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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library

Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library

Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library - Image courtesy of George Plunkett's Photographs of Old Norwich
The Norfolk & Norwich Subscription Library

Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library on Guildhall Hill, Norwich, functioned from 1784 -1976. This library was the first public subscription library in Norfolk and one of the oldest subscription libraries in England. It was instituted on August 24th in 1784 as a private venture, funded by subscriptions, to provide a permanent collection of literature for a wide circle of cultivated and highly intelligent people in Norfolk and Norwich. It was at first called The Norwich Public Library.

Philip Meadows Martineau

Philip Meadows Martineau, a member of the Octagon Chapel, was the prime founder of the library. Norwich had a long history of radical and dissenting thought and literary traditions were strong. Many early subscribers were from the Quaker and Presbyterian congregations in Norwich. The first 100 subscribers were mainly men of wealth and standing in town and county. There was no limit to the number of subscribers; each paid one guinea (£1. 1s) and a yearly subscription of 6s. In 1789 a building fund was set up so that the Norwich Public Library could have its own property instead of hiring premises. The library was housed in a room in St. Andrews until 1794 and then, needing more book space, was removed to a disused Catholic chapel, property of the Duke of Norfolk, in St. Andrews, Broad Street.

By 1820 the library had 600 members, women among them, each paying a joining fee of a guinea and a half (£1 11s 6d) and a subscription of 12s per year. There was however a crisis in 1821 when members complained about the lack of new books. Many subscribers left the Norwich Public Library at this time and in 1822 the Norfolk and Norwich Literary Institution was founded with 67 members who had shares at five guineas (£5. 5s) each together with a yearly subscription of a guinea and a half (£1 11s. 6d). The membership of the new Literary Institution trebled in the first three years. However, the stock of books held by the Public Library was augmented in 1825 by the permanent loan of some 2,000 books from the old City Library (founded in 1608). In 1835 the library members committee acquired the lease of the site of the Old City Gaol on Guildhall Hill at the north end of Norwich market place.

A new building

Finally, the Norwich Public Library was to be housed in a new building built in 1837 on this site by J.T. Patience. In October 1835, Messrs Darkins and Blake had been awarded the building contract. For a fee of £1,550 exclusive of materials they had to take down and clear away rubbish from the old gaol and re-use material approved of by Patience. Any new material had to be of the 'best quality.' The new library had to be completed by mid-August, 1836. A mixture of old and new shelving was installed in early 1837. According to Pevsner, the building with its handsome Doric façade was approached across 'a paved courtyard in a tranquil backwater.' There were two eleven-bay wings in three storeys, which 'give the building a strange inside-out appearance.' The Public Library moved into the building in 1838. In 1848, the library was described as containing 14,000 volumes. Around 1880, the privately funded library had 50,000 books and a specialist law library of 4,000 books.


The Norwich Public Library and The Norfolk and Norwich Literary Institution had co-existed for many years and in 1886 they merged to become the Norfolk and Norwich Public Subscription Library, using the Guildhall Hill premises. A serious fire occurred there in 1898. The façade was basically undamaged and although some books were saved, the inside of the library had to be reconstructed. R.W. Ketton-Cremer, giving a talk in 1955, spoke of the central hall of the library currently being crammed with books from floor to ceiling as well as the gallery around it and subsidiary rooms. It was said that any book in print could be obtained for subscribers. He did not know the number of books lost in the fire but some volumes currently for loan were scorched and water-stained. There were seventeenth and eighteenth-century books still available as was an unbroken run of the mid eighteenth-century Gentleman's Magazine. Many rare books were especially cared for.

Closure and the Advice Arcade

The library closed in 1976. The books were presented to the Norwich School and they form the basis of the Norwich School Local History Library. Planning permission was given in 1985 for the former Subscription Library and the whole of the east wing to be used as an advice centre. The two wings had already been altered to form shops. The Advice Centre vacated the building in 2002 and the Grade II listed building has recently been sympathetically converted to: The Library Bar and Grill Restaurant, 4a Guildhall Hill. The restaurant has a main eating area ... 'an expansive room with floor to ceiling bookcases, a 9 metre-high glass ceiling and an upstairs art gallery.'

Further Reading.

Primary Documents in Norfolk Record Office.

  • Minutes of Annual General Meetings, Lists of members, catalogues and correspondence

Documents held in the Norfolk Heritage Centre Norwich.

  • Kay, M.A. Library Provision in Norwich Before 1850, UCL Thesis, published 1974.Reference: N027 (043) Hardback.
  • Ketton-Cremer, R.W. Norfolk and Norwich Subscription Library, Typescript of a Radio Transmission, 29 6 1955. Reference:   NO27.3 [OS] Hardback. s
  • Chambers, J. A General History of the County of Norfolk, published in Norwich in 1829.
  • Jewson, C. B, Jacobin City, A Portrait of Norwich 1788-1802, published by Blackie and Son Ltd, London, 1975.
  • Meeres, F. A History of Norwich, published by Phillimore, 1998.
  • Pevsner, N and B. Wilson, The Buildings of England: Norfolk 1. Norwich and North-East, 2nd Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1997.

Web Site.

  • British History Online, A Topographical Dictionary of England, Published in 1848, Pages 446-61 relating to Norwich, (Accessed, 23/07/2007).


S.A. Wigg. 

September 2007


Image courtesy of George Plunkett's Photographs of Old Norwich.