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Weird Norfolk: Kitty Witches Row

PUBLISHED: 16:48 11 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:48 11 August 2017

Kitty Witches Row, Yarmouth
Picture: Nick Butcher

Kitty Witches Row, Yarmouth Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2017

Most of us are aware that a witch’s familiar is often a cat – but less of us know the story behind Great Yarmouth’s Kitty Witches.

Until the 19th century, building in Yarmouth was only allowed within the town’s medieval walls which meant that buildings were closely packed into a small space leading to a series of 145 very narrow streets which ran parallel to each other and were called Rows.

Charles Dickens noted: “A Row is a long narrow lane or alley quite straight, or nearly as maybe, with houses on each side, both of which you can sometimes touch at once with the fingertips of each hand, by stretching out your arms to their full extent.” One such Row is Kitty Witches Row which ran from King Street to Middlegate Street and was the narrowest of all at just 27 inches wide in some parts.

As street layouts in the town have changed, much of the row has now been demolished and it now ends at Tower Hill. “At the eastern end of this row was four and a half feet wide, but at the western end it was barely 30 inches. It was described as a picturesque but gloomy row, with many overhanging Tudor houses on the south side,” wrote Colin Tooke in his 1987 book The Rows of Great Yarmouth.

The unusual name is attributed to a variety of explanations, some of which are stranger than others. Kitty Witches was a local name for the “swimming crabs” found in nearby Breydon Water (the Row being so narrow that it was easier to enter sideways, like a crab), a flying beetle called the cockchafer which was known in Norfolk as a kittywitch, a species of sea bird, a female spectre dressed in white or a derivation of the Dutch word kitwijk, meaning a house of bad repute.

The Dutch regularly visited Yarmouth in medieval times to attend The Herring Fair which was held from Michaelmas, September 29, to Martinmas, November 11.

In The Vocabulary of East Anglia, by the Rev Robert Forby, rector of Forby, published five years after his death in 1830, there was a reference to the Row having been the home of Kitty Witches, who were women of ill repute who would terrorise residents in order to fund their drinking sessions.

He wrote that a Kitty Witch was “…a woman dressed in a grotesque and frightful manner, otherwise called a kitch-witch, probably for the sake of a jingle.

It was customary, many years ago, at Yarmouth, for women of the lowest order to go in troops from house to house to levy contributions, at some season of the year, and on some pretence, which nobody now seems to recollect, having men’s shirts over their own apparel, and their faces smeared with blood. “These hideous beldams have long discontinued their perambulations; but in memory of them, one of the many rows in that town is called Kitty Witch Row.”

A far less salacious explanation is that the Row was named after a former resident, Christopher Wyche, who was possibly a baker.

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