Last month I wrote about a lot of errors in the online transcripts of parish registers for St James Pockthorpe in Norwich, where several generations of my ancestors lived. I’ve written previously about the wonderful medieval churches in Norwich, and the Norwich Historic Churches Trust that ensures the ones no longer in use as places of worship are beautifully maintained and leased to organisations who bring them back into use with new purposes. St James Pockthorpe is one of these repurposed buildings. Since 1979 this Grade 1 listed building has been home to the Norwich Puppet Theatre, and I was delighted to visit there a couple of years ago. The building was open, and when I explained my interest I was given a guided tour.
Shortly after writing that previous post about the parish registers I was looking online at some old photos of Norwich, and since St James Pockthorpe was fresh on my mind I searched for that. There were several photos, but this one dated 1931, actually took my breath away. Apart from the church building itself, there is literally nothing left of this scene.
I’ve looked at these two photos full-size and side by side, and it would no longer be possible to capture the building from this angle today. It was taken from about 20 metres to the right of where I was standing to take my photo, along what was then Cowgate. The two maps below show that today the church (now the T-shaped building to the right of the roundabout) is set back from the road. I think I was standing at the edge of the new grass verge when I took my photo. We can also see that all the street names have changed, although there is a nod to what was there previously. Cowgate Street, where the 1931 photo was taken, is now Whitefriars; Cowgate is now north of the roundabout. The church had stood at the junction of Cowgate and Bargate Street. Bargate is now the main inner circular road for Norwich and is called Barrack Street, referencing the Barracks that was built along the road around 1805. To the left of the roundabout we have St Crispins Road dual carriageway; formerly this was Norman’s Lane, and the church once standing along it is now referenced only by a street name: St Paul’s Square. A tiny part of the ancient city wall that you can just see to the right of the older map is still there, by the way.
I love visiting historic towns, and particularly places where my ancestors lived. I imagine that by doing so I’m getting a feel for the place they knew. Yet when I look at this lovely old photo, I see that in this case at least I really didn’t achieve that just by visiting and walking around, taking photos. There was a lot of heavy bombing in Norwich during the war. St Paul’s and the area around it was severely damaged and later demolished, and of course it made sense to rebuild for the changing world: wider roads and modern housing. But oh! How lovely it all was before the bombs! I do wish I could have seen it then.
The moral of this story, then, is that visiting is lovely, taking photos and asking questions is great. But to really get a feel for a place, alongside reading around the history sometimes we also need old photos and maps.
The 1789 map above came from the British Historic Towns Atlas website. It includes a page dedicated to Norwich, with links to several maps and other topographic information. I’ve added it to my Norwich links page (or you can find that page from the menu bar above, and navigate from ‘Links’ to ‘About Norwich’).