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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Heigham Hall

Heigham Hall 

Demolition of Heigham Hall, 1962. Picture courtesy of Archant
Demolition of Heigham Hall, 1962. Picture courtesy of Archant

Heigham Hall once stood off Heigham Street near the junction with Old Palace Road. The original house on the site was known as the Grange, occupied by the farmers of the manor of Heigham. At some time it became the residence of Mark Wilks who once described it as, "... an old building at the bottom of Holl's Lane used for the purposes of a brush factory." Born in Gibraltar 5th February, 1748, Mark was the second son of John Wilks, described as an officer of subordinate rank in the British Army.

When only two years old Mark moved with his family to a military station in Ireland. By the age of ten he was apprenticed to a Birmingham button maker, frequently working sixteen hour days. He later became a clerk to a mercantile house, and also joined a debating society. In 1776 his life changed when, at the age of 28, he was employed by the Countess of Huntingdon as the minister of her Norwich tabernacle.

It was there that Wilks became a celebrated preacher who combined the character of an evangelist whilst becoming an active politician. He was also an excellent farmer. In 1778 he married Susanna Jackson, of Norwich, which required him to resign his ministership and return to Birmingham. He came back to Norwich in January 1780 to take charge of a chapel founded by Calvinistic Methodists. Some eight years later he bought a farm near Norwich - by which time he had become active in local politics.

His sermons, "The Origin and Stability of the French Revolution," and "Anthelia, or the Tocsin sounded by Modern Alarmists," were preached at St. Paul's Chapel, Norwich, July 14th, 1791. They were later published by the Monthly Association of Congregational Ministers, the income being used to defray the expenses of defendants being tried for high treason. A second edition included a history of the persecutions endured by the Protestants in the South of France, and more especially of the Department of the Gard, during the years 1814 to 1816, and including a defense of their conduct in the 1821 Revolution.

In his memoirs, later published by his daughter Sarah (London, printed by Francis Westley 1821), Wilks described himself as a Dissenter, a Baptist, and a Whig. When the lease of his farm expired in 1797, he bought another at Aldburgh, before returning for a short time to Heigham, later moving to Costessey. In March 1802, Wilks bought a farm at Sprowston where he died on 5th February 1819, aged 71.

In 1814 Browne, in his History of Norwich, described Heigham Hall as 'an old building, but had lately been rebuilt in modern style.' The Hall was at one time nicknamed "Marrowbone Hall," the central part of it having been built by a retired butcher, John Lowden, and appears by that name in Manning's map. When it was later occupied by Alfred Mottram it was known as Heigham Hall.

In 1836 Heigham Hall became a Private Lunatic Asylum, set up in opposition to the Heigham Retreat, and by 1845 was being kept by W. P. Nichols and John Wilcox Watson.

The Heigham Retreat, opened in 1829 by Mr. Jollye, of Loddon, was bought out by Drs. Wright, Dalrymple, and Crosse, and closed soon after by John Watson, one of the proprietors of Heigham Hall. This may have been an early example of Victorian sharp practice; buying up a competitor and shutting it down. The site of Heigham Retreat lies under what is now Avenue Road, off Park Lane, Norwich, although its exact location is unclear.

In October 1854 a scandal engulfed the Asylum. At the Norwich Quarter Sessions a Dr. Hull alleged that the hospital chaplain, the Revd. Edmund Holmes, had been wrongly admitted as a patient to save him from prosecution for rape, he being a county clergyman, "a member of a high county family."

Dr. Hull's informant, said to be Mr. Nichols, a well-known local doctor and Mayor of Norwich (1878), emphatically denied that he had made the claim but the Justices came to the conclusion that Holmes had been placed in the Asylum to avoid facing a criminal charge. However, the affair blew over, a motion to refuse the licence to the Asylum was withdrawn, and a demand to the Secretary of State for a searching investigation fell through.

By 1864 the Asylum being was run by three surgeons, W. P. Nichols, W. H. Ranking, M.D., and J. Ferra Watson. On Watson's  death his widow, her daughter and son in-law (Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Mottram) kept it until it was transferred in 1904 to J. Gordon-Munn, Esq., M.D., F.R.S.E. Munn who was Lord Mayor of Norwich (1915-16), had previously been a Medical Officer in the Grenadier Guards and the author of "The Uterus and its Appendages in the Insane:"

"The causes of hysteria may be divided into the predisposing, such as hereditary predisposition to nervous degeneration, sex, age, occupation, and national idiosyncrasy; and the immediate, such as mental and physical exhaustion, fright, and other emotional influences, pregnancy, the puerperal condition, diseases of the uterus and its appendages ..."

The grounds of Heigham Hall mental hospital were described as unusually large and handsome, secluded and pretty. The last known death at the Asylum occurred on December 7th 1954, of 85-year-old Mrs Edith 'Mollie' MacRae, mother of pioneer aviator, RAF test pilot and air race contestant Campbell Mackenzie-Richards.

Heigham Hall was taken over by Dr. J.A. Small in 1930. It closed in 1960 and was demolished to make way for Norwich Corporation's Dolphin Grove social housing estate scheme which rehoused many Norwich families displaced by slum clearance.

Al Stokes

September 2011