A new chapter in the history of St Catherine's Close on All Saints Green, Norwich, began in June 2005 when the handsome, Georgian building became the home of the city law firm Clapham and Collinge. Ann Farrant reports.
St Catherine's Close was occupied first by a mayor of Norwich in the late 18th century. Also it has been the family home of two medical men, a barrister and another mayor, and for several years there was a restaurant on its ground floor, with living accommodation upstairs. In 1959 the building became the eastern region headquarters for the BBC, who rented it from the Great Hospital, which had been given the site in the 16th century. BBC East remained in St Catherine's Close until the autumn of 2003, when it moved into new headquarters in The Forum in the city centre.
Although the beautifully proportioned entrance hall, with its graceful, curving staircase, made an elegant reception area for the BBC, the building did not lend itself particularly well to the demands of an expanding and increasingly hi-tech broadcasting organisation. Numerous alterations were made to the interior and various extensions added to keep the BBC in business for its 44 years on the site.
Since Clapham and Collinge acquired St Catherine's Close from the Great Hospital Trust in December 2004, an enormous amount of work has been carried out to rid the building of the extras installed by the BBC - essential fittings and fixtures for a broadcasting outfit, but not features required by the new owners.
They have spent over £400,000 on restoring and renovating the Georgian interior as far as possible. Sadly, many of the original features were lost already, but the firm has worked closely with English Heritage to preserve what did remain, while also creating superior office accommodation for its staff. "We have devoted endless care and attention to the project," says Hugh Berridge, the firm's senior partner.
(Above) The gardener's cottage in the grounds of St Catherine's Close. In the middle background are the distinctive chimneys of St Catherine's Close. The photograph is taken from the Queen's Road side of the extensive garden in the 1940's.
The original house now is a separate entity once more. The BBC's annexe has been taken over by All Saints Green Dental Practice, which is converting the ground floor into an ultra-modern centre equipped with all the latest technical equipment and offering a dental implant service thought to be the first in the city - as well as a full range of treatments for all dental problems including gum diseases. The first floor is being converted into three luxury flats and two studios which will be offered for rent. Work on the annexe is due to be completed by the end of the year.
The name St Catherine's Close derives from the former parish of St Catherine's (known before the Norman: Conquest as St Winwaloy's or St Winwale's). In 1349 the whole parish, according to Blomefield's History of Norfolk, "was almost depopulated by the great pestilence and never recovered". The church of St Catherine's became a chapel.
Two centuries later, Edward VI granted the chapel and its yard into private ownership; in 1567 the then owners I conveyed the building and land to the city "for the use of St Giles's Hospital", the name by which the Great Hospital was known then. Says Blomefield: "It was conveyed by the name of St Catherine's chapel yard, containing one acre, because the half-acre lying west on chapel yard, called St Catherine's Close, on which the parsonage once stood, now was added to it".
Geoffrey Goreham, the late Norwich historian, dated St Catherine's Close to circa 1778, a period when the city was the third largest in England, second only to London and Bristol. It is thought that its architect was Thomas Ivory, who designed the Assembly House and the Octagon Chapel.
Chase's Norwich Directory of 1783 has a map naming that stretch of road as Upper Surrey Street - it did not become part of All Saints Green until the late 1890s.
That Thomas Ivory was the architect of the St Catherine's Close building is well within the bounds of probability. In 1751 he had been appointed to do all the carpentry work for the Great Hospital in Bishopgate, which owned the St Catherine's site. A year later, Ivory took on a 99-year lease on land at the hospital, where he built several houses, I including one for himself.
John Morse, a brewer of porter in the parish of St Martin's-at-Oak, was the first person to live at St Catherine's Close. He was mayor of Norwich in 1781 and again in 1803. He died in the house in 1837, in his 92nd year.
(Above, left) The back garden of St Catherine's Close in the 1940s. (Right) A high shot of St Catherine's Close taken from Surrey Street near the junction with All Saints Green. The small building in the right foreground is a chicken house - chickens were kept on the adjacent patch of 'juring the 1940s (when food was rationed and people were encouraged to grow their own vegetables, keep chickens and so on).
During Mr Morse's residency there were extensive gardens at the rear of the building; these were in existence still a century later. According to local directories, Lewis Evans, MD, a physician at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, lived in the house in the 1840s and 1850s followed by Charles Evans, a barrister at law and chancellor of the diocese.
By the turn of the century, St Catherine's had become the home of George (later Sir George) Chamberlin, grandson of Henry Chamberlin who had founded Chamberlin Sons Co in the city in 1815. The original Chamberlin’s shop on the corner of Guildhall Dove Lane (now Dove Street) - on the site now occupied by Tesco's - eventually
extended further up the hill to include the site now occupied by Wesley-Barrel. Destroyed by 1898, it was rebuilt and re-opened in 1901.
George Chamberlin was a man who wore many hats. As well as being managing director of the extensive family firm, which not only ran the huge drapers' and furnishers' shop but also several clothing and carpet factoriess in the city, he also was director of other business in Norwich, including Norwich Union Life and Fire Offices. Also of businesses in London, including Swan &
Edgar in Regent Street, as well as hotels in Bournemouth and Brighton. Sir George (he was knighted in 1819) also was heavily involved in charitable and philanthropic institutions, including the Association of Trade Protection Societies of which he was president for many years. He was a JP, mayor of Norwich in 1891 and 1916 and lord mayor in 1918, the title having been upgraded by then.
The spacious St Catherine's Close would have been well suited to Sir George Chamberlin, family man. He was twice married; by his first wife he had one daughter, and by his second he had four sons and five daughters.
When he died on August 12, 1928, the obituary in the Eastern Daily Press ran to two columns, including a very telling account of his last few hours. Two days before his death, it noted, the 82-year-old Sir George, who had made "a remarkable recovery" after suffering a seizure the previous Easter, had enjoyed a reception given by the high sheriff of Norwich at Lakenham where he stayed on to watch a cricket match. "He went home, dined as usual and afterwards retired to his room for a cigar..." Then he suffered a second seizure from which he never recovered.
As was the custom of the day, the EDP report of his funeral service in Norwich Cathedral included the names of every single member of the congregation and the organisations which they represented, plus the messages on each and every funeral wreath. It is touching to read among the names of the great and good of the city and county gathered to pay their respects that also present were William Bailey, head gardener, Mrs William Bailey, Charles Mace, butler, and Phyllis Rayner, maid. Also there was a wreath "with deepest sympathy from the indoor and outdoor servants at St Catherine's Close." On the night of August 15, after the funeral service and interment in the Rosary, a muffled peal was rung on the St Peter Mancroft Bells.
Following Sir George's death, St Catherine's Close was lived in by consulting surgeon Athelstan Jasper Blaxland and his family. In 1933 he appointed a new gardener, Arthur Battle, who had worked previously at Colney Hall and Wood Hall, Hethersett. Mr Battle, his wife Amy Rate, and their three sons moved into the gardener's cottage which stood in the grounds, adjacent to the big house. Arthur's middle son, Peter, also became a gardener. Now 85, he recalls the main features of the extensive garden as it was when he was growing up: "There were lawns, flower borders, rose beds, shrubberies, vegetable plots and a tennis court. And conservatories along the back of the house."
The Blaxlands, who had three sons also, were living in the house still in the mid-1940s, when part of the building was transformed into a restaurant for R H Bond & Sons. This was because the old, thatched building which housed the Bond family drapers' shop and restaurant on All Saints Green, was destroyed in a bombing raid on the night of June 27, 1942. The "temporary" restaurant was run in St Catherine's Close until the late 1950s.
By then the Blaxlands had left the premises, but Arthur Battle had stayed on as gardener and the building was owned still by the Great Hospital. In 1959 the BBC became its new tenant, but chose to have a garden that was reduced greatly in size. Mann Egerton, motor engineers, took over the remaining stretch of garden for a garage and workshops, with a frontage on Surrey Street.
When the BBC took over the premises, Arthur Battle stayed on for two years before retiring at which point the BBC invited his son Peter to look after the garden - by then reduced to a small lawn and flower bed - on a part-time basis. For a while the BBC used the gardener's cottage for workshops and storage; then this too was demolished to make way for an annexe to the main building. Peter Battle continued working for the BBC until he was well into his 70s, not only tending the garden but also providing plants and greenery for the television studio, reception area and offices. A Norwich Union office complex now occupies most of the land that was once his father's pride and joy.
Those of us who worked in St Catherine's Close under the BBC banner always will feel affection for the splendid old building and rejoice that it has attracted new owners who are so committed to preserving its unique character.
Ann Farrant June 2005 in the EDP NORFOLK Magazine