Originally posted Fall 2007. Photos: Norfolk Online Library Service
Great Yarmouth, situated on the Eastern coast of the United Kingdom, is not only a place rich in history and a great tourist destination for people looking to get away to the beach, it’s also a fabulous example of medieval urban row house development. Unlike other old-world cities where row homes seemed to pop up here and there, Yarmouth seems to have been laid out in neat little rows from the nearly the beginning of it’s formal existence.
Since the 10th Century, local fishermen have fished the North Sea for herring. Herring are unique because they can be easily salted or smoked and preserved. In the time of early Yarmouth , this was a major factor because it meant the fish could be shipped over longer distances to a wider consumer range and made the herring a staple in the medieval person’s diet increasing demand.
The lucrative little fishes helped the city become an industry center which increased the population and the need for housing. However, the city’s size was limited by natural boundaries, the North Sea and River Yare. To allow for the most possible building in the smallest space they built the homes in very narrow rows. As time went on, and the population grew, the rows got narrower and narrower. In some rows, the houses were built so tightly together, that residents could shake hands with their neighbors by leaning out of their windows.
Waste from the fishing facilities as well as a lack of formal sewage management resulted in some odor issues so the original rows, about 145, were laid east to west. It’s thought that this arrangement let the ocean breeze blow the foul odors away. The rows were also built on a slight decline so that rain could wash away the sewage that would collect in the rows.
Aside from the economic history of Yarmouth , there is a rich naval history. Because of it’s location on the Eastern shore of the U.K. , Yarmouth played a key role in British defenses during many wars including the Napoleonic Wars. Yarmouth also was a important naval base with related buildings and shipyards. Annually, they host the Great Yarmouth Maritime Festival which features tall ships, sea-shanty sing-alongs, local crafts, and demonstrations. The Maritime Festival is just one of the many activities and attractions. It’s also interesting to note that Charles Dickens lived here while he wrote David Copperfield and filled the pages with the local color of Yarmouth .
At it’s prime, Yarmouth was 145 rows. Living together so closely was complicated. In some places, the homes came together and formed a tunnel over the row. Residents didn’t have much privacy. Life was dangerous as well. Having a door that opened unexpectedly into the street caused so many injuries, the town ordered all the residents to reverse the hinges to make all the doors open inwards. Failure to comply resulted in having your door nailed shut. And, life was confusing. The rows weren’t originally numbered, but rather had the names of the famous residents. Until formal naming occurred in 1804, the names of the rows could change randomly and multiple times from one end of a row to the other.
By the 1930s many of the older rows were in such bad condition that the city planned to demolish them. However, because of its strategic location, Yarmouth was an ideal military target and during some of the bombing runs of WWII, much of the city was annulated. Much of what was left has been demolished to make room for more modern buildings to accommodate the tourism.
Today, Yarmouth is a fun place to visit. Besides the beaches, it boasts several other attractions including an aquarium, marina, and boardwalk with rides and amusements. The city is developing new attractions such as a sports facility. In later years, there has been increased awareness and a push to preserve the remaining rows. Some of the preserved homes are available for tours.