Adams Cottage













The Relevant History of Great Yarmouth Norfolk UK

The history of the wider area we now know as Great Yarmouth goes back to prehistoric times, with knapped flints and carved bones being amongst the evidence found in the area fishermen still occasionally bring up a variety of dinosaur bones from the floor of the north sea (many on show in local museums).  In Roman times there was a great estuary on this stretch of coast. It had both a northern and southern entrance around the sandbank on which Yarmouth now stands, and was guarded to the north by the fort at Caister and another to the south at Burgh. 

Why Great Yarmouth? The name, in use from medieval times, is not to distinguish it from Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, but to distinguish the main town from Little Yarmouth, the areas we now know as Gorleston and Southtown, on the other side of the river.

Gif showing  how the sandbank was formed

In the medieval mind, Yarmouth was associated with herring, a high-protein food important to the diet of the lower classes, which featured less meat than is eaten today. The thirteenth century seal of the borough bore depictions of a ship sailing herring-inhabited waters and, on the other side, St. Nicholas, a patron saint of fishermen.

 The fishery provided the reason for Yarmouth's foundation and the principal source of its medieval economy.

Great Yarmouth  is situated near where several rivers, among them the Yare, flow into what was once a very broad estuary (much larger than the present-day Breydon Water) opening out into the sea. In Roman times there was a port and market town a little further north, at Caister, and a small fort at Burgh Castle; these were later abandoned. Subsequent settlement focused on the site of Great Yarmouth itself. Tradition has the first settlement there established by the Saxon leader, Cerdic, ca. 495, but this is unsubstantiated and doubtful.

More likely is that about 900 when the sandbank had emerged from the sea is was used as a temporary home for fishermen during the fishing season only

More certain is that silting in the mouth of the "Great Estuary" over time formed a huge sandbank that came to be several miles long, leaving the Yare access into the sea through two channels at either end of the sandbank; one channel separated Yarmouth and Caister, the other ran southwards for some miles and separated Great and Little Yarmouth/Gorleston before entering the sea. This sandbank eventually became firm enough to support dwellings, perhaps preceded by more temporary facilities for the drying, salting and smoking of herring, as well as the sale of herring.  Fishermen from the Cinque Ports  claimed a long-standing right to beach their boats and to dry their nets there. A fair may have been in operation there by the time of Edward the Confessor, during the forty days from Michaelmas to Martinmas when the fishery was at its peak; in later times this important fair attracted not only the Cinque Ports  men, but also fishermen from the continent. The Cinque Ports  had authority over the fair, through officers they appointed, which was subsequently resisted and then contested by Yarmouth. Another indication that Cinque Ports  fishermen were likely among the founders of the town is that rents from some Yarmouth properties were due to the Ports it wasn't until 1662 when the Cinque Ports   stopped sending there representatives to the town to share in governing during the autumn herring fishing season something they had been doing every year since the 1100's.

Yarmouth was a borough in the royal domain before and at the time of the Doomsday survey, but an earlier shared jurisdiction is reflected in that Yarmouth had to pay every "third penny" of all public revenues (e.g. tolls and rents) to the earl. The number of burgesses living there – 70 in 1066 according to Doomsday – suggests that its fishery was already important by this date, although Yarmouth was certainly a small town compared to Norwich or Ipswich, with a few hundred residents in all. As a "frontier town" it had no important role in regional administration; the king never licensed a mint there. Doomsday noted one church there, dedicated to St. Benedict.

Throughout the late medieval period the town suffered from progressive silting of parts of the channel used as a haven for ships. Early settlement appears to have focused on the most elevated part of the sandbank, near the northern channel. In 1101 the Bishop of Norwich built a chapel in that neighbourhood (superseding a more modest building on the beach intended to celebrate divine service during the fishing season) and, in the 1120s founded St. Nicholas' church by the northern channel;

The church which stands at the northern end of the Market Place was started in 1119 and is dedicated to St Nicholas the patron saint of mariners. In time this church grew in size and by the 19th century is was thought to be the largest parish church in England. Medieval Great Yarmouth's prominence is confirmed by the number of religious houses it supported. A Benedictine Priory was attached to St Nicolas's church in the 12th century. Part of this priory survives in the grounds of the nearby Hospital School. The Dominican Black friars, Franciscan Greyfriars, Carmelites or Whitefriars and Augustine's all had monasteries in the town.

A Benedictine cell of the Norwich cathedral-priory was established in association with St. Nicholas'. Here too was the site of the borough marketplace, perhaps originally stretching east-west across the width of the town from the river channel to the beach facing the sea, although over the course of the Middle Ages the original shape of the market was obscured as parts were built upon – including the hypothetical western section, but also a large chunk on the eastern side was consumed by the foundation of St. Mary's Hospital.

Silting of the northern channel, to the point where it was unusable, subsequently encouraged population to expand southwards along the line of the southern-running channel and to relocate the haven in this channel. The bank of this channel became lined with quays, in contrast to the opposite side of the town – the great beachy area, or "Denes" (dunes?) facing the sea, on which would have been visible fishing-boats, nets stretched out to dry, and windmills. Although the section around St. Nicholas had been abandoned by most residents when wall construction was begun, the church itself remained important to the town; a major expansion was undertaken shortly before the mid-fourteenth century. Consequently, the line of the town wall was extended just far enough north to encompass the church. The southern channel too, however, experienced problems and at various times in the Late Middle Ages the townsmen had to cut new harbours.

In the twelfth century we have mentions of a reeve as the governing authority of Yarmouth, but this was an officer appointed by the king. In 1208, the king leased to the town (in return for a fee farm of £55) its first powers of self-administration; the royal charter granted:

the status of a "free borough";

the right to choose the executive officer of local government;

administration of justice (in certain matters of common law and local custom) through a weekly husting court;

a merchant gild, although such an institution has no prominence in Yarmouth's medieval records – its role and privileges (such as the right to make the first offer for newly-arrived herring catches) perhaps quickly being absorbed into local citizenship/government; in the sixteenth century, the Trinity Gild had ceremonial functions that suggest it to have been a possible successor to, or remnant of, a merchant gild;

exemption for the burgesses from paying tolls on goods they brought into other English towns (London excepted);

and various other powers or exemptions typical of that period.

When, in the 1220s, holders of the borough executive office begin to be identified, we see there to be 4 bailiffs, elected annually, rather than the earlier single reeve. This multiplication is probably associated with the fact that the town was divided into four "leets" (wards) for administrative purposes. Unlike in Norwich, where the leets reflected early settlements that coalesced into one city, there seems no special rationale in the Yarmouth divisions; the original boundaries are unknown and the names indicate a straightforward division of the town into northern and southern halves, each of which was in turn subdivided.

The first buildings were probably constructed of wood salvaged from the remains of ship wrecks and only a few remain. Yarmouth seems to have had Fullers Hill at its center (Highest Point), as le Howe (Hill) is found in documents in 1291  Clay floors found here suggest also that the rengia (range) the early name for the later Yarmouth Rows, were started before the twelfth century, and that St Benets Church was at its center where  St Nicholas Church was later built. 

The Tollhouse (now a Museum) which dates to the mid 13th century was probably built as a private dwelling. As early as 1306 it was being used for municipal purposes. It has functioned as a Borough Court, Admiralty Court as well as Assize Court and Quarter Sessions. There has been a gaol on the site for centuries. Perhaps the most notorious inmates were the sixteen woman held in the Tollhouse gaol in 1645, until their executions for witchcraft. One of its most important functions in medieval times was as the meeting place of the bailiffs of Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports who administered the annual Herring Fair. 

 In 1198 five rengiates were the subject of a lawsuit and early in the next century some of the rengiates began to sub-divide laterally. Middlegate was used throughout Yarmouth for the streets and later in 1290 were known as  (Great) Middlegate and  (Little) Middlegate 

Yarmouth's closeness to Europe and Norfolk's importance in medieval times made it a busy trading port. With flint being a less than satisfactory material for building, great quantities of stone were shipped through Yarmouth from Caen, for such buildings as Norwich Cathedral. But Yarmouth was already best known as a fishing port, and particularly for the catching of herring. Through Tudor and Stuart times, the merchants built their offices and homes in grand style. In the English civil war, Yarmouth was a parliamentary town, and Miles Corbett, town Recorder and Member of Parliament, who lived in the market place, was the last person to sign King Charles' I death warrant as part of Oliver Cromwell's rebellion 

but after Cromwell's Commonwealth was quashed by Charles II, his life was in danger and he had to flee from Britain.

Eventually, he was tracked down in Holland and brought to the Tower of London where he endured a tormented end.

Surely this was not something he anticipated when he added his name to the death warrant, which he is said to have signed at the Elizabethan House, on the quay.

 In a less provocative role, as Recorder, he was responsible for collecting the dues from the herring fleet which was used to pay for armed vessels to protect the fishing fleet against North Sea pirates.

As well as wealthy, Great Yarmouth was also a prominent place to live.  

In 1261 Henry II granted permission to build walls to enclose Yarmouth on three sides, the fourth being protected by the river. Also thought to be partly to protect the grave yard from grave robbers. Started in 1281, it would take a century to complete. With ten gates and eighteen towers and turrets, the flint wall was a massive undertaking and would control the development of the town until the 19th century. Every person in the town had to help with its construction - unless of course you were rich enough to pay somebody else to do your share of the job.

The first defence was a boom thrown across the river, supported. by a jetty on each side. This boom was kept closed during the night, and. the passage strictly guarded. The wall commenced from the river at this point; and behind it was a high mound of earth, called. the South Mount, which commanded a view of the river and South Denes down to the haven's mouth.

Royal licence to enclose the town with wall and ditch, and to collect special tolls under the title of murage, was first acquired in 1261 (in the context of the de Montfort rebellion). The following year saw complaints from non-local merchants that murage was being collected from them, but they saw no evidence that any wall-building was going on; the king consequently seized the money collected. In 1279 he audited the town's murage accounts, after receiving complaints of corruption. It seems that construction work had still not begun; in fact, no work is known to have been undertaken before 1285. Nonetheless, the king recognized the importance of Yarmouth as a coastal defence and authorized murage on several occasions during the fourteenth century. However, particularly in those periods of greatest threat of invasion, which spurred renewed efforts on the defences, income could not keep pace with expenditure, despite occasional bequests from townsmen towards the work. In the face of a renewed French offensive, all townsmen were, in 1369, ordered by the king to contribute to the costs of strengthening the defences. By 1385/86, construction was still incomplete, and some of the walls that had been built were by now falling into disrepair; again the threat of invasion prompted the king to order everyone owning property in the town to contribute to costs. In 1457 the king allowed Yarmouth to apply to the work £20 of the fee farm due him.

These grants were renewed from time to time, as occasion required, up to the year 1390; and the funds of the muragers, annually elected., were augmented. by legacies and voluntary contributions. The wall when, completed encircled the old. town, except on the west side which was bounded by the river. It measured. 2,238 yards in length, was twenty-three feet high, and was defended. at intervals by sixteen towers. There were two principal gates, north and south, with several smaller intermediate gates along the east wall, "to let in her friends and keep out her enemies," quoth Manship. These fortifications were faced with smoothed Norfolk flints, interspersed. with occasional courses of hard. thin bricks; Caen stone being used for the loop-holes and ornamental work. Internally the wall was sustained by a series of arches, within each of which was a splayed loop-hole for the use of the cross-bowmen. These arches supported a walk for those who defended the walls, and. enabled them to shoot from the upper and. smaller loop-holes, and to pass from tower to tower

Maintenance and periodic relocation of the haven must have been a similarly daunting task, but one even more crucial to Yarmouth since the commerce on which the borough economy (including local government revenues) depended was in turn dependent on a safe harbour. Silting had necessitated a new harbour entrance to be cut in 1346. By 1378, silting had resulted in the water no longer being deep enough to admit ships into the harbour. Despite a partial refocus of its attentions on the harbour at Kirkley Road, in the 1390s Yarmouth built a new haven, financed partly through a special levy of a shilling per last of herring. But by 1409 this too was in trouble and the king gave permission for £100 to be taken each year for 5 years from import/export customs, to finance yet another new haven. This one lasted for the remainder of the medieval period, although costly to maintain (again prompting the king to release the town, for several years, from part of its fee farm).

In later times a look-out was erected on this mount, which was not finally removed until 1867. The mount has now been so much cut away that but little of it remains. Fifty-eight yards from the river, and to the east of the mount, stood the South Gate, called also the Great Gate.

Much of this battlement still stands 

Southey, writing in 1798, when he visited Yarmouth, says,-" The old walls and gates are yet standing." 

Since that time all the gates, as we have seen, have been removed; but the remains of the wall and, towers can still be traced from one end of the town to the other.

In 1285 the Greyfriars were granted a licence to extend their site over an adjoining rengiate, rows were then mentioned in 1286 as passages when there were at least 150 running from east (The sea) to west (The rivers).

People lived and worked down these dark, smelly and dingy lanes, where residents slung their rubbish out into the sloping pathways so it would be washed away to sea.

These rows were built so close together that people could open their windows and touch hands with their neighbours.

But people opening their doors out into the rows caused problems so a law was passed to make people reverse the hinges on their doors to open inwards instead.

If you didn't obey then you were fined and your door was nailed shut so you couldn't get out!

No other town in Britain has a street plan like it.

Trades within medieval towns is commonplace and at Yarmouth Herring curing seems to have been concentrated within one quarter of the town in the 13th century.

The market place was a hive of business and sold hides, fish, meat and poultry as mentioned in 1280 and 1290, St Mary's Hospital (Hospital School) was founded in 1270. The prosperity of the town flourished until the Black Death in 1349 when two thirds of the population of Yarmouth perished. It took centuries to re-establish its prosperity.

Later, in 1331, Little Middlegate was called Blyndemdelgate which began as an open plain near the church and came to an abrupt end mid-way through the town. Great Middlegate commenced at South Forland ( the medieval name for Hall Quay) and continued to Friars Lane at the southern end of the town, this later was called Gaol Street. Northgate at this time should not be confused with the later Northgate named after the walls were built, the original Northgate  was later called the Conge. or St Georges Street.

Yarmouth began emerging as the major port on the east coast. By the time of King Edward III's fleet sailing to the sea battle of Sluys in 1340 and seven years later the capture of Calais, Yarmouth ships and men made up a large part of the fleet. Even London did not supply as many vessels. The commander at the battle of Sluys was John Perebrowne (Perbroune) of Yarmouth. Yarmouth's coat of arms dates from this time, when Edward permitted the town to merge his royal lions with the town's silver herrings.

Adams Cottage 

The now Adams Cottage probably the oldest remaining dwelling house was built about 50 years before the town walls circa 1230 just north of the church visible on the engraving between the church spire and the gate 

Click on thumbnail to see full picture.

This is a very old engraving of North Gate published by Hixon, 440, Strand.

There is still evidence of a tunnel believed to lead to the church in the one of the cellars which were built with hand made bricks fired on straw  The priest hole within the house is still there but now restricted in size do to later building work  The house was enclosed within the town walls and stands just south and east of the north gate.

There is a tradition that this gate was erected at the expense of those who enriched themselves during the time of the great plague in 1348 by following the loathsome employment of burying the dead.. In 1804 a passage was cut through the base of the West Tower for the convenience of foot passengers; and in 1807, when a rage for demolition had set in, the whole structure was taken down, but its exact position may be seen by the remains of the town wall on each side. From the North Gate the wall is continued straight to the river, being a distance of 196 yards. About midway was another tower, the base of which may still be seen in Ramp Row; and within 11 yards of the "North Water" is the last tower, called the North-West Tower. It is still standing with a high-conical roof, surmounted by a vane, and having a most picturesque appearance especially when viewed from the river; it has long been a favorite subject with painters and. engravers. There was no gateway, but a passage has been cut through the adjoining wall to allow the passage of carts.


Faden's Map of Great Yarmouth 1797

Well that's where the house is and how it came to be here. Now we will try and add meat to the bones and tell what happened next.


Great Yarmouth

Adams Cottage, Eden Place, Northgate Street. Heritage 
Grade II listed building, concrete interlocking roof tiles, dangerous chimney. Grant application for replacement clay pantiles and associated repairs. Fascia repairs, guttering replaced with cast iron. Chimney taken down and rebuilt. ...



This web site is a work in progress and will be updated when we have more information or photos 

Last updated 22/06/2007


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