Forncett History Group members were invited to take part in a guided tour of the Great Hospital in Norwich. This was a wonderful opportunity to explore this building, that has such a long history and is rarely open to the public.
The hospital was first founded by Bishop Walter de Suffield in 1249 for the housing of elderly, poor priests, the sick and infirm and for the education of 7 boys in Latin. No women were allowed, except for nurses who had to be over 50 years of age. By the end of the 14th Century the building had been taken over and its remit changed to purely the care of priests; the poor were no longer considered. During this period much new building took place.
By the time of the Reformation everything changed once again and the hospital ceased to be a religious foundation. It also changed its name to ‘God’s House’ and reverted to caring for the sick and poor of Norwich. The poor were divided into two categories: the deserving poor, who were selected by a panel of Aldermen of the city, and the ‘idle’ poor, who were sent to the Bridewell for correction. On entry to God’s House the inmates were instructed to bring their own bedding, clothes and a winding sheet to be used as a shroud on their death. At this period too, the Chancel of the Church of St Helen’s, which had been rebuilt in the hospital grounds at the end of the 13th century, was closed off and a second floor built to house poor women. Similar alterations were made to the end of the nave as a ward for men. Surprisingly, these wards were in use, with some alterations over time, until as late as 1979.
The grounds of the Hospital originally stretched as far as Kett’s Hill roundabout and contained allotments, gardens, fish ponds and even a swan pit. There is still a small cloister (the smallest in the country) and there were other monastic buildings, i.e. a Church, Refectory, Dormitory and a Chapter House. The Refectory was built in a similar style to Dragon Hall and has a Queen Post Roof and several dragons on the beam ends. It also has a minstrel gallery.
On the site of the 15th century kitchens, brewery and bake-house, Birkbeck Hall was built in the 19th century. This too, is a fine building and boasts a Hammer beam roof, one of its Historicist style features, including dragons (compare Dragon Hall) in the spandrils.
In the grounds of the Hospital there is another superb building, Ivory House, built by Thomas Ivory who had been carpenter at the Great Hospital in the 1750s. He was also the architect who designed and built the Assembly House and the Octagon Chapel, amongst other fine, Georgian buildings in Norwich. This, too has had many uses over time, one of the most recent being part of St Helens Private Hospital before the present BUPA hospital was built, the music room with its prettily painted ceiling being used as the operating theatre!
All in all this was a very informative and interesting tour, which was guided superbly by Rod Spokes.
Jan Rutter / Photos: Brian Frith