History of Norwich Freemen
4. Freemen’s Lands
Freemen and the Town Lands
Map of Norwich by William Faden, 1797
Long before freemen appeared on the scene, the townsmen of Norwich enjoyed the grazing rights of a great area of common land stretching from St. Stephen’s Gate to the villages of Eaton and Lakenham.
Sometime after the Norman Conquest, the first Norman bishop Herbert de Losinga had secured the grazing rights from the King to help support his new cathedral and Benedictine priory, sited provocatively in the centre of the old English town. While the townsmen could do nothing about the buildings, they could unite in protest against the grant of grazing rights to the monks. Thus began a dispute over the ‘Town Lands’ which was not fully resolved until the late nineteenth century.
The townsmen did, however, make considerable headway once the city secured a measure of self-government in 1194. Fortified by their new powers, they lost no time in taking the dispute with the Priory to court. In 1205, the King’s Court granted the restoration of the grazing rights to the townsmen, but on condition they recognised the Priory’s ownership of the land as well as the limitation of the area available for grazing.
This judgement was clearly a recipe for friction and played a part in the Great Riot of 1272 when the townsmen ransacked the Priory and its church. Heavy penalties and loss of liberties discouraged further action until the anti-clerical mood of the early sixteenth century provided a new opportunity.
Freemen secure the Town Close, 1524
After many years of negotiation between the city and the Priory, Cardinal Wolsey mediated a settlement in 1524 whereby the city surrendered its claim to the grazing rights of Eaton and Lakenham, and in return the Priory granted ‘to the mayor, aldermen, citizens and commonalty of Norwich’ eighty acres of land in Eaton – in fact, one hundred and eleven acres – which was to be enclosed. In this way, they created the ‘Town Close’ that triangle of land bounded by the Newmarket, Ipswich and Eaton roads which became such a great asset to the freemen of Norwich, see Faden’s map above, showing the triangle occupied by ‘Ives Esq’.
Whether the grant to ‘the mayor, aldermen, citizens and commonalty’ meant that the land belonged to all the inhabitants of Norwich or exclusively to the freemen became a bone of contention in the late nineteenth century. But it was not until then, fifty years after the freemen lost their political rights but retained their lands, that their possession of the Town Close was seriously questioned.
Town Close let to farmers and gentlemen, 1700-1834
Having acquired the Town Close the freemen found it difficult to control and exclude trespassers. In 1698, to sort out this problem, the mayor and aldermen set up the City Committee which became responsible for its management for the next two hundred years.
In 1700, it let the Town Close to three butchers and distributed the income to the freemen and their widows and gave the surplus to the poor. In 1750, the property was re-let to a farmer with the condition that he builta good quality house.
In 1774 Jeremiah Ives, a wealthy merchant and several times mayor of Norwich, took a sixty year lease of the farm and turned the house into a gentlemen’s residence. Henceforth, it became known as the Town Close Estate.
The development of Town Close Estate, 1840-1930s
Map showing the phases of development between 1840 and 1977. Although, numerous plans were submitted in the early 1880s, there was a significant pause in development, until the 1920s and 1930s, as the freemen faced a challenge from the City Council as to the ownership of the Town Close Estate
By the time Jeremiah Ives’ lease expired in 1834, the City Committee had already decided to develop the estate as a fashionable suburb. To this end the estate was broken up and let in parcels on seven year leases. Town Close House, with eight acres of land, was let as an academy while the remaining fourteen lots were let for agricultural and garden use. Several lots were acquired by speculative builders.
Over the next 50 years, the estate was developed in phases by the City Committee, and rents continued to rise for the freemen to enjoy.
Freemen face a legal challenge, 1884-89
Although freemen were allowed by the Municipal Corporation Act 1835 to retain their lands and property, their possession did not always pass unchallenged. Questions had been asked about the freemen’s rights to the property and its income, since the 1850s.
The matter came to a head in 1884 when the City Council under pressure from various parties refused to distribute the freemen’s annual dole. The freemen led by Walter Rye and John Stanley challenged this decision in the courts and won their case in 1887. On appeal, in 1889, the judges again found in their favour, but created a charitable trust for the benefit of the freemen in 1892 under the control of the Charity Commission. Thus, the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity was born.
Formation of the Town Close Estate Charity, 1892
The freemen were not best pleased with this outcome, and refused to have anything to do with the charity until 1907, when they set up the Freemen’s Committee to oversee their concerns. They also agreed to elect trustees to serve with the trustees from the Norwich Consolidated Charities to administer the charity. Further development of the estate was delayed by the First World War. Between 1927 and 1939, the charity sold building leases on the south side of Lime Tree Road, west side of Ipswich Road and on the north side of Eaton Road. The area had been divided by the new ring road which cut through Daniels Nursery. Unfortunately, the development was piecemeal and lacked the style and coherence of the building supervised by the City Committee.
After the Second World War, the Town Close Estate suffered acutely from a backlog of repairs and a legislative climate hostile to landlords which culminated with the Leasehold Reform Act, 1967. As tenants purchased their freeholds, attention turned to the cost of maintaining the older, larger and more prestigious houses. In 1980 the freemen made the decision to sell the houses as they became available. Today, only a handful of properties remain, while the capital has been re-invested principally to maintain the benefits for current and future beneficiaries of the charity.
- E. Griffiths and A. Hassell Smith, Buxom to the Mayor, A History of the Norwich Freemen and the Town Close Estate (1987). and Update 1987-2017 (forthcoming).