Edge Lands: Alms Lane between 1275 and 1350. Margaret Todd

Today Alms Lane is a modern ‘infill’ between St George’s Street and Muspole Street. An excavation in 1976 gives an idea of what life was like in this area from the late 13th century, when people first built on this site, around 1275. Written records for this time are of property owners and tax payers, or those breaking the law, so this excavation gives a unique insight into the lives of some ordinary citizens of the time.

Close to the Wensum, and the first crossing river by a causeway at Fye Bridge, the area was marshy with ‘Muspole’ perhaps meaning ‘mouse-infested pool’. Solid ground started at Colegate. These first buildings were built over what had been a convenient rubbish dump, infilling the earlier 8 metre wide defence ditch along what is now St George’s Street, just outside the Saxon town. Some of the rubbish included a leather worker’s knife and also off-cuts from bone-working.

In the first half of the 14th century Norwich was growing fast, the city walls were being built from 1294 until 1334. But although the main roads such as Magdalen Street and Oak Street would have been built up, the areas behind them such as Alms Lane were still “edgelands”. This was an area of noisy, smelly and polluting industries along the river and pits of six metres square and one and half metres deep in the sandy soil to extract iron ore. Pigs and chickens would have roamed around.

The first people to work here were iron-workers and brewers who rented the property. This was the industrial area of an expanding town, later to be pushed out of the city altogether. Buildings on the site included a foundry, making iron ore from the orange sand dug from pits in the area. There was also a smithy on the south east of the site which made implements from the iron. Both activities were noisy and smelly. The foundry used wood, probably from Thorpe Woods, but the smithy used coal probably imported along the river via Yarmouth from Durham.

There was also was a small timber brewhouse, operating until about 1350, on the corner of Alms Lane and Muspole Street. Until the 15th century this would have been ale, without hops (a preservative as well as flavouring) but perhaps other herbs such as costmary were used for home consumption. Until the 16th century there were ale purity laws (similar to Germany’s current laws) which forbade additives such as hops. Before hops were added beer did not keep fresh for long, but had the advantage of producing a safe drink compared with other sources of water. There was a well on the site.

Most ale was made by women as part of the household activities or by ‘brewsters’ or ale-wives’, but this brewery appears to be on a commercial scale, with a clay-lined pit for soaking the barley grain, a floor for sprouting the grains (malting), ovens to dry the malt and a grindstone to grind it.

At this time, women were 13% of all known property owners, but they were unmarried or widowed. They could not become ‘Freemen’, i.e. elected because of their economic success to be free from paying market tolls.

The site had buildings enclosing a courtyard. Timber structures rested on clay, and then clay poured between ‘moulds’ of wood to build up the walls. Clay deposits are found nearby in Norwich. They might have used ‘clay lump’ bricks made of a mixture of sand, clay and straw, or wattle and daub (these are woven walls of hazel with straw, animal hair, clay etc. ‘daubed in between). All these building materials wash away if not keep dry by overhanging roofs. The roofs of these building were unusual in not being thatched; they were tiled because of the fire risk of the foundry and smithy.

Eating and drinking

The oven in the Brewhouse was unusual as most houses had open fires so cooking was done by boiling in a pot or spit roasting. Houses did not have a chimney, just a vent in the thatched roof where smoke found its way out. Salting food was important to preserve it for the winter months because the ability to produce enough reliable fodder to keep animals over winter was only just developing and most cattle were slaughtered at Martinmas (November 11). Cheese, salted herrings (from Yarmouth) and imported dried fish (stockfish) were the main sources of protein in the winter. The only significant fish from the river were eels. The staple food was barley, made into a potage with other grains, perhaps cooked in the hearth as flat breads (it has little gluten compared with wheat). Vegetables were mainly greens gathered from gardens and waysides, many of which we now consider weeds. In Norwich many people would have bought bread made with wheat and barley from bakers, leavened with ale yeast and baked in an oven.

Environmental Health

The Leet (administrative area), named Ultra Aquam or Over the Water, controlled the streets by punishing blockages of refuse and wreckage by wandering pigs. There was a system of cess pits, with probably the ‘night soil’ being dug out now and again for spreading on the land outside of the city (Read Samuel Pepys on the 17th century arrangements). Urine was the most valuable alkali available for a range of industries, tanning, fulling wool and making dyes being just three. Probably not much was wasted.

In the area were also tanning and dyeing, both activities creating smells and polluting the river as they both needed water. Tanning was notoriously smelly, using urine as an alkaline to dissolve the hair and then warm dog dung in another part of the process. The prevailing south west wind is important here, another reason why other unpleasant industries would have made this area an ‘edgeland’.

Fulling to clean oil from the wool and create a dense, waterproof and stronger woollen cloth involved pits of water, urine or clay and either the fullers’ feet or later a wooden mill to agitate the cloth. It also needed lots of water to rinse the cloth.

Dyeing also involved using the river water. Woad was grown in East Anglia to produce blue dye, and again used urine to extract the dye from the plant by a process of notoriously smelly fermentation.

Guilds were growing in strength and the largest one at this time was the leather and shoeworkers’ with the textile guild the second with 15% of the guild members. Most people, 40%, earned their living in the food, drink and clothing industries.

The wider picture

What was it like to live in Norwich between 1275 and 1350? The city expanded enormously over this period as people moved into expanding and newly created towns all over the country. Norfolk was the most populous county and about 10% of the population lived in towns. The population of Norwich may have reached 25,000 at this time.

There were some periods of severe disruption, the city was sacked in 1266 by ‘the disinherited barons’ and in 1274 following a riot, probably because of the dispute over the ‘ownership’ of the Trinity Fair (June) in Tombland there was a riot between citizens and monks and the city was excommunicated by the pope for a year and the King’s representatives directly ran the city, suspending the right to govern itself.

However, the population was highly regulated. In 1404, Norwich was granted a charter by Henry IV and became a county in its own right. Before this it was divided into four Leets, divisions of an Anglo-Saxon Hundred with a Bailiff in charge of each Leet. The Leet held trials for theft and disputes. Each man over 12 years old belonged to a tithing, a group of 10, under the system of ‘Frankpledge’. This was a system whereby each man had to ‘produce’ the other 9 men in his tithing when asked to do so. Each one was also responsible for keeping law and order within his tithing and was required to bear arms. Outsiders were easily recognisable within this system, despite the growth in population and tolerated or feared depending on perception and no doubt the state of the local economy.

Norwich would have worked with a mainly money economy, although barter would have still been useful. For those coming in from the countryside, cash was still scarce.

The most common offenses before the Leet court during this time were to do with selling inferior bread and ale; using menaces; blood-drawing; hamsoken (causing mayhem); and theft. Also, not registering your tithes, selling candles secretly; blocking watercourses with refuse; illegal fishing; feeding pigs on the King’s land.

Examples, John Janne was convicted of buying eight drowned sheep and selling them as good meat; Robert Percond, keep a plank that had washed up in the river and not declared it to the bailiff.

Although there was no police force, if someone witnessed a crime, they would set up a ‘hue and cry’ and the perpetrator would be chased and caught by those not wishing to be fined for not doing so.

Markets and Fairs

Markets during this time were highly regulated and Norwich was developing as a complex economic centre for this thriving county. The city gates would have helped to control people coming in who would have had to pay to tolls, as well as money to sell their goods. There was a curfew. Markets were highly regulated and in Norwich the market became specialised, representing the 120 or so trades in the city by 1400. It was the city’s main way of raising money. There was a market at Stump Cross at this time.

The land surrounding Norwich was largely owned by the Cathedral Priory making it extremely rich.

Outside of this regulation were the Fairs. Many were international and we have kept the ‘indulgence and fun’ side of them up until modern times but they were primarily an opportunity for trade in exotic and occasional goods from afar. Fairs allowed outsiders to trade and also to sell bulk and luxury goods, which people didn’t buy all the time. The main fair in Norwich was across the river in Tombland at Whitsuntide and was economically very important to the Cathedral Priory which owned the rights and it allowed merchants to sell goods without the usual market tolls. This was a matter of dispute between the Priory and the City in years to come and was only finally solved when the Monasteries were dissolved. Other ‘chartered’ fairs were held in churchyards, on saints’ days, with a holiday, sports and games as well. St Clement’s day was on 23 November, but although this was outside the main fair season, it was a special holiday for metalworkers and blacksmiths. One of the customs that may have been observed here was the striking of the anvil; putting gunpowder in a hole in the anvil, then hitting it with a hammer. This tested the integrity of the anvil. Gunpowder was just being made in England at this time, making castles redundant.

However, there were some catastrophic events during the time of the first buildings on this site.

The city was flooded in 1290

The Great Famine. In the autumn of 1314 there was a wet cold autumn and then for the next few years, the summers were cool and wet and the winters very cold. There was a severe famine and perhaps 10% of the population of Northern Europe died.

The Hundred Years started in 1337 between Britain and France.

The Black Death started in 1348. As a major port Norwich was one of the worst hit. Plague years followed in 1361, 62 and 69 with perhaps 2/5th of the population dying.

By 1375 the land had been levelled and houses built on the site.

 Margaret Todd


“Life on a Medieval Street, Excavations on Alms Lane, Norwich 1976”. Text by Malcom Atkin and Sue Margeson. Illustrated by Martin Creasey. Norwich Survey, Centre of East Anglian Studies. 1985

“Nothing but the Truth: A History of Norwich Magistracy” Dick Meadows and Geoff Evans. Sad Shire Press 2012

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