The Curiousity of Georgian Norwich!

By Haydn Brown.

Those who frequented the Inns and pleasure gardens of England during Georgian times seemed to have enjoyed taking in a ‘spectacle’ or two whilst drinking, dining or perambulating the streets. The ‘invitation’ from proprietors, as has always been the case, was designed to entice, and what was on offer could be anything from a ‘freak show’ displaying some sort of physical deformity, through to demonstrations of ‘mystical powers’, animals that could ‘calculate’, and even the display of some strange or new animal not previously known about. All these types of shows or exhibitions would be quite apart from ‘knuckle fighting’ and ‘cock fighting’ thereabouts. It was indeed a national trait, which extended into the realms of the aristocracy and royalty; unsurprising therefore to learn that the inhabitants of Norfolk, and Norwich, were no exception when it came to seeking such gratification and amusement.

Freak Shows (Thomas_Hearne,_Norwich_Market_Cross)
Norwich Market Cross, by Thomas Hearne. Image: Wikipedia.

Norwich was once famous for the number of inns and public houses within its jurisdiction, once said to total 365 – ‘one for every day of the year’. Of this number, some 30 public houses plus at least four larger notable Coaching Inns once surrounded the city’s Market Place on four sides – but in a somewhat ‘scattered’ fashion. Most of these establishments, at one time or another, presented some sort of ’entertainment’, all with the intention of pleasing the customers, and pulling in extra numbers.

Freak Shows (Church Style)
The Church Stile Inn is pictured here in an 1880 etching by Edwin Edwards, reproduced courtesy of Norwich Museum and Art Gallery
 NB: The Church Style Inn took its name from the old custom of drinking beer at the church gate at the church’s expense on certain holy days in the ecclesiastical calendar.

One of these establishments, which was quite successful in the game, was the Church Style Inn, standing as it once did, in an elevated position overlooking the market; it stood by the north gate of St Peter Mancroft Church, in Pudding Lane / St Peters Street – the latter once known as ‘The Overerowe’.

Of all the Inns close to the market, the Church Style Inn was a particularly favourite setting-up place for those travelling showmen whose speciality was wild animals. It was to this Inn, on the 25 April 1801, where the citizens of Norwich came after reading an advertisement in a Norfolk Chronicle which ran:

“To the Lovers of Natural Curiosities – To be seen alive in a general room at Mr Peck’s Church Stile…….the largest rattlesnake ever seen in England, forty-five years old, near nine feet long and in full health and vigour. He is well secured, so that ladies and gentlemen may view him without the least danger. The proprietor begs to return thanks to those who have honoured him with a visit…….N.B.A. ‘quadruped’ [live animals] to be put in the rattlesnake’s cage at 12 o’clock on Thursday night. Admittance, Ladies and Gentlemen,1s, working people and children 6d.”

It might be hard to believe now, but it was probably customary in those days, and in such places, for admittance to travelling menageries to be free of charge for those who delivered live ‘cats and rabbits’ at the pay-box of the show – with no questions asked! It is probable therefore that the custom was present when, in August 1806, customers were again treated with a visit by:

“a most surprising crocodile from the Nile ever seen in the kingdom. He is so remarkably tame that any lady or gentleman may touch him with safety”

Almost next door to the Church Style, but on a lower level and facing directly on to the southern end of the market, was the Half Moon – a name chosen to distinguish it from the Lower Half Moon which stood on the eastern edge of the market toward Cocky Lane – Now London Street. It was here, at the Lower Half Moon Inn, during July 1744, when someone thought fit to ’exhibit’ John Coan. The thing is that young John was just 16 years of age at the time, but was certainly regarded as a freak or curiosity!

Freak Shows (norfolk-dwarf)1
John Coan (1728-1764), the ‘Norfolk Dwarf’ pictured with Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768), the ‘Staffordshire Giant’. They both earned a living as sideshow performers; giants and dwarfs were particular favourite attractions in the 18th century. Wellcome Library Images.

To understand this, it is worth going back to Coan’s birth in Tivetshall St. Margaret sometime around 1728 – the year is uncertain. His parents were a John Coan and Sarah (nee Negus) who had previously married at the village church on 5th December 1727 – of that it is reasonably certain. Similarly, it is known that the young John was baptised on 31 May 1730 in the same church; and that, in later life, he would be known as ‘John Coan, The Norfolk Dwarf’.

John Coan
Porcelain figure of John Coan (c.1728 – 1764), produced by the Chelsea Porcelain Works (London, (1745-69)) circa 1760. This example entered the Royal Collection from the Lady Ludlow Collection which was dispersed following her death in 1945. Royal Collection Trust.

Being around two years old at the time of his baptism does possibly imply that, at birth, John Coan appeared to be a normal healthy baby; therefore, his parents would have seen no reason to have had him baptised quickly. However, and despite having appeared to have developed at the same rate as other children in the first 12 months, his growth thereafter slowed down, and by 1744 he was just three feet tall and weighed just 27.5 pounds. Within six years, sometime around 1750, John was strutting the boards in London and maintaining his popularity there. He also attracted the attention of Surgeon William Arderon who took it upon himself to examine and weigh John (with, of course, his agreement), noting that, fully clothed, John weighed no more than 34 pounds and his height of 38 inches included his wig, hat and shoes.

Freak Shows (kings_head)3
Norwich Market Place by Robert Dighton, 1799. This view is of the northern end of the main (lower) market, looking north towards the Guildhall and Cockey Lane (now London Street). A coach is visible emerging from the narrow entrance to  the Gentleman’s Walk ‘Kings Head Coaching Inn’ on the right. Image: Wikimedia.

Almost next door to the Lower Half Moon was the Kings Head Coaching Inn, again on Gentleman’s Walk (formerly known as ‘The Nethererowe’), to the east of the market. This inn of good reputation amongst the wealthier clients, offered excellent cuisine alongside the usual run of entertainment and spectacle as other such places in the city.

Freak Shows (kings_head)
Coach departing the King’s Head (From Dighton’s painting, above. Courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

Also famed for its entertainment, the Kings Head offered amongst the variety of acts, prize fights, plays and natural curiosities – in 1729, the Norwich Company of Comedians presented “Macbeth” with all the witches’ songs and dances. In 1797 the major attraction was the “greatest man in the world” – an Irish Giant with the stage name of Patrick O’Brien (real name Patrick Cotter) who was eight foot four inches tall. His skeleton is said to be preserved in the College of Surgeons museum!

Freak Shows (Patrick O'Brien)
Patrick O’Brien, an etching and aquatint by John Kay 1803. National Portrait Gallery NPG D14754.

The King’s Head was particularly liked by Parson James Woodforde, whose day-to-day responsibility was to look after the spiritual needs of the living of Weston Longville, some 10 miles north west of the city. However, on his time off he would often ride into the city and place his horse in the care of the Inn’s stables whilst he dined or perambulated through the neighbouring streets of the city. It was like so on 19 December 1785 when he arrived at the King’s head, with a companion, just after 1pm and:

“put up our horses at the Kings Head and there dined on, a fine piece of boiled Beef and a saddle of Mutton, etc.”

Learned Pig3
An acknowledgement as it appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle of the time.

After lunch he managed to walk to the Rampant Horse in St Stephens, just off the Market Place, where he saw the:

“……. learned Pigg……. there was but a small company but soon got larger. We stayed about an hour. It was wonderful to see the sagacity of the animal. It was a Boar Pigg, very thin, quite black with a magic collar on his neck. He would spell any word or number from the Letters and Figures placed before him…… paid for seeing the Pigg one shilling.”

Learned Pig2

He afterwards took a turn around the city before attending a lecture on astronomy at the Assembly Rooms, with which he was ‘highly pleased’. His appetite restored, he returned to the Kings Head for ‘the best supper I ever met with at an inn…… Hashed Fowl, Veal Scollops, a fine Woodcock, a couple of Whistling Plovers, a real Teal of the small kind and hot Apple Pye.”

Norwich Market Place, John Sell Cotman, 1806.
Norwich Market Place. 
By John Sell Cotman, Watercolour and graphite on paper, 1806. The view is south from the Guildhall; Gentleman’s Walk is on the left. The buildings (right) dividing the upper Haymarket and the lower main market were by this time substantial four-storey structures. Tate Gallery, N05636

The buildings surrounding the Norwich Market, particularly the ‘scattered’ hostelries that lay between today’s Haymarket and Davey Place had narrow passages which opened on to their long yards; these were overlooked by guest rooms on first and second floors. The public rooms which were habitually on the ground floor also kept company with warehouses used by travelling dealers for storing and selling their stocks.

The Whie Swan

Amongst this mase of structures stood the White Swan, built in the 1400’s and was a noted playhouse – often called the “Metropolis of The East”. It was also the Headquarters of the Norwich Company of Comedians from 1730 until 1758 and preceded Norwich’s first Theatre Royal. During the 18th century visitors could view “an ox weighing more than 100 stone” whilst in 1811 Napoleon’s coach was (allegedly!) on show. In the early 19th century, the White Swan became the principal centre for cockfighting which, eventually, gave way to prize fighting. Opposite, at 23 Haymarket, was the Star Inn which can be traced back to 1763; but it was on 27 December 1783, when much excitement accompanied the arrival of “A Capital Collection of Wild Beasts” to these premises. On that occasion, visitors were advised that the animals were “well secured and kept clean.”! Also appearing was ‘a beautiful lion from Algiers and an amazing Siberian black wolf’.

Crossing into Gentleman’s Walk and strolling towards Cocky Lane was the well-appointed Angel Inn at No.16. Here, from the 15th century, it regularly presented ‘unusual’ entertainment and, over the years it was the scene of many events – some more bizarre than others! As with so many inns, the Angel was host to many entertainments and peep shows. These included a visit by a pair of elephants in 1685, followed by a series of “monsters freaks & marvels.” An element of culture was introduced in 1696 when “The Little Opera” played here whilst in 1825 Monsieur du Pain provided the entertainment when he dipped his feet in boiling lead!

Freak Shows, Gentleman's Walk (Angel Inn_1813)
A 19th century sketch of part of Gentleman’s Walk and the position of the former Angel Inn – within the archway shown on the right-hand side. Image: Norfolk Library and Information Service.

At its peak, the Angel was the most popular Inn on Gentleman’s Walk. Later renamed the Royal Hotel, it closed in the declining years of the coaching inn era and by the end of the 19th century, had been converted into the Royal Arcade. The former depth of the Angel Inn extended from the Walk to Castle Street and Back of the Inns, where the inn’s rear entrance is still evident. High above the ‘other’ arcade entrance is the face of an angel looking towards Castle Meadow! The Royal Arcade therefore partly carries on the former hotel’s name.

Freak Shows (Two-Neck Swan Inn)
The Two-Necked Swan Inn (centre).

Almost immediately opposite the Angel Hotel, on the other side of the market was the Two-Necked Swan Inn. It is thought by some that the original name for this Inn was “The Swan with Two Nicks”, reflecting the swan census of old. The name was a 16th century pun, for the word “nick” also meant “neck”……  So we find a number of pubs were called ‘The Swan with Two Necks’. Norwich had its own variation – and another hostelry that once offered ‘entertaining attractions’ to market traders and the young bucks of the city.

A stone’s throw away from the market, just the other side of St Peter Mancroft Church (as shown in the above image) is the Assembly House. Sometime during the first half of the 19th century a young George Burrow paid a visit there:

“… see the Bosjemans (or Bushmen) exhibiting at the Assembly Rooms, men about 4 ½ feet, strange and disgusting creatures, with a strange inarticulate language full of clicks.”

The present-day Assembly House, Norwich.

Finally, at the Bear Inn on 5 November 1788, Guy Fawkes Night no less, a large tiger, was exhibited. Unfortunately for two monkeys included in the exhibition, the tiger broke loose and ate them! Then, unfortunate for the tiger, it too died soon after; the cause was said to have been “a brass collar and chain, which he had swallowed, having gangrened within him.”


Sources: Various, but including the following:
Beresford, J., ed., The Diary of a Country Parson: James Woodforde, 1758-1802, Oxford University Press, 1978. Image: Wikipedia.
Thompson, L.P., Norwich Inns, W.E. Harrison & Sons, 1947

Heading Image:
Norwich Market Place by Thomas Rowlandson, 1788. This shows the southern tip of the main market (centre), with Gentleman’s Walk running south towards the former livestock market site to the left. The buildings to the right divided the upper and main markets; Pudding Lane, the alley between these buildings and the church, still exist.

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