Rebuilding The Great Yarmouth Tolhouse

By Time and Tide Museum

A story of one of Great Yarmouth's oldest buildings as it celebrates 125 years of being a public museum and 60 years since reopening after extensive bomb damage suffered during the Second World War.

rsz_pt001174 for cover imageTime and Tide Museum

"Forever does not exist"

Being one of the oldest buildings in Great Yarmouth, the Tolhouse has origins dating back to Medieval times. The earliest records are of a grand building standing on the land in 1190, being built by a wealthy merchant. By 1333, The Tolhouse was being rented to the Borough of Yarmouth for the use of public business, eventually resulting in Queen Elizabeth I establishing the building as an Admiralty court in 1559.  By 1619 The Tolhouse was being used as a Gaol as well as a court house. 

Tolhouse Postcard Victorian viewTime and Tide Museum

Despite prison revolts over bread and trade issues, the Tolhouse was seen as an unchanging force that was physically cemented in Great Yarmouth’s history.

1800 Tolhouse rear viewTime and Tide Museum

Victorian Prison Reform 

By 1823 the last trial had been held in the Admiralty Court. Although the court was no longer there, the building still played an important role in law and order. In 1842 the Bridewell Gaol in the market place of the town was closed. The Tolhouse was substantially enlarged to make space for extra prisoners. This rare photograph from the early 1880's shows the rear of the Tolhouse - over looking the exercise yards, a view not often seen. 

Booklet (1900/1941) by UnknownTime and Tide Museum

From Prison to Museum

The role as an enlarged town prison was short-lived for the Tolhouse. By 1877 overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in prisons was commonplace. They were no longer large enough for the post industrial revolution population boom. An Act of Parliament passed in 1877 lead to the Tolhouse being closed and prisoners moved to Norwich Castle Prison. Now surplus to requirements, the Tolhouse was at risk of being demolished. Thanks to the lobbying of local historian Frederick Danby-Palmer it was agreed that the building could be saved and restored.   

reopening invite 1895Time and Tide Museum

New life as a Museum

On June 18th 1895, 125 years ago, the Tolhouse reopened as a public museum. The building had been saved in 1883 and lovingly restored through public subscription and grants from the Borough Council, lead by local historian Frederick Danby-Palmer. The Prince of Wales even visited the building, venturing down into the old 'Hold' prison cell. Adjoining the museum was a new public library.  

Invitation (1900/1942) by UnknownTime and Tide Museum

Throughout the early 1900's the popularity of the museum grew, with displays on the history of Nelson, annual fine Art shows featuring the Norwich School artists and even sections on Ancient Egypt.

Oil PaintingTime and Tide Museum

A Breezy Day, Tobias Lewis, 1910

This oil sketch is one of the few surviving objects displayed at the Tolhouse before the Second World War. The artwork was created by Tobias Lewis, the image shows a sailing smack entering the River Yare at Gorleston; the north pier is in the foreground and Gorleston pier, the pilots’ lookout and the Cliff Hotel shows in the background.  On the reverse side is a label for the Tolhouse Museum Art Exhibition dated 1910. 

Tolhouse Bomb Damage EDP ClippingTime and Tide Museum

A Fiery End?

On April 8th 1941, during a Nazi air raid on the town, an incendiary bomb hit the Tolhouse. The flames tore through the building starting from the roof, burning through to the basement. All that was left was the external shell and the cells. The irreplaceable museum exhibits were destroyed along with the building and the library. 

Second World War German Incendiary bombs (1939/1945) by Nazi GermanyTime and Tide Museum

tolhouse demolishedTime and Tide Museum

Post-War restoration 1945 - 1960

The impact of the Second World War was devastating for the culture and economy of Great Yarmouth. Many of the ancient streets and rows were destroyed. New buildings were constructed in their place. You can see a modern block of flats where shops once stood looking over the empty shell of the Tolhouse. It was decided that rather than demolish the building, as much of the surviving Medieval structure as possible would be saved. Any original bricks or features that could be salvaged would be reincorporated back into the building. 

Tolhouse Roof in process of rebuilding (1945/1959) by Percy TrettTime and Tide Museum

Alongside the Medieval frontage, a modern new public Library would be built on the land that was once the exercise yard, infirmary and chapel.

burns on the cell doorTime and Tide Museum

Scars of the past

The cells in the basement of the Tolhouse remained relatively undamaged from the bombing. The incendiary bombs were extinguished by the time the fire had burnt through the roof and first and ground floors. There are still however signs of the damage present in the building today - look at the base of the cell doors. Charred edges show how the flames almost consumed this last surviving undamaged original feature of the building.  

1960s visitor bookTime and Tide Museum

Re-opening 24th June 1960

The original visitors comment book from the 1960's was recently rediscovered in the Time and Tide museum archive. It records the visitors to the grand reopening. What follows are series of photographs showing the new 1960's displays.   

Tolhouse Museum interior 1960Time and Tide Museum

Bikes and Cigarettes

Behind the bikes, you can see restored elements of the Admiralty court room. This is a strange exhibition, combining Bikes and Cigarette advertising plaques. It is very much of its time. However many of the bikes and advertising signs are still in the museum collections, in storage and no longer on display. Also note that it was acceptable to smoke your pipe indoors while browsing the display cases.  

Tolhouse 1960 opening bike displayTime and Tide Museum

Example of exhibits in the Tolhouse in the early 90's (1992) by unknownTime and Tide Museum

The 1990's

The museum galleries were redisplayed in the 1980's and 1990's with examples of recent archaeological finds displayed and the galleries adapted for school group visits. This photo from 1992 shows Museum Attendant Bryan Phillips and Education Officer Sheila Watson with some of the exhibits on display. The skull was found beneath Great Yarmouth Fire Station during construction work in the 1970's. 

Tolhouse-exteriorTime and Tide Museum

The Tolhouse Today

In 2002 it was decided to move the museum collections and merge them with the now closed Maritime Museum collections, to the new Time and Tide museum building. This ended the reign of the Tolhouse as the town museum since 1883. It was decided to re-display the museum as a story of crime and punishment. Today the museum hosts school visits, weddings, paranormal investigations and many other events. You can find out more about the museum and opening hours by visiting our website: www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/tolhouse-gaol

Credits: Story

Time and Tide Museum
Great Yarmouth

Norfolk Museums Service

Exhibition Text and Research:

Diane Marks - Time and Tide Museum
Brett Peters - University of East Anglia
Kelly West - Time and Tide Museum

Archival Research:

Andrew Marshall - Volunteer, Time and Tide Museum

Danby-Palmer Document Loans

Rebecca Marshall - Time and Tide Museum

Edited by:

Philip Miles - Time and Tide Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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