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Originally published 2018
By now we’ve no doubt you know Norwich is the city, not only of stories, but also of secrets. Secrets waiting to be told with a fascinating history to be shared – it’s what makes Norwich the vibrant area that it is today.
Some of the best and most surprising ‘secrets’ come from the Norwich’s many pubs (we are a city of boozers, once boasting a pub for every day of the year) and though some of our city’s excellent watering holes are well-known for their dark tales, there’s still a lot more waiting to be discovered…
Head to Timberhill and you’ll see a pub with two contrasting signs: The Gardener’s Arms, also known as The Murderers. The origins of its nickname has long been misunderstood, with many believing that it came about from the brutal murder of a prostitute by one of the pub’s patrons. It was in fact all down to the landlord’s daughter Milly and her ex-husband Frank. Though Milly and Frank were separated and living apart, Frank wanted to get back together but suspected she had already moved on! Instead of drowning his sorrows with a bottle of whisky and an embarrassing attempt to chat up another woman (there was of course no Tinder in those days) he charged around to the Gardener’s Arms, where Milly was staying, and brutally attacked her. Following his heinous act of savagery Frank handed himself in and Milly died 3 days later. Frank was sentenced to death by hanging at Norwich Castle, but his overwhelming popularity with the general public and their support led to his sentence being commuted to life in prison.
Continuing the rather gruesome tour of Norwich’s pubs takes us to the Lollard’s Pit, previously the King’s Arms (the name was changed in 2012). For those not quite up to scratch on their religious history, the Lollards were people who called for the reformation of the Church and, as punishment, were burnt to death in an old disused chalk pit in Norwich which is what the pub was then built on (the space was originally dug out as foundations for the Cathedral). What is today the pub’s cellar was, back then, the holding cell for prisoners before they were burnt at the stake in the pit – which is now the pub’s beer garden. Shudder!
We can’t give you an overview of the dark secrets of Norwich’s pubs without including the Adam & Eve – it’s the oldest public house still serving ales in Norwich, and is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Lord Sheffield who was killed during Kett’s rebellion in 1549. All in all, it seemed to have been quite the watering hole of degenerates, with patrons including 19th century murderer James Rush and, fast forwarding to the 20th century, the notorious gangster Reggie Kray! Even the landlady Elizabeth Howes was up to no good (no reflection on today’s owners, of course!); she used to import sand from Great Yarmouth under the guise of it being for pubs to use on their floors and spittoons, but hidden in the sand she’d smuggle in contraband liquor to sell – very enterprising!
The Maids Head Hotel, housed in a 13th century building, claims to be the oldest hotel in Britain (having been used for hospitality continuously since the early 1100’s) with previous guests including The Black Prince (the eldest son of King Edward III), Catherine of Aragon, Queen Elizabeth I and Admiral Lord Nelson. A stroll through the hotel will reveal Tudor, Georgian and Jacobean architecture spanning 800 years, make sure you go for a drink in the hotel’s Jacobean bar and ‘snug’, which has been functioning as a bar since the late 16th century, soak up the atmosphere (it’s believed to be one of the oldest bars in the area). Quite a slice of history!
PS: We have it on good authority that the bar here is one of Alan Partridge’s favourite city haunts.
Stroll down Gentleman’s Walk and you can’t fail to see the impressive Art Nouveau building which houses The Royal Arcade. What you might not know, however, is that in its place used to be the Royal Hotel, which housed The Angel Inn. A vibrant hub of activity, the inn hosted various shows – some more bizarre than others – including a visit by a pair of elephants in 1685 (big news at the time and well worth travelling for), peep shows, operatic performances and freak shows! Fast forward to the late 19th century following riots, uprisings, political dramas and speedy stage coach exits to London and the hotel moves to a new site on Bank Plain with the old site being converted into the stunning Royal Arcade that stands today, designed by local architect George Skipper. The Royal Arcade opened in 1899 to wide public acclaim.
These are just a starter for ten; there are so many pubs in Norwich brimming with history. Play ale detective and discover more; plan a visit with our website: www.visitnorwich.co.uk.
Images – top: Tombland, showing the front of the Maids Head Hotel, middle: the King’s Arms which is now called Lollard’s Pit, bottom: Tombland, side of the Maids Head Hotel