Norwich Yards and Courts  : A Brief History

The Norwich Courts and Yards developed in the open spaces between and behind ageing properties which lined the narrow streets within the city area. Many would have started life as part of a fine house often as a courtyard (hence courts & yards) or garden, however, they became Norwich’s slums – but why?

Norwich Yards & Courts  : Origins
As in many other cities as Norwich developed there were huge discrepancies in the standard of living experienced by its citizens. Rich merchants lived in vast houses with gardens within the city walls whilst poorer inhabitants survived in cramped dilapidated dwellings. As time progressed many of the wealthy moved to the more salubrious dwellings outside the city, leaving the developers to move in and build poor quality accommodation in the courtyards and gardens of these once desirable houses. Such accommodation was in high demand by low paid workers looking for cheap accommodation. The position deteriorated in the latter decades of the 19th century when demand escalated, as unemployed agricultural workers moved into the city. This  demand was met by the Victorian builders cramming extra accommodation into working class districts with little regard to either comfort or hygiene. Expansion was so great that by 1900 there were 749 yards within Norwich.
Norwich Yards & Courts  : Living Conditions in the 1900s
By the 1900s, dwellings within the yards were an amalgam of ageing Tudor, Georgian, Regency & to a lesser extent Victorian buildings.

Property maintenance together with cleanliness of the yard was the responsibility of the landlord. As rents were low and “moonlight flits” were common   landlords were reluctant to take their responsibilities seriously. The situation was particularly bad when it came to sanitation and refuse collection with neither the landlord nor the council prepared to act. Some improvement was made to the worse yards following the 1898 housing act including: the closure of the worse yards, provision of extra refuse bins and mending unworkable privies.  Progress was slow nevertheless by 1911 approximately one third of the yards had been dealt with.

Often there was no water supply to the houses, the only water available to families was by means of a single pump in the yard. Privies would generally have been shared by a number of households. Many toilets did not flush and would consist of a “bin” covered with a toilet seat, which would be emptied once a week by specially commissioned refuse collectors. The stench as the week progressed must have been unbearable.

Often the buildings were just “one up one down.” Overcrowding was common, with even properties as small as this often housing six to eight people. In such small properties there was not even room for an oven. Cooking was undertaken on a primer style of stove. The Sunday roast would have been taken to the local bakers to be cooked e.g. Gowings or Cosseys.
Conditions in the Yards Homes

Despite such problems and although inhabitants may have had few material possessions the interior of houses would often be exceptionally clean and neat, which would have owed much to the hard work of the “lady of the house” who would spend most of her day cleaning, washing and cooking. With no water supply washday – really was a day apart from a break to cook lunch (most families would come home for lunch which was the main meal of the day). To keep the house spotless some would even whitewash the kitchen walls as part of the weekly clean.

Norwich Courts and Yards – Why were they unique to Norwich?

Although Yards & Courts were not peculiar to Norwich , indeed similar situations were common in major cities across Britain, what stood out was their sheer number. Norwich city was small compared with the huge industrial conurbations in the north yet, for example, the number of yards within the square mile of the city wall far exceeded a similar area in Manchester. One of the main reasons was that many of our Yards were developed from pre Victorian buildings whereas the Northern industrial towns indulged in massive new housing programmes through the 1800s to meet the demands of the new factory workers.

The yards were spread throughout the area within the city walls although the largest concentration was found in the: Coslany, Pockthorpe and St Martins districts. Additionally they existed in large numbers in the King Street and Ber Street Districts.

The Demise of the Norwich Courts & Yards

The 1st World War generated a mood for change. People rebelled against poor housing and increased living costs putting the City Council under pressure to make major improvements. In the 1920s a scheme was proposed to clear the housing from the yards and build new houses with running water and inside toilets on the outskirts of the city. As a result over time most of the yards disappeared as their tenants were moved to the improved housing estates of Mile Cross and Lakenham. Interestingly, when tenants were moved they often spent the first night without furniture as it had been taken away to be fumigated. This was, however, a small price to pay in exchange for the luxury of their new dwelling. Many of the yards that survived these clearances were bombed in World War II and there is little to show what the Yards are like and we very much rely on people’s memories and photos to bring to life this important aspect of Norwich’s History.