Norwich Over the Water – A Brief History

By Brian Ayers, Honorary Senior Lecturer, UEA

Initial settlement of ‘Over the Water’

Initial settlement of ‘Over the Water’ (or Ultra Aquam as it was known in the Middle Ages) probably dates to the late 7th or 8th century. It is quite likely that it was called Northwic (wic being Old English for settlement/port), the name subsequently being given to the entire urban area of Norwich. The earliest archaeological evidence for this settlement has been found at Fishergate in excavations in 1985 and 2005.

historic map of the neighbourhood area

Extract from Sutton Nicholls’ map of Norwich, made about 1710, showing the area north of the River Wensum known as Ultra Aquam or ‘Over the Water’. Note the spelling of the Gildencroft as ‘Gilding or Gipping Croft’. A representation of St Augustine’s lost post mill can be seen north of St Austin’s (another name for St Augustine’s) Gate.

At the end of the 9th century

At the end of the 9th century Danish Viking settlers constructed a defensive bank and ditch, topped by a timber palisade, around the growing town. The line of the ditch has been traced between St George’s Street and Calvert Street and it probably crossed Magdalen Street just north of Cowgate before turning south to the river. Within this fortified Anglo-Scandinavian area churches grew up, notably St Clement Colegate, but several others clearly date to the 10th and early 11th centuries such as St Botolph (now lost), St Saviour and St Olaf or Olave (also lost). Evidence of the Danes can be found in archaeological discoveries such as decorative metalwork but also in street-names – Fishergate for instance encompasses the Old English fischer and the Old Norse gata (meaning street).

St Clement's Church, Colegate

St Clement Colegate

An important development in the 10th century

An important development in the 10th century, probably around 970, was the construction of a timber causeway bridge where Fye Bridge now stands. This linked Over the Water with the growing town on the south bank, notably to Tombland (from Old Norse tōm – ‘empty’ or ‘open’) the main market place.

Fye Bridge

Looking over Fye Bridge towards Magdalen Street

After the Norman Conquest

After the Norman Conquest of 1066 activity shifted decisively to the south bank with the building of the castle, the cathedral and a new ‘French’ borough around the present-day market. Growth on the north bank was nevertheless fostered, the bishop supporting the foundation of a hospital in the early 12th century with its attendant church of St Paul (both now lost). A leper hospital, partly surviving as the Lazar House, was built north of the settlement and other churches such as St Augustine were established.

St. Augustine's Church

St Augustine Church

One small church was that of St Margaret at the north end of Magdalen Street; this was an impoverished parish and included burials of executed criminals (partly excavated in 1987). In the 13th century two friaries were established, that of the Dominicans off Colegate (subsequently moved to the south bank – now St Andrew’s and Blackfriars Halls) and the Carmelites off Whitefriars. By the 14th century Over the Water was bounded by the city wall with four gates (Oak Street, St Augustine’s, Magdalen Street and Barrack Street).

City wall marker on pavement of St. Augustines Street

City wall marker on pavement of St. Augustines Street

Investment in the 15th century

Investment in the 15th century can be seen in churches such as St Michael Coslany and in surviving houses (for example,the west range of Bacon House).

Colegate, with Bacon House on the left

Colegate, with Bacon House on the left

There were, however, many poor people, their clay and timber dwellings located by excavations at Alms Lane. Impoverishment continued in the 16th century when many refugee Dutch and Walloon ‘Strangers’ lived in overcrowded riverside parishes. Their influence can perhaps be seen in the ‘Dissenter’ tradition, still manifest in the post-medieval chapels of the Over the Water area, notably the Old Meeting House of the 1690s and the 1756 Octagon Chapel.

Old Meeting House

Old Meeting House

Octagon Chapel

Octagen Chapel

By the 19th century

By the 19th century large-scale industry was present, still visible in the Norvic shoe factory on Colegate.

St Georges and Colegate building

The former Norvic shoe factory on Colegate

Early 20th-century ‘slum’ clearance removed many ancient buildings, notably on Oak Street, and bombing in the 1940s many more. Further redevelopment such as the flyover for the Inner Ring Road seriously harmed the urban landscape but more recently creative architecture, such as at Friars Quay in the 1970s, has worked to enhance the local environment.

Flyover, Magdalen Street

Flyover, Magdalen Street

Friars Quay

Friar’s Quay seen from Fye Bridge