Last week I was recalling memories of the Norwich public libraries. On that same visit I also recalled other of my early hang-outs: the Norwich museums. Until my mid-teenage years when I discovered that Shopping was the thing to do and that museums were distinctly ‘uncool’ I liked nothing better on a Saturday (after a library visit) than to visit one or other of the museums in the city. The most popular was Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and it still is today. Here is the record of the last visit I made there in December 2011.
My favourite museum in Norwich has always been The Strangers’ Hall on Charing Cross. I decided to join an Introductory Tour there last Wednesday afternoon to remind myself of the story of the Hall and its contents. For many years the Hall was closed for renovation and its reopening was at one time threatened but it is now open to the public just on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I was lucky to be in Norwich on a Wednesday!
Our guide, Bethan, sat us all down in the great hall and started by telling us that this was one of Europe’s finest houses of its kind.
The Great Hall from the Gallery
Strangers’ Hall tends to be overlooked by tourists and visitors to Norwich because of all the other historic, cultural and non-cultural attractions that the city has to offer. We have a fine Norman Cathedral, a Norman Castle Keep that is also an excellent museum and art gallery, numerous other museums to say nothing of the shopping opportunities and that old saying – that Norwich has 52 churches (one for each Sunday in the year) and 365 pubs (one for each day of the year).
Elizabeth Buxton whose portrait hangs in the Great Hall
The original Undercroft of the house dates back to 1320. The other rooms reflect the house through its various incarnations throughout history. On this tour we only visited Lady Paine’s Bedroom, The Little Bedchamber and The Great Chamber.
To explain briefly the history of this fascinating museum and the possible origin of its name I have extracted the following from the BBC History Magazine.
“Strangers’ Hall in Norwich gained a new lease of life when it became one of England’s first social history museums
Empty and neglected at the end of the 19th century, Strangers’ Hall’s illustrious history appeared all but forgotten. Constructed by Ralph de Middilton in 1320 and rebuilt in the 15th century by William Barley, it had been home to an eclectic mix of people including mayors, merchants, judges, Roman Catholic priests and a dancing master.
Leonard Bolingbroke, a local solicitor and treasurer of the Norfolk Archaeological Society, realised its importance and saved it from demolition. As an enthusiastic collector he furnished the house with antiques, appointed a caretaker and opened it to the public in 1900. Several years later he presented it to the city of Norwich as a museum of domestic life.
The rooms reflect different periods during the house’s history. The Great Chamber is laid out as it was in the 1600s when owned by hosier Sir Joseph Paine, with a high table at one end and service rooms beyond a screen at the other. The Walnut Room is styled as a 17th-century sitting room and one of the bedrooms is decorated as it might have been for his wife, Lady Emma Paine. Other rooms include a Georgian dining room, a 17th-century oak bedroom and a Victorian nursery, parlour and dining room.
One of the largest rooms is the Sotherton Room, which may once have been a counting-house. As mayor, Nicholas Sotherton boosted the textile industry by encouraging skilled Dutch and Flemish weavers to settle in Norwich. Called Strangers by the locals, it’s the presence of these refugees that may have given the building its name.
While the interiors are interesting, the architecture also deserves investigation, from the magnificent, vaulted, 14th-century cellar via the crown-post roof, stone-mullioned bay window and porch of the 16th century to the imposing staircase of the 17th. Take your children with you – the hall is great as a historical teaching resource.
Don’t miss: the beaded christening basket in Lady Paine’s chamber. Worked in tiny glass beads on a wire frame, it held gifts such as money, jewellery, spoons, rattles and silver items.”
After our tour it was nearly time for the museum to close so we just briefly stepped outside into the Knot Garden. I’m looking forward to a follow-up visit to The Strangers’ Hall very soon.