THE TOLHOUSE in Middlegate Street is the oldest civil building in the town, but its precise date is unknown. There is documentary evidence to prove that it was a well-known building in 1362, and it might well be that it is at least one hundred years older than this date, if Manship, one of the early historians, is to be taken literally. It was originally a privately owned building, and it is not known how it was acquired by the Corporation, but in 1552 they obviously owned it, for they then ordered it to be repaired "as fast as it may be".

yar_IMAGE0680.jpgThe word toll is of Saxon origin and suggests that the building was used initially for the receipt of dues paid by merchants attending the Free Fair in Herring. Ever since the days of King John there had been a court at Yarmouth and the justices heard all civil actions in this hall. It was also used as an Admiralty Court, for Queen Elizabeth in her Charter of 1559 had given the town the right to handle marine cases, and as a symbol of this right the Corporation regalia to this very day contains an oar beautifully worked in silver and gilt.
Yarmouth held this exclusive jurisdiction over the Admiralty Court until the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835 and pirates were tried there as recently as 1823. In more recent times the Tolhouse was used as a recorder's court quarter sessions. The Tolhouse was also the home of civil government in Yarmouth, for all the meetings of the Corporation were held there, and it was the scene of many of the disputes between the barons of the Cinque Ports and Yarmouth's own bailiffs.

An external staircase leading from the street to the hall on the first floor provides the main entrance to the building. This arrangement is seldom met with in this country, but in Norman and Plantagenet times it was a very common one. The large hall was known as the Heyning Chamber for the following reason: at one time the fishermen from other ports could only sell their catch to freemen of Yarmouth, and then not at the true market price but at the price known as the "tide price", which was fetched by the first catch sold. The Corporation claimed the right to buy in half the total catch at the tide price and re-sell at the market price. The profit so made was known as "Heyning Money" and the transaction was carried out in this very hall.

The hutch or town chest, which contained many of the town's most valued possessions, was kept in the hall. With its curiously wrought keys and bolts, and its rich decorative pattern, it is one of the most remarkable examples of ironwork in the country. Apart from plate and other valuables it also housed important documents. The hutch map, which is an Elizabethan cartographer's idea of how Yarmouth emerged from the sea, was so called because many years later it was found in the selfsame hutch. It also provided a home for the Corporation seals, many of which are quite ancient, particularly that known as St Nicholas' Seal which dates back to the thirteenth century.

In 1622 the building was completely transformed. It was no longer Gothic in feeling, but Jacobean, and it was re-equipped to make it more suitable for council meetings. The Corporation stayed at the Tolhouse until the erection of a town hall in 1882, and then contemplated pulling it down and selling the site. Fortunately they were dissuaded from this course and later a trust was appointed to raise money for its restoration. As a result it was again transformed and then converted into a museum. The building was completely gutted by incendiary bombs in two severe raids during the Second World War, but it is now being restored once again—this time under supervision of the Ministry of Works—and it will in all probability be used as a local museum.

yar_IMAGE0681.jpgThere is little doubt that the hold, a drab dungeon 20 feet long, 12 feet wide, and some 16 feet high, was the town gaol as early as 1261 and that it was used continuously until 1835. When one considers the lack of air and light, the prevalence of vermin and skin diseases of all types, and the severity of the sentence, one needs little imagination to picture the scenes of squalor and abject misery that must have taken place here. One person, however, did much to relieve the distress which she found around her. This was Sarah Martin, a Caister woman, born in 1791 of humble parentage, who at the age of nineteen dedicated herself to philanthropic work in the gaol. It took eight years of perseverance to gain admittance to the prisoners, who at first regarded her with the greatest mistrust. Nevertheless, in the months that followed she visited the gaol regularly, read from the scripture, and, as there was no chaplain, organised divine service on Sundays. Then, encouraged by a few friends, she bought lengths of material and taught the women how to make clothes, for she was a dressmaker by profession. This great attempt to relieve boredom touched the hearts of many of her fellow-citizens and they donated small sums of money to help the work along. She was most meticulous about these gifts and all were recorded in a series of account books which are preserved to this day in the Public Library. She also found work for the male prisoners and taught the illiterate to read and write, and her notebook contains comments on the progress her pupils made. When the prisoners were released they were not forgotten and the more deserving were helped from a special fund which she raised for this purpose.


For all this philanthropic work she would accept no reward, although in the end poverty forced her to accept the sum of £12 per year from the Corporation for her labours. In the spring of 1843 strain and hardship began to take their toll, and on 15 October she died and was buried in Caister Churchyard. The Bishop of Norwich put into words the thought of thousands when he said over her grave, "I should like to canonise Sarah Martin if I could". Later a stained-glass window was erected to her memory in St Nicholas' Church.