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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Bridewell

The Bridewell

Norwich was the one of the richest towns in England in the early fourteenth century and during this period wealthy merchants built large houses for themselves in the city. Around 1325, one of these merchants, Geoffrey de Salle, built a house near St. Andrew's Church. This house, known to us as the Bridewell, is one of only eighteen late-medieval, secular houses to have survived in the city. It has had a chequered past and was finally converted, in the twentieth century, to become The Bridewell Museum of Local Industries.

William Appleyard

The building was significantly enlarged in 1386 by William Appleyard, another wealthy merchant, who became the first Mayor of Norwich in 1403. All that is left of the old, original house is the north facing, beautiful square-knapped flint wall, probably the finest example of its type in the county, a stone arch inside the entrance and the large suite of undercrofts, or vaulted cellars. The Bridewell undercroft is the largest of around sixty known undercrofts in Norwich.

A prison for the idle

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the house was called Curson's Place and was inhabited by Robert Gardner, Mayor of Norwich in 1508. In 1580 it was owned by John Sotherton who sold it to the Corporation in 1583. Norwich had, at that time, an overwhelming problem with tramps and resident-poor who needed charity from the city in order to survive. In an attempt to ease this problem, part of the newly-purchased house was converted by the Corporation in 1585 into a 'brydewell to keep and stay ydle persons to somme honest woorke and labour.' From then on the house was called 'The Bridewell,' a place where men were set to work grinding malt and cutting wood and where vagrant women and girls were trained for domestic service or to 'spinne and carde.' An inventory of 1622 gives an idea of the punishments that the inmates could receive: 'one pair of stockes, two whipping postes, one chair for unruly p(er)sones, two paire of manicles and two paire of shackles'

Fire and rebuilding

In 1751, most of the building was destroyed by fire. A new prison was built on the site (1751-2) and stayed in use until 1828. There was a chapel on the premises and  there were around seventeen or nineteen cells in what is at present (2007) the Shoe Gallery of the museum; slight bulges on the gallery walls indicate the old position of the cell partitions. There were also four or five cells in what is now the Clock Room. The courtyard was used as an exercise yard, and the initials and dates carved by prisoners can still be seen in the left hand corner of the yard, just past the museum entrance

When the Bridewell ceased being used as a prison in 1828, the inmates were transferred to a purpose-built prison in St. Giles, on the site presently occupied by the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The Bridewell building was sold a few years later for an alleged £1140 to James Newbiggin who converted it into a tobacco and snuff factory. It was a leather warehouse in 1890 and from 1896 until 1923, a shoe factory.

A museum of crafts and industries

In 1923, the building was sold to Henry Holmes, a shoe manufacturer, who together with other Norwich dignitaries remodeled the Bridewell and gave it to the city as a complete museum of local crafts and industries. The work had cost around £10,000, of which Holmes had donated £2,000. The Bridewell Museum was officially opened in October 1925 by the Duke of York. It was anticipated that the institution would encourage local patriotism, impress upon the young their heritage and encourage 'the worker to take pride in the finished product of his workshop.' Currently, the Bridewell is described as: 'home to a wonderful collection of historic objects and machinery revealing how Norwich people earned their living.' The museum contains a re-created pharmacy, a pawnbroker's shop and a Smithy. One hundred years of Norwich City Football club is also commemorated in a special room.

Further Reading


  • Ayers, B., Norwich  English Heritage Series, Batsford, London, 1994.
  • Meeres, F., A History of Norwich, Phillimore, Chichester, 1998.
  • Rawcliffe, C. and R. Wilson,(eds), Norwich Since 1550,  Hambledon and London, 2004.

Web Site

  • Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, The Bridewell Museum. 

Information from the Bridewell Museum

  • Greenhalgh, N. (Museum Interpreter) History of the Bridewell and its association with the history of Norwich, August 2004