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Heading South

The Development of the South Denes (Part One)

By Steve Smith

I developed an interest in the South Denes whilst researching a book on a relative, Henry Howard Brand, who moved part of his Yarmouth and Lowestoft tailoring empire here in the late 19th century. I wanted to understand more about the area he chose to site his oilskins factory in. I quickly realised that this was an area of the town that was developing rapidly after centuries of remaining virtually unchanged. As so often happens when I am researching, I was distracted and I found myself being drawn down a sandy path of exploration. I also realised I had bitten off an awful lot to chew, particularly during the rapid expansion of the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus this first article looks only at the development of the South Denes as far as the early 1800s.

I also soon recognised that there is a lot of vague and often contradictory information about the subject. I have done my best to sift carefully through this mire and use the most evidenced information that I can. I accept that I will have perpetuated previous errors and probably created some of my own so I welcome corrections, clarifications and virtual clouts around my ear. The article is written in good faith and with a love of Yarmouth and its history at its heart.

Speaking of which, there is nowadays a little dispute over the long assumed history of exactly when a spit of sand and shingle formed across the mouth of the estuary and became Yarmouth. Some evidence has been interpreted as proof of Roman occupation. However, most agree that the first settlement of the medieval era was probably fishermen on Fuller’s Hill by around 900 AD and was likely seasonal as they moved around after the shoals of fish. By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 it was a small but flourishing borough and by the end of the fourteenth century the townsfolk were crammed within an area bounded by a wall some 2238 yards long on three sides, and by the river on the west. All around this medieval town were areas of largely wasteland known as Denes.

The Hutch Map, so called because it was found in the Hutch in the Town Hall with Corporation papers, purports to show the Great Estuary around 1000AD
(It is of course reversed with South at the top). It was probably drawn by Damet to accompany his manuscript on the town’s history.

Fishermen were entitled through ancient rights of ‘den and strond’ to run their boats ashore on any beach where they could be unloaded. ‘Den and strond’ being Dene (a word closely related to Dune, the sandbanks above the high water mark) and Strand (meaning beach, particularly that part between the high water and low water marks).

Driage rights – the right of the fishermen to dry their nets on the Denes were also established early on. It is thought that most of the entire sandbank was first used for this purpose. In fact there is a school of thought that says the way the nets were staked out in a grid system with passages between them, led to the famous Rows of Yarmouth.

By the time the town was established and enclosed by its wall, there were vast swathes of sand left to the north, east, and south of the town. Most driage now took place on the eastern Denes between the town and the beach where the fishermen’s boats landed. However it is those lying to the south, from the southern end of the town wall to where river currently enters the sea that this article concerns itself with.

Apart from the fishermen, usage of the Denes was limited. Certainly townsmen let their animals roam here and windmills were built on the Eastern denes from the time of Edward I. These were opposed by the fishermen as they interfered with the drying of nets. The beach was also used as an area for building ships, while old, derelict ships were abandoned there. The southern Denes were less used by the fishermen or the townspeople. Part of the reason was that until the sixteenth century the area of land altered quite often.

Perhaps first we need a quick reminder of how the watercourse around Yarmouth changed. Once a great estuary stretching from Lothingland in the south to Flegg Island in the north, the sandbank that became Yarmouth appeared right across the entrance to the estuary creating a large bar. Channels ran north and south of this bar with the northern one close to what is now the boundary of Yarmouth and Caister.

The southern channel ran down through Gorleston and south to the Gunton area where it entered the sea. The southern channel to the Haven had to be recut several times because if silted up or was damaged by storms. I plan to try and tell the story of the Havens in another blog soon but let us touch on those that concern us in this article.

The second man-made cut crossed the South Denes approximately 500m north of where the power station stands today. This was blocked by 1408. The fifth ran very close to the current (seventh) cut – probably very slightly closer to the town whilst the sixth Haven cut across about 400m south of the South Gate. Begun in 1548 and blocked by 1557 this one was damaged during its construction by Kett’s rebels who tried unsuccessfully to take Great Yarmouth.

This cut is shown on the Elizabethan Plan pictured below. Interestingly written history tells us the cut was damaged by Kett’s rebels before it was complete – they stopped it with manure and stone – and yet, in the plan, that was probably drawn about 1570, it appears to be complete, albeit somewhat narrower than the actual current harbour mouth.  In the 18th century, a trench showing the course of this particular entrance was still visible and was shown on maps as the Old Haven.

Elizabethan Plan c.1570 by Petrus Plancius (aka Platevoet) of Flanders. The original forms part of the Cottonian Library at the British Library

The seventh and current Haven cut was begun in 1559 and completed in 1567. This of course forms the southern boundary of the South Denes.

The old cut means that the South Denes are effectively split into two. It shows rope-making happening on the land just outside the South Gate, which certainly agrees with what we know from written documents and will be explored further in Part 2. The southernmost part of the South Denes is effectively an island with only one building on it which is discussed further on.

During the seventh Haven construction period, a significant building project outside the town walls happened with the construction of the Jetty. Although not on the South Denes but in the area known as the Beach, it is noteworthy enough to mention here. A road tracked across the Denes to the Jetty, first built in 1560, and was used by fishermen who landed their fish on the Jetty or directly on to the beach, to haul their catch to the fish market in the centre of the town. Originally called White Lion Road it became Jetty Road before ending up as St Peter’s Road. Interestingly the Jetty doesn’t feature on Petrus’ plan but there are several windmills along the Beach area of the Denes.

It is possible that one of the windmills along the eastern Denes or beach strayed into South Denes territory but far from certain. Also, there are earthworks recorded on the quay immediately north of the Spending Beach which are thought to be a medieval or post-medieval mill although they are also very close to where the Fort (See below) was so may have been misinterpreted.

The Jetty

There was actually a second Jetty about two thirds of the way between the Jetty and the pier on the north of the harbour mouth. I’m not sure when this one was built or demolished but it is shown on the 1734 plan (Spelt Jettee) but by the 1842 map it is shown as Scite of old Jetty.

The main Jetty, which stood in one form or another until 2012, originally had a crane at the end to help with unloading. It was rebuilt in 1701 and damaged by storms in 1767, 1791 and 1805. In 1809 it was rebuilt without a crane at a cost of £5,000, which was a considerable sum in those days, and emphasises the importance of the structure to the town. It was lengthened in 1846 and again in 1870. Despite public protest, demolition of the Jetty began in January 2012.

The first important piece of infrastructure to be built on the South Denes was the Ballast Quay which was first made in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada when much investment was made in Yarmouth. (This date is according to Henry Manship in his history of Yarmouth published in 1619. Several other sources say 1602 but there is little reason to suspect Manship’s earlier date is wrong).

Until then, the main quays of the port lay along that part of the river protected by the town wall and were The Lord’s Quay, North Quay, Hall Quay (Sometimes Broad Quay), and South Quay. The latter was that described by Defoe in the 1720s as the ‘finest quay in England if not in Europe’. Prior to Ballast Quay being built, ballast was “very dispersedly and disorderly taken in and laid forth at several quays to the great annoyance of the Haven”. It’s very likely this included South Quay where many ship owners had fine houses, so moving it south to the wastelands would have been a sensible and popular move.

The new quay ran along the east side of the Yare a few hundred meters south of the South Gate. At this wharf, ships would come to be loaded with ballast – an aggregate such as sand or shingle – to keep them low in the water if they weren’t carrying a cargo on their return voyage. Without it the over-buoyant vessels would be wrecked. The ballast could be gathered for next to nothing from the Denes and sold to ship’s owners for a tidy sum thus it was an important source of income for the Corporation, having acquired it from private hands in the 14th century.

The South Gate by Thomas Hearne. the gate was taken down in 1812.

Given that this Lastage (also Ballastage) was such an important source of income, the Ballast Master was an important job. Yarmouth’s Ballast masters include Samuel Costerton and Captain Henry Barrett (1775-1847). Barrett was equally famous for his book ‘Treatise on Harbours and Bars’. However, the position was often let to the highest bidder causing many accusations of abuse and misuse of power.

The Ballast Quay in Yarmouth was also where the Dutch Schuyts (Cargo barges) traditionally assembled at the start of the herring fishery except during the wars (1652-1654, 1665-1667, 1672-1674, & 1780-1784).

In 1878 Ballast Quay would be moved further south to make way for the extension of the fish wharf but more of that in Part 2.

We now come to the defence of the town; at least those fortifications that encroach onto the South Denes. First though, a small mystery. The Petrus map clearly shows a building near the river halfway between the sixth and seventh cuts. It is not clear what the building is although it looks like a warehouse being tall and having a large door in one end. It also has a path (possibly raised) leading from the door to the harbour mouth where guns were mounted so perhaps it was or included a magazine. In later paintings of the Harbour Fort (See below) it appears extant and surrounded by the fort’s walls. Perhaps it was an early naval store used by ships that tied up at The Point or landed on the Spending Beach and was later incorporated into the Fort?

Left, an extract from the Petrus map showing the warehouse like building and right, two later views of the fort both showing a similar building within the walls

The first defences on the South Denes were two of a line of ‘bulwarkes of earth’ built on the beach in 1539. One was not far from the South Gate but on the seaward side whilst the other stood near the mouth of the Haven – with three cannon planned for it – to guard the channel into Yarmouth through the Roads (St Nicholas Gat) and the Harbour mouth itself. No traces of these or the other 1539 bulwarks survive and in fact they were declared nearly useless by the Duke of Norfolk as early as 1545 when he came to report on Yarmouth’s defences for the King. A year later his point was proved when three French Privateers sailed past it and captured an English merchant ship. It is possible that it never received the cannons it was supposed to get which meant, in essence, it was a big pile of dirt! A plan in Peter Kent’s Fortifications of East Anglia shows the Bulwark to be North of the Warehouse building on the Petrus map and just north of the old 5th Haven.

Excellent plan of the South Denes defences from Peter Kent’s Fortifications of East Anglia

1n 1588 Edmund Yorke, Queen Elizabeth’s chief ordinance prepared A Plan of the Fortifications of Great Yarmouth in 1588. This plan is now known as the Yorke Map (and is featured below. On it there is a polygonal, almost star-shaped, wall hard by The Point which and a similar, smaller battery on the opposite side of the river in Gorleston. The Yorke Map is considered a plan or proposal to defend against the Armada and not all the defences shown were built, at least not at that time.

The Yorke Map – a perspective plan of intended fortifications as well as existing (1588)

After the threat of Spanish Invasion in 1588, the English Civil War now threatened Yarmouth. Specifically, around 1648 Loyalist refugees in Holland posed a real threat to the East Coast. The Town Assembly agreed to build a Harbour Fort to protect the Haven but it took a few years, and the actual outbreak of the first Dutch War to get it completed. Preston, in his book The Picture of Yarmouth, says that the date 1653 appears in a stone in the wall which would appear to give us an accurate date.

The Fort was constructed near the harbour mouth. It is shown on maps as being a many-sided brick fort with ravelins, two half-moon batteries, and brick crenulations. Inside the fort were barracks, a magazine and a storeroom. As we have discussed earlier, it is quite possible that the central building within the walls was in fact constructed almost a century earlier.  

An illustration of the Harbour Fort from Peter Kent’s book

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin’s Plan de la Ville d’Yarmouth from the mid-18th century also shows a battery on the harbour mouth. It is possible that this has also been there for some years and is why a path leads from the above building to the North pier in the Petrus plan, though this is purely speculation.

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin’s Plan de la Ville d’Yarmouth

Incidentally Bellin’s plan also shows a fanal (lantern) on the South Denes and according to Palmer’s Perlustrations, before reaching the harbour’s mouth there was “a beacon elevated on a frame as may be seen on Fleurens’ chart”. I have not been able to locate a copy of Fleurens’ chart.

One thing we know from Charles Labelye (A Swiss engineer engaged to survey the harbour in 1747) was that the Fort must have been very close to the river near the harbour entrance. Although Labelye is sceptical it is the real reason why, he accepts claims that the north pier was filled in with rubble because the sea was in danger of damaging the fort are feasible. His scepticism stems from the fact that if damage to the fort was really likely, piles would have been driven in by the proper authorities. This seems to indicate that the Fort was very close to the Haven’s mouth.

A 1730 chart of the Roads

Labelye then goes further stating that should the fort have been washed away, it would have made little difference to the town’s defences. This seems to be a common theme with Yarmouth’s fortifications: the wall was not built to withstand assault by cannon, even though cannons were already being used in battle when the wall was begun; the bulwarks built in 1539 were vulnerable to attack by raiding parties and too far from the town to be reinforced; the New Mount, in the town, was built against the wall and caused part of it to collapse, and so on. Despite being armed with eight cannon, the Fort had not long been in place when a privateer took four Hamburg ships without being troubled by the Fort. It seems Labelye’s later conclusions were quite accurate.

After the Restoration the Harbour Fort fell in disuse but was repaired when the Second Dutch War began in 1666. Sir Thomas Medowes recommended further repairs in 1683. Bizarrely these repairs included a shed built on the side of the Fort which would have allowed people to get over the walls. Medowes was reprimanded and the shed pulled down. In 1688 it was actually stormed by a mob from the town, possibly seeking weapons, but they were soon expelled.

On the 1734 plan of Yarmouth, Gorleston and Southtown  it is shown as Yarmouth Castle but should not to be confused with the much earlier medieval castle near St George’s in town. The Fort was surveyed that same year and many recommendations made to repair and improve it. It is not clear what, if anything was done, but it was still decayed when the American War of Independence broke out some years later. The Dutch joining the American colonies caused panic in Yarmouth and the Fort was stuffed with fifteen guns, however better fortifications were required (See below) and the Fort was more or less side-lined.

Early in the 19th century, the North pier was altered and the tides began to scour away the base of the Fort. One bastion fell in 1822 and in 1834 the whole building taken down and materials sold. The gate was bought by Frederick Danby Palmer and incorporated into a folly at his Gorleston home.

Views of the Harbour Fort. Clockwise from Top left George Vincent, John Preston, James Stark, & unknown.

In 1781 the Town Assembly finally agreed to put up some cash to build new Batteries along the Denes. Colonel Bramham recommended four and the town started to build one in the centre of the beach. After running out of money, the government had to step in and complete it adding two more. One to the North, and the one that concerns us on the South Denes which was built in 1782. It’s location can be seen in Kent’s plan (above)

The South Star Battery was so called because of its shape. Whilst the Star Batteries were reasonably good structures, even including furnaces to make their own shot, they suffered from drifting sand building up. The experts were starting to realise that a substantial battery on the heights of Gorleston – a small battery only was built there – should have been the way to go. However, after the French were defeated at Trafalgar, the threats against Yarmouth started to tail off and the batteries, like the Fort, were left to decay. In 1858 the Town Battery was demolished and the North and South Batteries rebuilt. We shall continue their story in Part 2.

Yarmouth Races on the South Denes

So far we have spoken so far about the appearance of permanent or semi-permanent structures on the Denes. However we should also mention some of the more transient uses of the Wastelands. Besides the historically important drying of nets, the South Denes were used for centuries for gatherings of militia for parade and rehearsal. A large force of Queen’s soldiers camped here awaiting the Armada in 1588 and numerous militia gatherings took place on the Denes until the 20th century. Of course, the 19th century would see the establishment of more enduring military bases on South Denes but more of that later. These gatherings might include dinners for visiting dignitaries under canvas.

In 1810, whilst the Berkshire Militia were camped on the Denes, some of their officers decided to organise a horse race. It was not the first time this had been done on the as back in 1715 John Holdrich and several others (mostly Publicans) sought leave to hold a horse-race there.

The 1810 race inspired some wealthy, local men to revive the races and the first thoroughbred race was held on 29th September 1810. It was won by Mr Harbord’s Patriot. They continued annually thereafter and then more frequently from 1866. As early as 1812, they were held over two days with some 18,000 racegoers watching a number of races. A band was present and there were often ‘aquatic amusements’ at the Jetty between races. There will be more on the racecourse in Part 2.

At this point, developments on the South Denes have been largely isolated civic and military projects but by the 17th century – despite a reduction in population due to the plague – the town of Yarmouth was straining at its thirteenth century wall. The last space-hogging ropewalks were kicked out in 1678 and the final bit of spare land created through this was filled in in 1714 when St George’s Chapel was built. There was a clear need for businesses and individuals to relocate outside the walls. Already a very few fishermen’s cottages were scattered about, including one with an upturned boat for a roof which was the inspiration of Peggotty’s home. One or two properties had been built up against the wall just east of the South Gate but local ordinances limited the erection of buildings on the Denes because of the driage rights and also the Denes were technically Common Ground but the Corporation were Lords of the Soil which gave them power to grant leases. This power was in the hands of a group called the Committee of Liberties. Unsurprisingly, like the entire Corporation, the Committee was filled with the ‘good and great’ of Yarmouth with many business interests!

Eventually, the Committee of Liberties yielded to pressure and slowly began to grant leases to businesses wishing to set up outside the town. On the plus side this allowed sawpits, sheds, mast-makers works on South Quay to be cleared thus improving the Quay. This particularly applied to that part of the Quay known as the Stand which ran between Friar’s Lane and the South Gate. This was previously for the exclusive use of the Dominican Friars and was acquired by the Corporation on the dissolution of the convent.

The area outside the South Gate where development started in earnest

It is difficult to establish precisely the leases which were granted as surviving records can be quite vague about locations but several we can see help us build a picture. As we saw earlier, outside of the walls, the first part of the quay to be properly developed was Ballast Quay and it was around here that further developments began.

Notably, in 1725 Nicholas Boult, an agent for Trinity House had a place assigned to him near Ballast Quay to lay his buoys. The Trinity Buoy House was at the southern end of Ballast Quay and would later expand, as Trinity Quay, to be the official Trinity House wharf.

In 1749 shipbuilders Ambrose Palmer and Nathaniel Palmer were granted leave to occupy a piece land lying next to the river near the Southgate and to make a sawpit there. This was the yard just above Ballast Quay that would be Ambrose Palmer’s shipyard for many years. Shipbuilding was long established in Yarmouth and would be continue to be a major part of Yarmouth’s industry for the next 200 years but we will look at how it developed on the South Denes in Part 2.

On 3rd Jun 1754 a Committee of Liberties’ report recorded that Robert Lancaster had been granted ground 100 feet south of Ballast Quay for laying vessels up in. Lancaster, who was mayor in 1668, also bought land close to the old South Gate in 1772. However, it would be a revival in an old maritime industry that would spark the next way of expansion.

The value of whales, for their meat, oil and other parts had been recognised since prehistoric times. Basque whalers were experts along the African coast and later followed the whales up the Atlantic to the English Channel and Southern Ireland. Later they ventured further to Newfoundland, Iceland, Norway, and then Greenland from where the industry took its local name of the Greenland Fisheries. Along with the Dutch and the French, the English joined these hunts (An English whaler sailed to Labrador as early as 1576) and we know that by 1627 Yarmouth ships were joining the fleets, Thomas Hoarth and Nathaniel Wright being the key figures from the town. It was a cut-throat industry with much competition between ships and companies. In fact in 1630 Hull and Yarmouth ships were driven away empty-handed from the fisheries by London whalers. In the 1660s the industry went into decline and didn’t revive until the 1750s.  In 1753 and 1754 Yarmouth had ships in the fleet but both were lost in 1758. In 1775 whaling once again slumped (Largely because of the American War of Independence) but would revive in 1784.

The number of Greenland whalers operating under the British flag rose from 44 in 1782 to 102 in 1784 and between 1786 and 1788 involved 250 vessels. These vessels came from 23 different ports, with London alone sending 91 vessels, followed by Hull with 36 and Whitby and Newcastle with twenty each. The market started to fail and 1788 was a year of massive loss. Vessels began to leave the trade and by 1790 only eleven ports were still involved. However, before it collapsed, Yarmouth wanted to get in the revival and 1784 saw a flurry of building activity on the quayside of the South Denes.

In 1784 Stephen Godfrey, Samuel Barker, John Shelly and Jacob Preston were leased ground on the Denes near the Engine Dock for the erection of warehouses and buildings for the Greenland Fishery trade. I believe this to be that land almost opposite Newcastle Road’s western entrance, now occupied by a petrol station.

The same year there was a petition by Nathaniel Symonds, Stephen Godfrey, Samuel Tolver, Samuel Barber, John Sayers, John Shelly, Jacob Preston and William Kett for a lease of land 150’x14’ north of the Engine Dock for the erection of buildings for the manufacture of whale blubber. This was possibly an expansion of the above operation with Samuel Barber more likely to be Samuel Barker, famous as the Yarmouth mayor who in 1800 entertained Nelson on his return from the Nile.

A Committee of Liberties’ report dated 5 July 1786 recommends that Dover Colby, John Fisher, John Sayers, Isaac Preston, Chapman Ives, John Kerrison and William Fox should have lease of ground measuring 20’ by 46’ on the Denes to the north of the present Whale Fishery warehouse, leaving an 8’ passage for tracking ships, for the purpose of erecting warehouses and other buildings for the whale fishery trade. On the 18th August either the original order was amended or they were seeking an additional lease as the committee reported the same group of people sought to lease ground where they can erect a warehouse and copper for boiler oil 30 yards x 21 yards, located 26 feet north of Whale Fishery warehouse

On 18 April 1787 the Committee recommended the petition of Edmund Lacon, John Palmer, Nathaniel Palmer (Shipwright), William Palmer, Nathaniel Palmer (merchant), William Steward, James Hurry and William Danby Palmer jun. for a lease of ground measuring 24’ by 160’ on east side of the Engine Dock and also ground measuring 60’ by 25’ on north side thereof, to erect coppers and warehouses for the whale fishery trade.

In October 1787 Edmund Lacon, James Symonds, Jeremiah Ives Esq., (Joseph Shrimpton cancelled), John Robson jun., William Danby Palmer, William Steward and Thomas Jay should have lease of ground measuring 105’ by 26’, for the erection of a warehouse for the whale fishery on the Denes north of ground lately granted to Dover Colby and others, but not to erect a boiling copper at the north end of the ground.

However, as we saw earlier, 1788 saw a turn in fortunes and the blubber bubble collapsed. This flurry of activity south of Ballast Quay came to an abrupt pause. In July 1791 a large Ware and Oil-House with copper and Vats compleat [Sic] for boiling and refining whale blubber were for sale by auction at the Star Tavern. This followed the sale of the Greenland trader Hunter.

In September 1791 the consortium led by Lacon and Symonds assigned their October 1787 lease along with the warehouses they had constructed to Trinity House. Earlier in the year Trinity House had been granted ground measuring 35’ by 25’ for a warehouse near the oil-house leased to William Danby Palmer leaving a passage to the oil-house.

In 1795 the consortium led by Dover Colby abandoned the fishery and assigned lease to another merchant and on 13 Mar 1798 the consortium headed by Stephen Godfrey assigned their lease to the Navy Commissioners (See below)

The last voyage by a Yarmouth whaler was made in 1797 and it is recorded that the last ‘incident’ occurred in 1801. However, we know from Manby’s Journal of A Voyage to Greenland, that in 1821 Palmer, Palgrave et al are given a demonstration of Captain Manby’s gun-harpoon for whaling. So there was still some interest in the industry.

Faden’s map which was published on 12th August 1797 was surveyed by Thomas Donald and Thomas Milne and their assistants between 1790 and 1794 and clearly shows buildings on the east bank of the river marked as warehouses. I submit that these are the various warehouses raised for the Greenland Fishery. Faden also showed the South Star Battery and the Fort but no other buildings are shown on the South Denes.

Faden (Survey 1790-1794)

The next major driver for development on the South Denes was the decision by the Admiralty in the late 18th century to position half of the North Sea Squadron in Great Yarmouth Roads. The area was known as North Yarmouth to distinguish it from Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.

Inevitably, the squadron would need stores locally to restock the ships and this was duly opened in Yarmouth. The exact date is difficult to pin down but we know that by February 1796 “a naval store was sitting at this place {Yarmouth} and several large cables are arriving”. A prominent townsman called Robert Warmington was appointed storekeeper.

Warmington was born c.1851 and started out as an agent to David Urquhart of Hoeland Hall. Warmington eventually succeeded Urquhart as agent for wrecks and boats captured by privateers. He was also a successful wine merchant. In 1772 he married Elizabeth Clifton and in 1786 was chosen as a Common Councilman. In 1790 he became Mayor. His wife died in 1799. In 1808 he was elected Mayor for the second time and he died in 1812 and is buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard.

Some evidence points to the fact that the Naval Store was previously a distillery and malting and given Warmington’s trade as a merchant that is a strong possibility but the evidence in the Assembly Files seems to contradict this. We know that the Navy eventually had several buildings throughout the town which might lead to the confusion. It is also a strong possibility that Warmington’s store in Row 107 was temporarily used as a Naval Store until the quayside warehouses could be obtained.

We do know that in March 1798 Navy Commissioners acquired a lease on ‘Palmer’s oil-store’ from one of the whaling consortiums (which places the Naval Store on the site of the BP garage.) The same month another whaling group were granted leave to assign their lease to the Navy Commissioners for the warehouses and ground east of that above where a sail-loft was built.  Commissioner Harwood visited the town that year and recommended getting rid of various properties in town but keeping the above combined site. Additionally on 22nd January 1799 Warmington was granted a lease on ground near the Engine Dock recently purchased from John Palmer, William and James Fisher including the right to erect a crane.

Also in January 1799 Robert Searum, block-maker, was given leave to make sawpit opposite his home, keeping it covered over when not at work. Searum will return to the picture later.

Elsewhere on the South Denes, the naval influence continued. A military hospital had existed since 1793 near the site that would become Grouts Silk Mills (and later Sainsbury’s) but in the wake of the Battle of Trafalgar it was proven to be inadequate. In 1806 the Admiralty ordered the building a new hospital on the South Denes. Work began in 1809 on what became the Royal Naval Hospital, and was completed in 1811 but the naval war with France was already more or less over. The hospital only got its first patients following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Thus in 1818 it was handed to the army. This story will continue in Part 2.

As you might imagine, the presence of the Navy in Yarmouth increased the pressure on the Corporation to expand outside the town walls. Not just for businesses but for accommodation too. After 1805 leases were assignable i.e. the lessee can sell it on without the lessors’ permission (in this case the Committee of Liberties). With this restriction lifted, a number of the best areas in the Denes which had been allocated on lease to members of the Corporation, were now sold on by them for great profit.

In 1810, a petition by the Fishing Merchants, protested the plan of intended enclosures put forward by the surveyor and demanded that the South Denes continue to be reserved for net drying. The Corporation agreed except for a small triangle south-east of Ambrose Palmer’s timber ground near Naval Hospital road to South Gates and road from the Denes to the south-east Tower, which was to be used by Jacob Preston for laying timber.

That same year, after dismissing other sites, the Committee of Liberties recommended that Robert Searum and Mr Shepherd should both have lease of ground measuring 108 yards by 35 yards and 19 yards, and that each should have leave to enclose and build workshop not obstructing the view from the Haven’s Mouth to the South Mound, the ground to be used for block and mast making only. This is the land just east of Ballast Quay that my 4xGreat Uncle Henry Brand would later have for his oilskin business.

Of course, others had already leased plots and they now turned their plots into gardens whilst waiting to see what happened next. This was soon answered as in 1811 the navy decided to quit Yarmouth and demand for accommodation plummeted. Development stagnated rapidly though in 1813 the Corporation drew up a map with plans to divide the South Dene into plots. The Admiralty sold the Naval Store back to the Corporation in 1815.

Extract from Bryant’s map 1826

In 1828 a moratorium on further leases was introduced. This is partly why when development picks up again after 1835 the Denes suffer from a mix of unplanned lets and lack of uniformity in lease terms. Again, this is to be investigated in Part 2.

William Daniell’s view of the harbour mouth from Gorleston cliffs (c.1820s)

However it would be the Navy’s most famous son that would be the inspiration for the most famous piece of development on the South Denes to date. In 1816 the corporation planned to build a new road, to be called Nelson Road along the northern boundary of the naval yard. The plan was to erect a memorial to Nelson which could be seen whilst approaching down Nelson Road. The Corporation engaged several unemployed men to build the road, but the site of the monument was altered, so that when the road was built it was called Newcastle Street. Nelson Road runs north-south, and the Monument was built much closer to the river mouth.

Original plans for the Monument as published in the Norfolk Chronicle 8 February 1817

The construction began on 15th August 1817 when the first stone of the Norfolk Naval Pillar aka the Nelson Monument or the Britannia Monument was laid to great ceremony. Standing alone with only the newly established racecourse nearby (More of which in Part 2), the column stands 144’ high and, completed in 1819, was erected 24 years before its more famous cousin in Trafalgar Square.

An Ordnance Survey from 1817 showing the Monument in place and the fort still present

An ex-sailor, James Sharman who served with Nelson on the Victory, was appointed as keeper of the monument and a house was built for him close by. Originally a lad employed at the Wrestler’s Inn, Sharman was empressed in 1799 and served initially on HMS Weazel. He then joined the Victory under hardy and was one of the sailors who carried the mortally wounded Nelson to the cockpit. On discharge he was confined to Greenwich hospital but on the recommendation of his old commander, Sir Thomas Hardy, he was appointed keeper in 1817. Sharman is said to be the inspiration for Dicken’s Ham Peggoty.

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s view from Pilfer Hill Gorleston as engraved by William MILLER in 1838

And one of the most prominent landmarks on the South Denes then and now, seems a good place to end this first article…….before the intense building on the bulk of the South Denes gets underway.

Part 2 is going to be a while. The number of lease transfers profligates and though I don’t want to list them all, I do want to go through them to work out the bigger picture. I also want to tell the story of the Victoria Building Company which will take a bit of research. It will arrive in due course.

Acknowledgements and Sources

Projects like this come together over time and the sources used are numerous. To list them all would be arduous. Yarmouth is lucky to have had several histories written but perhaps none so well-thumbed as Palmer’s Perlustration

For this project I obtained a copy of Peter Kent’s Fortifications of East Anglia which was an excellent read.

Online sources include the newspaper archives courtesy of Find My Past, articles from the GYALHS and N&NAS (The latter now freely available online) and many more.

Most of the illustrations used are out of copyright or are used under Creative Commons Fair Use licencing. I have tried to acknowledge the creators of the works where known. If I have infringed anyone’s copyright unintentionally, I apologise and will withdraw any illustrations on request.


2 thoughts on “Heading South

  1. Where is the Turner painting kept? I will be interested in the airfield as well . Mid 1960’s I attended a motorcycle drag race event past the power station?


    1. Hi Anthony. The Turner is at the Tate! My great aunt served at the airfield during WW1 and I’m going to enjoy researching that. There was a model of it at Flixton. I don’t suppose you have any photos of the drag racing?


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