The Norwich Society

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Book Club Reviews

The Norwich Society book club meets during the winter months from October to April. Meetings are every six weeks in the Jex Room at the Assembly House. The Group discusses pre-selected books about elements of Norwich history. After each meeting a review of the books read is listed here.

At the last meeting on the 21st November 2018 members discussed The Paston Letters. A review will be posted here once available.

The next meeting will be held on 16th January 2019, with further meetings on 27th February and 10th April 2019.

New members are always welcome. If you are interested in joining the group please email Kala Nobbs.


Book Club Report November 2018

The Paston Letters

The Paston letters are an extremely rare collection of over 1000 documents including letters, Wills and even shopping lists.

They paint a fascinating picture of C15th life both of rural Norfolk and of a nobility desperately trying to keep on the most advantageous side during the War of the Roses.

Official family business is the major topic of the correspondence. Margaret Paston, nee Mautby, wife of John Paston I (d. 1466), a London solicitor, was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims against the estate of Sir John Fastolf, a career soldier (d. 1459) and one of the major correspondents of the family. Topics of a more personal nature include family fall-outs, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home. In December 1441 Margaret writes to John to ask him for a new girdle as she has grown ‘so fetys’ (fat): she is 6 months pregnant with their first child, who is born in April 1442. The letters provide a colourful portrait of medieval provincial society: feckless sons and aging daughters are married advantageously and a manor house is besieged in a land-dispute. Dinner parties are planned and the topics discussed range from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants. (British Library website)

Book club members considered a variety of different editions, most published during the C20th. Readers found the collections of letters with little or no explanations pretty hard to follow whilst the illustrated and narrated texts made life much easier! Many of the originals can now be viewed on line including the world’s oldest valentine letter held by the British Library.

Book Club Report October 2018

We had five members attend the first session of the book club as we reconvened after our summer break. The book under consideration was Robert Toppes, Medieval Mercer of Norwich by Richard Matthew.

Robert Toppes, born about 1400, was the owner and builder of Dragon Hall in King Street.

The book was, on the whole, well received although the thematic format did give rise to a degree of repetition. This is a well researched work especially considering the paucity of surviving documentary evidence. The illustrations and maps made this an attractive and accessible.volume

The book gave rise to a number of questions which contributed to a lively meeting ably led by Andrea Oliver. What were Robert’s origins? He first appears in Norwich when he becomes a freeman of the city at the age of about 22.

He was already a young man of considerable means.There are few records of the family being in the area before this and it seems most likely that he moved to Norwich from either Bristol or the Low Countries.

Robert Toppes became one of the richest and most prominent citizens in Norwich becoming both the city’s mayor and its MP.

It was probably his wealth which enabled him to duck and dive his way into and out of trouble on occasions, not least when he was accused of co -leading Gladman’s insurrection in 1437 which led to his exile in Bristol. He was lucky to escape with his life!

Toppes married twice and had up to nine children none of whom appear to have inherited his commercial acumen to found a Toppes business dynasty. He died in 1467 and left a detailed will which took over thirty years to settle. Hopefully the many Masses for his soul which he had provided for in his will had proved effective by then!

Book Club Report - April 2018

We had eight members at our April meeting which will be the last until we restart in the autumn. The books under discussion were Colonel Unthank and the Golden Triangle by Clive Lloyd and Bracondale by the Bracondale History Group. We were fortunate to have three of the Bracondale authors join the meeting. The Bracondale discussion was initially a little confusing until we realised that there are two books both entitled ‘Bracondale' but with different sub titles! The first, Stories from a Norwich Street, was published in 2013 and the more recent book 'A Village in a City' was published late last year. I think we would recommend that you need to read both in order to fully appreciate this fascinating part of our city. Both books are well illustrated and thoroughly researched although some readers regretted that there are not more maps in the more recent publication. Bracondale has been the residence of many of Norwich’s high achievers in business, medicine and the arts and has a reputation for being an area for free thinkers and non-conformists. It is an area clearly much loved by it’s current residents.

Clive Lloyd’s book on the Unthank family and the Unthank Rd area was again very well produced and answered a lot of questions about this popular area.It fits well with an earlier book which we had enjoyed Norwich-an Expanding City by Rosemary Donoghue which also describes how this area of terraced housing was developed on the estate owned by the Unthank family. We owe the Colonel a debt in that he strictly proscribed the design of the houses and ensured that they were built to a quality specification. It is also due to him that the pubs are all on corner plots!

Book Club Report - March 2018

The book group had an interesting meeting in early March. We were very pleased to welcome two new members. We went underground this time with the books Subterranean Norwich by Matthew Williams and, as some light relief, a novel, The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths. A couple of us were already confirmed Ely Griffiths fans but others were less smitten with the Norwich adventures of the left wing archeologist from the University of North Norfolk! It was interesting to compare her research for a tunnel from the Guildhall to the RC cathedral with the facts carefully collated by Matthew Williams. His lavishly illustrated book is almost a geology text book but gives some fascinating facts about what is going on under our feet. He includes much information about the chalk mines in Norwich which were active from the C12th and which moved outwards as the city developed. We wondered whether anyone has come across chalk miner as an occupation in census or other records? The other section of the book which we found most intriguing concerns the lost watercourses in the city. Who knew that that dip in the middle of Newmarket Street was the course of the Golden Triangle river? A fascinating book which we would recommend to a wider audience.

Book Club Report - November 2017

At our November meeting we had a fascinating afternoon discussing our primary text; Norwich An Expanding City by Rosemary O’Donoghue. This was supported by a look at Norwich in The C19th edited by Chris Barringer which is now out of print but available in libraries. The C19th century saw extensive expansion beyond the city walls, the impact of three new train stations, rapid population growth and the development of the streets of terraced housing which are so much a part of Norwich today. It was interesting that the majority of the terraced housing was built as what we would now call ‘buy to let’. The landowners such as Colonel Clement Unthank who made available land for these new developments, put a number of restrictive covenants on the new properties which specified the construction materials, fence heights etc but which also outlawed a wide range of activities from shoeing a horse in the street to keeping pigs, poultry or running an ale house. Even as late as the 1890’s some new houses were being built with earth closets. The provision of mains water gave rise to much debate in the City Council with one councillor arguing that it was not necessary to supply water 24/7- a few hours a day would suffice. Another suggested that people living near the river should not have to pay for mains water when they could get it from the river for free.