St James Pockthorpe: learning from old maps and photos

Norwich Puppet Theatre, photo taken 1919
CLICK FOR BIG! St James Pockthorpe, now Norwich Puppet Theatre. Image © Janice Heppenstall

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.

Norwich street in 1931 featuring the medieval church St James Pockthorpe and churchyard
CLICK FOR BIG! St James Pockthorpe, Norwich, showing the south side, from Cowgate. Image date 1931. Source: George Plunkett

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.

Modern map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich
CLICK FOR BIG! Modern map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich
1789 map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich
CLICK FOR BIG! 1789 map showing location of St James Pockthorpe, Norwich

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’).

8 thoughts on “St James Pockthorpe: learning from old maps and photos

  1. Most interesting, I have family who lived in Coventry in the early 1900s. Trying to find out where exactly they lived and what it looked like is difficult there too because of war damage so maps and old photographs are very important. I happened to buy a second hand copy of the first volume of the British Historic Towns Atlas a couple of years ago, it’s a very large book and doesn’t fit on a standard bookcase. So I was pleased to find from this that I can download the digital edition of the sections I use. My town of interest is Gloucester where my family were in at least the first half of the 1800s and I found the map of the parishes especially useful in working out where they lived and why they were in several different parish records over that time.
    And now that I am transcribing parish registers, even though I grew up in the area, for my home parish I still find it useful to keep the large scale maps to hand so that I can see where old street names and hamlets were in relation to each other.


    • Thanks for commenting Glenys. I just looked Gloucester up on and see that it had about 14 parishes as of 1851. I do love all these old parishes but it does make it difficult to find people unless you can use indexes. I don’t know if you saw that I did a previous post on these fine historic cities and their many parishes. At one time Norwich had 58 and London had 126 parishes! The post is here if you’re interested: Because I grew up in Leeds it was a real eye opener for me to learn that a city so much smaller than my own could have so many parishes, and it took a while for me to work out and understand why a person would have identified as being of a specific parish, not just from the city. It is great isn’t it though, when they are so small that although we don’t have addresses we can see to within a very small area where our ancestors were living just by following them around the parishes!


      • Just so! And some of the parishes were peculiar shapes and bent round others so it suddenly made sense looking at that map why they would be in that particular parish, when you would think from their address that they would be in another! And I notice, looking at original registers online (Thank you, Gloucestershire Archives, for putting so many original registers online, I had several lockdown afternoons last year browsing parish registers from the late 1700s!) that in at least one parish the priest noted when people from his parish had married at another! Perhaps they found it confusing, too! Having lived and worked in Gloucester I know that several of the ancient churches are literally within a couple of hundred yards of each other, certainly within sight of each other and the cathedral towering over them all in that area, too.


      • Yes! Just like in the map above (in the post) – you can see three churches in just this snippet of the map, and there are lots more within a few hundred yards, and the cathedral just down the road. But I love it. Although you and I were talking back in October about settlement, and I wonder what the approach on settlement was when a family moved from one parish just across the street into another, like your ancestors did in Gloucester and mine did in Norwich.


  2. Well this was very interesting – thanks. I too have a number of ancestors from in and around Norwich. Robert Sutton, my great great great grandfather was baptised at St James Pockthorpe in 1822 and married at St Clement’s in 1844. He was a wheelwright . 30 years ago I was a doctor in Norwich and at that time knew none of my family history!


    • Thanks for commenting Andrew. Norwich is such a lovely place – I wonder if now, knowing what you know, you would see different things as you walked the streets? I visited Norwich when I was about 12 with my parents, and again when I was 21, to stay with a friend who had moved there. I had no idea until I started with the family tree that my father’s maternal line were from here – and neither my dad not my grandma would have had any idea. Fortunately, I’ve had reasons to visit there quite often over the past 8 years. I do love wandering around those historic streets.


  3. Hello – very interesting blog and resource. After living in Norwich for more than 40 years I recently found that my paternal mothers family come from here and several generations from this particular area. They lived at Churchyard St Pauls and Priory Yard which was at 109-111 Cowgate. Names of Chenery, Heywood (or Hayward), and Winter. Other generations and branches lived throughout Norwich Over the Water in the 18th and early 19th century. As you say it adds a whole new dimension to wandering around!


    • That’s interesting Phil. So it would have been very close to here. I hope you find some useful photos on the George Plunkett website and can spend happy hours virtually exploring where they lived.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.