The small public park near St Augustine's churchyard in north-west Norwich has a long and fascinating history. Known as the Gildencroft, it is the remnant of a much larger, open area that once covered St Augustine's parish to the south, west and north of the churchyard, as well as parts of the adjoining parishes of St Clement's and St Martin's at Oak and land to the north of the city wall. Over the centuries portions were sold off and built over so that today it is probably less than a tenth of its original size.
It isn't known with any certainty what 'Gildencroft' means. Before circa 1260 the area was referred to in legal documents as the 'croft of St Augustine'. After that date it was more commonly described as the 'Gildenecroft' or 'Gyldenecroft', which some have interpreted as a croft farmed by or on behalf of a trade or religious guild. The existence of a nearby street known as Gildengate since at least 1273 (present-day St George's Street) may support this if we accept the theory that guilds processed through here to the Gildencroft; however, while this etymology appears persuasive, supporting documentary evidence of a guild holding land here in the 13th century is lacking. Others have argued that Gildencroft refers to a court where manorial 'geld' or tax was collected, forming as it once did part of the Manor of Tolthorpe or Tokethorpe. To add zest to the rival theories, some early 18th-century plans of Norwich label the area the 'Gilding' or 'Gipping' Croft, place-names that possibly allude to an obscure legend mentioned by the Lowestoft-born satirist Thomas Nashe in Lenten Stuffe (published 1599) that 'the smoky gilding of herrings' (i.e. the curing of herrings by smoking) was once carried on in the 'Guilding Cross' in the 'parish of St Saviour's (now stumped up by the roots)', an allusion, perhaps, to the old Stump Cross area of Magdalen Street. 'Gipping' means gutting fish, while 'gilding' means curing fish in a smokehouse to make the proverbial red herrings or kippers. Unlikely as this folk etymology sounds, it is worth noting that there were once several smokehouses in Ultra Aquam or Norwich 'Over the Water' (as the leet of Norwich north of the River Wensum was once known), as well as nearby place-names with maritime associations, such as St Clement's in Fishergate and Greenland Fisheries Yard. (Because of his martyrdom - thrown into the sea tied to a anchor - churches dedicated to St Clement are often found beside the sea or in places associated with fishing.)
One part of the Gildencroft, located along the southern face of the city wall between present-day Bakers Road and St Martin's at Oak Wall Lane is described on some early 18th-century plans of Norwich as the 'Justing' or 'Jousting Acre'. Here it is thought Norwich's knights and men-at-arms once practiced their martial skills, such as tilting at quintains (a swivelling target) with lances on horseback and on foot. A small hill, known as Tut or Tot Hill (meaning possibly 'look-out hill') once stood to the west of the Jousting Acre somewhere near the junction of present-day Bakers Road and St Martin's Road. Archery butts were set up in this area for long bow practice, which Edward I had decreed was the only sport that might be played on a Sunday. His grandson, Edward III, is known to have attended a grand tournament in Norwich on St Valentine's Day, 1340. It isn't known where the event was staged, but the Gildencroft's Jousting Acre is a distinct possibility given the lack of alternative large open spaces within the city walls.
By the 17th century the sport of tilting at the quintain was beginning to be succeeded by less martial though by no means less violent pastimes. One part of the Gildencroft near St Martin's Gate was known as the Folly Grounds and had a beer house called the Tabor's Folly. Norwich's citizens would congregate here on warm summer's evenings, escaping from the crowded, smelly tenements of the city to sport, dance, drink and make merry in the open air. Their revels seem to have worried the city authorities. In 1671 the Bellman (Norwich's town crier) was ordered to give notice to the 'Inhabitants beyond the Water [i.e. north of the River Wensum] that they forbear to spoil the Grass in the Gilding Croft by immoderate Campings and Dauncing there'. Camping had nothing to do with tents but was in fact an early form of football, also known as camp-ball, popular in Norfolk until well into the 19th century. The game was played between two large teams and might best be described as a cross between rugby and all-in wrestling. Matches were long and rough and often got out of hand with competitors frequently suffering bruises and broken bones and occasionally even death. At this period, which followed the Commonwealth period when puritans had banned such sports, the Gildencroft seems to have become notorious for the wildness of its inhabitants. In 1682 the City Marshals were ordered to apprehend 'boys and young fellows playing in the Guyldencroft and St Augustine's churchyard on the Lord's Day in service and sermon time'. As late as the 1890s the Gildencroft was still sufficiently wild and lonely to allow a local superstition of 'the Gildencroft bogey' to gain currency. The bogey with 'tay-sarcer [tea saucer]'-sized eyes was 'want to rush out and chase lonely wayfarers'; clearly a close relation of Black Shuck, the infamous hell hound of East Anglian folklore.
For most of the Middle Ages the Gildencroft was in agricultural use as the grange farm (meaning it was farmed by stewards rather than tenant farmers) of Tolthorpe Manor, which was owned in the late 14th century by Sir John Fastolf (who may have provided Shakespeare with the name of his larger-than-life rogue Falstaff). By the 15th century the farm was known as the Lathes (an old English dialect word for a type of barn or grain larder). Comprising 50 acres of arable and nine of pasture, the farm once straddled St Augustine's northern parish boundary. With the completion of the city wall in the mid-14th century the southern portion of the farm became cut off from the farmland to the north. Despite this the land inside the city's encircling wall remained rural and open until well into the 19th century.
From the 15th to the 18th century the Lathes was owned by the Great Hospital of St Giles in Bishopsgate, which employed a 'Serjeant at Ploughs and Carts' or farm steward to manage it. The farm was to be worked to supply the hospital with its food and earn an income from the sale of any surplus produce. The farm accounts of two of its stewards, John Dernell and John Boys, dating from 1417 and 1428/9 respectively, have survived and make fascinating reading. The arable portion of the farm was divided into five parcels of ten acres each, which were sown in strict rotation. One parcel with winter corn, three with spring corn and one left fallow for next season's winter corn. The steward was paid a salary of 14d a week and was expected to farm the land from Monday to Saturday except when the ground was too wet to work. In addition to having Sunday off, he was also allowed 39 days' leave per year in order to observe religious holidays and festivals, all of which were meticulously recorded in the farm's account book by a clerk who could evidently read and write in Latin and English and keep simple accounts, and who was paid by the steward 1d a week for his services. The steward was also allowed to employ an assistant during busy periods, such as at harvest time, and to hire out the farm's horses and wagons when not needed on the farm to move heavy materials such as stones, scrap iron, tiles and marl (a type of soil made of clay and lime used as a fertiliser).
By the 18th century ownership of the Lathes passed to the City Corporation. One part of it was leased to the architect Matthew Brettingham, who kept a garden and orchard on it. The name, the Lathes, was still being used in late 18th-century legal documents and there was still an orchard and nursery roughly on the site of Sussex House (a former shoe factory and more recently an office used by Norwich Union, now vacant) off Sussex Street in the early 19th century. Other remnants of the area's agricultural past survived into the 20th century An ancient timber-framed building, now lost, still stood near the churchyard in 1904 and there were still a few tumbled-down outbuildings here as late as 1946. Even today a solitary crab apple tree survives at the margin of an area marked on a map of the Lathes of circa 1770 as the 'Toft Garden and Orchard'. In the early 1980s the name of the medieval farm, the Lathes, was revived for a small estate of flats and houses built along the north edge of St Augustine's churchyard for Broadland Housing Association.
From the 16th century onwards portions of the Gildencroft were gradually rented out, parcelled up and sold off. Some fields were rented to local weavers as 'tainting grounds' where cloth was spread out to dry and bleach after being dyed. In the 1580s a row of seven timber-framed cottages was built along the south side of St Augustine's churchyard. Most of these have survived and are said to be the longest surviving row of Tudor cottages in England. In 1670 the Norwich Society of Friends (or Quakers) bought an acre of land in the south-west quarter of the Gildencroft, formerly in use as a tainting ground, for use as a burial ground. Then in 1694, the Quakers purchased an adjoining paddock on which to build their second meeting house in Norwich, the first being in Goat Lane. The Gildencroft Meeting House held its first meeting in 1699.
In 1724 Daniel Defoe noted that much of the ground in Norwich lay 'open in pasture-fields and gardens ... and the [city] walls seem to be placed, as if they expected that the city would in time increase sufficiently to fill up with buildings'. The Gildencroft was still such an area at this period and its open, rural aspect persisted well into the 19th century. In 1813 Norwich's Jewish congregation leased a small plot of land in the Gildencroft near present-day Talbot Square for use as a cemetery. In the 1820s a strip of land connecting St Augustine's Street with St Martin at Oak Street was developed for domestic housing. This was later named Sussex Street, possibly after the Sussex Arms pub which stood at the street's junction with St Augustines Street. A rare stone street name can be seen embedded high up on its wall facing Sussex Street, while across the street one of the houses has an inset stone plaque with the date 1824.
In 1892 one of the last substantial open areas, located to the southwest of the churchyard, was purchased by Norwich City Corporation for £2,700 and made into a public recreation ground. This was one of the first public open spaces in Norwich. As well as well-kept lawns and flower beds, there were paths where the public could stroll and a bowling green, which survived until the early 1990s. An open area to the north of the park was developed into retirement homes in the 1950s, also known as the Gildencroft. In 2006 Norwich City Council began a programme of improvements to the park. A specially designed brick and stone pillar with a design sculpted by Gary Breeze depicting the Gildencroft's association with jousting and other sports was placed at a new entrance to the park in Pitt Street. In 2010 additional improvements were made to the children's play areas with the installation of new play equipment designed appropriately with a medieval theme.
Stuart J. McLaren