Like the architecture of many urban spaces, the historic Great Yarmouth Rows evolved and developed slowly over many centuries. Then in the first half of the 20th century they experienced a relatively fast and sudden change within a couple of decades. Some of this transformation occurred over a matter of hours as bombs fell from the sky during the Second World War. This exhibition explores the Rows and considers why they came into being, how they changed and evolved, who lived and worked there and ultimately how and why they disappeared so quickly. Sections of the Rows remain intact, protected by preservation orders. We hope this exhibition will encourage you to visit Great Yarmouth, to walk the remaining rows and to experience them for yourself.
What were the Rows?
The Rows were a series of narrow, cramped streets in Great Yarmouth. Each row ran from east to west i.e. from the direction of the coastline and towards the river or what we now call South Quay. There were three main streets running North to South, one either side of the Rows and one roughly through the middle. This map created by John Laing in 1855 gives you some idea of the layout and shows how condensed the streets were.
Development of the Rows
Great Yarmouth was first settled by a few fishermen in the 11th century and at this time was little more than a sandbank. This early settlement developed into a town, with the first mention of the Rows as early as 1198. By 1391 Yarmouth was encircled by its town walls which King Henry III had granted permission to build in 1261. Until the 19th century, building outside the town walls was prohibited. The subsequent space limitation has been suggested as a contributory factor in the development of such close, cramped streets. Others have suggested they could have been modeled on a Scandinavian street lay-out. Similar networks of streets have existed elsewhere, such as in Kirkwall in Orkeny, Bergan in Norway and Birka in Sweden.
Names or Numbers
It is commonly stated that there were 145 Rows, in fact the number varied over time. A now lost document from 1286 listed just 90 Rows. By the time Henry Manship completed his 'History of Great Yarmouth' in 1619 there were 140 and by 1784 as many as 156 were recorded. The numbering system itself was not even introduced until 1804, prior to this names were used such as Lacon's Brewery Row, Split Gutter Row, Garden Row or Thornton the Grocer’s Row. The problem with the names was their tendency to change, meaning some Rows ended up with multiple names. The answer was simple, the authorities issued numbers running North to South, with the exclusion of Market Row, Broad Row and Priory Row.
Town Map (1882) by UnknownTime and Tide Museum
This map published in 1882 by Jarrolds clearly shows the layout of the Rows with each Row numbered. Note: You can zoom in on the map.
Painting of Row 120 (1900/1950) by Will MillerTime and Tide Museum
Often Rows were named after a local business such as Smith the Baker’s Row or Rose and Crown Row. Others were named after a former resident such as Sarah Martin Row or Swinden the Historian Row.
What were they like?
The Rows were incredibly narrow, the gap between most was typically 90-150cm, but the narrowest was Kittwitches Row (Row 95) with a gap as small as 68.5cm at its Western end. To put that into perspective, the gap between a standard internal door in a modern house is about 75cm. On the narrower streets it was possible to lean out of your window and shake hands with your neighbour opposite and the narrowness of the Rows ensured very little sunlight ever entered. If you were required to travel East to West in the town, passing through the Rows was unavoidable. The difficulty of doing so safely is highlighted by a law passed in 1618 requiring all residents to ensure their front door opened inwards. Failure to comply could lead to a fine of 5 shillings and your door being nailed shut.
Row 138 (1883) by Charles John WatsonTime and Tide Museum
Pathways were paved with pebbles from the beach making them difficult to walk on. Often Rows had open gutters allowing sewage to slowly drain away. One can imagine the smell in such a confined space.
It was not only residents on foot required to travel along the narrow Rows. Local shops and merchants needed to transport and deliver stock and goods. A standard horse and cart could not fit down the narrow passages. This led to a design unique to Great Yarmouth – The Troll Cart. These carts were able to fit along the narrow rows being around 1M in width and with the wheels tucked underneath the main body of the cart. The image on the right is of the naturalist Arthur H Patterson on a Troll Cart outside the Tolhouse in the early 20th c (there is an example of a 19th c Troll Cart on display in the Tolhouse Museum).
Row 83 (1972-05-21) by Percy TrettTime and Tide Museum
A rubbing strake along Row 83. Rubbing strakes were installed to protect buildings from the carts as they travelled through the Rows at speed.
The people of the Rows
For a long time, the rich lived alongside the poor in the Rows, but when wealthier inhabitants eventually moved away, the larger properties were carved up into smaller dwellings. This shift happened for two key reasons, firstly a 19th c. change in town policy allowed building outside of the town walls. This led inevitably to those with the means to move in search of more space. The second key reason is that Yarmouth was simply following a nationwide pattern. The new middle-classes created and made prosperous by the Industrial Revolution sought a better life for themselves and their families. This led to a mass exodus from town and city centers and to the creation of the suburbs.
Drawing (1918) by Arthur H PattersonTime and Tide Museum
Some rows were named after former prominent residents, examples include Sarah Martin the prison reformer (Row 57), the naturalist Arthur Patterson (Row 36) and local historian Henry Swinden (Row 82).
Working in the Rows
The Rows were not simply a place to live, they were also a place to work. The prevalence and variety of businesses that were incorporated in the rows can be seen by the names adopted such as Wall the Linen Drapers Row [Row 40], Rose and Crown Row [Row 41] and Barnby the Liquor Merchant's Row [Row 42]. Signs are visible in many of our archive images, such as the image on the right - Row 116 (Sam Hurry's Row / Hasting's Row / Pawnbrokers Row) and the home of S.W Middelton Chimney Sweep.
Postcard of a Yarmouth Row (1902/1920) by UnknownTime and Tide Museum
A shop selling Yarmouth Shrimp (Row Unknown).
Row 6 Bodysnatchers Row
In the early part of the 19th century body snatching became a lucrative business as the supply to medical schools dried up, due to a decrease in sentences for capital punishment (until 1832 the only legal source of bodies). The attraction of this rather grizzly crime was heightened because interfering with a grave was only a misdemeanor rather than a felony. This meant a fine or imprisonment rather than transportation or execution. This brings us to Row 6, later to become known as Bodysnatchers Row. In 1827 a resident of Row 6 Thomas Vaughan was discovered to have dug up at least 10 bodies from St Nicholas Churchyard. Vaughan stored the bodies in sawdust filled bags and transported them in crates to Bartholomew’s Hospital in London by train. Vaughan was tried at the Norwich assizes and received 6 months for this misdemeanor offence. Vaughan was later transported to Australia having been caught in possession of clothing he had taken from a corpse, this was a felony offence.
Row 125, Old Gun Row (1911) by UnknownTime and Tide Museum
The residents of Row 125 or Ye Olde Gun Row celebrating the coronation of King George V in 1911. This Row had also been known as Mack the Tinsmith's Row.
Row 95 Kittywitches Row
Perhaps the most infamous of all Rows was number 95, Kittywitches Row. The story behind its name is the subject of much debate, including stories of witchcraft in the Middle Ages with accompanying groans of the dying and demonical laughter at night. Other stories include it being named after species of crab found on Breydon water called the Kitty Witch (the row being so narrow one needed to walk like a crab through its Western end), or that it was based upon the Dutch word for a house of ill repute ‘Kitwijk’. Perhaps the most intriguing story is that it earned the name because a group of women of ‘ill repute’ known as the Kitty Witches used to frequent the Row and set upon drinking and funding their lifestyle by ‘immoral means’.
The end of the Rows
Rows and row houses were built and re-built over the centuries, but the basic street lay-out had remained static for over 700 years, almost as long as the town had existed. The demise of the Rows was relatively rapid occurring over just a couple of decades. Few significant changes occurred before the 1930s, although Rows 68 and 69 had been demolished in 1813 to make way for a new East to West Road that we now know as Regent Road. The first major demolition started in 1933 with rows 17, 21, 27 and 28 demolished as part of a slum clearance scheme which aimed to improve housing conditions for residents. Throughout the 1930s clearance work continued gradually, perhaps slowed by local resistance. Various pressure groups such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the Norfolk and Norwich Society had fought for at least a proportion of the rows to remain. This image shows demolition of rows in the Conge area in the 1930s which is roughly where rows 21 and 22 would have been located.
Bomb damaged Great Yarmouth (1946) by UnknownTime and Tide Museum
Great Yarmouth suffered significant bomb damage during the war with German pilots seizing their last opportunity to drop bombs on British targets.This map shows bomb damage to Rows in Middlegate.
Council Flats (1975-03-16) by Percy TrettTime and Tide Museum
Most of the remaining Rows were pulled down in the 1950s as the local council continued a program of housing improvements for local residents.
The Rows at Time and Tide Museum (2020) by David KirkhamTime and Tide Museum
It is still possible to discover many sections of Rows as you walk around Great Yarmouth, these are protected by preservation orders. We also have this fantastic re-creation of a Row at Time and Tide.
Time and Tide Museum
Norfolk Museums Service
Norfolk County Council
Wayne Kett, Curator
Many of the images used in this exhibition are from the fantastic Percy Trett archive.
For a definitive view of the Rows: https://yarmouthmuseums.wordpress.com/2020/06/08/the-rows/