By Haydn Brown.
Nearly four centuries separate the desecration, or violent disrespect, of two churches that once stood along Ber Street, in Norwich – namely the church of St Michael-at-Thorn and the church of St Batholomew. Read on:
Norwich’s ‘Berstrete’ was named after the Anglo-Saxon road which was the Northern Conesford sub-leet’s backbone. It ran along a ridge above a long slope which ran down to the river on the western side of the ridge; below, the Great Cockey ran through a natural valley. In time, the road became Ber Street, placing itself between present-day Queens Road and King Street. Ber Street formed one of two major routes into Norwich that ran through the Conesford area; the second was the Royal Conesford Way – the present-day King Street. Today, Ber Street is a fragmented mix of historical buildings and post-war WW2 industrial buildings; the result of a 1950/60’s slum clearance scheme which followed extensive war bomb damage.
Back in the Middle Ages, Norwich and Bristol were judged to be second to London in size. Consequently, Norwich still had 36 parish churches in its city centre when the Reformation took place; a couple were quickly demolished, but most lingered on into the 21st century. Over the centuries, the function of some parishes fell into disuse, but a surprising number were still parish churches of the Church of England within the minds of many Norwich people.
Any mention of Ber Street would be incomplete without mention of its medieval Gate, one of a series of gates that, together with an almost continuous wall, surrounded the city. Early references to Ber Street Gate, which was built on a corner of the city wall which runs southeast and southwest from the gate, are contained in documents from the reign of Henry III in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The gate itself was demolished in 1808 but the street remained busy and densely populated and was known locally as “Blood and Guts Street”, due to its many slaughterhouses and butcher shops; also, because cattle were driven down the road into the city.
1. The church of St Michael-at-Thorn:
St Michael at Thorn was once the most central of Norwich churches but was lost in the World-War-Two blitz of January 1942. When it did exist, it stood about 200 metres south of St John Timberhill at the edge of the Ber St ridge, and overlooking the Wensum valley. Next to the church, on its south side, Thorn Lane led steeply downhill into King Street, but since the area was redeveloped in the early 1960s it now terminates at Rouen Rd. From the 1840s onwards the whole area between Ber Street and King Street was densely populated and consisted of many yards and courts leading off from Ber Street. This whole area was known locally as the ‘Village on the Hill’ and the three roads of Mariners Lane, Horns Lane and Thorn Lane, led into the district. It became the settlement for a small Italian community.
St Michael at Thorn was described by Ian Hannah as being only ‘partly built in 1430 but largely modern’. Completed, it consisted of a square west tower, nave with north aisle, a south porch, and a chancel. The original tower collapsed in 1886 and was rebuilt the following year. Sillett’s ‘Norwich Churches’, published in 1828, showed that the style of the Victorian work followed very closely to that of the old.
The historian Francis Blomefield, writing of St Michael at Thorn, said that it: “was anciently a Rectory appendant to the Castle, until the Conqueror gave it to FitzWalter along with St Martin at the Bale.” The church of St Martins, also known as St Martin-in-Balliva, once stood on a triangular piece of ground close by the entrance to Golden Ball Street – near to, what once was, the principal entrance to the barbican of the Castle. The apparent strange title of this church stemmed from it having been built within the bailey, which once was the outer courtyard of the castle. St Martins church was demolished in 1562 when the parish was united to that of St Michael at Thorn; and in the latter’s church registers, which date from that year, are records of burials of many of the criminals who were executed on the Castle hill. In 1926 a chapel in St Michael’s was dedicated to the patron saint of the Bale to perpetuate this association with St Martin’s.
With regard to the dedication – or rather the “surname” – of St Michael’s church, Blomefield mentions that it is:
“called in antient evidences, St Michael in Ber Street, and ad Spinas or at the Thorns, and even to this day, a very large Thorn remains growing in the Churchyard. I find it also in the most ancient Deeds called St Michael Super Montem, or St Miles on the Hill from its situation”.
Prior to the church tower collapsing in 1886, it contained only one bell; but John L’Estrange noted in 1874 that: “There were three bells here until about 1838, when the two largest were sold, to help to build a hideous north aisle, recently replaced by a much comelier structure. They are now the ‘first’ and ‘second’ bells at Bale, near Holt”. [making up a ring of 4 bells there, the oldest of which was cast c. 1440. This is the ‘second’ bell from St Michaels, and bears the inscription ‘Nobis Succurre Michael Raphael Gabriel Quaesumus’, – ‘Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, help us’. On the ‘first’ bell from St Michael’s is the inscription “Pack and Chapman of London Fecit 1777. John Spratt and Henry Warns Ch. Wardens.]”
The main entrance to St Michael’s was through the porch and south doorway; the latter was Norman probably the oldest remaining part of the building. Following its survival of the WW2 blitz, the doorway was dismantled and re-erected in St Julian’s church nearby, forming the inner doorway to Mother Julian’s cell.
When the doorway was ‘in situ’ at the former St Michaels, it was described as having a shaft on either side supporting a round-headed arch with cable and zig-zag ornaments, with one of the billets of an outer moulding carved into a queer little animal; then, according to White’s Norfolk directory of 1833, the door was then still in possession of its ancient ironwork. As for interior fittings, only an ancient octagonal font with shields survived the centuries. All the Victorian reconstruction woodwork was modern, including a fine roodscreen surmounted with a St Michael’s cross.
The bombs that fell in that January of 1942 left only the tower of St Michael’s standing, but removing a section of the parapet and the spirelets; the church itself was gutted, leaving only the eastern gable and the other walls at a lower level. Up to the day the church was lost, thorn trees grew in the churchyard, though perhaps not the same ones to which Blomefield referred. It was said that by the time the war ended, the thorn bushes that gave the graveyard its character and the church its name had quickly regrown through the rubble. The name of Thorn Lane is comparatively modern, for two centuries previously it was known as Sandgate, and it is a matter of speculation whether or not it was named after the nature of the soil there; in time the Lane was probably named after the thorns then flourishing in the neighbouring St Michael’s.
In the 1950’s, with redevelopment plans well formulated in the minds of the authorities, there was no way that St Michael was going to be rebuilt – or its tower kept as a landmark. St Michael’s was too close to other working churches to be needed, and was set in an area earmarked for industrial and commercial building. As things turned out, the site was completely erased with the church ruins, tower and thorn trees completely removed for the laying out of a car park for Archant House, the Eastern Daily Press building.
Simon Knott said in 2005: “It gives an idea of the ferocity of the blitz, as well as of the completeness of post-war Norwich planning, when I tell you that the two images below were taken from exactly the same spot. Robert Ladbrooke made his leisurely sketch in the 1820s. Some 180 years later, I risked my life and limbs to stand in the middle of Ber Street to take the same view of the site as it is today. I am obviously closer in time to the destruction of St Michael at Thorn than Mr Ladbrooke, but not a single building in this modern view, apart from perhaps those on the far horizon, was here when the church was”.
The Church of St Bartholomew:
Southern Conesford was the long, straggly suburb to the south of Northern Conesford and the Norwich medieval city within the walls, but with an independent life of its own. The two Conesford sub-leets were amalgamated by mid-14th century, the likely result of a reduced population (and therefore the number of tithings) in the area. Subsequently, large areas of land were acquired by the Augustinians and Franciscans for their friary precincts. Conesford, as a whole, had nine medieval parish churches, as well as several monasteries, and was home to important merchants – the Pastons’ Norwich house was in Conesford, down on the the ‘Royal Conesford Way’ (King Street), the main road to London. Parallel to it, but high on the ridge to the west, sat Ber Street, leading out of the city centre to the Berstrete Gate in the city walls.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, this part of Norwich became home to warehouses and factories, a slum area of workshops and back-to-back terraces. As if in anticipation of this future development, St Bartholomew was desecrated in 1549 and abandoned; its two bells transferred to St John de Sepulchre – situated at the junction of Ber Street and Finkelgate. St Bartholomew itself once sat barely 100 metres south of St Michael at Thorn, its advowson belonging to the prior of Wymondham.
The church was to be used as a factory; then gradually, other buildings were built on to it, until almost nothing at all of the medieval exterior showed, and few would have ever known that the former church was there. All that was visible was part of the south wall of the nave. It was about this time when George Plunkett sketched, in his own hand, Claude Messent’s plan of the building as it was in 1931. Nineteenth-century houses had been built into the west end; the nave and chancel were part of Snellings factory, and against the north wall was a slaughterhouse.
George Plunkett’s fascination with Norwich churches led him to be ‘on the spot’ when the Norwich City Corporation began to clear the site in the summer of 1939. They really need not have bothered – and would have saved some money had they known that, two or three years later, the Luftwaffe would have done the job for them. As it was, the ramshackle lean-to buildings were torn away by the Corporation and the heart of a medieval church revealed – the blocked-up chancel arch, the Tudor arched interior window splays, and a brick south doorway. But now everything has gone and all that survived from the clearance is the rump of the tower which sits beside the Ber Street pavement. Unlike St Michael at Thorn, it was not a victim of war time bombing. Today, modern sheltered housing occupies the area where the St Bartholomew, the factory and the slaughterhouse once stood.
(The remains of St Bartholomew’s Church).
A few yards south along Ber Street from the site of St Michaels at Thorn a portion of St Bartholomew’s 15th century church tower still stands, its flint, brick and some stone dressings preserved among a block of new dwellings. To think that it was only brought to light in the 1930’s; in a sense, its preservation offers slight compensation for the total loss and disapperance of St Michael’s.
Finally, Simon Knott again adds: “St Bartholomew should not be confused with Norwich’s other medieval church of the same name. The other one was the parish church for Heigham, the area to the west of Pottergate and St Benedict, and is also a ruin today – but unlike the long-suffering St Bartholomew of Ber Street, the Heigham church really was gutted in the blitz”.
All George Plunkett images are by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.