new homes. This was still an enormous improvement for the working people of Norwich, however, as, as small as the flats were, they were drastically better than the conditions of the old yards and their stinking, rat infested alleys.


The Old Courts and Yards of Norwich (Frances and Michael Holmes)