Elm Hill is the most famous street in Norwich, because it is the most picturesque. The titular elm has gone—it died of Dutch Elm Disease in the 70s—but the Tudor houses with their gables and projecting upper floors remain. It is often repeated that Elm Hill is the most complete Tudor street in England, with more Tudor buildings on this one fairly short thoroughfare than there are in the entirety of London. You will often find photographers here, and occasionally film crews: students from the art school as well as international production teams. It is another one of those streets, like Tombland nearby, which makes you unusually conscious of all the history around you.
Elm Hill became a mercantile centre in the medieval days when Norwich was the second-largest city in England. The merchants' houses backed onto the Wensum. Wherries and carts would have delivered goods all through the day.
The Pastons were an influential Norfolk family who rose from peasantry to aristocracy in two generations, during the chaos of the Black Death at a time when social mobility was unheard of. The nouveau riche Pastons lived here during the Wars of the Roses, and their letters to one another provide an important insight into the time. During the civil wars the Pastons were also dealing with a lawsuit over inheritance, filed by some of England's most powerful families, which at one point escalated into a literal battle at the Paston's Caistor Castle estate. These were turbulent times, when someone rich enough to hire a private army could get away with whatever they wanted, especially murder.
The Pastons' house burned down in 1507, along with most of the street. During the 1500s various Mayors of Norwich built new houses here, including Augustine Steward, the official who defended the city against Kett's Rebellion. Steward built the house that now occupies the site of the Paston home. Since the 1920s it has been a private members' club, named Strangers like so much else in Norwich.
The only building to survive the 1507 fire, and thus the oldest building on the street, is the Britons' Arms public house. Built in the Dutch style around the time of the Black Death, the building has served just about every function over the centuries, from convent to leper house, from wool manufactory to a 'barbour surgeons' (in the days when barbers and surgeons were the same thing), from pub to upmarket coffee shop. Fire watchers used the building as a lookout shelter during the Baedeker Blitz. The building is currently owned and leased by the Norwich Preservation Trust, who are understandably keen to keep it open and functioning.
The Briton's Arms in 1937 (photo by George Plunkett)
In 1935, a Mrs Simmons wrote an article for the Eastern Daily Press about her childhood on the street during the 1860s. She grew up in the Steward/Paston house:
Norwich was my birthplace and Elm Hill my cradle. My earliest home was a house there belonging to my grandfather, at least 300 years old ... In the lounge is a ... window frame of moulded oak ... according to tradition, Queen Elizabeth looked through this window when visiting the city in 1578 ... I loved to look through the open window down upon the hill with its great elm tree in the middle of the plain and shading the parish pump (now gone). I can only picture it in bright sunshine, as there were to me few dark clouds in those early days.
In 1864 a Catholic priest named Joseph Leycester Lyne, alias Father Ignatius, founded a modern-day monastic order on the street. Ignatius had already had a great deal of legal trouble at his previous project in Suffolk, as well as violent resistance from the locals, but he did have a degree of support in Protestant Norwich—Mrs Simmons remembers him and his monks fondly:
.Elm Hill was often crowded with sightseers. Sometimes Ignatius would come out and speak to the people, who were often more scoffers than hearers, and when the noise became too much for his voice to be heard he would lead his choir with his beautiful voice and sing a hymn and then retire through the arched gate behind him and the nail-studded door was shut and barred.
On Easter morning, long before it was light, the monks would come out in procession with banners and cross, dressed in their vestments and carrying lighted candles and censers, and would parade round the parish singing hymns. I thought it beautiful ...
They had a chapel fitted up in the monastery and had regular services there, which drew crowds of people, more than could be accommodated, and worshippers had to have tickets of admission. Father, who did business with Ignatius, had a family ticket and we could go to any service. By the way, a funny thing happened one day: Ignatius wanted to see my father, and as he could never appear without a crowd mobbing him, he opened our private door and walked into the house. Our maid was on her knees at her work and, hearing a sound, turned her head and saw (to her) an awful figure clad in black with a cowl over his head. She fled in affright to my mother, exclaiming: "Oh! mam, I believe it is the Devil now come in."
Father Ignatius may have been a local celebrity, but he was reviled by some. One day he was preaching outside the monastery entrance when a woman blasphemed at him. He cursed her, and she is alleged to have died almost immediately. Ignatius's miraculous powers are also said to have extended to curing his parishioners' toothache, epilepsy, alopecia and insomnia.
Father Ignatius, c.1865.
Tensions between the monks and the community simmered for two years. In 1866 a scandal erupted. A 15-year-old choir boy, Samuel Hase, had been given gifts of fruit and tea after services by Father Ignatius, who was apparently 'sweet' on him. One day Samuel arrived home with a hymn book, given to him by Ignatius, and told his legal guardian, his widowed stepmother, that he was planning on becoming a full member of the monastic order. His stepmother met with Ignatius and gave him a piece of her mind, as it were, refusing consent for young Samuel to join. Despite the incident, Hale continued to attend services and was baptised by the monks. He even tried to end his apprenticeship at a printers' works, so he could fully devote himself to the religious life.
Eventually his anti-Papist stepmother got hold of a love letter, written to Samuel by another senior monk, Brother Augustine.
My love for you is so deep, so tender, that I cannot bear even to be separated from you, and when I do see you I have such a heavy weight at my heart, and you seem so careless and light-hearted and so taken up with others, and all this makes me worse ...
It is very weak, perhaps wicked, to write like this, but I scarcely know what I am doing, and feel forced to write and tell you all this.
... What I am now going to say must be a secret to everyone if you don't wish me to be troubled. I want you one day (I will tell you the time) to go to [the photographer] Mason's, S. Giles', to have your portrait taken. Dear mama shall send the postage stamps to you so that it will not be with any money from here.
I will manage your having a cotta and cassock without anyone's knowing here what you want it for.
The stepmother sent the letter to the Norfolk News, which had recently been denouncing Catholics and Popery, and very specifically the monastery in Elm Hill. This was the anti-Papists' trump card. Father Ignatius was away at the time, and he returned from his trip to find his monastery at the heart of a sort of media circus. The Norfolk News ran stories every issue for months, accusing Ignatius and his brothers of mesmerising young Protestant boys. Brother Augustine fled the monastery, fearing violent repercussions.
It is worth noting that most of this ire stemmed from anti-Catholic prejudice and homophobia, rather than specific objections to the age difference between Augustine and Samuel. Augustine's age is unknown but we can assume he was the same age or younger than his superior Ignatius, who was 29 at the time.
Another monk, Brother Stanislaus, left the monastery and became a minor celebrity at Protestant meetings, claiming that the monks were using 'improper' practices, although another younger member of the order accused Stanislaus himself of homosexuality shortly after. The monastery was dissolved in a quagmire of legal disputes, none of which were to do with the scandal. Today the main block of the monastery is an art school building, and at the Elm Hill entrance a blue plaque simply reads: 'After two difficult years it [the monastery] was dispersed.'
The monastery building today.
Photo by Evelyn Simak.
By the 1900s, the street was a semi-derelict slum. The idea of architectural conservation was still very new at this stage, and little effort was made to keep the magnificent Tudor buildings in good shape. Between the two World Wars, the council embarked on a city-wide scheme of slum clearance, demolishing old unsafe buildings with little regard to their history. The most notable examples of this are St Stephen's Street and St Peter's Street, which became wide art-deco concourses. But Elm Hill was saved, and the houses were restored, thus giving modern Instagrammers a place to take cool photos.
Glass slide photographs by Herbert Walker, a council surveyor, which document the restoration of Elm Hill. 1925 and 1930.