Industry, Processions and Protests in Norwich over the Water. Margaret Todd

People were making things for centuries in this curve of the Wensum, from things for everyday existence: beer, iron, leather and shoes, to luxury textiles that the makers would only wear second hand and recycled. Things were made here using the soil, the river, animal and vegetable products from the rural hinterland and the skills and knowledge of people living and moving into the area.

Norwich stopped being an industrial city between 1980s and 1990s. Sovereign House itself was part of a deliberate economic policy, before the free market was undisputed king, of moving civil service jobs out of London and providing more white-collar work in Norwich. Recently, small producers have moved back into the area, taking advantage of the cheap, versatile spaces left by the boot and shoe industry and the large number of empty shops.

The history of Anglia Square makes me think about how change has been imposed by people with more power, who want to use the area and its people as a resource to make money for themselves and their friends. This has been a regular process and either imposed on, resisted by, embraced or accepted with resignation, by those living and working here (or a mixture of all three). Their responses have been formed by how they see their own opportunities in a changed world, their available resources, but rarely by a blind “resistance to progress”.

From the 13th and 14th century the first people living in Alms Lane (off St Georges Street) rented their houses and workshops from richer landlords and that has remained the pattern for the area. Lives were devastated periodically by plague, poor harvests, invasions and wars, changes to trade patterns, fashion and governance.

The other period I have researched, the early 19th century, brought some of the biggest changes. Norwich had an ‘atypical’ experience during the industrial ‘revolution’ because it was one of the largest industrial cities, and for 500 years had been a self-governing city and county. It had the third largest electorate in the country, with at least half of these being small ‘masters’ who had become or inherited the status of Freemen. The textile industry was the largest but not the only one, consisting mainly of small producers who were both artistic creators and makers of their products.   The pattern of employment for everyone was mainly of self-employment, working in their own time, with control over their effort and hours. In the good times, and for the artisan perhaps, rather than the labourer, men rather than women, this was way a way of life that promoted an independence of mind. Part of this way of life were the pageants, processions, mystery plays and political campaigns, colourful, loud; planned in the pub and taking over the streets.

Norwich was in the forefront of the “Jacobin” response to the French revolution in the 1790s, with the dissenter intellectuals and artisans together supporting the call for liberty and equality. During the repression that followed, until the 1832 Reform Bill, many of the masters having made a lot of money through colonial expansion into the far east and European trade, began to impose the factory system onto the textile industry, and the preference for employing children and women on lower pay. The textile workers and others concentrated on organising themselves, by necessity in secret to resist the undermining of their livelihoods, their sense of independence, their sense of value and way of life. Competition from the north increased the downward pressure on wages and with the loss of the franchise to those who did not meet the new property qualification, a way of life was gradually and painfully extinguished. Not just in Norwich but in the whole country, although arguably, with more pain here than in other parts.

Before 1835, there were at least four elections at different times of the year for the Corporation, excluding General Elections; for the Mayor, the Common Council, Aldermen and Sheriffs. These were not quiet affairs but involved a lot of dressing up in the colours of the main parties, music, noise and filling the streets (sometimes with some fights or vandalism). Blue and White for the Whig/Radicals who were usually the favourites in the area north of the Wensum and Purple and Orange for the Tories (representing the monarchy and Protestantism). Voting was public and pubs were hired for treating and employing people to go and make sure the electorate voted. Although, only a relatively small number had the vote, big employers would often give the day off, nominations were public affairs in the market place or Guildhall and no-one checked who was eligible. However, as with MPs, being Mayor especially, meant having to find several thousand pounds for treating the voters and giving the banquets expected of you, but of course it was a way of making a fortune, if you were successful.

A good pageant and/or procession was part of the celebrations for a coronation, the opening of the Yarn Factory, political events such as the passing of the Reform Bill (with some examples of ‘non-approved’ placards reported) and the end of the war with America. Also, there are examples of spoofs in broadsheets and a satirical tableau acted out on election day in 1831 when the result punished the Blue and Whites, who had backed the hated new Poor Law provisions. All these give us clues as to how central these activities were to public life.

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