The North Gate

DUE EAST of Yarmouth lie the Low Countries. This simple piece of geography, allied to the fact that the town was the key to the defence of the Eastern Counties, made it of great strategical importance to Henry III in his struggle with Simon de Montfort and the barons. Accordingly in letters patent dated 1260 he gave permission for the burgesses to enclose the town with a wall and moat, but work did not start on the project for at least twenty-four years. Then, like Rome, the wall was not built in a day, for it took upwards of a hundred years to complete. In the early stages the cost of building was met by levying tolls on all ships entering and leaving the harbour, but contributions were also received from a number of patriotically inspired citizens. The people themselves were the labour force. Each and every one of them was beholden to do a certain number of days' work on the wall each year. The more wealthy were able to escape this irksome and backaching duty by paying. The money was then used to pay men to labour in their stead. This service, which was known appropriately enough as "murage", seems strange to modern eyes. To a society which was completely dependent upon itself and which but eighty years previously had experienced some of the smarts of feudal service, it seemed perfectly natural. There was, of course, a shortage of building stone in the area, and to have carted it from elsewhere or shipped it from abroad would have been ruinous. In consequence the walls and towers are all built of local flints and pebbles found lying on the beaches and in the immediate neighbourhood. The construction of square towers -was out of the question, for this would involve the use of stone for the corners. In consequence all are round except King Henry's Tower.

A Yarmouth 'Row'
yar_589.jpgThe difficulty in obtaining material is evidenced by a number of contrasting entries in the official records. For instance, in 1336, "First bought of Barthelomew of Thorp a certain quantity of stones of his ships ballast at the price of 2s." It would also seem that Thomas Robert King and John Mole made a "good thing" out of breaking down an old wall outside the town and selling it back to the citizens at 19s. 10d a load.

The walls were 23 feet high and 2200 yards long and enclosed an area of 133 acres, which was the extent of the town for some centuries. It seems likely that King Henry's Tower in St Nicholas Churchyard was the first tower built and that the wall, broken by no fewer than eight gates, was continued in a southerly direction as far as Blackfriars Tower, and at this point it turned through a right angle to the river bank. Between the Blackfriars Tower and the river the principal entrance to the town, the South Gate, was erected. Judging from the many prints and water-colours, this gate possessed a singular charm and grandeur and one can but regret its destruction. The coming of the Black Death caused work on the wall to come to a stop in 1349, but as soon as its effect had passed off, work began again and the walls were then extended from King Henry's Tower across the northern boundary of the churchyard and across the road leading to Caister. Here another main entrance to the town, the imposing North Gate, was erected, and there is reason for believing that its two lofty square towers and central portal were built at the expense of those who had become rich by burying the dead during the Plague.

The walls were then extended to the River Bure and terminated with the North-west Tower. When the wall was finished a moat was dug all round it and Yarmouth was as strongly a fortified town as one would expect to meet in the Middle Ages. In 1558 Thomas Nash, the Elizabethan dramatist, who was born in Lowestoft, described Yarmouth in his tract Lenten Stuff as being a "flinty ring of 15 towers which sent out thunder whenever a Spaniard dared to come near". Thirteen years earlier, however, this description would have been most inaccurate, for when the Duke of Norfolk inspected the defences at the command of Henry VIII, who was waging war against France, he was far from pleased. Some sandhills now overtopped the walls and these he ordered to be levelled. The moat was again dug and cleared of rubbish.

The Pudding Gate was situated near where St Nicholas Road
joins the Market Place

The picturesqueness of the huts and shanties built up against the wall itself failed to move the duke and he ordered their immediate destruction. The inside of the wall was then built up with earth and Yarmouth was again ready to repel invaders.

There was another alarum at the time of the Spanish Armada, and Elizabeth was so convinced of the importance of a fortified Yarmouth that she compelled Norwich, Norfolk, and Suffolk to pay large sums towards the repair of the walls whilst she herself despatched supplies of gunpowder and arms. Several cannon were strategically placed on a mound higher than the wall itself, which was raised to the west of the South Gate. From this position the river could be commanded, and to make doubly certain a boom was stretched across its waters. Day after day the task of fortification went on. Ravelins were thrown up, trenches and earthworks of all kinds were dug. Every day four men scanned the horizon from the church tower in search of Spanish men-of-war. But this state of preparedness passed when peace came, and in 1625, when Charles I ordered an inspection to be made of the defences, he was surprised at the neglect into which they had fallen. They were also strengthened by the addition of a further thirty cannon. When the Civil War began the town declared for Parliament and those suspected of royalist sympathies were locked in the towers. The gates were kept locked, drawbridges were raised and the moats deepened and a watch kept from the walls. The defences were being manned, however, for the last time, and when the war was over they were allowed to fall into decay-this time for ever. Walls such as these were no match for the new artillery with its increased power and range, and it was obvious that new methods of defence were needed to combat this form of attack.

The walls not only kept the invader at large but also determined the shape and size of the town for many centuries. No one was permitted to live outside of the walls and the small area within made it necessary for houses to be built as closely together as possible. By building in parallel lines more could be accommodated and so the rows were born. This amazing huddlement of narrow lanes which was likened by Charles Dickens to the bars of a gridiron is unique in England. He goes on to describe a row thus:

yar_IMAGE0606.jpgA row is a long narrow lane or alley, quite straight, or as nearly so as may be, with houses on each side, both of which you can sometimes touch at once with the finger-tips of each hand, by stretching out your arms to their full extent. Now and then the houses overhang, and even join above your head, converting the row, so far, into a sort of tunnel, or tubular passage. Many and many a picturesque old bit of domestic architecture is to be hunted up amongst the rows. In some rows there is little more than a blank wall for the double boundary. In others, the houses retreat into tiny courts, where washing and clear-starching are done, and wonderful nasturtiums and scarlet-runners are reared from green boxes.

At one time there were 145 of these rows each named after some notable person living in it or after some peculiar character that it possessed. So there was a Jumbers' Row and a Rising Sun Row, and these rows were called by these names long after the death of Mr Jumbers and the collapse of the Rising Sun. Then, too, some rows had more than one name, but this delightful state of affairs came to an end in 1804, when in the interests of efficiency every row received a number and at the same time seemed to lose something of its own individual character. Row 1 was in the north, and was, of course, the narrow passage between the wall and the first block of houses, and Row 145 was in the south.

The planners of these ancient passages built them all running from east to west for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is a natural fall in the land-level from the Market Place to the Quay, so that rain-water rapidly ran away, causing no flooding. Secondly, their construction ensures that there was always a current of strong air blowing through them which cleaned out the streets of smoke and stale air and thus safeguarded the health of the residents. Thirdly, they made it possible for any part of the town to be easily reached, and at the same time ensured that it could be the more easily defended in the event of an attack. Although in latter years the rows have been inhabited by humble folk, people of considerable importance once dwelt there in fine houses, such as the so-called Merchant's House in Row 117. In fact one house in Row 57 which has now been incorporated into the Public Library was for many years known as Nelson's House. The rows, like country lanes, were constructed originally of gravel, but in time this was supplanted by cobblestones. These "petrified kidneys" made walking far from pleasant and they were later flagstoned or concreted. Protruding doorsteps and open gutters at the sides of the rows were general, although Row 5 was previously known as Split Gutter Row, because its one open gutter running right down the centre divided into two half-way along its length. The narrowest of the rows was Kitty Witches' or Row 95 which extended from King Street to Middlegate Street and at this point it was only 27 inches wide. A brass tablet commemorates the site of this unique street, most of which was destroyed by an enemy air raid in 1942.

This is typical Yarmouth row as seen by Jane Worship in 1841. The baulks of timber in the foreground were designed to protect the wall from amage by the passsage of troll carts and posts and rails such as these were a common feature of the network of rows.


The rows were much too narrow for normal vehicular traffic and in consequence a special cart known as a "troll" was constructed to carry herring and other merchandise from one end of the town to the other. These trolls, which were quite common as far back as the reign of Henry VIII, were about 12 feet long and just over 3 feet wide.

They had a very short, low back axle with wheels running under the body of the carriage. They were extremely easy to load and when not in use could be tipped on end with the shafts in the air and then occupied very little space. In the eighteenth century it became quite fashionable for visitors to have rides on these carts, and in consequence a new vehicle based on the design of the troll cart began to appear.

These were called Yarmouth carriages, which caused Defoe to say contemptuously that they are not coaches but "only wheelbarrows with a horse in them". Nevertheless, a great deal of fun could be got out of a trip in these chariots, for their small wheel-base made them terribly liable to upsets, and with a young Jehu or Jack on the spree at the reins there was more danger to life and limb than there is today in keeping right at the traffic island at the foot of the Haven Bridge. Many rows were destroyed completely in the Second World War and others have been pulled down to make room for new development. It is possible that in a few years time the rows, which have been a characteristic feature of Yarmouth for centuries, may disappear entirely. This will be a great loss, for, as a writer in the English Illustrated Magazine of 1900 claims, they are "the queerest streets in England".

The South Gate showing ineresting semaphore device erected during the Napoleonic Wars